3 Questions for Angela Duckworth, Author of “Grit”

Angela_DuckworthA few weeks ago, Penn professor Angela Duckworth has published her first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. And while she´s typically busy shipping exceptional research, giving TED presentations, or talking to the New York Times, it says a lot about her character that she also takes the time to answer some questions for my little blog thingy. So, thank you, Angela!

What are you up to these days? Just kidding… What does it feel like to have published a bestseller? And what part did grit play in the process of writing up “Grit”

I’m devoting myself to Character Lab, a nonprofit I founded with educators Dave Levin and Dominic Randolph three years ago. The mission of Character Lab is to advance the science and practice of character development. This includes helping children develop intrapersonal strengths like grit and self-control but also interpersonal strengths like gratitude and pro-social purpose and, finally, intellectual strengths like curiosity and open-minded thinking.

While I’m thrilled with the success of the book, I can also tell you that my attention is entirely on the future and new challenges. And, as for grit while writing Grit? Writing this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I almost quit many times. So, yes, I used my grit to do it, and I learned a lot about grit in the process!

You´re incredibly successful as a researcher, but also as an educator, first via your TED talk, and now with the book. Clearly, a lot people are intrigued by the concept of grit. Still, I’ve read a couple of articles that give pushback to the concept for allegedly ignoring the socio-economic factors that lead to success in school and life in general. What’s your take on this?

At a recent conference, I sat down next to a sociologist. She knew my work, and it didn’t take long for her to express extreme disdain—even anger—for what she called the grit message. “What’s that,” I asked? “Well, put it this way,” she said. “I happen to think that poverty and inequality matter a heck of a lot more than grit.” I thought for a moment. Then I said, “I see your point.”

If you pit grit against structural barriers to achievement, you may well decide that grit is less worthy of our attention. But I think that’s the right answer to the wrong question.

Caring about how to grow grit in our young people—no matter their socio-economic background—doesn’t preclude concern for things other than grit. For example, I’ve spent a lot of my life in urban classrooms, both as a teacher and as a researcher. I know how much the expertise and care of the adult at the front of the room matter. And I know that a child who comes to school hungry, or scared, or without glasses to see the chalkboard, is not ready to learn. Grit alone is not going to save anyone.

But the importance of the environment is two-fold. It’s not just that you need opportunity in order to benefit from grit. It’s also that the environments our children grow up in profoundly influence their grit and every other aspect of their character. This is the grit message in my words:

Grit may not be sufficient for success, but it sure is necessary.

If we want our children to have a shot at a productive and satisfying life, we adults should make it our concern to provide them with the two things all children deserve: challenges to exceed what they were able to do yesterday and the support that makes that growth possible.

So, the question is not whether we should concern ourselves with grit or structural barriers to achievement. In the most profound sense, both are important, and more than that, they are intertwined.

I’ve pursued and completed a Ph.D. but the truth is: I entirely lost interest in the topic after the first year. Still, I hung in there for another 3.5 years for reasons that the founders of Self-Determination Theory, Ryan and Deci, would probably call “externally regulated”. And while I suffered emotionally during that time, I now do enjoy the upsides that having a Ph.D. entails at times. Was that grit? Or “stupid grit”? Or just stupid?

Good question. I might have asked myself, “Why am I pursuing this Ph.D.?” And in response, what would you have said? The answer gives you a higher-order goal—the “why” that gives meaning to the Ph.D. Was there a way to pivot in terms of your topic or research to achieve that higher-order goal?

And, in terms of pure interest, is there an adjacent topic to the one your pursued that you would have enjoyed more?* Interest and purpose are the drivers of passion, and I think if there is really no interest and no sense of purpose, you need not feel the compulsion to finish what you started.

Thank you, Angela – and best of luck with your book and the Character Lab!


Grit_DuckworthDr. Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies non-IQ competencies, including self-control and grit, which predict success both academically and professionally.

Prior to pursuing a career in academia, Angela was a McKinsey consultant and, for five years, a math teacher in several public schools. In 2013, she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. Very recently, Angela has published her first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance with Scribner. It was an instant New York Times best seller and remains on the best seller list today.


