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The Power of Grit – Angela Duckworth

By March 12, 2020 March 14th, 2020 No Comments

“When things are a struggle, you develop a kind of character and tenacity and humility and work ethic that you might not have otherwise developed.” – Angela Duckworth 

Mark’s new book about the seven commitments of leadership has just come out. It is called “Staring Down the Wolf: 7 Leadership Commitments That Forge Elite Teams,” and is available now from Amazon and from Commander Divine writes about many of the great leaders he met in SpecOps to give examples of the commitments that one has to make to the 7 key principles of  Courage, Trust, Respect, Growth, Excellence, Resiliency and Alignment.

Well-known academic expert on personal Grit, Angela Duckworth (@angeladuckw) is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” She talks with Commander Divine today about the importance of Grit for success.

Listen now to discover:

  • How your Grit can be a more important trait for success than your ability
  • How understanding your “why” is essential to make sure you are doing the right things
  • Why you need to make sure you are doing things that are innately interesting to you, rather than developing your perseverance first.

Listen to this episode to get more information and practical tips about how to become “grittier” in everyday life.

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Hey folks, this is Mark Divine. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for your time today.

I’m gonna get right into it with my very cool guest, Angela Duckworth, who you may have heard about as an expert on grit. So Angela, thanks for being here.

Angela is a PhD in psychology – University of Pennsylvania. She has her own nonprofit that she’s founded and she directs called the “Character Lab” focusing on character development for youth. Super excited to talk about that.

She’s the author of a book titled “Grit,” something SEALs know about… “Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

And I’ve watched her TED talk, and it’s been viewed over 20 million times. That’s pretty cool, Angela. I mean did you expect that when you gave that TED talk?

Angela. I think there are lots of kids all around the world who’ve been forced to watch my TED talk, and I would like to formally apologize to each and every one of them.

Mark. (laughing) Hilarious. Right. It makes a lot of sense, that’s hilarious.

So, first give us a sense of your background. Where you’re from. How you got interested in this topic. And your sense of Angela, and your place in the world. Just to ground us.

Angela. I’d love to do that. I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey which is exit 4 off of the New Jersey Turnpike in southern New Jersey…

Mark. (laughing) I lived in New Jersey for a little while too, and I used to always say, “What exit?”

Angela. (laughing) You know what I’m talking about. And southern New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes, but I will say that I was raised there by my parents, who were immigrants from China. And my dad was very, very interested – I mean, I would say obsessed with achievement – and he, I think, gave me a legacy of asking this question – “who’s successful in life?” and who was really successful in life.

So I think that’s the kind of long story of like how I got interested in this topic. I am a research psychologist who got to her career by way of being a schoolteacher. And so I’m also very interested in how success plays out over a lifetime and what does it look like in kids and in general.

I’ll just say this, I think what we all want is to be good people, and live good lives for ourselves and for others. I think grit is part of that – not all of it.

Mark. Yeah, I agree. So what did you study? And did you just study general psychology when you went to Harvard undergrad? And what was your PhD in?

Or did you study grit?

Angela. Funny thing is they didn’t have Grit 101 or 202… Although I’ll tell you this – I started it. I’m teaching for the first time a course called “Grit lab,” so I guess it is Grit 101.

But when I was an undergraduate, no they didn’t have any courses in that. And also, I wasn’t even a psychology major. I think I took my very first real, real psychology class – aside from a summer school class when I was a high school kid – when I was in graduate school.

So I was a neurobiology and neuroscience major – so more like studying the brain and neurons… And I think it all connects, obviously, but this interest I think that had early roots, got much more serious after I had been a teacher, because I think anybody who’s tried to motivate other people – something you know a lot about – you know, you become sort of instantly a devotee of psychology, because you wonder why what you’re doing isn’t working.

Mark. Yeah. I agree with that 100%. And a lot of my research and kind of self learning over the past 10 years has been in both Western and Eastern psychology. Because it’s just… Motivation, and grit, and resiliency, and mental toughness… I mean, it’s all there. You just have to study human behavior and understand how the brain works.

And mine has been very experiential.

In fact, I went through the ultimate grit lab – US Navy SEAL training…

Angela. Yeah.

