PHILADELPHIA—MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner and research psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth is a reluctant star. Her pioneering studies at the University of Pennsylvania into how character relates to achievement have been going on for 12 laborious years now, and she expects to die doing them, but you can spare her the fanfare. When the moderator of a recent live video presentation introduced her by saying, "I tried to find something on her, but she appears to be perfect," she couldn't help but ever-so-slightly grimace. There's no getting around, however, that she's "a whirlwind of brilliance and energy," according to one Stanford colleague, and a leading voice in the effort to translate into the classroom ideas like hers that self-control and grit, more than talent and IQ, may hold the keys to a better life.
The avalanche of attention only increased after the 2013 MacArthur award. Yet by all accounts Angela has managed to remain utterly and unself-consciously herself, the sort of person commonly said to be not quite like anyone else: former Cherry Hill, New Jersey, cheerleader and über-volunteer, Harvard undergrad, Oxford postgrad, inner-city schoolteacher, thought-leading TED-talker. She's an alpha female and a born giver who's driven by an impulse to do good in the world and right inequities. Yes, she's all about the work of reforming education but at the same time much more—and no doubt cringing as she reads this, if she gets around to reading it at all.
She'd been rejecting all recent media requests through intermediaries, including my own, until I reached her directly—"This is Angela"—early one morning at Penn, hoping she would reward my determination not to give up so easily.
Two things about all the attention were getting to her. First, she just wants to do her research, which is complicated and takes forever. "I feel there's an erosion. Time is finite!" And second, "I do feel it's hard to be modest and humble and egoless when people are telling you you are so great and wanting to give you prizes and energy. I'm trying hard not to be an awful, narcissistic human being. And I'm like, 'Put your head down, do the work, be with the students.' Mostly, it's like if I could not sleep, I would not sleep so I could just work on stuff ... You can come see me next Tuesday at 11:30."
Some Days You're Going to Cry
Over at the Duckworth Lab at Penn, an awful lot of what the researchers do is drudgery, conducted in an exacting atmosphere that is relieved on rare occasions by fleeting moments of greatness and enchantment.
The atmosphere in their digs at the Positive Psychology Center on the second floor of 3701 Market Street in Philadelphia the day I'm there hums with the quiet din of people thinking, their heads bent as they crunch data in the continuing work to create and administer questionnaires and activities that test aspects of grit and, more so now, self-control.
Take the diligence task. Students are positioned in front of a split computer screen. On the left side is some academic lesson: repetitive arithmetic, spatial orientation, anything boring. On the right are "distractors": games, music videos, great moments in sports. They're told that schoolwork isn't always fun but that working on the left screen will be like doing academic calisthenics to become stronger students.
They can take a break and go over to the right screen anytime they want; they can go back and forth. Whatever they decide is fine. The research assumption is that time spent on the boring screen will correlate to degree of success down the road—suggesting that, no matter the field or endeavor, no matter how smart and talented people may be, it will be tolerance for boredom that more reliably will see them through.
Opportunities, meanwhile, keep presenting themselves, and Angela keeps entertaining new projects. She loves collaborating and is prone to what's known in the biz as "research crushes."
"How can I say no?" Angela says, to collaborating with minds like Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Nobel laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago, and Florida State's K. Anders Ericsson, the expert on the habits of experts, who will tell you that if you want to be, say, a world-class piano soloist, expect it to take at least ten years and 10,000 hours of what he calls "deliberate practice."
Says Angela's lab colleague David Meketon of these collaborators: "You can't get bigger guns."
Consequently, the amount of work she is willing to take on for herself and her lab, as described to me, is "massive." That Angela is who she is—attentive, absorbing, amusing, altruistic, accessible, aware (and that's just the a's)—eases the burden.
No job well done at the Duckworth Lab goes unrecognized, everyone's voice is heard (as, unlike many academics, Angela is not hierarchical and seems incapable of putting on airs), and she takes care of her grad students, pushing them to publish, having them collaborate with world experts, opening doors. One student confesses to feeling depressed when she attends conferences with Angela and sees how boring other professors are.
