How To Unlock Grit in an Unpredictable World, with Angela Duckworth
If you’ve ever sat through professional development as an educator, you’ve heard of Angela Duckworth. Both her research and personal experience in the classroom suggests that IQ isn’t always helpful in determining successful outcomes for students. Rather, a more important predictor of success is “grit,” a growth mindset, and feeling like you have a purpose that’s bigger than yourself. So how do we unlock grit and resilience in our kids, especially when the world is so uncertain and unpredictable? And what kind of impact will this period in our history have on our kids in the longterm? “Both the very recent events of the last few weeks and the still recent events of the last few months in the pandemic are all exactly what I study…this is historic.”
Want to hear more from Angela Duckworth?
- You can follow her on Twitter at @angeladuckw and @TheCharacterLab
- Read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance to learn why some people succeed and others fail. Sharing new insights from her landmark research, Angela explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Visit angeladuckworth.com/grit-book to learn more.
- Check out Angela Duckworth’s podcast No Stupid Questions at freakonomics.com/nsq
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[00:01] Eli Kramer: Good Kids listeners, today is the last episode of Season One of Good Kids. We’re going to wrap the season and come back late summer. But don’t fret, there’s a couple of things we want you to know about that can fill your Good Kids space in your brain while we’re taking a break and going from Season One to Season Two. The first, Lemonada Media has a brand new show called Tell Me What to Do with Jaime Primak Sullivan. She, if you remember, was the very first guest on Good Kids. She’s hilarious. She’s raw. She’s edgy. And this show is the advice show that we all need right now. What else do we have, Jess?
[00:43] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Oh, man, we have so many things. The Good Kids team is going into production this summer to bring you awesome content that will mirror your lives, parents, educators, all you folks out there who are grappling with the stuff that we’re dealing with right now. If you want to support our team, the best way to do that is to go to LemonadaMedia.com/Memberships, and you can join as a Good Kids member. So there’s a lot of cool things about this. One is you can help us make Season Two and two is you can get all kinds of free stuff like swag. We got some tote bags. We got some things. And three, we have bonus content that we’ll be putting out all summer. So if you love your weekly advice, your weekly how-to from us, you’ll get some more over the summer as a member. So you should go ahead and do that. Help us make this show happen.
[01:54] Hi, I’m Angela Duckworth, and you’re listening to Good Kids. So when I study grit, it looks like passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. So when you are studying, you know, an Olympic athlete like Katie Ledecky or, you know, a world class skier like Lindsey Vonn, you know, what these individuals have is they love what they do, that love has been a constant for years, and they are incredibly hardworking and resilient individuals. They come back after bad days, bad seasons, bad decisions, and they’re constantly learning and improving. Now, when you ask me about kids, students and education, I just need to emphasize that, like, caterpillars and butterflies are different. So when I describe a butterfly and it’s full flourishing beauty, you might think like, oh, when they were younger, they were little butterflies, but they were really caterpillars. And one of the big differences is that developmentally, I think that young people need to sample things, change their minds. You know, they need to be not singularly obsessed with one thing day and night.
[03:07] That will come. And that will, in fact, only come if they have the opportunity to be curious, to be playful, to engage in things because they’re fun and intrinsically motivating. And I think once you have developed an interest that over years becomes a passion, then when you grow up to be like a Lindsey Vonn, you know, it looks like the kind of thing that I tend to study. So when you study an Olympic athlete, you say like, how do they do that? How did they sustain that kind of discipline or work ethic? It’s not just because, like, one in a million people will do that and it’s just fascinating. It’s because we can unlock those same habits and those same mindsets in ourselves.
