Grit expert Dr. Angela Duckworth discusses tactics for success in Todd Lecture Series address

Angela Duckworth knows Norwich University students strive for a Baskin-Robbins flavor list of excellence — scholarship, leadership, kindness among them. Achieving any of these takes passion and perseverance for long-term goals, a combination she calls grit.

On Feb. 15, as part of Norwich University’s Todd Lecture Series, Duckworth, author of the New York Times bestseller “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, led a virtual talk. Head men’s lacrosse coach Neal Anderson moderated.

Duckworth, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard, a Master of Science at Oxford and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, is founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit group advancing the science and practice of character development. She is also faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.

Dr. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor and grit expert, said Generation Z seems particularly motivated to have lives and careers filled with purpose.

In 2013, Duckworth received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, the same year she gave her TED Talk on grit. The April 2013 address had more than 8 million views in 2016 when her “Grit” book was released; the view count has nearly tripled since, and stood at 22.8 million Friday.

In her hourlong talk, which included a digital question-and-answer session, Duckworth described her grit scale, which uses multiple-choice answers to a list of statements on resilience (Setbacks don’t discourage me) and diligence (I finish what I start) to yield a score, and offered tactics for getting grittier, or closer to their achievement benchmarks.

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Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” is a New York Times bestseller. (Screenshot from video/Todd Lecture Series.)

As in past addresses, Duckworth showed a video clip of actor Will Smith, the erstwhile Fresh Prince of Bel Air and a two-time Academy Award nominee, describing his never-quit grit, which is different from talent.

“You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me … you might be all of those things in nine categories,” he said. “But if we get on the treadmill together … you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”

Using a parallel that Norwich students can understand, Duckworth described observing cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Getting in requires grit enough, she said, prospective students need a member of Congress’ or the U.S. vice president’s recommendation for admission. Less than 10% of applicants get in.

Staying at West Point needs more grit, she said, as they must survive a grueling seven-week summer of training, called Beast Barracks. Duckworth showed a graph showing that grit, more than physical or cognitive ability, better gauges whether cadets would finish the training and stay or quit and leave.

Grit’s pillars

Duckworth described grit’s four pillars — develop interests, practice deliberately, find purpose (something greater than self) and practice a growth mindset. Because not all of these can be developed at once, she said, Duckworth suggested students focus on just one for now.

She had jazz musician Wynton Marsalis describe deliberate practice and its three steps — breaking practice into smaller parts and picking a skill that’s just above their ability level, practicing this skill with absolute concentration (short sessions pack power with this much focus), and assessing and reflecting on your performance.

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Todd Lecture Series speaker Dr. Angela Duckworth said Norwich’s “I Will Try” motto can double as a grit formula, promoting perseverance toward passions. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

“Expert practice is not always easy,” Marsalis said. “But as you practice small skills, you begin to see how the whole improves to create a dazzling mastery.”

Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University developed the “growth mindset” concept, which posits that people can always improve and contrasts with the “fixed mindset,” which holds that people are, or aren’t born with ability and don’t change. Duckworth said growth mindsets and grit feed and strengthen each other.

Culture can boost grit, too. She described the Finnish notion of sisu, which roughly translates as “insides,” and describes a be-the-last-person-standing national identity. She said Norwich students can help build collective sisu so they and their peers can improve.

In her presentation and in her question-and-answer exchange with Anderson, Duckworth said Generation Z seems particularly motivated to have lives and careers filled with purpose and imagination; they’re considering out-of-this-world projects such as colonizing Mars. The idea that internet-enabled instant gratification had dulled the generation’s passion to achieve seems overblown.

Following Norwich’s “I Will Try” motto will prime students to learn, she said, and become not know-it-alls, but learn-it-alls. And, as leaders, Duckworth said, Norwich students can model improvement of grit’s pillars and sustain institutional sisu, sometimes by lending an important, sympathetic ear.

“As a leader, you will have the responsibility to make sure that each person on your team and under your leadership has at least one other person who can listen to them on a bad day,” she said. “And you can say, ‘I hear you, but I care about you too much to let you quit on a bad day.’”

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