* The truth is: When you don´t want to work on your Ph.D., you start to put a lot of time and energy in other things, just to have your calendar really, really stuffed as an excuse. For me, this led to discovering Positive Psychology in the first place, which then led to studying at Penn, which led to meeting Angela.

This is one of my learnings: Whether something is truly good or bad for us should probably not be judged in the moment. It often takes a couple of years to connect the dots and see the real value of our life´s episodes.

On Grit and Perseverance: How many Times will you try?

This is yet another fantastic infographic by Anna Vital from Funders and Founders. Now, I don´t know if each and everyone of those numbers on the chart is absolutely correct – but then, this is not the point anyway.

The crucial message is: Live will try to screw you, and then try to screw you all over again. In most domains, it´s not the smartest or most talented people that will succeed at the end of the day. It´s the ones that are willing to walk the proverbial extra mile (which sometimes is a thousand extra miles to be more precise…).

how-many-times-should-your-try.gif

I very much know this from my own life. You´re working hard on a project, you´re almost finished – and suddenly something happens: Your computer kills a full day´s work, an important stakeholder withdraws, or you just get really, really sick. I firmly believe this is a sort of test. In these moments, “life” wants to know what we´re made of. “It” wants us to say “I won´t back down, come hell or high water!”

And actually, all of us do have this quality to some extent. It´s the way we learned to walk on our own two feet…

Why they did it: How successful Entrepreneurs found their Breakthrough Idea

Here´s another fantastic infographic by Anna Vital. It displays when and why exceptionally successful founders had their eureka moments, when they discovered the product or service that would ultimately become the backbone of their business model. As you will see, most of them experienced a certain lack of something, they wanted a (better) product for their own lives but couldn’t find it – and so they created it…

the-aha-moments-of-entrepreneurs-infographic

Relational Energy: Is your Organization fully charged? 

SONY DSCAre you fully charged right now? Do you feel energized? Full of zest? Or do you feel de-energized? Depleted? Run-down? Or maybe something in-between?

No matter what it is that you´re currently experiencing – it´s clear that humans tend to describe their condition in terms of energetic states. What is this energy? It is clear that we’re not talking about energy in a (strictly) physical sense. Yes, we may feel drained energetically because of a lack of food (especially carbohydrates), and definitely a lack of sleep – and we do feel recharged after eating or taking a nap. But with the kind of energy we´re talking about here, there´s more to it.

By way of example, taking a brisk walk after lunch can restore our energy and help us being more productive in the afternoon, even though a lot of physical energy is actually spent while moving.

Moreover, human energy feeds on interesting ideas, on passion, on having a goals, especially shared goals. Research shows the same activity can be energizing or de-energizing, depending on the question if that activity plays to our strengths – or if it autonomously regulated (by and large: intrinsically motivated) or externally regulated (forced upon us). A great of overview of different frameworks of human energy is given in: Quinn, R. W., Spreitzer, G. M., & Lam, C. F. (2012). Building a sustainable model of human energy in organizations: Exploring the critical role of resources. Academy of Management Annals, 6(1), 337-396.

But most importantly, our energy feeds on interaction with other human beings – yet, it can be drained during that process as well.

Relational Energy

For a moment, think about a typical interaction with a colleague at work. Depending on the quality of that interaction, afterwards you might feel:

  • (a little) elevated/uplifted (= energized);
  • (a little) depleted/exhausted (= de-energized);
  • just as before (= unchanged).

In reality, depending on the quality of past experiences, this process might start well before the actual interaction, precisely when a person starts to think about having to meet with another person. I mean, honestly, how often do we say something along the lines of: “Oh gosh, I have a meeting with X tomorrow – I wish I could send someone else…”

This is the reason why a lot of companies start to adopt a “no-asshole-policy”: They adjust their hiring/firing processes in order to minimize the occurrence of “emotional black holes” among their employees, those people that suck up the energy of their colleagues, even when they are high-performers within their respective domain of work. The damage they cause to the organizational network by far outweighs their productivity in the long run (please check out: Cross, R., Baker, W., & Parker, A. (2003). What creates energy in organizations? MIT Sloan Management Review, 44(4), 51-57).

