How can teachers, leaders, and other adults develop caring relationships that foster a sense of purpose, passion, and perseverance?
Let’s ask the psychologist responsible for popularizing the concept of “grit.”
We launch our new Rooted in Relationships podcast series with this interview with Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab. Duckworth is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
In these excerpts, Duckworth talks with Search Institute CEO and President Dr. Benjamin Houltberg.
Listen to the whole podcast here.
Ben: I can’t think of a better person to talk about character than Angela Duckworth. Not just because of what she has done as a scholar, researcher, and scientist, but really because of who she is. I’ve been in her classroom and I’ve seen her teach. I’ve seen her passion for her students and really wanting to make science applicable to all people to help them thrive, especially youth.
Angela: I'm so excited for this conversation. Thank you for having me.
Ben: I think I’ve said this to you several times, but I have no idea how you do all that you do. You continue to write and teach and engage in different ways in the scientific community. If the listeners have not heard your TED talks, they should go listen. But I would love for you to walk us through your history, where you came from, and what brought you to really want to study this topic.
Angela: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always thought about the finite nature of our existence. I went through this phase where I only wanted to read books about death. I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in a pretty strong public school system. My parents had immigrated from China. I don’t think I had clarity, but I always had this sense of urgency.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do it right away. When I went to college, I majored in neurobiology, thinking maybe the thing that I grew up to be was the thing that everybody else in my family seemed to be, which is a doctor or a professor of medicine. But when I was in college, something happened that I didn’t expect. I started volunteering, and I tried different things.
The thing that stuck with me was working with kids. I was an afterschool tutor, and I ended up being a Big Sister to a little girl named Maria. Anyway, I grew up to be a professor of psychology. It was a very long and winding path. I didn’t start graduate school until I was 32. I spent some time teaching and running summer programs for kids. And now I study one dimension in which we hope kids will develop, and that is character‑related. I study self‑control and grit.
Angela: I think one of the things I hope to get in this conversation is that my life narrative took me down a path that has me studying the psychology of effort—why we try, when we try, why we don’t sometimes.
Ben: One of the things that always struck me about your work is thinking about you growing up and really experiencing this curiosity and also experiencing that empathy, that emotional connection to something. When you talk about kids and how cool they are, I can see you light up. When did those two start coming together?
Angela: I went to graduate school when I was 32. Trust me, I would have gone when I was 22 if I had had the clarity and the sense of how I’m going to braid together my curiosity about human behavior and my affection for kids.
In that 10 years when I didn’t quite know where I was going to take my career, though, I had a sense of urgency without clarity, and urgency without clarity is pretty torturous. I think where it started to come together was when I taught in public schools in New York City and San Francisco. I ended up in Philadelphia, teaching at a charter school. I think I realized that I hadn’t lost my fondness for hanging around with young people, but I thought what can I do with my own strengths: I like words. I like writing and analysis. I’m interested in human behavior. I’m interested in human nature and I want to help these kids. Maybe I should get a PhD in psychology so I can better understand when kids try, when they don’t, why that is, and how we can help them.
Ben: Who do you think were some of your champions of your purpose and really helped invest in you to foster that urgency and that curiosity and that sense of purpose?
Angela: Curiosity seems to me like the flame that we already start with, as long as people don't snuff it out. At what point do we cover the flame so that it's extinguished? Can we not do that?
Of course, there are people who can fan the flame. I had a college professor, Robin. She taught calculus, and I had to take it because I was a neurobiology major. She was a wonderful teacher of math and a wonderful human. When you were sitting in that lecture hall and she was teaching you, you felt loved. That’s the best way to put it. You felt a genuine sense of caring.
I got to know Robin, and she said she was involved in something called the Algebra Project. So during that time, we were meeting with school teachers who never really had proper training in mathematics to understand what algebra really was.
Now we’ve come full circle. That was more than 25 years ago. Now I have a 19‑year‑old daughter, my oldest of two, who has the same math professor. They just completed a freshman seminar class on math and public education and equity. I’m happy to say that Robin is still teaching in her caring, loving way. She’s still 100% committed to helping everyone, and her heart is with the kids who have the least advantages.
