Angela Duckworth

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Grit Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Angela Duckworth's Grit. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Angela Duckworth

Angela Lee Duckworth was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. As she explains in Grit, her father—a Chinese immigrant who worked as a chemist for the massive chemical company DuPont but always dreamed of achieving success as an academic researcher—was obsessed with “geniuses” and frequently distraught to realize that there weren’t any in his family. Despite not being born a “genius,” Duckworth went on to study neurobiology at Harvard University and graduate with honors. After college, she spent two years establishing and directing Boston’s Summerbridge (now Breakthrough) academic summer program for underserved middle school students. Then, she went to Oxford University, where she earned a master’s degree in Neuroscience on a Marshall Scholarship, and joined the prestigious but controversial multinational consulting firm McKinsey for a year. Next, she taught middle and high school math and science for five years. In 2002, Duckworth began her PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of the experiments she discusses in Grit were part of her graduate work studying the effects of self-discipline and grit on achievement in settlings like the National Spelling Bee and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 2007, she created the Grit Scale questionnaire, popularized the concept of grit in academic psychology, and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2013, she won a MacArthur Fellowship for her research, and she became a household name with the publication of Grit in 2016. In addition to her position in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychology, Duckworth also holds secondary positions at the university’s Graduate School of Education and Wharton School of Business. As of 2021, she also runs the Character Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to science-based personality development for children, and co-hosts the Freakonomics spin-off podcast No Stupid Questions.
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Historical Context of Grit

Duckworth’s work is particularly indebted to the generation of psychologists and neuroscientists that preceded her, including Benjamin Bloom, Carol Dweck, and especially her doctoral advisor Martin Seligman, who started the positive psychology movement in the 1990s. However, her research on grit is part of a long psychological tradition stretching back at least to 1907, when the influential American psychologist William James noted the difference between having talent and actually using it in the essay “The Energies of Men.” The word “grit” was already in common usage in the mid-1800s, when it appeared in the work of writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horatio Alger. From 1885 to 1993, there was even a weekly national newspaper called Grit, which shows how the concept has long been central to American identity. In particular, at the turn of the 20th century, “grit” was frequently viewed as the personality trait that enabled poor, rural, and immigrant Americans to overcome hardship and rise into the upper classes. At the same time, affluent families worried that their children might not maintain their class status in the U.S.’s highly unequal society because they did not face enough hardship to develop “grit.” The concept of grit fell out of favor during much of the mid-20th century, with some exceptions (like Charles Portis’s prominent 1968 novel True Grit). However, grit has returned to public view through Duckworth and her collaborators’ research, which is the first to rigorously define and measure it. Duckworth’s work has popularized the concept of grit and spurred intense debates among psychologists, journalists, and particularly educators. Indeed, the clear social and economic parallels between the early 20th and early 21st centuries have led many education scholars to criticize Duckworth for explaining educational disparities through individual personality differences rather than widespread social and economic inequality.

Other Books Related to Grit

At the end of Grit, Duckworth recommends numerous titles from fellow psychologists she cites throughout the book, including Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind and Your Life (1991), Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016), and Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2009). She also directs readers to books on motivation and achievement by popular journalists, such as Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009), Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012), and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012). At key moments in Grit, Duckworth also cites the work of pioneering earlier psychologists like Benjamin Bloom, who wrote Developing Talent in Young People (1985) based on interviews with 120 “immensely talented individuals.” Duckworth also references writings by many of her “paragons of grit,” including Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who explains his coaching philosophy Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion (2010). Finally, Duckworth’s critics include investigative journalist Jesse Singal, who dedicates a chapter to her work in his 2021 book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Ills, and the psychologist Marcus Credé, who was widely recognized for the critical 2017 paper “Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature.” Finally, education scholar Ethan W. Ris has published the paper “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept” to give much-needed historical context to the lively scholarly and policy debates around Duckworth’s work.
Key Facts about Grit
  • Full Title: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
  • When Written: 2008–2016
  • Where Written: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • When Published: May 3, 2016
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Psychology, self-help, education
  • Antagonist: The bias toward talent, “genius,” learned helplessness, fixed mindset
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Grit

Grit − Passion = Drudgery. Duckworth’s work became widely popular after Grit’s publication, and schools around the U.S. started formulating new curricula to boost academic performance by teaching grit. But Duckworth was critical of many of these efforts, which she argued overemphasized perseverance to the exclusion of passion. The goals that schools want to achieve—like higher test scores—are simply not interesting or purposeful to most young people, Duckworth argued, so they have little to do with grit.

Practice Makes Perfect. The six-minute TED Talk that Duckworth describes painstakingly preparing, practicing, and delivering in her book is now one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time.