Now, imagine how many encounters you have on an average day at work, be they short and fleeting (e.g., small talk at the water cooler) or extended and intensive (e.g., a day-long workshop). And now go on to imagine all the people in your company, and their encounters over a day, or a week, or a year.

With a large company, e.g., the one I work for (120.000 employees), we’re easily talking about more than a billion of those interactions per year. That’s more than one billion occasions to either charge or discharge the energy of that organization. Each energetic transaction may be minuscule, but together they form the most important asset of that organization (besides such aspects as the properties, machines, trademarks). Because here’s the thing (and you know this very well from your own life): The energetic state of each employee is connected to a lot of outcomes, such as work engagement, creativity, and satisfaction – and taken together, alles those interactions form a larger part of the organizational culture.

When we´re talking about “change”, usually we´re referring about these big fluffy concepts: “the culture”, or “leadership”. But can we really work with those entities in real life? Isn’t it more advantageous to start with the little things, the day-to-day behavior? In order to do that, we´d have to be able to measure the nature of those interactions with regard to their “energetic quality”.

Such an attempt has now been made by a team of US-based researchers (Owens, B. P., Baker, W. E., Sumpter, D. M., & Cameron, K. S. (2016). Relational energy at work: Implications for job engagement and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(1), 35-49). They define (positive) relational energy as

a heightened level of psychological resourcefulness generated from interpersonal interactions that enhances one’s capacity to do work.

The researchers propose a new scale for the measurement of this kind of energy from the vantage point of the recipient; these are two of the items they propose:

  • I feel invigorated when I interact with this person.
  • After interacting with this person I feel more energy to do my work.

Large companies usually go to great lengths in order to measure employee engagement, satisfaction, and related psychological states. Now imagine having each employee in an organization fill out a short questionnaire on the relational energy they’re getting out of interacting with their closest co-workers, managers, and subordinates. This, in turn, could be used to create a detailed “energetic map” of that organization, thereby identifying the energizers and the “black holes” along the way.

I imagine this could lead to a complete new, data-based paradigms in leadership development.

Power = (Work x Wellbeing) / Time

I’ve spent the last two days at the University of Trier in Southern Germany. The university hosted the very first conference of the “German Association for Research in Positive Psychology” (DGPPF in German). I’m so excited about the fact the Positive Psychology is finally picking up momentum in my country.

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend all the workshops and lectures as I had a lot of work to do on the side. As I’m not a researcher myself, I contributed by hosting a workshop on marketing research(ers) to the press and via blogging.

The one takeaway that inspired me the most was the closing slide of a lecture given by Prof. Dr. Michaela Brohm who also happens to be the founding president of the newborn Positive Psychology association. She proposed we need a new formulation for “good work” by drawing upon a well-known formula from physics – where power (or output) is defined as the amount of work / time. Brohm referred to this as “cold work”.

She proposed to add another variable to the equation: Wellbeing. While work that is detrimental to psychological health might still lead to results in the common sense, it’s just not “good work”. Accordingly, the new formula goes as follows:

Power = (Work x Wellbeing) / Time

Prof. Dr. Michaela Brohm - DGPPFI love the notion that work and wellbeing are linked via a multiplicative function – because this implies that work which does not foster the (psychological) wellbeing of the worker potentially devalues the whole outcome of the process – whereas work that also builds wellbeing drastically increases the value of the investment. Brohm called this “warm work”.

I firmly believe we need this kind of catchy simplification because a prompt like that helps us to remember the core messages long after a talk or lecture.

Well done!

Lift! On Leading with Purpose

Most managers behave as if they were still in high school. The primary goal is not being laughed at.

This sentence resonates with/in me ever since I’ve heard it three days ago. Professor Robert Quinn, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business (Michigan) coined it during a workshop on building positive cultures which was part of the Positive Business Conference 2016.

