‘Grit’ author Angela Duckworth on working smart versus working too hard, when it’s okay to pivot, and the impact of tech on grit

Today, in San Francisco, at a gathering of roughly 400 women organized by the young AllRaise — a growing group of female funders and founders who aim to accelerate the success of their peers —  we sat down with Angela Duckworth. Ducksworth is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and has gained fame in recent years though a TED talk about grit that has now been viewed more than 15 million times, and a follow-up best-selling book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth’s biggest finding is that though success has many features, including raw intelligence and adaptability, the most crucial ingredient may be hard work over sustained periods of time, or grit. She also maintains that grit is not as fixed as are some other inherited traits, even while how gritty we are has a lot to do with our biology. In fact, Duckworth said at today’s event that she didn’t always think of herself as gritty.

“When I was growing up in a bedroom community in South Jersey, not practicing piano when I should have been, I had a father who would literally out of the blue say things like, ‘You know, you’re no genius.’ (After Duckworth was  awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2013, she laughingly told attendees, she “got to show up at his apartment 40 years later and say, ‘Actually, I am, officially. Officially, I am a genius.'”)

Given the nature of the audience, Duckworth spent much of her on-stage time talking about how VCs and founders might evaluate potential prospects — not by IQ scores or gender of other widely accepted predictors of success — but instead by trying to gauge the passion and perseverance of the people who come into their orbits. She also shared some ideas on how to “cultivate” grit. Because founders and investors alike might find some of her insights useful, we’re publishing them here, edited lightly for length.

TC: You believe that grit is far from immutable. Did you think of  yourself as a gritty kid or did you become gritty once you figured out what you wanted to do with your life?

AD: I will say that if I look objectively at the data of my life, at what I was actually doing, that I absolutely evolved. My confidence increased, my leadership skills improved. I mean, I ran for some very low-level office in student government, like secretary publicity manager, and I couldn’t even land that as a high school student.

So I’ve evolved and increased in confidence. In particular, I have figured out what I want to do. It wasn’t until I was 32 and pregnant with my second child that I figured out I wanted to be a psychologist. I started my PhD at that age. So I’d say there is absolutely compelling evidence in neuroscience that people change dramatically, they tend to evolve, our interests sharpen, our confidence generally improves. The story of human nature is the story of plasticity.

TC: You say that you gained confidence over the years. Is that because you found something that you are so good at or because you were getting validation elsewhere that made the pursuit of this thing — psychology in your case — more meaningful to you?

AD: It’s complicated. There are many things that make you who you are. But there are two striking factors. One is relationships. So when you look at people who are very successful or resilient, positive human outcomes come from extremely stable, strong, loving relationships. It is probably the most striking predictor of positive outcomes. It helps with everything: cardiovascular disease, how long you’re going to live, your income, your wealth. Everything comes downs to having somebody who loves you. And though I did have an imperfect father, as many of us in this room did, I did feel loved. And at different points in my life, I felt cared for by other people who were not my parents, and it is really very important, including by the way, when you’re looking at building a company. I think that has to be part of the culture.

TC: Meaning a culture of professional development.

AD: Yes. If you don’t want to call it love, because that’s too cheesy, call it something else. But it needs to feature extremely positive social support. And long-term relationships need to be easy to create in that company, not difficult.

I think another secret to confidence is being able to point to small wins. Human confidence does not just come from pep talks with role models. There have to be small wins, even if they aren’t obvious wins. And if you want to cultivate successful entrepreneurs, there has to be a structure where they have smaller goals and enjoy victories over those goals.

TC: Presumably, most of the women in this audience, like you, have no shortage of grit or they probably would not be here. What I wonder about is when grit veers into workaholism. When is one working too hard?

AD: Yeah. The message of “Grit” is not that 90-hour workweeks [are ideal] or all-nighters because the emphasis on endurance suggests that you have to take care of yourself. I mean, if it were a 60-second sprint [that you were facing], I guess you could do all these unhealthy things. But it is a long-term goal that you’re working on, and therefore it’s incredibly important, the way you pick the way you want to do it. You have to care for yourself physically and emotionally to stay in the game.

Even Olympic athletes at the peak of their careers are doing probably four hours at most, pre-Olympics, of actual deliberate practice. So again, it should not be about sheer quantity but rather high-quality work and a sustainable routine.

TC:  In addition to maybe working long versus working smart, I associate workaholism with needing or doing something for outside, versus internal, validation. Is that inaccurate?

AD: Data on this is also incredibly intuitive. Really successful entrepreneurs have enormous internal motivation. They aren’t waking up to do work because they ought to; they’re waking up because they want to [wake up and do their work].

TC: There’s a lot in your teachings about grit about stick-to-it-ive-ness. But in Silicon Valley, founders are known for pivoting when things aren’t working. When should people get credit for cutting their losses and moving on?

AD: I’ll give you my parenting advice for those of you with a kid in your life, because I think it’s also reasonably good VC advice.

In my family, everybody has a “hard thing” rule.  Everyone has to pick a hard thing. It’s not “tiger” parenting. But you have to do something that requires deliberate practice, something that requires a cycle [wherein you’re] breaking things down into skills and then sub skills and really concentrating and getting feedback and doing it again.

Our second thing is that you can’t quit in the middle of something.

As a parent, I thought this was a way to teach work ethic, and teach our kids how to practice because that’s not something you are born knowing how to do. We wanted them to have some kind of bias to follow through on their commitments. It’s not a bad rule, I would imagine, for investing, too, or running a company. You want to help the people in your portfolio or the people in your company do things that are hard, to follow through on their commitments to their natural end while also making sure that that if you going to [stop this thing that you doing], that you decide it on a good day.

We all have a fight-or-flight system that gets activated on bad days, and it is generally not a good idea to use the front part of your brain if that has happened because these things are in conflict. But if on a really good day, after you’ve had your cup of coffee and you look and you’re like, I really don’t want to do this anymore, then that’s probably a rational decision. [For more on Duckworth’s “hard thing” rule, read here.]

TC: At Penn, you continue to study evidence-based ways to build character in kids. What can you tell this audience about tech’s impact on grit, for both children and adults?

AD: I’ve done a little bit of research on tech, but I can also summarize some of the research on social media in particular, and tech in general, and kids are for spending an unbelievable amount of time [with tech]. It’s about as much time as they are in school — an equal number of hours.

When you look at longitudinal data to see what happens when people spend more time on social media, what happens in general is that people get more depressed and unhappy. It’s through his mechanism of comparison to others and envy. You know, there’s always a sunset and everyone looks beautiful and you then think that you’re boring.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. The sword cuts the other way as well. In many studies, when you use social media in an active way as opposed to passive way, so not scrolling through everybody’s pictures but communicating with other people and messaging your friends or even posting pictures of your own, it increases your feelings of social connection and well-being. So the sword is right now positioned the wrong way, against well-being and happiness and security, but it can cut the other way. And because tech isn’t going away, I think it’s the responsibility of this community to figure out how to make that happen.