The day of my visit Angela was trim and fit in navy blue short shorts and a white tank top, looking ten years younger than her 44, black hair in a ponytail, her little white sneakers off more than on, revealing opaque pink painted toenails; she's been known to nonchalantly strike a yoga pose during a videoconference, as a way of relaxing while she thinks. In short, you'd follow her anywhere. At the same time, if you're with Angela, you'd better bring your A-plus game and be prepared to work very hard and at the edges of your ability, as it is understood around here that no one grows without being uncomfortable and that the suffering is an indispensable part of what may ultimately be remembered as an amazing life experience.
"You remember the 'tiger mom' brouhaha?" says colleague Dave, the man Angela calls "my doppelgänger," a retired teacher and administrator, who, at 61, is the old head among the slew of grad students, postdocs, research assistants, and undergrad interns who are constantly cycling through what amounts to an apprentice system for how to study character. "Would I say as an employer Angela's a tiger mom? No. She loves people. But there is this very strong expectation of excellence and no tolerance for less." He confesses that sometimes even he ("and I'm in my third act") has been driven to a point where "I feel I don't know what I'm doing," and he warns applicants dying to work here that, if they do, there will be days that they will cry.
In the Trenches of Research
Trying to measure character traits can be problematic, because of faking, lying, not knowing yourself, total error, and biases conscious and unconscious. "Too many to list," Angela says. But every measure is imperfect in its own way. A questionnaire may be more susceptible to lying than a performance test, but performance tests have "much more error," she says, "and they're situation sensitive." A kid with a headache might do badly on a performance test but not as badly on a questionnaire. "The thing is, you know what you're getting into."
Angela and her team had to create a scale to measure grit, because it didn't exist. The questionnaire asks students to rate themselves on a five-point scale ranging from "very much like me" to "not like me at all" in answer to such statements as "I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge," "Setbacks don't discourage me," "I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest," "I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete," and "I finish whatever I begin."
"We validated it," Angela says. "We showed it predicted objective measures like graduating West Point's first summer [cadet basic training] and winning the National Spelling Bee. And then in all the studies we measured IQ and consistently found that IQ really is something else." Being a hardworking or self-controlled kid is not the same as being a smart kid. Angela and her team had parents rate their kids, had teachers rate their kids, and had kids take two different questionnaires and a delayed-gratification test ("Do you want a dollar today or two dollars in a week?"). They had them do a hypothetical delayed-gratification test with a large number of choices (two dollars today, seven in three months).
"When you average across all of those things, we found you can predict things like their grade point average startlingly well—much better, in fact, than IQ does—as well as changes in grades," Angela says, a finding described by like-minded Stanford colleague Carol Dweck, whom Angela thinks of as a role model, as "a landmark piece of work."
The team also studied gender differences and found that girls are more self-controlled than boys, which helps explain why they tend to get better grades (though not always higher test scores). And they tested the effects of stress, finding that when kids experience negative life events beyond their control it impairs their self-discipline and that you can actually measure decreases in self-control in the six-month period following the stress.
So Simple It's Confusing
At the moment, Angela and her team are working on clever interventions to help students learn how to work hard and adapt in the face of temptation, distraction, and defeat. The total educational challenge is to accomplish this while at the same time steering them toward their passions, making sure they run around enough and enjoy childhood, and taking care not to inflict psychological damage.
How do you increase grit and self-control, not just in children but also in teachers and people in general, beyond just exhorting them to grin and bear it? Angela cites a current "big study" in and around Philadelphia in which randomly assigned students are asked to change their house or their bedroom in some way that would make studying easier. It could be as simple as having a better light in the room or putting their cell phones on a faraway shelf. If you want to start eating a healthful breakfast—oatmeal instead of a doughnut and coffee, say—you might decide to put the oatmeal out where you can see it first thing in the morning, take a route that doesn't go by the Dunkin' Donuts, or simply cover up any intrusive pastry with a napkin to make it less appealing. "Even young children know these tricks," Angela says, "but adults sometimes forget them."
These ideas, and her findings about hard work and persistence, are so plain and seemingly self-evident that Angela sometimes has a heck of a time getting across what a profound difference they could make in expanding human potential.
"It's so simple," she says, "that it's hard to explain."
At the University of Chicago, before a group of professors, she was asked why she studies perseverance. "Why?" she said. "Because life is hard. Because there are just obstacles every day to everything that we want to do. If it were easy, it would be done already, and I think that goes for any work that's worthwhile."