And my 19‑year‑old is all in on education. There are a lot of things I could say are blessings in my life, but that is at the top.
Ben: That’s an amazing story: that intergenerational influence that changed your trajectory and also changes your daughter’s trajectory. I love that idea of finding the spark in every kid. I have a 5‑year‑old and a 3‑year‑old, and I’m just looking at them light up for some of the most beautiful things that they discover, and just saying, “Please, don’t let the world snuff that out.”
Ben: I've heard you speak several times about a group of expert teachers that you meet with every Thursday. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about those teachers as shapers of character.
Angela: I’ll tell you about one of these teachers, because I was quite literally just exchanging emails with him this morning. His name is Phil Bressler. Phil teaches AP economics and social studies in Baltimore. He actually was a Domino's Pizza executive at one point. He sort of woke up one day and thought, it's not a bad thing to deliver pizza on time. But when I go to my deathbed, is this the life that I want to have led?
So he switched careers and became a teacher. He and I were just recently talking about gratitude. A newspaper journalist who wanted to profile Phil might focus on his transition from Domino's. They might focus on the fact that he gets his students to get a world record number of AP fives on the exam—and these are not kids from privileged backgrounds.
But what I would focus on if I were doing a profile of Phil Bressler is that I have never met somebody who cares more about students.
He signs off every email with “teaching is about heart.” He shares everything that could be helpful to kids, like here’s an article about gratitude, or here’s an article about what makes a meaningful relationship, or what builds trust. He emails me about it and writes a note to his own kids.
I send out these weekly notes as you know, like the tip of the week, you know, one actionable piece of scientific advice for parents and teachers. Phil started reading those and he said, ‘I'm going to write one to my own students in my words, every week.’ He never stopped even when he had a heart attack. That’s how I found out. I’m reading his tip, and he was like, ‘Last week, I had a heart attack. And what I learned was that I'm so grateful that I have something to live for, and that is my students.’
I was just like, wow. If you close your eyes and you imagine that every young person around the world, no matter the lottery of the zip code that they were born in or their other circumstances, if they had somebody like Phil Bressler in their life, in their corner, that's a different world than we live in.
Ben: I think most likely the listeners have heard of grit, have used grit, and talked about grit. And we’ll talk about what that is, but that foundation of love is really critical too. You’ve quoted the psychologist William James: “Teach students like they’re good and love them.”
Angela: I remember using that quote at the end of my teaching statement, when you have to apply for tenure. After you talk about your ratings and your syllabus structure, and how you facilitate student discussion—I think the most important thing is just to love your students.
First of all, they know when you care less. There's no faking it with young people, and they forgive you so much and they appreciate so much. You log in on the wrong link, and you screw up the homework assignment, and you forgot to tell them that there was extra credit. But if you really care, it's like, oh, somebody really cares about you. Then the rest is detail. I'm not a perfect teacher, but I really care about my students.
Angela: I’m not one of those idealists who say that kids don’t need to be taught anything. Nobody’s born knowing how to do calculus, or the things I would teach in a psychology lecture. But I really do think it’s more of a dialogue than a monologue, especially as young people become teenagers. When they turn the corner from being a child to being an adolescent and then a young adult, they have a very strong interest in being heard, being seen and valued for their own opinions. If you keep monologuing and telling students “Do this. Do that. No, you don’t have any choice,” it’s a lose‑lose, really.
Ben: Talk to our audience a little bit about the importance of grit, now that we’ve kind of laid that foundation of love and care.
Angela: When you want to achieve something, anything that's hard and meaningful to you—you want to make it through West Point and join the US Army, or you want to see some change in equity in your neighborhood or your community, or you want to become a better teacher—you could ask the question: What is the nature of that task? It’s not what you experience in the beginning; it’s how long can you stay with it?
