Angela Lee Duckworth to Discuss Passion and Perseverance

Definitions of “success” typically include one or more of the following: achievement, accomplishment, attainment and triumph. Each word is positive and uplifting, evoking a sense of satisfaction and worth.

Are there particular qualities and strengths that are integral to success in school, at work, and in life in general?  According to Angela Lee Duckworth — the University of Pennsylvania’s Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and a recipient of a 2013-2018 MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius”) award — there are and they can be taught.

At 3 p.m. August 20 in the Hall of Philosophy, Duckworth will give a talk with the same title as her first book, published in May, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

A research psychologist and former math and science teacher, Duckworth is the scientific director of the not-for-profit, school-focused Character Lab, which she founded in 2013 to advance the science and practice of character development in children. Character Lab researchers, designers and educators collaborate on identifying and studying character-building ideas and strategies, creating precise measures of character for research, self-reflection and growth and transforming scientific insights into practical educational tools.

In her research and writing, Duckworth has focused chiefly on grit and self-control. Early on, she co-developed empirical measures for both for children and adults. She has found that combined, those attributes are better predictors of success than are standardized achievement test scores and measured intelligence (cognitive ability).

“Grit” is the tendency to sustain interest in (passion) and effort (perseverance) toward one’s long-term goals. It is one of the internal, intrapersonal “strengths of will” that, according to the Character Lab, help people achieve their goals.

“Self-control” is the voluntary regulation of one’s own responses — behavioral, emotional and “attentional” impulses — so that they align with one’s short- and long-term goals. For the Character Lab, it exemplifies both an intrapersonal “strength of mind” enabling a fertile and independent life of the mind, and an interpersonal “strength of heart” that helps people relate to others in positive ways.   

The MacArthur Foundation’s webpage describing Duckworth’s research neatly distinguishes between those separate but related determinants of success: “A major difference between the two qualities is that grit equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades, while self-control operates at a more micro timescale in the battle against what could be referred to as ‘hourly temptations.’ ”

In other words, people who have an aim — an objective, a purpose, a personal mission — are more likely to succeed if they embody and exhibit grit and self-control. Although Duckworth was unaware of her own aim until she was fairly well into her career, in retrospect her choice of summer school courses at age 16 — psychology and nonfiction writing — was telling.

She said as a student at Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor of arts in advanced studies neurobiology and won the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s first Fay Prize, she began helping elementary school children in Cambridge with their homework and tutoring Harvard students in chemistry.

“I was interested in why some kids were not doing well, despite my best efforts and theirs,” Duckworth said. “What was the psychological dimension? Why did some try harder and longer? Was it an aspect of regulation? I wanted to do a better job understanding it.”

Throughout her senior year, Duckworth began laying the foundation for an academic enrichment program, called Summerbridge Cambridge, for low-income, middle school children. She said its doors opened for summer school a mere two weeks after she graduated.

It is the achievement Duckworth is the most proud of and she finds the most meaningful.

“I remember saying that if I get hit by a bus, I’ve done something I’m proud of,” she said. “I hope to be as proud of the Character Lab.” 

Two years after launching Summerbridge Cambridge and soon after completing a year-long fellowship at Northeastern University’s Center for the Enhancement of Science and Mathematics Education, Duckworth enrolled at Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. There she studied dyslexia and earned a master’s in neuroscience.

Because her two-year degree program in England ended in October and positions in American schools started in September, she spent the next 11 months as a McKinsey management consultant, followed by a year as a math teacher at the Learning Project Elementary School in Boston.

After moving with her new husband to San Francisco, Duckworth taught math for two years at Lowell High School, a public magnet school known for its academic rigor and prominent alumni. She then served for a year as the chief operating officer of, a national nonprofit that ranks schools and provides parents who are searching for schools for their children with quality-related information.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Duckworth said. “I didn’t want to be a teacher forever. Then my husband changed jobs and we moved to Philadelphia.”

Because she had grown up in nearby Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Philadelphia was familiar to her. She taught science for a year at Mastery Charter High School, a new charter school for ninth-grade students.

“When I was teaching kids in my late 20s, I was frustrated by my inability to reach them,” Duckworth said.

She returned to academia.

“I started grad school relatively late, at 32, with one infant and one in my belly,” Duckworth said.

She studied with Martin Seligman, the renowned director of the Positive Psychology Center and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In an article published in The New York Times on June 4, “Graduating and Looking for Your Passion? Just Be Patient,” Duckworth wrote: “I confess it took a fair bit of job swapping before I knew that psychological research would be my long-term career. But in each of these jobs, I picked up knowledge and skills that I was able to weave into my current work.”

As Duckworth earned her doctorate in psychology, Seligman gave her the freedom to pursue her own research. Five years of teaching led her to focus on motivational factors.

During the following decade, Duckworth advanced from research associate to full professor while collaborating on numerous articles for various peer-reviewed publications, completing several grant projects as principal investigator and initiating many new projects. She was also honored with several academic and community awards.

She said her biggest challenge has been creating a research organization that undertakes studies fellow scientists feel are worthy of the best journals and educators find useful.

“We’re looking for overlap with teachers,” Duckworth said. “For example, the website is downloadable. That’s a choice I made. I think I’m doing this because it’s hard engaging with educators. I think these two worlds should be bridged to the mutual benefit of each.”

Surrounded by students at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth is also well aware of the academic and career-related choices they now have that were not available to their parents and grandparents.

“Now, choice is a privilege and a burden for students,” she said. “They’re almost paralyzed because there’s so much to do. One of the things I say in my book is to have something you’re purposeful about; a passion you develop. It becomes a calling. I don’t think a calling is as magical as young people think it is. For me, it was less a process of discovery and more of development.”

At Chautauqua, Duckworth will focus mainly on grit. She said she will discuss it in context, as one of many character strengths.

“Older adults tend to have higher grit scales than younger,” she said. “Forty-year-olds score higher than 30-year-olds, and 30-year-olds higher than 20-year-olds.”

What exactly is the grit scale, why is there a tendency for scores to improve with age, how much of a role  does grit play in success and how can one become grittier? Find out in person Saturday afternoon.


The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.