How Our Hobbies Build Grit

Angela Duckworth on the value of pursuing passions unrelated to our careers

By Angela Duckworth

Occasionally, a term introduced by an author intuitively resonates with so many people that it takes on a life of its own. It becomes a part of the vernacular, it’s taken out of context and misinterpreted, and it’s applied to concepts in unexpected ways. Such has been the case with grit. The word, popularized by MacArthur Fellow and psychologist Angela Duckworth, means a combination of passion and perseverance.

Duckworth says that these personality traits — or grit — are the keys to success, a desire that’s not only timely but, arguably, evolutionary too. Her TED talk now has 8.4 million views. The conversation in the media has buzzed around whether grit can in fact determine success, but what of the interests that fall outside our immediate professional trajectories? In this excerpt from her new book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” (Scribner), Duckworth hypothesizes what her much-discussed research says about the unexpected value of the hobbies we pursue from a young age.

When Brent Roberts was a psychology graduate student at Berkeley, the prevailing view was that, after childhood, personalities are more or less “set like plaster.” Brent and other personality researchers have since collected enough longitudinal data — following, literally, thousands of people across years and decades — to show that personalities do, in fact, change after childhood.

Brent and other personality researchers have found that a key process in personality development involves situations and personality traits reciprocally “calling” each other. The corresponsive principle suggests that the very traits that steer us toward certain life situations are the very same traits that those situations encourage, reinforce, and amplify. In this relationship there is the possibility of virtuous and vicious cycles.

For instance, in one study, Brent and his collaborators followed a thousand adolescents in New Zealand as they entered adulthood and found jobs. Over the years, hostile adolescents ended up in lower-prestige jobs and reported difficulties paying their bills. These conditions, in turn, led to increases in levels of hostility, which further eroded their employment prospects. By contrast, more agreeable adolescents entered a virtuous cycle of psychological development. These “nice kids” secured higher-status jobs offering greater financial security — outcomes that enhanced their tendency toward sociability. So far, there hasn’t been a corresponsive principle study of grit.

Let me speculate, though. Left to her own devices, a little girl who, after failing to open a box of raisins and saying to herself, “This is too hard! I quit!” might enter a vicious cycle that reinforces giving up. She might learn to give up one thing after another, each time missing the opportunity to enter the virtuous cycle of struggle, followed by progress, followed by confidence to try something even harder.

What if that little girl was nudged to try and try again and, at one practice, experienced the satisfaction of a breakthrough? Might she learn to welcome challenge?

But what about a little girl whose mother takes her to ballet, even though it’s hard? Even though the little girl doesn’t really feel like putting on her leotard at that moment, because she’s a little tired. Even though, at the last practice, her ballet teacher scolded her for holding her arms the wrong way, which clearly stung a bit. What if that little girl was nudged to try and try again and, at one practice, experienced the satisfaction of a breakthrough? Might that victory encourage the little girl to practice other difficult things? Might she learn to welcome challenge?

The year after Warren Willingham published the Personal Qualities Project, Bill Fitzsimmons became the dean of admissions at Harvard. Two years later, when I applied to Harvard, it was Bill who reviewed my application. I know because, at some point as an undergraduate, I found myself involved in a community service project with Bill. “Oh, Miss School Spirit!” he exclaimed when we were introduced. And then he ticked off, with remarkable accuracy, the various activities I’d pursued in high school.

I recently called Bill to ask what he thought about extracurricular follow-through. Not surprisingly, he was intimately familiar with Willingham’s research.

“I have it here somewhere,” he said, seemingly scanning his bookshelf. “It’s never far from reach.”

Okay, so did he agree with Willingham’s conclusions? Did Harvard admissions really care about anything other than SAT scores and high school grades?

I wanted to know, because Willingham’s opinion, at the time he published his findings, was that college admissions offices weren’t weighing follow-through in extracurriculars as heavily as his research suggested they ought to be.

Each year, Bill Fitzsimmons explained, several hundred students are admitted to Harvard on the merits of truly outstanding academic credentials. Their early scholarly accomplishments suggest they will at some point become world-class academics.

But Harvard admits at least as many students who, in Bill’s words, “have made a commitment to pursue something they love, believe in, and value — and [have done] so with singular energy, discipline, and plain old hard work.”

Nobody in the admissions office wants or needs these students to pursue the same activities when they get to campus. “Let’s take athletics as an example,” Bill said. “Let’s say the person gets hurt, or decides not to play, or doesn’t make the team. What we have tended to find is that all that energy, drive, and commitment — all that grit — that was developed through athletics can almost always be transferred to something else.”

Bill assured me that, in fact, Harvard was paying the utmost attention to follow-through. After describing our more recent research confirming Willingham’s findings, he told me they are using a very similar rating scale: “We ask our admissions staff to do exactly what it appears you’re doing with your Grit Grid.”

This helped explain why he’d maintained such a clear memory, more than a year after he’d read my application, of how I’d spent my time outside of classes in high school. It was in my activities, as much as anything else in my record, that he found evidence that I’d prepared myself for the rigors — and opportunities — of college.

“My sense, from being in admissions for over forty years,” Bill concluded, “is that most people are born with tremendous potential. The real question is whether they’re encouraged to employ their good old-fashioned hard work and their grit, if you will, to its maximum. In the end, those are the people who seem to be the most successful.”

I pointed out that extracurricular follow-through might be a mere signal of grit, rather than something that would develop it. Bill agreed, but reaffirmed his judgment that activities aren’t just a signal. His intuition was that following through on hard things teaches a young person powerful, transferable lessons. “You’re learning from others, you’re finding out more and more through experience what your priorities are, you’re developing character.

“In some cases,” Bill continued, “students get into activities because somebody else, maybe the parent, maybe the counselor, suggests it. But what often happens is that these experiences are actually transformative, and the students actually learn something very important, and then they jump in and contribute to these activities in ways that they and their parents and their counselor never would’ve imagined.”

Copyright © 2016 by Angela Duckworth. Printed by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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