In our talent-obsessed culture, talent has been studied and is well understood. Perseverance? Not so much. Meanwhile, what college admissions officers and business leaders have told her they're looking for these days from applicants is in keeping with her findings. It's no longer students who've padded their résumés by doing a little bit of everything or just prospects with the best college grades; they want people who stuck with something meaningful to them over time and demonstrated some level of mastery, and it doesn't necessarily matter in what. In a grit presentation by Skype with a group of educators from the Southwest that I sat in on, Angela quoted Martha Graham talking about what it takes for a mature dancer to make it look easy: "Fatigue so great that the body cries, even in its sleep" and—here's Angela's favorite line—"there are daily small deaths."
In other words, children need to be taught to appreciate that they're supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They're supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they're on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve.
High achievers, despite that kind of agony, are able to sustain interest and find novelty in their work year after year; Angela is fascinated with figuring out how they do it and how that capacity might be developed in children. The more she explores the habits of geniuses who actually leave their mark on the world (most don't), the more she values the profound insights related to clarifying the different roles of talent, intellect, passion, persistence, and self-discipline. This is part of what she's done in her work: separate the traits of self-control and grit, and show they're really different qualities. Self-control is the short-term ability to resist temptations and, say, get your schoolwork done; grit is what takes you the distance. She's then analyzing what goes into these traits so they can be consciously nourished with practical interventions.
"If you could understand what makes a world-class golfer a world-class golfer, or ballerina," she says, "and if you could transport those insights into the classrooms of our children ..."
Her voice trails off—it's so obvious.
An End to "Drill and Kill"?
Angela's schedule that day apparently is typical: one phone call, videoconference, or meeting after another. Futzing around with her slides for the Skype presentation on grit, trying to conference with Anders Ericsson and Roland Fryer (who had to pick up his daughter and bowed out), eating a salad from home at her desk as she chats on the phone with an incoming intern about the logistics of flying in from Detroit. There's a Dr. Brown's diet black cherry soda on her busy desk, along with a box of KIND bars. She tosses me one, wanting to be a good host after interrupting our interview to set up the Skype conference. "These're really good."
The road is long, and Angela doesn't claim to have the answers—"There's more that we don't know than we do know." But she's not alone in her quest to help children, particularly vulnerable children, thrive. In recent years there's been a groundswell of broad support for alternative approaches to education, and a network of researchers led by Angela, among others, is studying national samples to explore mindsets and self-regulation as they relate to success. Educators and parents have realized that "drill and kill," as it's called, the emphasis on high-stakes testing, has failed. The idea of making schools accountable originally came from "a really good place," Stanford's Dweck explained, as certain schools were chronically underperforming and the perception was that kids in those schools were being cheated and nobody was standing up for them. The idea arose to make all schools accountable, and, to make them accountable, a measure and a set of standards were required that everyone had to live up to. Over time, teachers and students increasingly organized their energies around teaching to standardized tests until everyone was miserable, and, as can happen, the remedy became the problem.
An even deeper shift seems to be taking place as well—a shift away from blaming teachers, class size, lack of money, family conditions, and other "situational" factors, which, while important, have increasingly over the past century let the student off the hook and turned underperformers into victims of circumstance rather than creators of opportunity.
The new direction aims to empower children with a sense of personal responsibility and free will. Having a great teacher, coming from a stable home in which you feel loved and are well fed, innate talent and intellect, a love of learning that drives you to go off to the natural history museum on a Saturday or read Tolstoy on your own—all these are very important, Angela says, but "they're not sufficient." In study after study over the past dozen years, the research has shown that you can be smart and talented and curious but still not reach your potential (and having things come easily may actually work against you) if you don't also develop a capacity to work hard and persist through setbacks over time.
Angela has had her share and tells me about the time she was flunking biology at Harvard. She was a freshman, and the class—Bio 25—was meant for students who had taken a prerequisite, but she figured, how hard could it be? After failing the hourly and the midterm, her professor, cautioning that an F would leave her fighting an uphill battle with her GPA, kindly advised her to withdraw. She thanked him and immediately went to the registrar's office to declare her major. In biology. "Like major in the class that I was failing," she says. She studied harder for Bio 25 than she'd ever studied before and "did fine," she says, eventually graduating magna cum laude with a 3.8 GPA, which she describes as "OK."
