True grit: Author Angela Duckworth talks about what it takes to achieve long-term success

24 May, 2016

Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” took a break from her book tour last week to stop by Microsoft for a standing-room-only fireside chat for employees. We caught up with the scientist, teacher and parent, whose TED talk has been viewed more than 8 million times, to ask how grit can help invigorate the workplace and transform businesses.

Transform: We often think about grit in terms of individuals, and you profile many of them in your book. But can businesses also have grit?

Angela Duckworth: It’s definitely possible for a culture to be gritty, to pursue long-term, identity-defining goals with passion and perseverance. There’s actually an expression that an organization is the long shadow of a leader, and I do think that organizations and businesses have identities, they have cultures, so you can think of them as being either growth-mindset cultures or not, or gritty cultures or not.

Transform: In the tech sector, we often think in terms of “hot” companies—who’s in favor in Silicon Valley and who isn’t—but you talk a lot about long-term growth. What are some traits indicative of sustained perseverance?

Angela Duckworth: [Seattle Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll believes that great individuals and great teams have a life philosophy, something that you can define as an abstract, unifying goal that would not even be possible to attain in a short time frame.

I think that for business cultures that have a long-term goal, it’s not about next quarter or even a particular product, it’s about, “What are you in the business of?” And when you get those goals down on paper, they tend to be fairly abstract. When you look at them, you think, “Oh, there are multiple ways that I could achieve that,” but they still give direction.

So I think there is something about having a long-term mission that is separate from your quarterly goals or your daily to-do list, but gives meaning and direction to all of those things.

Author Angela Duckworth speaks to Microsoft employees as part of the "Outside In" speaker series, May 19, 2016. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Author Angela Duckworth speaks to Microsoft employees as part of the “Outside In” speaker series, May 19, 2016. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Transform: What are the top qualities a company should possess to create a gritty culture?

Angela Duckworth: First, there has to be a consistency in language. Often, when you talk to leaders–whether they’re coaches or CEOs—they consider themselves storytellers and it’s important to them that these stories help create the culture, and that there’s consistency in the language. And it’s actually true of national cultures, too. Language reinforces the values and the ethos that the culture is trying to create.

Second is leadership. I think people are fundamentally wired to model other people’s behavior. And it’s hard to be gritty when your boss isn’t gritty. It’s hard to come into work and be passionate and persevering when the person who’s in charge isn’t themselves passionate and persevering. I’ve never seen a gritty culture that didn’t have a gritty leader.

The third thing is a combination of support and challenge that’s kind of magically awesome for things like grit. It means being both relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo, but at the same time, creating a positive, supportive culture. People have to feel safe, that their loyalty is reciprocated, that not only are they loyal to the company, but that the company is loyal to them, and respects them and allows them to work on the team mission in their own way.

Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

Transform: What can each of us do to practice grit on a daily basis?

Angela Duckworth: I collaborate with psychologist K. Anders Ericcson, and he studies experts, and how they become experts from amateurs–because as expert as any expert is, they did at one point start off as an amateur. You can say that you were born to do something, but you can’t say that you were born knowing how to do something.

One thing that is true of gritty people is that they do deliberate practice, and there are four elements. First, you have to be working on something very specific and intentional that you can’t yet do as well as you’d like. And when I say specific, this is a key. For example, I can’t just say, “Oh, I want to try to write better.” I have to say, “I’m going to try to use verbs better” or “How do I use dialog better?”

Second is that you have to focus one hundred percent. “Practice with great effort,” Pete Carroll would say.

The third thing is feedback, and typically, feedback comes from other people, if you are doing something that is not music or athletics because if it’s music, you can hear it and if it’s athletics, you either made the goal or not.

And the fourth thing, and I think this is the hardest part, is to really listen to feedback. Even as someone who studies grit, when people tell me how I could speak better or how my research could be better, I do what every human does, which is get defensive and anxious, but then I pause for a moment. You need to practice genuine reflection so you can make even microscopic adjustments.

Transform: Who has more grit: Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg?

That’s like asking which star in the sky is brighter. I will say this: You just don’t get to be where they are without being extraordinarily passionate. It’s like asking, “Who is grittier, Lincoln or Washington?” I don’t know; they’re both so gritty.

Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures