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How Grit Takes High Achievers to the Next Level

A Q&A with Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and CEO of Character Lab.

Thrive Global: What do all high-achievers with grit have in common?

Angela Duckworth: I study high achievers from all types of fields, ranging from the artistic and creative, to sports, math and research. If you ask the question, “What do these people not have in common?” it’s a really long list. And the motivation that drives the creative, artistic achievement is qualitatively different from athletes who “like to beat other people.”

I’m interested in the short-list of psychological characteristics that high achievers across domains have in common. The psychological common denominators are a combination of perseverance and passion. One aspect of perseverance is the courage to work on weaknesses. That’s a kind of perseverance that’s accessible to all of us, but is rare. Another aspect of perseverance is how to keep going both when things are not going well and when things are going well. Coaches will often tell you to have resilience in the face of failure, but also resilience in the face of success. Can you keep working hard and keep your bearings when things are going extraordinarily well? That is a challenge in and of itself.

The second thing that world-class achievers have is passion. When I sit down on an airplane, I always ask the person sitting next to me, “Do you love what you do?” It’s a terrific diagnostic question. If they look away or there’s a pause, that’s all I need to know, because they probably don’t love what they do. A small handful of people will lean across the armrest and say, “I love what I do.” You find that these people are never bored with what they do. They dream about it. That’s part of passion—loving it to the level of insatiable curiosity.

Finally, high-achievers have a sense of purpose. Nobody does something as crazy as starting a startup just because they are curious. They do it because it’s important to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Whether it be customer, client, company or sport, there’s something about human beings wanting to be part of something meaningful to others.

TG: Talk about the grit-mentor effect.

AD: When you want to help someone, one of the things that you usually do is give them something. With a struggling student, you get them a tutor. One of the coaches I worked with matched a weaker player up with the strongest player on the team. That’s what you naturally think to do. But what we’ve found in our research is that to help the weakest link, you should have them mentor someone else. In one study, we asked underachieving kids to give advice to other students. We’ve found that giving advice changes motivation and behavior. The underachieving kids, significantly, ended up being grittier themselves. This is the “grit-mentor effect.” When asked to mentor someone else, it actually brings out your best self.

TG: How do you condition people to be gritty?

AD: In high performers, it’s not that they figure out how to be #1 again, because they realize that in life, it’s to do your thing. It’s about being as great as you can be and not looking to the left or right as much. It’s those people who are no longer competing with other people — people who are finding something they love. They really are competing with themselves. If you asked Picasso, Picasso was just trying to beat Picasso. Every athlete who’s really at the top, they are going to practice just to beat themselves. When I go to work, I’m not thinking, “How do I beat Wharton Professor Adam Grant?” That’s just not the mindset. The mindset is, “I’m here, there are some extraordinary human beings there, and there are so many things for me to learn.”

TG: How do you incorporate microsteps, throughout your day, to practice well-being and productivity?

AD: People set goals that are too big. I used to exercise pretty vigorously. Now I work so much that I do what my kids call “middle-aged lady workout,” where you get warm while walking, and it counts. In my own studies, if you look at people who are at the top, it’s little steps. Do the smallest possible thing that will lead you to keep doing it. Do one little thing and make progress.

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