"So I think I do have a kind of 'I'll show you' in me," she says. "When people tell me I can't do something, I have a visceral reflex to say, 'Yes, I can.' "
In fact, the entire story of Angela's life journey so far is itself a study in passionate persistence. In the context of her busy day, we would have to accomplish a lot in short order. I suggest a "speed biography." "That's fine," she says. "I always talk fast."
To pre-cap: Daughter of educated Chinese immigrants and product of the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, public schools proceeds to Harvard, teaches in a program she created for underprivileged kids, then heads to Oxford and a brief unhappy stint consulting in pharmaceuticals, a happy year teaching in inner-city New York, marriage and children, four more years teaching, in San Francisco and Philadelphia—and much more emotionally and psychically—before she finally lands where she is today. At one point along the way, she even flirted with the idea of opening a restaurant. "Yeah," she says. "I was like, maybe food."
But the underlying impulses that drive her appear to have been evident and consistent from the beginning of her life. Her mother, Theresa Lee, remembers Angela as a "delightful," "stubborn" little girl who brought "a breath of sunshine" wherever she went—visiting Theresa's bookkeeper's mother at the old-folks home, singing to the residents as they gathered round, and otherwise volunteering to help others whenever she could. "She has that nature in her. If she can make somebody happy, she'll do it."
Theresa and her husband, Ying Kao Lee, had immigrated separately from China in their 20s as the communists were rising to power. Theresa's father was a general in the Kuomintang opposition to the communists; Ying Kao's was a silk merchant. They came to America "just trying to find a good path forward for themselves," Angela says. Theresa studied art on scholarships at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then the University of Pennsylvania and later ran a small wholesale needlepoint design company; Ying Kao got an undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds, in England, then a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati before joining DuPont, Angela says, where he "worked on automotive refinishing products for his whole life." Angela remembers both parents being busy and preoccupied with their two older children (now a doctor daughter who specializes in in vitro fertilization and a professor son who teaches geology at a community college in Tennessee), and she seems to have grown up in something of an atmosphere of benign neglect. "It wasn't like they were terrible," she says. "My brother and sister were a handful, and you know how it is with the third kid. It's sort of like 'Are you alive?' " In any event, they didn't push her, but it was understood that she was expected to excel. She has a vivid memory of a baby blue three-ring binder with "RECOGNITION" on its spine that her "extremely ambitious" and "achievement oriented" father kept, containing letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs meticulously detailing his success. "I was, I'm sure, influenced by that growing up."
Theresa and Ying Kao had married after meeting through friends in America and soon moved to Cherry Hill, a sturdy, middle- to upper-middle-class suburb in southern New Jersey known for its good schools. Growing up there in the seventies and eighties, Angela found that there weren't many kids in her grade who were Asian. "I think I took each of the only Asian boys to, like, the different formals" in high school, she says. Otherwise, she doesn't recall having much of an ethnic consciousness ("even now") beyond traditional attitudes having to do with working hard at school and respecting one's elders.
The delightful little girl with an impulse to serve continued as such in high school. Unable to donate blood at the blood drive because she didn't weigh enough, she immediately volunteered at the Red Cross, spending hours every week holding up people's arms and serving juice and stale pretzels—"from the time I could drive until I graduated." She sold daffodils for the cancer society, raised money for the Rotary Club's annual children's party—anytime somebody asked for help, she just said yes. She didn't think about why. "It was just intuitive."
She said yes to opportunities too, going off one summer to live with a family in Japan on an exchange program, not speaking the language, knowing it wouldn't be easy, but expecting "something amazing" to come out of it, remembers her high school best friend, Naomi (Spirn) Pesky, who now does communications for a nonprofit in Minneapolis. "She wasn't afraid." Naomi describes Angie as having been "an intellectual powerhouse but also an amazing doer," who "believed in working hard" and who was "a very present part of the high school community," both of them friends with people in different groups but not really part of any one group. "She was totally unpretentious and had a great sense of humor." Both were cheerleaders; Angie was a co-captain and could get along with anybody, committed as she was to having equitable relationships and encouraging others to do their best, Naomi says. "She had confidence in their potential. She believed in them."
Naomi remembers the two of them taking the high-speed line from Cherry Hill into Philadelphia for art classes ("She's a very good artist," Naomi says) and browsing in swanky stores where they couldn't afford to buy anything.
