Psychologist Angela Duckworth is a New York Times best-selling author, a McArthur Genius Grant winner, and her Ted talk has over 10-million views. She left a high-paying consulting job to teach 7th graders in a tough NYC public school. There, she observed that “grit” – not necessarily IQ – determined which students succeeded. Angela talked to Good News about the importance of grit and how to measure it, why she thinks Trump has it, and what she would say to him if they met. 

Q: You’ve become famous for demonstrating the importance of “grit” in achieving success. What’s grit?

A: Passion and perseverance for long term goals. It has to do with staying committed to moving in the same direction, despite setbacks.

Q:  How does a gritty person behave?

A: Imagine a 4-year-old on the beach building a sand castle. The child becomes obsessed with the task. Everything becomes material for that sand castle, every twig, every broken shell, every piece of beach glass. The child doesn’t want to stop for anything – to eat, to change into more comfortable clothes, to put on sunscreen. They just want to finish building that castle. That’s gritty behavior.

People who have grit connect everything to their passion, typically a project they are excited about working on. They come to work early and stay late. They have a ton of energy because they are pursuing work they love. 

Q: Your resume certainly suggests that you are a gritty person. Were you born gritty, or did you develop your grittiness along the way? 

A: It’s both nature and nurture. I inherited DNA from my mom and my dad. And, I grew up in a household where achievement was a dinnertime topic. We talked about Albert Einstein and topics like who’d won the Nobel prize. So there’s no doubt my interest in achievement and grit has to do with being brought up in an environment like that.

Q:  You’ve said that your dad, perhaps unwittingly, helped you become gritty. How?  

A: As a kid, my dad would tell me, “you are no genius,” and say that I was not the smartest person he had ever met. I wanted to prove him wrong. So I took this up as a challenge.

Q: Are there situations in which too much grittiness can be a bad thing, as in, it’s time to give up? I’m thinking of some of the Democrats running for President.

A: Yes. One item on the grit scale is: “I finish what I begin.” It’s not necessarily about a single project that you stay committed to, but rather about a higher level goal. If you are running for office and you’re not going to win, or if staying in the race is creating a problem for other candidates, and your higher level goal is to GET RID OF TRUMP, the grittiest thing to do is quit and throw support behind others.

Q: You’ve written that “people who are motivated by altruism have higher grit scores than people who are motivated by personal pleasure.” Why is this?  

A: Freud wrote about the pleasure principle, that even though we may have a desire for nice hotel rooms, more money, better clothing, it is also true that we are motivated by higher pleasures, something bigger than ourselves. Who gets up at 5 a.m. to do something? If the reason you’re doing this is only for money, it’s hard to sustain your motivation. If you are doing it for altruistic reasons rather than for personal gain or pleasure, you will be more willing to stick with it, and will score higher on grit.

Q: Can an adult be taught to value altruism over personal pleasure?  

A: Anyone can be encouraged in that direction. Humans are cultural animals. For example, if you spend a lot of time in another city, you’ll  start picking up the accent. We adapt to the norms of the people around us. If you hang around altruistic people you will get more altruistic. If you are around people who are gritty it will rub off on you.

Q: Is Donald Trump gritty?

A: I think he is passionate and he perseveres. He’s not discouraged by failure, and he loves what he does. So yes, he is gritty. But I also value character, and character is more than grit, it’s compassion for others, having an open mind, being humble, and being able to admit you’re wrong. These aspects of character, aspects that are not grit, are important for world leaders. These are things Trump does not have.

Q: If you were invited to the White House, would you go?

A: If Trump wanted to know about my work, or about the psychological science around helping kids thrive, yes I would go. 

Q: What would you say to him?

A: That the scientific method is GREAT. It teaches us to be open-minded, the importance of updating beliefs. This is what’s made America and the world great. Unfortunately, we are forgetting how important those values are.