Angela Lee Duckworth grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the daughter of well-educated parents who’d immigrated from China. She’s quick to say her mom and dad were not Tiger Parents, though academic success was always assumed. What was less expected of her, she says, was that she’d throw herself into community service. “When I was in high school I was sort of spontaneously and not very reflectively drawn to public service activities,” she says. “I don’t know where that impulse came from. You could do some retrospective reconstruction, but that is always a dangerous game to play.”
When Duckworth was 18 she went to Harvard, where she majored in neurobiology but continued to perplex her father (who is a color chemist at DuPont) by devoting much of her time to leadership roles in several community service organizations. “I don’t think in Chinese culture there is as much of a tradition of helping anonymous strangers of a different race,” she says. “My dad was like, ‘ You have a science degree from Harvard but instead you want to spend your time helping poor black kids?’”
Following graduation Duckworth spent two years founding a summer program for disadvantaged kids and then went to Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. After returning from Oxford she consulted with McKinsey for a year and spent another year as the chief operating officer of a web startup called Great Schools that allows parents to compare public schools. But the bulk of her time over the next seven years was spent teaching math and science at public schools in New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
“It seemed to me that if I was going to work on issues of equity I should start earlier in the life course rather than later,” she says, explaining why she was drawn to the classroom. “The earlier you start the bigger bang for your buck you get in terms of closing the gap between the privileged and the non-privileged. I also just enjoyed working with young people, so that kind of led naturally to teaching.”
Duckworth jokes that the job-hopping she did in her twenties was a case study in “how not to be gritty,” but it seems more a function of the intensity and dynamism of her personality. In the course of reporting this article I heard colleagues call Duckworth the most extroverted person, the quickest learner, and the fastest thinker (and talker) they’d ever met.
On the day I visited she had a half-dozen bubble gum containers on her desk, suggesting an atmosphere of restless activity and a need to replenish the saliva that’s lost through such rapid-fire speech. She also uses expletives in a way that might impress even high-powered cursers like Rahm Emanuel. In the course of a 90-minute conversation she called a principal she knew “an asshole,” described the opinion of a leading education foundation as “fucking idiotic,” and did a spot-on impression of a teenager with attitude when explaining the challenge of conducting experiments with adolescents: “When you pay adults they always work harder but sometimes in schools when I’ve done experiments with monetary incentives there’s this like adolescent ‘fuck you’ response. They’ll be like ‘Oh, you really want me to do well on this test? Fuck you, I’m going to do exactly the opposite.’”
Duckworth also has a degree of entrepreneurial energy that, at first blush, makes her an odd fit for the academy. I asked her whether she sees herself more as a reformer, like Dave Levin, the KIPP founder—driven by the desire to achieve specific outcomes—or as a scientist—dedicated to asking questions and following prescribed methods for answering them.
“I think that Dave and I have always had this passionate commitment to children combined with an incredible amount of energy and optimism about doing,” Duckworth says. “My dad used to say to me, ‘There are thinkers and there are doers.’ Very few people are both. And I think to the extent that I’m a professor I’m a thinker and it’s my duty to analyze things and see if I can figure out how the world works. But Dave and I are both very much doers. We share a kind of boldness, an attitude of just try it, just do it, and don’t just sit on your hands and think all day.”
For most of her time as a teacher she assumed she’d apply her insights about student achievement by opening her own charter school, which would have allowed her to stay in public education while also giving her significant discretion over exactly how and what students were taught. But after five years in the classroom, ending in a stint teaching high school science at Mastery Charter in West Philadelphia, she concluded that charter schools were not the answer to the achievement gap.
“I looked around at these charter schools and it seemed to me intuitively they weren’t the way to reform education,” she says. “I saw these charter schools writing their own curricula, creating their own HR departments, and it seemed to me intuitively that the diseconomies of scale were working against them.” (Today she says her critique was wrong, owing to “a lack of imagination” when it came to foreseeing the development of national charter organizations like KIPP and Mastery, which provide their network schools with the efficiencies of scale that early charters lacked.)
Duckworth wasn’t going to open her own school, but she still wanted to make a bigger impact on public education than she could as a teacher—at first, she just didn’t know how. “I thought about the biggest problem that needs to be solved in K-12 education and then I listed out all the things I’m good at: I like to write, I like analysis, I like math, I like to think hard about problems,” she says. “So I sort of put the Venn diagrams together and in a very top-down deductive way I concluded I should go into psychology and become a researcher in order to understand these character competencies, and then go back into these schools and help them solve their achievement problems.”
One night in July 2002 Duckworth was up late with her infant daughter (she and her husband, the president of a Philadelphia-area real-estate investment fund, now have two girls), and researching psychology programs online when she came across the website of Martin Seligman Gr’67, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center (not to mention the founder of the discipline). Duckworth, who’d never taken a psychology class before, was such a neophyte in the field that she didn’t recognize Seligman’s name. “I didn’t know he was famous. I was like, he writes very well, I like his website, so I emailed him,” she says.