Angie's favorite teacher at Cherry Hill High School East was Matthew Carr, who taught English and has just retired after 40 years. When I called him up, his memory of Angela Lee at first seemed hazy; she was thousands of students and a quarter century ago. Then he said this: "What I remember was that she was bright. Not just smart, but of course that too, but really bright. A lot of energy and enthusiasm and passion for learning ... things that would allow an individual to effectively move into some kind of leadership role, someone people would be naturally drawn to and pay attention to." He and Angela hadn't been in touch since she graduated, in 1988, and he claimed to have only a vague idea that she "gave lectures and presentations." I filled him in. He paused. "So my instincts about her were correct."
"There Is No Other Side"
When it came time for college, it was understood she'd major in some science. Angela had inherited "or possibly acquired," she says, her father's love of the scientific method. "You measure things, you think logically, you have a priori predictions, and then you allow the data to speak for themselves." Not wanting to waste money, her parents wouldn't let her visit campuses before she knew which colleges had admitted her. Even after she got into "a bunch of places," she says, her dad wanted to take her to see only Harvard, but she got him to take her to Yale too, which was on the way. "So, you know, it was down to Yale and Harvard," she says, "and I don't know whether it was just inertia or whatever. I chose Harvard arbitrarily."
At Harvard, Angie, who ended up specializing in neurobiology, was known to survive on frozen yogurt and M&M's. She was the one sitting in the front of the lecture hall, raising her hand to ask questions if something didn't make sense.
"Amazingly unself-conscious but very self-assured," says a close college friend, Michelle Shih, now an editor at Oprah magazine. "She's not like anyone else I know. It's hard to explain why. She's a WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get]." "She doesn't have a public face and a private face. There's no other side." Says Michelle's older sister, Tina Shih, also a college friend and now a neurologist in San Francisco: "I could tell Angie was going to be a star and do amazing things from the second I knew her." She describes her as someone who "takes up a room": "charismatic," "passionate about everything she touches," and "remarkably childlike." The first to make fun of herself and own up to things when the time comes. "That's rare in people who sometimes are brighter than the rest of us," Tina says. "It's very endearing." Wherever she was, whatever she did, "she always pulled up everyone else's game. That's what she brings to the table."
At Harvard she continued to volunteer—recycling, a homeless shelter, the elderly nursing home corps—but didn't close in on her niche to help kids until sophomore year, when she became a tutoring big sister. By senior year she was running the university-wide after-school enrichment program, which matched Harvard students with "sister" neighborhood schools. Tutoring was more gratifying—and it made more sense, if you really wanted to make a difference, to intervene early in a person's life. Still, she would come home after tutoring, unsure if she was doing much good.
Volunteering at least as many hours in the Cambridge Public Schools as she spent on her studies, she witnessed firsthand, as she would write years later in her admissions essay to Penn's Ph.D. psychology program, "the reality of failing urban students in failing urban public schools." She started to realize broadly what she wanted to do with her life—change how we think about children's development, empower students, change public education—but she didn't have much of a clue how, or a plan.
A Little Magic Goes a Long Way
An epiphany occurred between her junior and senior years when she taught in a summer enrichment program in New Orleans called Summerbridge. It was modeled after another Summerbridge started years before at a private school in San Francisco that had been "phenomenally successful," Angela says, employing the simple idea of having older kids teach younger kids. "It was magic." For almost all of human history, children grew up learning together and taking care of one another "in these sort of packs," she says. "It's only in the last, what, 200 years that we have this kind of model of formal instruction where you put all these people of exactly the same age in a classroom. What that does is it inclines you to pay attention to how you're different from each other. Well, you're a little taller. You're a little prettier. You got the math problem right; I got it wrong." The social aspect is exaggerated and interferes with learning in a way you don't see when you put a 19-year-old with a 5-year-old. In New Orleans that summer, teaching biology and ecology in a little room with five kids, she learned something about herself too. At Harvard, she was taking five classes a semester, volunteering 35 hours and up a week, and doing research at the medical school. "But I never worked as hard as I did that summer." The students actually improved and started developing habits "they needed to develop," and for the first time she felt that her pure intentions and energy were leading somewhere.
All fired up, she came back to Harvard and founded a nonprofit summer program for low-income middle-school students that would win a Better Government Competition in the state of Massachusetts and become a model for public schools across the country. It was called Summerbridge Cambridge, and it's still thriving 20 years later, as Breakthrough Greater Boston. She taught there for two years after graduating.