[03:58] Carol Dweck, who is my complete and total hero, she discovered that our beliefs are very much a driver for what we do. And when two students in the same exact situation, two young people faced with the same exact consequences and benefits, react totally differently. Like, say, two students get like a bad grade on an exam. You know, one is like, oh, I’m going to like do better and study twice as much. The other is like, oh, this isn’t for me. I’m not a math person. I give up. What Carol has discovered is that our beliefs about intelligence, for example, are so important and a growth mindset is the belief that abilities like intelligence can grow. And a fixed mindset is the opposite, that your abilities, including your intelligence, are not able to change. And it’s not really a problem to have a fixed mindset when you’re winning. So if everything’s going fine in life and you’re number one and everything’s coming up roses, then you can get pretty far with a fixed mindset. You might think like, oh, I’m really smart. So thank goodness I’ve got this kind of superpower. But when you start to screw up and when things are really hard and when you feel clumsy and when you make mistakes, that’s where a growth mindset is really so protective, because it tells you that you did screw up and like, you know, there’s something to learn and you can get smarter if you rise to that occasion and keep going. And myself, I would say that I think much of my life, honestly, I probably had more of a fixed mindset.
[05:32] Carol would say we have both voices in our head, and we need to learn to listen more closely to the one that says that we can change and grow. But it’s a very powerful idea. And I think the relationship to grit is that when you have a growth mindset and it encourages you to stick with things a little longer, especially when they’re hard, and that in turn reinforces the belief that you can grow, and that in turn reinforces your grit. So there’s a virtuous cycle that I’ve now documented in several data sets across multiple countries where, you know, if we can kickstart students into this cycle of challenge seeking, striving and belief in themselves as a learner, then we set them on a virtuous path for education.
[06:21] There is a very timely — it just so happens it happened within the last year — that there was a research article published on a national growth mindset study. And the conclusions, I think, are really relevant to the pandemic. So in this study, ninth graders were randomly assigned to two conditions, either a control condition or a condition where in a couple of class periods they just learned about the brain and its plastic. And, you know, you really can get smarter and you can grow and learn. And the ninth graders who are in that condition, exposed to that scientific information, ended up having more of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. And they actually did better in school. And here’s the thing that I think is so relevant to the pandemic and what’s going on. It was especially for the students who were in schools where the message, the kind of the cultural norm, was challenge seeking.
[07:19] And I think that suggests that when you ask yourself, like, how do I have my child have more of a growth mindset and be grittier, for example, among other things? You need to actually create conditions where it’s not just that you say to them over dinner once like, oh, you know, the brain can grow, etc. You have to create conditions where what’s normal is challenge seeking. It’s OK to make mistakes. And when you come home and you didn’t make the team and you, you know, didn’t do so well in your essay, that the first facial expression you see from your parents is not horror, you know, not fear, but more like, dude, so proud of you for trying. Like, let me share a story of when I was nine years old. Oh, my gosh. You wouldn’t believe it. And then the end of that story and the message is being shared is more important than the kind of like, oh, you dropped the term growth mindset you talked about it is that you are raising kids in a context, in a culture that says, like, learning is great, we’re all learners. Making mistakes is great as long as you’re learning from them.
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[09:10] Angela Duckworth: You know, it’s amazing that we’re only halfway through 2020. I was thinking like, wow, and how appropriate. That it’s the year of the locust. I was like, of course the locusts start descending. You know, it is for me as a psychologist who studies resilience and, you know, responses to adversity and challenge — I also study one of the drivers for grit is feeling like you have a purpose that is bigger and more important than yourself. Both the very recent events of the last few weeks, and the still-recent events of last few months and the pandemic are all exactly what I study in some ways. So here are some, I think, practical advice that comes out of, you know, what we’re experiencing. You know, you can’t control what’s going on to you in many respects, but I think the level of uncertainty has never been, at least in my lifetime — and I asked my 85 year old mother, who lived through multiple wars and, you know, immigrated from China under less than ideal circumstances. She’s like, I don’t remember any time in history like this. So this is historic. And you can’t control everything that’s happening. And the level of uncertainty is extremely hard for human beings to take because we are hardwired to not like uncertainty and adversity. But what we can do, I think, is to look for the small things that we can control and that we do have some agency over. You know, in my class, which I taught this last spring, we went to distance-learning right in the middle of the class. So students never came back from spring break. And in my class, we had already scheduled a class on stress. So we started off with a question of how much stress the students were feeling. And I will tell you that nobody was on the far end of the scale that said, like, I’m totally carefree, like everything’s fine. Everybody was moderately to very seriously stressed. But later in the class, we all did a five-minute favor. This is where you do a five-minute favor for somebody else. It could be anyone. It could be a roommate. It could be a parent. It could be a stranger. And that’s the only rule that it is, is that it takes five minutes and it’s expected to be helpful.
