True grit: Getting to grips with key ingredient to success

It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades, leading expert says

Abu Dhabi: What does it take to succeed in life? The answer, says psychologist Dr Angela Duckworth, is not innate talent but grit — a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.

The world’s leading expert on “grit”, the much-hyped ingredient in personal success, told a packed house at the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, that grit is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.

“It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades,” the professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania University said.

Duckworth said she had been teaching math when she noticed something intriguing: The most successful students weren’t always the ones who displayed a natural aptitude; rather, they displayed something she came to think of as grit.

‘Grit scale’

Later, as a graduate student in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she defined the term — a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal — and created a tool to measure it: the “grit scale,” which predicted outcomes such as who would graduate from West Point or win the National Spelling Bee.

Duckworth said in her lecture held at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi she has been studying people who perform well in high-stress environment to understand the predictive power of grit for performance. She has spent time analysing performance in a variety of fascinating contexts to look at the correlation between grit and achievement.

As a result of her work, Duckworth was named a MacArthur “genius” in 2013, and the notion of grit has become widely known.

“My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations,” she said.

On how grit is developed, Duckworth said you cannot will yourself to be interested in something you’re not interested in.

“But you can actively discover and deepen your interest. So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.”

Duckworth said the parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: “Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive. By this I don’t mean material things; I mean emotional support. If parents are warm and loving, the kids tend to feel loved. Respect, or what the parenting literature calls ‘autonomy support’, is also essential. That’s when parents allow their kids to make their own decisions just as soon as they are capable,” she said.

To avoid some of the mistakes of her own upbringing, Duckworth teaches her children grit. With her husband, Jason, she has developed ‘the Hard Thing rule’. Each family member must choose a discipline — for Jason and Angela their work, for the girls an interest — and apply themselves to it. No one may quit until the activity has run its course.

Duckworth is also facilitating the digital exchange of scientific research on character development through a consortium of middle and high schools around the United States connected to leading psychologists.

By 2019, Duckworth aims to help at least one million middle and high school students improve an aspect of their character.

The Ramadan series of lectures is part of Shaikh Mohammad’s efforts to spread the spirit of knowledge and learning in the UAE, by inviting renowned scholars, experts, officials and entrepreneurs to speak at his majlis at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi. The lectures are attended by senior government officials, diplomats, business leaders and others.

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