Mark. But I love talking to people like you, who’ve studied it across different populations and have developed some great distinctions that have been very helpful for me. So I appreciate your work.

One thing anecdotally is funny. When I was going through… When I was at SEAL team 3, I heard about a study that was done at BUD/S – because it’s always been this drive to try to figure out what makes a successful SEAL candidate, so that they can kind of target those individuals and then get them into the pipeline program. To save money and time. To get the right person into the force.

And they spent like several hundred thousand dollars, and whoever did this research study basically came back and said “you know what? We can only tell you what makes someone successful at BUD/S and that is grit. But we can’t tell you who has it, and how they developed it. Or how it’s going to show up.”

And the SEALs were like “okay, great. We could have kind of told you that, right? Before we signed the checks.”

Grit. So how would you define it? I’ve got my ideas, but what would you say is grit?

Angela. I’ll give you a definition that actually in a way goes back 150 years – to the very first scientific study of outliers and success. So I’ll give you my definition in my words, but I’ll say that there’s some historical reasons to believe this is true.

It’s the combination of passion and perseverance sustained over a really long time. So not just a flash of enthusiasm and a flash of hard work – but really the ability to diligently sustain a commitment to a goal. And then to work toward it over years or really – I think when you look at greatness – it’s almost always over decades, if not a lifetime…

So when I say that this goes back 150 years it’s because in the very first scientific investigation of outliers – of super-achievers – it was noticed that there was quote “a combination of zeal” – which is kind of like your eighteen hundreds way of saying passion – and then the capacity for hard labor, said the scientist…

Mark. (laughing) Zeal and hard labor. I love that.

So yeah, grit is one of those words that is kind of… In order to define it you just have to bring a bunch of other words to define it, right? There’s no simple explanation. I love that. You know, we used to have a saying in the SEALs that everyone wants to be a frogman on a sunny day.

So that’s kind of like what you were saying of having a brief moment of inspiration is not going to cut it, because you got to want to be also a frogman on the worst days… The most challenging days… When you’re down or when it’s miserable outside. And you got to have that same zeal, the same passion…

Angela. Yeah and I think that one of the unsung aspects of heroes is that real greatness doesn’t come just on the day that gets into the highlight reel. As you know – better than I do, honestly – the sort of like daily dedication, the daily practice… The diligence that gets into your bones… I mean, whether you’re a Navy SEAL, or I think what’s fascinating to me is that you can see the through line across all of the domains of human endeavor.

So you know a true ballerina has this quality, a world-class skier – but then if you say like “what about Nobel Prize winners? And what about the best actors and actresses in Hollywood? What about CEOs?”

And I think that’s what’s fascinating to me, is that it’s true also across those very diverse human domains.

Mark. Sure. Yeah, I don’t think that there’s any discriminating quality about what you do, it’s how you do it. And how you approach whatever it is that you’re meant to do.

And let’s connect this to the concept of your “why.” like we have this saying that you know if you know your “why,” and your “why” is the right “why,” meaning it’s truly, deeply connected to your calling in life. And you always remember it.

Then it doesn’t matter how hard things get, or what challenges are thrown at you, you’re gonna be able to blast through them, because it’s who you are, right?

Is that similar to what you think talking about in regards to the combination of passion and perseverance.

Angela. Yeah, I’ll map that on to what I know. When you interview Paragons of grit, they will say things like “what I do is who I am.” there’s such a clarity of purpose. And I think the “why” for many people – actually, I’ll say most… If not everyone… It’s being part of something bigger than yourself. And I think the core of that is helping other people. And I haven’t yet met a paragon of grit, whose Drive comes completely selfishly to their own personal goals.

If you keep talking to them you see the connections to other people. And when people are at the opposite end of the spectrum they feel like “oh, my gosh. I wish I had a ‘why.’ I wish I had a calling. But my work is the opposite. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”

It’s actually the absence of a connection to the lives of other people… People need to know that… For me “why”s often – most of the time, if not always – lead you to how you’re affecting other people.

Mark. Yeah, I agree with that. Especially as you grow and develop beyond that egocentric… And you see examples reported… Great success in our society, Western culture… Either great financial success or even like political success or both. Thinking of one example in particular.