As it happened, Seligman was up late too, playing bridge online [“Passion Play,” Mar|Apr 2011]. He replied to Duckworth’s email within minutes, inviting her to attend a research meeting at his house the next day—and ended up being so bowled over by Duckworth’s super-charged demeanor that he would ultimately convince his colleagues to throw the admissions timeline out the window and allow Duckworth to join the program that September. All things considered, it wasn’t a hard sell. “Angela was fast, about as fast mentally as it is possible for a human being to be,” Seligman writes in his latest book, Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. “She blew us away in the interview. In violation of precedent, the admissions committee gave in and accepted her.”
For her part, Duckworth was drawn to the Positive Psychology Center because of the way it encourages students to think about the real-world implications of their research. “Marty is only interested in questions with significant relevance to people’s well being,” Duckworth says. “Marty is a basic scientist, of course, but he’s always been someone with one foot in the world beyond the lab. He’s always cared about how psychology actually changes people’s lives within his lifetime for the better. I came in to graduate school very much in that view, and it only got reinforced while I was there.”
Achievement—the main focus of Duckworth’s research—is the last of the five key elements in positive psychology’s taxonomy of well-being, which goes by the acronym PERMA. (The others are Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, and Meaning.) For decades psychologists studying achievement focused almost exclusively on intelligence. As Duckworth saw it the problem with this single-minded emphasis was two-fold. For one, IQ scores didn’t explain everything about why some individuals achieve more than others. In fact, they were not even particularly good at predicting something as basic as the amount of education adolescent-aged kids would go on to attain later in life.
The second problem was more practical: IQ may be easy to measure, but it’s hard to change. IQ tests given as early as kindergarten are highly predictive of adult intelligence, meaning that if boosting intelligence was the only way to boost academic achievement, reformers were not going to get far.
The story was very different with personality. While IQ stabilizes before kids even learn to read, many psychologists including Duckworth point to longitudinal survey data to conclude that personality doesn’t become similarly fixed until at least age 50. Along the way average levels of personality traits change (most people become more conscientious as they grow older), as do rank-order levels, meaning that the most conscientious 10-year-olds are not necessarily the most conscientious adults four decades later. To Duckworth, this fluidity suggested a tantalizing possibility: If personality evolves so much as people get older, why shouldn’t schools be able to influence the direction in which it changes?
Before Duckworth can hope to modify personality she needs to know how to measure it, which is no small task. In fact, according to Seligman, measurement challenges are the primary reason that researchers have long shied away from studying personality.
“There’s a hegemony of silence in science, things you don’t work on because they are too fuzzy,” Seligman says. “So, while the importance of self-control, self-discipline, grit may be obvious once we’ve said it, that doesn’t mean that they become eligible as scientific endeavors until a creative person like Angela comes along and says, ‘Oh come on, we can measure these things!’”
Duckworth is naturally optimistic about the potential for human ingenuity to solve social problems. She likes to say, “Rather than curse the darkness, light a candle,” but in her very first research project as a graduate student at the PPC the darkness won. Her years in the classroom had convinced her that persistence was essential for academic achievement, so she designed a study in which students were asked to find a pattern in what was (unknown to them) a series of non-repeating digits. The problem, though, was that no one gave up within the allotted time. “I found, as has been found by many psychologists, that any good lab experiment has to end within 60 minutes,” Duckworth says. “But I couldn’t find a task that was so frustrating that people would give up within that time.”
After failing to measure persistence Duckworth shifted to self-control, which researchers had been studying since 1972 when the eminent psychologist Walter Mischel conducted his famous “marshmallow test.” Mischel presented pre-kindergarteners with a marshmallow but told them they could have two if they waited 15 minutes to eat the first. In a conclusion that hovers over middle-class parenting across America, Mischel found that kids who were able to hold out for the second marshmallow tended to have higher SAT scores years later.
Duckworth conducted her own version of Mischel’s experiment with students at the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, Philadelphia’s top magnet school, and drew on additional measurement techniques to make her results more robust. In the fall of 2002 she offered 140 eighth graders a choice between receiving $1 immediately or $2 a week later, and also administered self-control questionnaires to the students, their parents, and their teachers. She combined her survey and experimental data to create a “self-control index,” which she used to anticipate how well students would fare on their final report cards. When grades came out that spring she found that self-control and GPA were not only strongly correlated—her self-control index was twice as good at predicting academic performance as IQ scores.
Following the Masterman study, Duckworth turned to what has become her signature topic—grit. Grit is a nebulous concept compared to self-control, and the way people pursue long-term goals is hard to measure experimentally. So instead of a lab task Duckworth developed the “Grit Scale,” a 12-item questionnaire that asks respondents to rate themselves on statements like “Setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.”
Duckworth wanted to test the Grit Scale in high-achieving populations, to see if it could reveal distinctions even within groups where everyone was talented. In 2004 she administered the Grit Scale to 1,200 incoming cadets at West Point, just before they began “Beast Barracks,” the academy’s intensive summer training program that every year leads 5 percent of admitted freshmen to drop out.
Admission to West Point is determined in large part by a “Whole Candidate Score,” a weighted index comprised of variables like SAT score, class rank, and performance on the Army’s Physical Aptitude Exam. Duckworth found, however, that cadets with the highest scores on the Grit Scale were 60 percent more likely to make it through Beast Barracks than cadets of merely average grittiness. What’s more, her Grit Scale was nearly four times as good at predicting which cadets would drop out as any of the Whole Candidate Score indicators that the Army had spent years refining.
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Charter-school networks like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)
have embraced Duckworth’s work.