Despite her good work, success, and obvious passion for the field, her parents were not happy, particularly her father. She remembers him saying, "I didn't send you to Harvard to be a teacher. Couldn't you at least be a U.S. senator?" Part of it was an Asian thing. "They totally could understand why you would want to help your family, even a second cousin, or maybe even a cousin who married into the family," she says. "But why you would want to help a black kid that you never saw before who doesn't live near you?" They were baffled. Her father didn't talk to her for six months. It would have been better for her if he'd been on board, she says. (He is now, of course.) His shunning could have been deflating. "But I'm the kind of person that I just do what I want anyway."
Angela had mentioned more than once that her parents weren't very involved in her life growing up (and then had trouble supporting her life direction). I asked if she thought that not feeling supported by her parents as a child might have anything to do with her impulse to help kids. Humans are very good at storytelling, "almost too good as a species," she says, and as a psychologist, she's "always doubtful about people's retrospective memories," including her own. As for my question, she answered, "I don't think it's a tidy narrative."
A couple of years later, in 1994, she went to Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship to get a master's degree in neuroscience, doing research in magnocellular and parvocellular pathways of visual information in dyslexia; she spent the summer between her two years there as an intern in the speechwriting office of the Clinton White House. She was still committed to education reform, was thinking maybe she'd start a charter school, and felt strongly that she should teach first. But then her master's program ended in October, out of sync with the American school year, and she took a job with McKinsey & Company, the New York consulting firm, after being assured when the company recruited her, she says, that she would "primarily, if not exclusively, do pro bono education-related cases." As it happened, Jason Duckworth, her future husband, was also at Oxford, had also been hired by McKinsey, and he organized a dinner for other Oxford recruits. He remembers a "palpable energy" when Angela Lee entered the room. "This force-of-nature person coming in."
"Even to this day," he says, "I say I never could have conceived of the existence of someone like Angie until I met her." He rattles off what he loves about her: "heart of gold, wicked smart, tons of energy, and in some ways innocent and naive."
Jason had grown up in a household that put an emphasis on helping others, particularly people who are disadvantaged. But "even for those of us who have the best of intentions," he says, "it doesn't necessarily always come naturally in every circumstance."
Angie? Wherever she goes, he says, she knows the janitors, the security guards, the people at the front desk. At one point she and Jason lived in San Francisco, where they frequented a hole-in-the-wall restaurant whose owner they're still in touch with 15 years later. "It's cool," he says. "It's a wonderful way to live your life, and for Angie it's reflexive." One simple way he changed because of her: "I became a far more generous tipper."
Angela and Jason have two daughters—Amanda, 13, and Lucy, 11—who attend a public magnet school in Philadelphia. Angela says she of course wants them to have grit, in addition to kindness, generosity, honesty, and gratitude. "I think kids are not able to just spontaneously grow up to be gritty people without being supported in that," she says.
To that end, "we are very intentional in our family." Amanda and Lucy know all about grit and self-control, Anders Ericsson and "deliberate practice," and something called "growth mindset"—a concept that posits that a key ingredient in how people learn has to do with what they believe about their own brain. It was developed by Carol Dweck, the Stanford colleague of Angela's who's part of a network of researchers exploring alternative approaches to education. In her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Dweck discusses the advantages of having a "growth mindset," whereby you have the belief that the brain—and human nature—is malleable and changes over time, rather than a "fixed mindset," whereby you believe that you have what you were born with, and that's it; once a C student, always a C student. In her research, Dweck persuades children to think of the brain as something that grows and changes over time. She shows them pictures of neurons making new connections and other scientific evidence of the brain growing. She shares quotes and videos: other kids talking about how they changed. Then she has the "changed" children write letters convincing other children of the possibilities, and in that writing process reinforcing the lessons for themselves. Angela will tell you that the zeitgeist for the kind of educational reform for which she and Dweck are thought leaders was already out there and she's just surfing that wave. Dweck says she's being modest and describes Angela's research and personal enthusiasm as "remarkable" for having played a major role in giving old ideas a new form that's actually useful, and taking on "very large projects" that she "whips into shape."