So much of being a civic activist or a great teacher or officer in the army is not on Day One, how easily do things come to you and how excited are you and enthusiastic? It’s more like on Day 4,012, how are you doing? Where’s your mind now? Did you ask for one suggestion in the last 24 hours about how you could do things better? And did you take that suggestion and work on it?
I think one of the things I've discovered about achievement is that people have a combination of passion and perseverance. Over really long periods, not just for a day or week, but they are able to sustain it for years—these are the remarkable and rare individuals who are able to keep going and to wake up and, and keep fighting.
In a way, it surprised me, even though I studied this for a living. I guess I thought the people who were going to be successful are talented, and are just wildly energetic. But stamina, I think, is at least as important as those two things.
And that's really what grit is: stamina in your passion, stamina in your perseverance.
Ben: Grit is really important to achievement, but there’s other essential ingredients to life and thriving. I love the definition of character you have on the Character LAB website: “Intentions and actions that benefit both the individual and others.” Can you talk about that model of character?
Angela: The word character has its lovers and haters. Character Lab was named after something that Martin Luther King said, that character and intelligence are the two true goals of education. I later learned that other people preferred other terms like social‑emotional learning, 21st Century Skills, or non‑cognitive skills. But the disagreement about terminology hides a lot of agreement about what it is we hope our young children would go through. How many moms and dads would disagree with a list like honesty, kindness, empathy, gratitude, generosity, curiosity, creativity, grit, productivity?
When you are a grateful person, or a creative person, or maybe a gritty person, your life does go better for yourself. And at least as important, it goes better for the people around you. All of those things that we named that every mom and dad and teacher and coach really deeply want their kids to develop.
Angela: Identity is very important to character. When we're talking about young people, so much of their identities comes from the adult role models in their lives, what they enact in their own behavior. If you are a parent or a teacher, the young people who are hanging around you all the time and watching you as an example will begin to feel like that's a script that they understand and that they want to step into and play that role themselves.
I also think that the language we use matters. I have, unfortunately, been in classrooms that are not like Phil Bressler’s classroom. I remember when I was a volunteer all those years ago in college. I would walk in and I would say, “Hey, I have an afterschool program. We're going to build a hotdog cooker made out of tinfoil and learn about solar energy. Who wants to do it?” And one little boy's hand goes up and he's like, “I want to do it!” And then the teacher literally said, “Not for you; that's for the smart kids.” That kid will never forget that day. Instead, if the teacher said, “Zachary, I love that you raised your hand, because you are a curious person. Go with Angela down the hallway and see what's going on.”
I'm hoping that we can say things to kids, like, “Wow, I just love that you did that yesterday.” “You are a kind person.” “What an honest person you are. You had the opportunity to cheat on that exam because nobody was proctoring it during the pandemic and you didn't cheat, and that is called honesty and I respect you for it.”
Ben: It’s been a hard year for teachers or practitioners, and for many youth in communities of color. What are some things you think are really critical to get through these difficult times?
Angela: I’ve never interviewed a paragon of grit who didn’t have bad days and bad months, and even bad years. Literally everyone I study has multiple face plants and they’re not graceful. They’re not pretty. When you’re on the ground, you’re not sure you’re going to get up. You’re questioning everything you know, your identity, your values, your worth, your future.
I think one of the things to carry with us is that you’re human, and life is hard, really hard. And so you’re going to screw up. There is this expression that is misattributed to Plato: “Be kind to all you meet for each carries their own heavy burden.”
For like 51 years, I was sort of oblivious to race. My parents didn’t talk about it. For some people who are black and brown in this country, it’s a different country, a completely different experience.
And just never make assumptions. It used to be when a student wouldn’t turn in homework in my class I would be annoyed and impatient. Now I first ask before anything else, “Are you okay? And here’s my cell phone number.” And if they’re okay, then we can talk about what happened.
I’m really not a saint. But at least in the last year or so, I’ve become newly aware of the burdens that every single one of us carries. And sometimes we’re going to fall down with that burden. And sometimes people around us are going to fall down, and when people fall down around us, don’t jump to evaluative judgments—because you don’t know the heavy burden they can carry.