Who doesn’t have a broader sense of “why” and you would think they they’d lack grit. But yet they continue to come out on top. How do you account for that?

Angela. Well, now, when we see somebody that we say “well this person clearly doesn’t have a ‘why.’ they have a lot of ‘how’ but they don’t have a lot of ‘why.'”

That is probably what we see, but if you actually talk to that individual – should you have the pleasure – I will bet you five bucks that that person does feel like they have a “why.”

Mark. Right. And they are serving

Angela. And they do feel like they have a purpose. And they’re serving. And I think we would just say from our perspective that they’re wrong.

Mark. Right. Which is a judgement.

Angela. I am sure that some of history’s greatest villains… Which is a judgement and I think if you if you look through the history at the greatest heroes, well they had a “why.” but I think if you look history at the greatest villains, they had a “why” at least to themselves. A justification. And they had a purpose that they probably thought was noble. And probably in their minds did help others in some way that we may profoundly disagree with.

Mark. Yeah that’s right. It really is in the eye of the beholder, right? This idea of “why.”

Angela. Exactly. Or maybe in the eye of the holder.

Mark. Yes, singular. Like one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, kind of thing. They both have their strong reason and passion fueling their behaviors, but from our perspective, terrorism is anathema and from their perspective, they’re fighting for something important.

Angela. Right. And that is why I think character – when we think about who we want to be, and how we want to show up in the world isn’t just grit. And I say that with real urgency. I mean, I’ve got two girls at home that are 18 and 16 years old. And if you ask me like “well, is your dream that they just grow up to be 100% gritty.”

And I say “no.” because it’s really important that their character include honesty, and humility, and empathy… Curiosity, etc.

And when you think about that kind of person, it’s hard to imagine that if they really embody those other character strengths that they would be villains. So I think our heroes are not just gritty, they are many things. And I think at the root of character are things that are not just grit.

Mark. I agree with that. So being a good person is a combination of being and doing things that are lead to goodness, as well… And not evil…

Angela. And not just greatness…

Mark. Not just greatness. Exactly.

West Point


Mark. So how did you…? Who did you study to come to your insights and conclusions? I mean, was it the students that you started with? Has it gone beyond that?

Or give us a sense for your kind of population you studied and some of the big “A-ha”s that came out of your actual academic research.

Angela. Well, I’ll tell you about one study that I just published. Because it was done at West Point.

And I know that there’s a friendly rivalry between Army and Navy…

Mark. But great institution for leadership development…

Angela. Yeah, I think a lot of respect, too. It’s an institution which – as you know, and like many of the things that you are involved in – is highly selective.

And at West Point there’s still attrition, right? So even though it’s incredibly hard to get into people drop out. And, of course, some people drop out for the right reasons. Not a good fit. Don’t want to dedicate five years to the military.

But I studied grit at West Point, so that I could understand perhaps its relationship to dropping out very early. Arguably, before you’ve had a chance to really evaluate what West Point could be for you on its own merits.

So we looked at the first summer of training in particular. It’s the highest attrition period at West Point. And we found in ten years of data – because I’ve been working quite closely with West Point leadership over more than a decade and a half.

But in ten years, we could actually follow a cohort – not only once, but ten times – all the way through their four years until graduation.

And what we found is that grit is the best predictor West Point has of staying in the program during the early training days when so many people are dropping out. Cognitive ability, and physical ability are not predictive of staying in the program during that high attrition period.

Mark. Interesting. Well you’ve got to have cognitive and physical ability just to get into West Point. And so everyone’s already checked those boxes…

Angela. I think that’s right. I think if you just took a random sample of people at the DMV renewing their licenses and you put them through West Point or BUD/S training, you would find physical ability and cognitive ability mattered a lot.

But it’s already so selective. And I just think that underscores the point that there are circumstances in life, where we feel like dropping out. And it may feel like we don’t have what it takes, but we do. I mean, every cadet that is admitted to West Point can finish the program.