The Hard Thing Rule
Back at the Duckworth household, meanwhile, Angela and Jason have instituted something called the Hard Thing Rule as a way of familiarizing their young daughters with the experience of grit. The Hard Thing Rule is that all members of the family have to be doing a hard thing. It should be something they have an interest in, of course—ballet, a musical instrument, archery—but the corollary is that it also has to require deliberate practice almost daily, and they're not allowed to quit just because they're bored or feel no good at it. They can revisit their interest at the end of the tuition period, say, or semester, or school year, but not before.
"I believe kids should choose what they want to do, because it's their life, but they have to choose something," she says, "and they can't quit in the middle unless there's a really good reason." There are going to be peaks and valleys. "You don't want to let kids quit during a valley."
The girls' "hard thing"s right now are the piano for Amanda and the viola for Lucy. For Angela and Jason, it's their jobs. Jason's a real estate developer who creates compact, mixed-use, pre-World War II-type traditional neighborhoods you feel safe letting your kids walk around in alone. Angela, of course, has enough challenges to sustain her through multiple lifetimes. How she can be a better mentor. How to solve that measurement problem. Which school district is going to do which study.
"It's all incredibly hard."
Everyone seems to want to pick her brain these days, requiring her to raise her already superhuman efficiency to scary new heights. "We all have access to her calendar," says one grad student at the lab, "and it's overwhelming just to look at it." Every day Angela hears from superintendents, teachers, parents, and other researchers, as well as people at high levels who think conceptually about education and who are in a position to do something about it.
She's presented at the White House convening on mindsets, been featured at NBC's Education Nation Summit 2012 with Brian Williams, and been called to Washington, D.C., by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to brief him and his senior staff on "everything I know in 17 minutes."
To get done what she has to get done, Angela is always juggling—calls, meetings, videoconferences, research supervision, cooking, time with family, increasing travel. Jason describes her as "the best multitasker I ever met" and "a CEO who happens to be an academic." At ten at night, in the bedroom, all Jason wants to do is chill. "I absolutely can't do work at that hour, and she'll be on her laptop doing email. She just loves her work." Sounding like a husband who's crazy about his wife, he adds: "She writes the best email—it's like seductive. Her voice is so strong. Friendly, energetic, empathetic. In the last couple years she has introduced emoticons, which only heightens the effect."
Part of the trade-off, Jason says when asked, is that he and Angie and the girls are "pretty much always 'on'—meaning we're always getting stuff done." Angela unwinds with things like Us Weekly magazine ("It's like eating Doritos"), yoga with Jason on Wednesdays when an instructor comes to the house, iced coffee, Downton Abbey, James Bond movies. But she really can't stand being idle.
"Even when we're having fun," Jason says, "it's purposeful. She's not conventionally competitive but likes being in charge." They've erred on the side of having "free-range kids," he says, who are tied to them by cell phones but have been taught and then allowed to be independent, walking to and from school and other places by themselves, stopping off on their own to visit Angela's father, who has Parkinson's disease and who was at the time recuperating from a fall. "They have a checklist of what they have to get done by the time we get home from work," says Jason. The Duckworths all have checklists. But "the only one who consistently knocks out her checklist is Angie."
"It's funny," he says, speaking of how his wife's life unfolded. "It's rare to find people with as many medals on her breast as Angie that don't do so with a plan." She just followed her impulse to help kids, "and good things happened to her."
Making Her Way to the Lower East Side
So she graduated from Oxford, in 1996, and started consulting for McKinsey, a buttoned-down place where she was known to wear shorts to work. Because of her background in neuroscience, the firm had her consult in pharmaceuticals instead of the
promised pro bono cases. It wasn't meaningful for her, and she left within a year. "I'm like, where're all the education cases?" She got engaged to Jason and, looking for someplace to teach, called up Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, a national teaching corps that serves low-income communities across the country. Angela says she knew Kopp slightly because both had been featured by Glamour magazine in the early 1990s as outstanding women, and she asked if Kopp knew of a teaching job that might be a fit. Kopp did know of a place, and Angela started teaching seventh-grade math that fall on New York's Lower East Side to kids from housing projects who were all getting free lunches. "I loved teaching." After a year she and Jason moved to San Francisco because of his job; she taught math in the city's public schools for several years, then took a job as COO of a nonprofit website called GreatSchools.net, where parents could get reliable information for deciding where to send their kids to school.
