Wisdom from a MacArthur Genius: Psychologist Angela Duckworth on Why Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success
“Character is at least as important as intellect.”
A headline from a recent Brain Pickings newsletter (a simply amazing resource for stimulating our minds) caught my attention and led me to reflecting on the question of whether “grit” can be learned or taught.
In working with a group of graduate students at Simmons School of Management (SOM), I hope to find at least a partial answer to this question. SOM students are participating in YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders Program to learn techniques and tools for addressing the challenges they will face when taking their management and business degrees into the workplace.
In our initial Discipline and Commitment session, we explored discipline as “determined efforts” — something valued and cultivated for greater clarity and commitment. We used a yoga sequence to prepare for a pinnacle pose (aka challenging pose). Throughout the sequence, SOM students examine their strengths and weaknesses and assess their reaction to poses they found difficult; they compare this reaction to how they feel when faced with difficult situations in their day-to-day life. Was their tendency to pull back and feel defeated or to muscle it out with a determination that might not always be a healthy one?
While grit might be most associated with “muscling it out,” will more mindfulness techniques, combined with the concept of “practice, practice, practice,” provide a more suitable path for those who tend to pull back as well as for those who over-extend themselves? When we pull back from difficult yoga pose or feel frustrated with meditating, we need a safe and supportive environment to fail and to try again. We need a way to practice and discover a path of achieving goals. In essence, a practice that helps us discover our grit, our ability to be persistent and feel the rewards of consistency and discipline.
For those who over-muscle our way into a pose (and possibly overdo our meditation practice), we need an environment that helps bring our practice back into balance for health and safety concerns. In a work environment, we’d classify this over-achiever as being a Type A personality, who too often burn out or, even worse, have stress and health issues.
But back to Angela Duckworth and where this blog began…
Ms. Duckworth switched from a lucrative consulting career with McKinsey to teaching math to middle-school students. As a math teacher, she had found students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. Trying to understand why some students succeeded while others did not became her focus and passion, and ultimately lead to Ms. Duckworth pursuing a career as a research psychologist at UPenn.
Angela Duckworth’s research suggested that it’s useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. In her view, each is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone.
As stated in Brain Pickings:
For example, “Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition – the willpower, the self-control – to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach [the students in her study] might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.”
Thinking about Angela Duckworth’s focus on the need for grit to succeed and achieve our goals, I come back to the questions of whether mindfulness can possibly play a role in developing grit.
As the founder of YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders, I’ve been asked why I feel yoga is an important component of the program. While being diligent in developing a long-term meditation practice is key to well-being and all the other qualities we promote with mindfulness, challenging yoga poses ask us to physically and mentally experience determination and commitment – a total mind-body experience. In our mindfulness classes, we practice in an environment where you can make mistakes – even laugh when you fall over – and begin to savor each improvement in doing this pose. You begin to realize how doing it over and over again leads to success, however you have defined it.
In researching how mindfulness with a focus on yoga is having a significant impact, I found the closest parallel to yoga being used with athletes to applying yoga in the workplace.
Clayton Horton, director of Greenpath Yoga Studio in San Francisco and a former triathlete and competitive swimmer, states that endurance is simply “the ability to persevere.” Horton feels that yoga improves one’s endurance by helping athletes to relax, preserve energy, and better concentrate—especially in demanding circumstances. “Yoga gives you the mental strength to be still and to concentrate in the midst of a difficult pose or while your muscles are burning,” he explains. “With yoga, you learn the ability to observe the patterns of tension in the body that take away from efficiency.It is important for athletes not to be distracted. Yoga can help you to sit back and be the witness or to observe and be a little clearer and make better decisions, like being able to pace yourself during a 10K run or a long workout.” (Yoga Journal)
As any MBA student will attest, perhaps one of the most important learning experiences during your degree program is feeling a similar burn to what is described above for an athletic endeavor. The hours of group study, exams, analyzing, researching and writing – often while holding down a full or part-time job – is like running a constant 10K. It’s in preparation for what they will experience in workplace when a product needs to get to market, a strategic plan is being presented to senior management or you’re starting up a new company.
The goal of YogaUnbound’s mindfulness program is to give these MBA/management students the experience of being in the intensity of the work environment through challenging but mindful yoga poses. When they need to be fully engaged, to be present and observe so that they can make better decisions, and persevere to achieve the results they aspire to, they can turn to their mindfulness and yoga training. They can uncover their “true grit” and move forward with inner strength, awareness and confidence).