But as one higher up put it to me – it may be the first time in their lives that they’re actually below average. And really struggling. And I think for many of these superstars who are coming in at 18 – they were captain of the football team, they were valedictorian, they probably were prom-king, along with all that…

And now they’re the bottom half of a group. That may be more challenging than the physical challenges or the… You know, wake up at 5:00, drill till 11:00 kind of routine.

Mark. Yeah, no I agree with that. And this is one of the big things we saw in SEAL training or sea, is that those individuals who are the all-stars, if they can’t find humility really quickly, then often they fail. They’re often the first to ring out, so to speak.

They’re fragile. And so how do…? What’s your perspective on whether these individuals come to West Point with a sense of grit? That they’ve developed or inherited so to speak? Or whether it’s developed and forged through the training itself?

Angela. I think it’s got to be both, right? Grit is something – like anything else – it is influenced by our DNA. So if you think that it’s all nurture, it’s all experience… Like, you’re wrong. I mean, you have a genetic disposition one way or the other.

And so that’s part of what you get when these 18 year-olds enter.

But also their experiences before and after they actually set foot on the campus of West Point. I think the part where it is so important not to forget as leaders… The part where your grit can develop based on your mentoring while you’re there trying to do this hard thing.

Robert Caslen – he’s recently retired – but he was the superintendent at West Point for much of the time that I was there studying these cadets. And he was very firmly of the mind that a great leader has a developmental mindset.

And I asked him “what does that mean?”

He said “well you could either have an attrition mindset or developmental mindset as leader. Attrition mindset says you’re gritty or not by the time we get ya. And I just have to like winnow out the weak, and then through attrition, I’ll just have a really gritty group at the end.

He said “I’m a developmental leader. And that means that I believe that I can grow your grit and your character.”

And I think for me it’s that mindset that is probably much more adaptive and healthy. It’s not that Robert Caslen didn’t understand that you know people have genetic dispositions or cadets are starting at different places when they set foot…

But he would tell me that if there were a young cadet who was really falling behind on the kind of tests that keep you in. And in the old days when he went to West Point that would have been just a way to winnow the weak – he would knock on that cadet’s door in his sweat pants at 5:00 in the morning and say “let’s go on an extra run. Like, I believe in you.”

Mark. I love that. Because some of the best future leaders are those ones who struggled and even failed… And had a mentor like this individual you’re talking about, kind of give them a boost. And then their perspective is different than those who kind of sail through the training just because they’re the toughest or baddest-asses out there. Or they just survived the attrition.

Angela. I think that is entirely true. I mean, in my data, one thing I found so fascinating and it surprised me when I first discovered it – is that when you take measures of ability like physical athleticism or IQ, and you say “what is the relationship with grit? Maybe they go together. Maybe the people who are really able are just able in every domain.”

But actually, at West Point for example, they’re negatively correlated. People for whom things come easily or are gifted in some ways, are a little less passionate and persevering on average.

And I don’t want to overplay that this is negative, but I just want to say they’re not going positively together. And I know a lot of people who would just in their own experience as coaches or leaders say that when things are a struggle you develop a kind of character, and tenacity, and humility, and work ethic that you might not have otherwise developed.

Mark. Yeah. Which is why the school of hard knocks is probably the best school to develop grit.

But you propose that there’s other ways that you can you know take responsibility for developing your own grit. What would you suggest are some ways that listeners could get grittier?

Angela. When you ask, you know, where does passion and perseverance come from? I would first say that passion usually comes first. And you said to have a “why.” and I think that is so important, because people sometimes get the wrong direction.

They say, “Oh, I guess I should work on my work ethic and my resilience.” well if you don’t have a “why,” if you don’t have a passion, it’s unlikely that you’re going to develop more perseverance.

So I’d start with passion and I would give two recommendations: one is doing something that is of innate interest to you. That you find it curious.

And I think of things that I find curious like psychology. And then there are things that I really don’t find curious – like investing or politics. Like I just don’t think I would be very good at that.

The second recommendation on passion is to do some writing about your core values. There’s an essay that I assign to my students – I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, but it’s the “this I believe” essay. It’s a prompt which NPR came up with about 50 years ago. And it says just simply, “This I believe. 500 words or less. Go.”