This is, of course, not the first time someone explained to me that most organizations create an atmosphere of (more or less) constant fear. But I have learned over the years that, in order to really grasp a “thing”, somebody has to present it to you at the right time in just the right words.

LiftI was so impressed after the workshop that I instantly bought his book Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership (co-authored with his son Ryan) at the book table and devoured it on the plane back home from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany. And what can I say? It´s one of the best books on leadership I´ve ever read.

Truth be told: I read a lot of management and psychology books (broadly speaking) and most authors on interpersonal leadership leave me rather unimpressed. I´m a senior human resources manager working in the headquarter of a multinational organization of 120,000 people, leading a team across two continents, additionally being responsible for groups of people that are part of our international trainee programs, and coordinating the efforts of multiple agencies that support us in recruiting and employer branding.

Against this backdrop, I can honestly say: Leadership is not easy. It doesn´t come down to checklists and simple recipes. Instead, it can be immensely taxing and challenging: It´s hard work. That´s why I enjoy leadership books that acknowledge and appreciate this basic condition.

Lift - Psychological States - QuinnRobert Quinn´s “Lift” is such a book. It draws on a useful metaphor from aerodynamics (the dynamic that makes objects fly even though they are heavier than air) but more importantly, is grounded in decades of top-tier research. The framework that serves as the outline of the book is based on an influential article in the journal Management Science from 1983, A Spatial Model of Effectiveness Criteria: Towards a Competing Values Approach to Organizational Analysis that aims at describing the basic dimensions of organizational effectiveness.

Quinn takes this framework and uses it to outline four corresponding psychological states of leadership: Purpose-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. This is the crucial point that differentiates “Lift” from most other leaderships books: It doesn´t tell (aspiring) leaders what to do on a concrete level. Instead, it serves to cultivate a certain mindset, a stance, a leadership conduct – what the author terms the fundamental state of leadership.

The author proposes we can enter this special mindset when we (implicitly or explicitly) apply a set of questions to given leadership situations, especially those that bear potential for resistance and conflict. These questions correspond to the four quadrants of the effectiveness/psychological states model.

  1. What results do I want to create? (objective: becoming less comfort-centered and more purpose-centered).
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others? (objective: becoming less externally directed and more internally directed).
  3. How do others feel about this situation? (objective: becoming less self-focused and more other-focused).
  4. What are three or more strategies I could try in learning how to accomplish my purpose? (objective: becoming less internally closed and more externally open).

If you want to hear a short summary in Quinn´s own word, here you go:

For me, an added value of the book is that it provides a very clear definition of an individual purpose. I´ve been struggling with that concept for quite a while now. I know I will have to sharpen mine in order to live up to my full potential – but most of what I´ve read so far has left me irresolute. Here´s what Quinn proposes:

When people are purposed-centered,

  1. they envision and pursue extraordinarily results that are not constrained by previous expectations or by expectations that they receive from others;
  2. the results they pursue are energizing because they are self-chosen, challenging, and constructive;
  3. they provide a clear definition of the situation, focusing people´s attention.

Most management books I read – whether I enjoyed them or not – don’t nudge me to do anything differently afterwards. I put them in a shelf and hope, at best, to remember one or two good ideas.

With “Lift”, it´s a different story. I have already printed out the four questions and I will stick them to the computer screen in my office next Monday. And I will use the aforementioned definition to further mold my individual purpose.

Share and enjoy!

P.S.
To learn more, you might want to watch Quinn´s 2013 TEDX talk.

Thank you! Danke schön! Kiitos! ¡Muchas gracias!

I’ll fly back to Germany shortly after having spent the last three days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, taking part in the Positive Business Conference 2016 (see here and here for a recap).

During these days, Mappalicious has surpassed the total number of page views for 2015 – and it’s only May. So, I just want to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for joining me on my ride across the world of Positive Psychology, for helping this baby grow, writing comments, and sharing my stuff with your friends and communities!

Nico

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