Angela Duckworth on Passion, Grit and Success

A Penn task force found that some students have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve, even at the expense of their mental health. How might grit affect those pressured from birth to excel?

It’s a really good question. I don’t have an adequate answer. We have found a direct correlation between grit and positive emotions, but the fact that I have no evidence that grit is bad for you doesn’t mean it’s not. It’s always a possibility that in the future researchers will discover a downside to grit.

 Another factor identified by the task force was that some of these students hide their suffering instead of seeking help.

Gritty people are not necessarily stoic. One woman, who is now an emeritus professor of mathematics, told me: “I don’t like that item on your grit scale that ‘setbacks don’t discourage me.’ ” She said: “I get as discouraged as anyone else. It’s just that I get up again two days later.”

Being gritty doesn’t mean not showing pain or pretending everything is O.K. In fact, when you look at healthy and successful and giving people, they are extraordinarily meta-cognitive. They’re able to say things like, “Dude, I totally lost my temper this morning.” That ability to reflect on yourself is signature to grit.

In the book you describe the life experiences of Ta-Nehisi Coates, an interesting choice because the bulk of his writing focuses on how individuals can be at the mercy of systemic forces. The writer Parul Sehgal has gone so far as to say that calling for more grit and resilience is “a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”

I can understand that talking about grit sends the message that structural things, like societal-level racism and so forth, don’t matter because you should just be gritty. That’s not my message. My message is the same advice I give my kids and Coates gives his kids: It’s not that poverty or racism…

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