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Sarah Clune Hartman
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What makes a person successful? For Professor Angela Duckworth, the answer is grit, an intangible trait that motivates passion and perseverance. In a study at West Point, Duckworth found that grit mattered more for success than leadership ability, intelligence and physical fitness. Now, she hopes to introduce grit to classrooms across the country. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
But first: What drives a person to become successful? That's the question behind MacArthur genius fellow and University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth's research. She pins it on grit, an intangible, but essential trait.
Economics correspondent Paul Solman spent a day with her in Philadelphia to try to figure out what that trait is made up of. It's part of our weekly Making Sense report, which airs every Thursday on the "NewsHour."
ROBERTO DIAZ, CEO, Curtis Institute of Music: As the sound opens, we have to have the vibrato open more.
World-renowned violist Roberto Diaz. Diaz now heads the tuition-free Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the hardest college in America to get into, where he's taught for years.
Column: When to quit, from an expert on grit
But what sets Diaz and his students apart?
What we do here is teach students how to work and motivate themselves over a very long period of time.
That pretty much defines grit, the catchword concept of psychologist Angela Duckworth and subject of her new book, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance."
ANGELA DUCKWORTH, Author, "Grit": Nobody gets to be good at something without effort, no matter what your aptitude is. And grit is about the effort part of the equation, right? Grit says, you know, whatever your talent is, you're going to have to invest effort in order to develop skill.
For years now, Professor Duckworth has been on a mission: to teach grit to those who lack it. When she began her career as an inner-city teacher:
It struck me that the gap between my highest-achieving and my lowest-achieving kids was yawning. How can we get kids to do better, and in particular the kids who I could tell from interacting with them had the aptitude, had the talent, to learn what I was asking them to learn, but weren't?
So, Duckworth became a psychologist, working in recent years on a grit curriculum at KIPP charter schools.
Clap twice. Put up your right hand. Put up your left hand.
Like the Infinity Middle School in New York City's Harlem that we visited not too long ago.
But is grit a function of nature or nurture? To Duckworth, it's a silly question, because grit is like most traits.
It's partly genetic. But human beings could learn to be grittier.
But to teach grit, Duckworth thinks, you first need to understand it, see it in action. So we spent a day in her hometown of Philadelphia.
What could KIPP kids learn from a viola virtuoso about grit? Passion, perseverance, payoff, even if only to yourself.
Many of these details that we spend countless hours on may not be noticed at all.
It's connecting a note, a certain way from here to there, and then that one to the next one. The emotional content in that phrase is what will actually make a difference to you. And this is the kind of detail, that that kind of work never ends. It never ends.
If you look at true experts, they never get bored, right, because what they find is ever, ever greater nuance in what they do.
They become immersed, says Duckworth, and then grit isn't a grind, but more like an act of grace. That ducks the big question, though.
Why do some people try, try again, and why do some people not? That's what I'm after.
Looking for an answer, Duckworth developed a quiz called The Grit Scale, and tested it out at West Point. She found that grit mattered more than intelligence, leadership quality, even physical fitness in predicting which entering plebes would finish boot camp.
Local super chef Marc Vetri confirms it. Which young cooks will survive his kitchen? Their grit helps him spot them faster than pasta reaches al dente.
MARC VETRI, CEO, Vetri Family of Restaurants: It's not always the sharpest guys. It's not always the guys with the most skill. It's just the guys or the girls that have the biggest work ethic. And that's the grit, I think.
Say when, chef.
Vetri's grit has certainly paid off. He recently sold five of his restaurants to Philly-based Urban Outfitters. Vetri started out gritty.
But you did get more gritty, more passionate, more resilient. I don't know.
It's interesting. Yes, it's interesting. And your experiences, right, once they start to work for you, you know what? Hey, that worked. Maybe I really need to start acting like this more often.
Duckworth is trying to promote the early teaching of restraint, self-control, delay of gratification, long enough so their benefits become apparent.
JANE GOLDEN, Founder, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program: This mural was created three years ago.
Jane Golden, who heads the city's Mural Arts Program, may be, says Duckworth, the city's grittiest individual.
My father used to say, you're like — you're dogged, you're like a dog with a bone, you're — you know, failure is not a permanent state. It's just not.
Golden took us to see "Family Interrupted" made in a prison, then transferred to this wall.
The lead artist for the mural, Eric Okdeh, also worked with the prisoners to show the impact of their incarceration. Q.R. Codes are used to tell their stories in their own words.
I said man, you know what? I'm ashamed to be in here. I ain't got no reason to be in prison. I'm smart. I'm ashamed of myself.
Every person we keep out of the prison system is a victory. Every young person who graduates from high school and moves on to higher ed, that is fantastic.
Turning negative energy into positive energy, through passion and purpose. So, then is grit also the answer to economic success, to a gratifying life?
ALFIE KOHN, Author, "The Myth of the Spoiled Child": There's a very big difference between helping kids to decide whether and when to be gritty, and to deify or romanticize the concept of grit as inherently valuable.
Educator Alfie Kohn is a grit skeptic.
I don't want children, or adults, for that matter, to be fearful that if they say this isn't working, I don't derive pleasure from this, I'm going to move on to something else, that they will be accused of not being sufficiently single-minded or having enough stick-to-itiveness.
Moreover, says Kohn:
These concepts have the effect of blaming kids in dire circumstances for their circumstances, instead of looking at how poverty and racial discrimination hold kids back.
Duckworth concedes the point, to a degree.
I think grit is a very important thing to being successful, but it's also important to have a situation, have a — have a life that has opportunities for you to do well, right? And that's separate from your grit.
And the other thing I would say grit is not a substitute for is having values, you know, empathy for other people, other aspects of character. So, grit is an important thing, but I don't think it's the only thing.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Philadelphia on a story that required no delay of gratification at all.
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