[11:17] And I remember when I designed that class, I thought, well, given how stressed out my class is, and how much is uncertain and how much people are dealing with, like, should I ask them to do something for somebody else? Like, it seems like not the thing to do. But I did it anyway, in part because I think that’s what resilient people do, is they hold fast to the things that they might have some control over. And everybody has the opportunity and the ability to do something nice for someone for five minutes. And so looking for those little windows, those little glimmers. I think that’s what keeps us, you know, sane and healthy.
[11:58] Some people have asked, will this pandemic and, you know, recent events, civil rights, will it be indelibly bad? Will it be indelibly good or neither? I think that the chances that things are for most students and young people indelibly bad, like, you know, they’ll be scarred for life is very low. At least the vast majority of young people, they are certainly dealing with a lot, but the vast majority of young people, you can’t say that what they’re experiencing is like truly severe trauma of the kind that, you know, abuse or neglect or the kinds of things that I do think actually can be indelibly harmful. So that’s a relief. I think that most students, we don’t have to really worry about the worst-case scenario. I think then the question is, will it be neutral or will it be positive and for whom? And I do think that the students who have support at this time — and I mean that in the following way: I think adults who can really give kids a sense of security and also, as appropriate, continued to demand from them, you know, learning and being useful. So parents, I think, have an opportunity to help this series of historic events end up having a positive effect on the development of their children by being supportive and as appropriate and as possible, still demanding.
[13:25] I do think, actually, that one of the challenges for parents of especially younger kids is that you cannot physically, logistically, create a new schedule for every day. Like, it’s just too much. Like you’re, by the way, doing like unbelievable amounts of laundry, cooking, cleaning, Zoom calling, just everything. So I wonder whether — and I know for many parts of the country, you know, the things that you would usually sign your kids up for that have structure, like camp, are not happening or they’re happening in a way that doesn’t work for you. So I do want to be Pollyanna about that. But I do think if you can get kids into something where it already has an embedded structure and it is like set it and forget it. So, for example, if there is something that they’re going to do that’s online, it’s every Wednesday or is every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or like, you know, we do reading hour and that’s the first thing we do after breakfast. Like, we never discuss it, etc. The psychology of this is actually the psychology of habit. So one of the things that’s remarkable about habits, like brushing your teeth or, you know, for many of us, it used to be like the way we drove home or something, is that you don’t really have to use a lot of cognitive energy to do it. And I think in the pandemic, you unfortunately have the task of, like, recreating all these structures or habits or rituals. But once you do, they do at least free up a little bit of your time.
[14:48] I do think that just as every family’s struggling, you know, every organization, every children’s museum, every university, it’s all happening in real time for them. But every day, I think there’s another resource that I see on the Internet, like, oh, you know, like this famous person is reading children’s stories every day. So hopefully we can start plugging in, build a schedule, and to the extent that we can set in, forget it. So I think that research which was done just, you know, was published just before the pandemic hit I think is, you know, useful because really what all parents are is they’re creating cultures in their family. And if you just think of your family as like a little country with your own traditions, there’s the food you eat. There’s the habits that you have, the rituals. There’s the language you use in your family that people outside of your family may or not even fully understand because, you know, they’re inside jokes. You’re creating a culture, and I hope it’s a culture that encourages children to feel like they’re respected, that they’re always growing, that they don’t want to be perfect, and that, you know, their character is something that they can develop and that, of course, that they’re loved, which is the soil that all of this grows in. When kids really, really deeply feel loved, you’ve gotten 90 percent right. And then you can, you know, wring your hands about the other 10 percent. But as long as they really feel like they matter, then I think, you know, you’ve gotten yourself off to a really good start.
[16:32] If you want to learn more, you can find me a characterlab.org. Also, a new podcast called No Stupid Questions. And finally, I’m on Twitter and Facebook. Look forward to seeing you there.
[16:51] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Andrew Steven is our producer, and the show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad. Westwood One is our ad sales and distribution partner. Like us, give us a five-star rating, and recommend us to a friend. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.