And we see what comes out of your mouth. And like it was really, really powerful to say like is what I’m doing in my daily life aligned with my deepest values? That which I believe in? You know, what is my “why?”

So that’s my recommendation, start with passion and then if you are feeling like you’re lacking in passion, ask yourself “am I curious about this? Or can I gravitate toward something more interesting?”

And “is this aligned with my core values?”

Mark. Mm-hmm. That’s fascinating.



Mark. You know, my first career was as a certified public accountant at Coopers and Lybrand. It’s now PricewaterhouseCoopers. Before I became a SEAL. I went in the Navy as an officer at 25 – turned 26 in SEAL training. My book “The Way of the SEAL” early part of it is that transition.

And I had to like coddle together my own path of determining what I’m passionate about and what my purpose was in life. And what I call my “ethos” was, which is basically what I believe in, you know? What you just talked about.

And I did it as a result of getting involved in Zen meditation, believe it or not… Just slowing down and sitting on the bench, and meditating, and contemplating, and journaling. And comparing and contrasting what my felt sense was. Or my growing self-awareness was.

When I was sitting in meditation and the insights I was getting versus who I was trying to be in the quote-unquote “real world.”

And it was a profound period in my life, like majorly transformative. And a lot of my practices that I’ve evolved have kind of come out of that period. And we start with this whole issue of who do you think you really are? Why are you on this planet? What is your archetypal purpose?

So your archetypal purpose is to be a teacher. And mine is now to be a teacher, but when I was in my 20s, I learned that it wasn’t to be a merchant/businessperson it was to be a warrior. And the only way I could find that was by slowing down and through contemplation and meditation and feeling into it.

Do you ascribe anything like that? Like meditation, contemplation those types of practices to people to help them?

Or your kids even? To help them understand themselves at a deeper level?

Angela. Well I love that you started off this podcast with some deep breathing. And I have studied mindfulness as a scientist, and I would say I practice moving meditation in the form of yoga. And we know for sure based on science that there are really profound changes in the way that we think and also our brain and how we function when we are in a contemplative state.

So I do. I will rush to say though, I spent a lot of time with young people between the ages of 18 to 22 as a college professor. And some of those people are very reflective and they do a lot of journal writing.

But they haven’t actually added to that the other ingredient you need. Which is life experience. So they kind of go to their dorm room and think they can think their way into what they should do next in life. And I think it’s this combination – this magical combination of contemplative reflection and experience.

Mark. Yeah, getting out and trying things.

Angela. Getting out there, yeah. And I think that’s the way forward.

Mark. Which is why I think it’s a good idea for young people to try a lot of different things, which is countercultural – people think well you get into something and stick with it, even though that’s less and less likely these days.

But try different things. I think I had – and you probably did – I had like 12 or 15 different jobs in the first five years before I joined the SEALs. I went from one thing to another. I mean, I was at Coopers and Lybrand for two years, which is a long time for me. And then Arthur Andersen.

But yeah, you try different things. You can do that through imagery…

Angela. In the scientific literature, it’s called “sampling…”

Mark. I love that, yeah. I was gonna say one of the things that I did when I was on the Zen bench, I got really good at visualizing. Of course, you’re spending a lot of time alone. And I went from fantasizing to like directed visualization. And I taught myself visualization. And I did this thing I called “wearing the uniform.”

So like I wanted to consider like what would a life be like as a fighter pilot? Or what would a life be like as a roughneck? Or what would a life be like if I was with the Peace Corps?

And I would just study a little bit about that domain, and then I would visualize myself – I would insert myself into that world – and a lot of information would come to me, and I could get a sense whether that was the right path or not for me. Even at you know this is 22 when I was doing this – 22 and 23 – so that’s interesting.

Angela. You’d try to imagine yourself. In the first-person.

Mark. Correct.

Angela. I’m gonna use this in my grit class on Wednesday of next week, because these young people are like looking up all this information on the internet about careers. And I think they’re missing what you did spontaneously without anybody telling you to, which is “okay, now you put yourself in it.”

Mark. Internally. Powerfully. Because you can get an emotional sense of “oh, that sounds really good. Or “I feel really good about that.” and you’re looking for I was looking for I was wise enough to consider that the most important information coming to me was the feeling-ness, the sensations of what does that feel like?