Then she got pregnant and moved back to Philadelphia. This would be late in fall 2001. One day not long after returning she went on a tour of a hot new charter school. As she recalls, the founder said to her: " 'By the way, do you want to teach science?' I said, 'I absolutely don't want to teach science. I'm lactating. I don't know what I want to do.' And he was like, 'Cuz you know we actually lost our science teacher, so if you don't teach science, the kids aren't going to have science this year.' I said, 'Are you really blackmailing me emotionally?' So I think I started the next day." She taught there for a year.
The Aha Moment
At some point along the way, the idea of starting her own charter school had lost its luster. For reasons she says she can't reliably remember, she decided not to do it but now feels it was "a failure of my own imagination" not to realize charter leaders would iron out the serious early kinks and eventually create successful networks, like KIPP and Yes Prep. But if not a charter school, then what? She was 32, ten years out of Harvard, still wanting to devote her considerable talents and energies to helping children and still not knowing exactly how. But having taught in city schools for five years—in New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia—she had identified what she felt was "a foundational issue": Children were falling short of their aptitude and not applying themselves consistently for a lot of reasons. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that the psychology of children as it related to effort really wasn't clear.
"And then I think it was sort of, What am I good at?" she says. "I'm pretty good at math, I can do statistics, I like to write. I really sort of figured out what could I do on this problem—'Oh, I'll be a research psychologist!' "
She immediately went to the University of Pennsylvania website and started reading the faculty bios in the psychology department. When she got to "S"—and Martin Seligman—she said, "Oh, he's really like interesting." At the time Seligman was doing work on children that was related to optimism, and it struck a chord. So she emailed him-it was the middle of the night-and he emailed her right back. "It was very bizarre," she says. She was nursing her daughter; he was playing online bridge. "And he said, 'Come to my house tomorrow, I'm having a big lab meeting.' " The lab meeting turned out to be about a character education grant Seligman was interested in applying for with his team, and as a former teacher, Angela knew something about the parameters and was able to be helpful. During a break, she called her mother-in-law, who was at that time a school administrator in Swarthmore, "and she says, 'You know, you're in Marty Seligman's house, do you know he's a really famous psychologist?' " (Seligman is often referred to as the "father" or "guru" of positive psychology, which uses the scientific method to study positive human development and behavior.) "I was like yeah, well, whatever." All she cared about was his work.
One thing led to another quickly. By all accounts, Angela blew everyone's socks off in the interview and with her admissions essay to enter the Ph.D. psychology program at Penn, and the rules were seriously bent to let her in, as she had no academic background in psychology. She got her Ph.D. under Seligman, as his grad student, studying self-control and grit, and has been doing that ever since—lots of papers about what these traits predict and what in turn predicts them.
"I probably definitely will die studying this stuff."
I asked her, knowing what she thinks she now knows, what an ideal classroom might look like. She frowned. Just that day Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist, had written her asking, "What are two things that schools don't do that we know work?" she said. "I actually found it the most simple question, yet I didn't have a ready answer, and it's a little disappointing to me. So, obviously, I don't know." What she does know, she says, is that children need to understand why sustained and concentrated hard work is such an important skill, and then they need to practice it, and they need to identify something they're passionate about—things "our formal structures" aren't doing "all that well" and "could be better" at doing. She says she'd also love to forge "a true partnership" between psychologists and educators, as she's sure teachers spending 40 hours a week in the classroom have a lot to say about how to get a kid to be more hardworking and self-controlled. "That two-way street I don't think has been done really in a serious way."
We'd gotten lost in conversation—"Oh, God," she says, "I have my own lab meeting that I'm missing"—and she pops up and takes off down the hall. The meeting goes quickly—staff reports on what each was doing, a reminder about the party afterward in the comfy reception area for people who were joining the lab and people who were moving on. There was a pregnant colleague named Liz for whom they were all supposed to write down some piece of parenthood advice. "I have note cards in my office," Angela says helpfully, "and I'll be giving a gift on behalf of everyone." What's the gift? someone asks. Angela gives her ponytail a little shake. "I'm Asian—it's cash."
The contemplative life of the academic? That's something Angela Lee Duckworth hasn't figured out. "I feel like I'm grinding my teeth into sawdust." Yet she continues to find the work almost indescribably gratifying. For her, it's the only way: If you want to reach your potential and live meaningfully and make a contribution to the world, then find something you care about, surround yourself with supportive people who will give you honest feedback, and practice, practice, practice through all the daily, small deaths.
This is the secret to life.