TED Weekends, which is associated with Huffington Post, asked me to write an essay on my reaction to Angela Duckworth’s wonderful talk about grit as the secret to success. Here is a link to my essay on TED Weekends:
Below is the full text of my essay. It pushes further the themes in the Quartz column I wrote with Noah Smith: “Power of Myth: There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t.”
Grit, more than anything else, is what makes people succeed. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has devoted her career to studying grit, defines grit this way:
Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years – and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.
But where does grit come from? First, it comes from understanding and believing that grit is what makes people succeed:
- understanding that persistence and hard work are necessary for lasting success, and
- believing that few obstacles can ultimately stop those who keep trying with all of their hearts, and all of their wits.
But that is not enough. Grit also comes from having a vision, a dream, a picture in the mind’s eye, of something you want so badly, you are willing to work as hard and as long as it takes to achieve that dream. Coaches know how powerful dreams – dreams of making the team, of scoring a goal, of winning the game, or of winning a championship – can be for kids. Dreams of knowing the secrets of complex numbers, graduating from college, rising in a career, making a marriage work, achieving transcendence, changing the world, need to be powerful like that to have a decent chance of success.
Grit is so powerful that once the secret is out, a key concern is to steer kids toward visions that are not mutually contradictory. Not everyone can win the championship. Someone has to come in second place. But almost everyone can learn the secrets of complex numbers, graduate from college, rise in a career, make a marriage work, achieve transcendence, and change the world for the better.
What can adults do to help kids understand and believe that grit is what makes people succeed, and to help them find a vision that is powerful enough to motivate long, hard work? Noah Smith and I tried to do our bit with our column “Power of Myth: There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t.” We were amazed at the reception we got. Our culture may be turning the corner, ready to reject the vicious myth that out of any random sampling of kids, many are genetically doomed to failure at math, failure at everything in school, failure in their careers, or even failure at life. The amazing reception of Angela Duckworth’s TEDTalk is another good sign. But articles and TEDTalks won’t do the trick, because not everyone watches TEDTalks, and – as things are now – many people read only what they absolutely have to. So getting the word out that grit, not genes, is the secret to success, will take the work of the millions who do read and who do watch TEDTalks, to tell, one by one, the hundreds of millions in this country and in other countries with similar cultures about the importance of grit.
What can adults do to help kids get a vision that is powerful enough to motivate long, hard work? Many are already doing heroic work in that arena. But other would-be physicians among us must first heal ourselves. How many of us have a defeatist attitude when we think of the problems our nation and the world face? How many of us lack a vision of what we want to achieve that will motivate us to long, hard work, stretching over many years?
Visions don’t have to be perfect. It is enough if they are powerful motivators, and good rather than bad. And it is good to share our visions with one another. Here are some of the things that dance before my mind’s eye and motivate me: 1, 2. I hope everyone who reads this will think about how to express her or his own vision – a vision that motivates hard work to better one’s own life and to better the world. That is the example we need to set for the kids.
Lately, since I started reading and thinking about the power of hard, deliberate effort, I have been catching myself; when I hear myself thinking “I am bad at X” I try to recast the thought as “I haven’t yet worked hard at getting good at X.” Some of the skills I haven’t yet worked at honing, I probably never will; there are only so many hours in the day. But with others, I have started trying a little harder, once I stopped giving myself the easy excuse of “I am bad at X.” There is no need to exaggerate the idea that almost everyone (and that with little doubt includes you) can get dramatically better at almost anything. But if we firmly believe that we can improve at those tasks to which we devote ourselves, surprising and wonderful things will happen.
Among the many wonderful visions we can pursue with the faith that working hard – with all of our hearts and all of our wits – will bear fruit, let’s devote ourselves to getting kids to understand that grit is the key to success. Let’s help them find visions that will motivate them to put in the incredibly hard effort necessary to do the amazing things that they are capable of, and help them tap the amazing potential they have as human beings.
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