And like fighter jet first felt exciting and then it felt kind of routine to me. And I was like “no, I don’t think I’m a routine kind of person.”

And then when I learned about the SEALs and I kept visualizing myself as a SEAL – the lack of routine, and the grittiness, and the challenge, and the risk, and raw, in-person leadership really appealed to me. And it felt good, right? And so that kind of won out.

Angela. Yeah, with your permission I would love to assign that to my students and I’ll tell them that you told them to do it.

Mark. (laughing) Tell them I said to do it or I’m gonna make them do push-ups.

Angela. (laughing) Yeah, exactly. I’ll scare them.

Mark. Just kidding. That’s awesome.

I know we only have a few minutes left, but let’s talk about your character lab. I love that you’re doing this you know character is such an important thing. And I think traditional schools are trying now to like figure out how do we develop character? And generally it’s been done on the PE, but most PE – physical education – has been stripped out of schools for budget problems.

Or it’s done on the wrestling mat or the football field, but not everyone gets to participate in sports. So how else can we do this? How can we develop character in kids?

Angela. Character lab is my nonprofit. It is my “why,” I guess you could say, and our mission is to advance scientific insights that help kids thrive.

And I’ll just give you one specific suggestion, since there’s not a lot of time. I think one of the things that educators are doing now but could do more of is to really capitalize on this idea of growth mindset and it is the…

Mark. Carol Dweck‘s work.

Angela. Yes, she’s part of our network of scientists. So it is the belief that your abilities can change, and grow. And my recommendation is that whether you’re the PE teacher and you’re trying to emphasize to students that like you don’t want to think of yourself as like “oh, I’m an athlete.” or, “I’m a non-athlete. I’m always going to be unfit, or be the last one in the 600 yard dash.” that’s how you can work with mindset.

If you’re a math teacher, you can avoid always praising like the three kids who get the math problem right. And just kind of like apologizing to the other kid and saying “well, you know, maybe math’s not for you.” you can use language that says that failure is okay.

You know, like there’s a great teacher I know named Philip Ressler he teaches AP economics. And every time he makes a mistake on the board he goes over to the right side and there’s a little you know sign it says like “Ressler’s blunders,” and he adds one for his mistakes.

And but once he gets to a certain number of mistakes, they all have a pizza party…

Mark. (laughing) That’s great. It’s okay to fail.

Angela. And so that to me – and by the way his students set records. I think he’s truly I think maybe the most successful AP teacher in the country.

And it’s that kind of modeling. It’s like character that you embody as an adult and then these lessons that I do think young people are picking up all the time and thinking about that a little more intentionally.

Mark. I love that. You know, that’s one thing that I’ve worked hard with my own son is to model that it’s okay to fail. And that perfection is an illusion, right? And so I routinely fail in front of them and we laugh about it. And we have a good old chuckle about how imperfect his dad is.

But boy is he really proud of me at the same time, you know? It’s really cool.

Angela. Yeah, I love that. Carol will be very happy to hear that.

Mark. (laughing) Awesome. Well, so where do people find the character lab? What’s the website and where else would you like to direct people to? Let’s say your TED talk or to your book? Those types of things?

Angela. I would just direct them really to And if you go there, you can sign up – I have a free email that I send every Sunday – it’s one piece of actionable advice based on science.

Mark. I love that. Angela, I wish we had more time, but it’s been a delight talking to you. Thanks so much for your work and keep it up. And I look forward to watching your progress and maybe seeing if you get another book come out someday. You have any plans for that?

Angela. I don’t have any plans for that. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you know how this visualization exercise goes, and thank you for that inspiration.

Mark. Yeah, please do.

All right. Thanks again. Appreciate your time and everything you do, Angela. Take care.

Angela. Same to you. Bye-bye.

Mark. Alright folks. That was Angela Duckworth. Check out the I recommend you get her book “Grit.” what’s the subtitle of the book? Oh “The Power and Passion of Perseverance.” And check out her TED talk. It’s great stuff.

And as usual, thanks so much for your support of the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Train hard. Stay focused.


Until next time, Divine out.

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