“Grit” guru Angela Duckworth treated BYU students to the first sneak peek of her next book on Tuesday with a presentation at the campus forum assembly that demonstrated the softer side of her famous theory on the psychology of achievement.
Duckworth said afterward that an Olympic coach emailed her to complain about “the grit narrative” after she published her bestselling book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” in 2016.
The coach felt a mythology was growing around the concept that grit was simply about trying harder, that a person should just be tougher or show more internal mental fortitude.
Duckworth effectively rebutted that mythology Tuesday with an insightful story about her mother and with merciful advice provided throughout the 90 minutes she spent with 3,537 students, faculty, staff and the general public at the Marriott Center. She spoke in the style of her popular TED talk — which has 29.2 million views — walking around a stage on the playing floor.
In “Grit,” Duckworth wrote that she aspires to drive her work by two values, excellence and kindness. Her beliefs about the kinder side of grit were evident throughout her presentation and Q&A.
In fact, she told the students that living happily requires more.
“Grit isn’t enough,” she said. “Your circumstances also matter. In fact, they matter a lot.”
She asked students to show an understanding for their own circumstances and the circumstances of others. She quoted a BYU alum and friend, Mike Maughan:
“We come across so many people, but rarely, if ever, can we begin to understand how far they’ve come,” Maughan said. “We don’t know their pains or fears, hopes or frustrations. We don’t know what difficulties they’ve been through or what silent battles they’ve had to fight. We see them where they are, but we don’t know what roads they’ve had to travel through to get there.”
She illustrated her point with a sad story, one with a happy ending, about her mother, Theresa.
Born in China, Teresa Lee was a talented young painter who as a teenage girl fled to Taiwan with her family after the communist revolution. With an art teacher’s encouragement, she moved on her own to the United States, where she earned a scholarship to a graduate program and painted a beautiful piece that now hangs in Duckworth’s home.
“She had ambition, she had a dream — she had grit,” Duckworth said.
Then it seemingly disappeared. Her mother abandoned her art after she married. Duckworth grew up thinking only her father, a successful chemist, had grit.
She later learned her perception was wrong.
“My mom felt a lot of conflict between her desire to be excellent as an artist and her obligations,” she said in an interview after her talk.
Her mother’s choices were based on family circumstances. She started a successful needlepoint business for extra income. The family didn’t support her art. When she painted something on occasion and hung it on a wall, Duckworth’s father didn’t notice for months. When she asked him each year to sell the needlepoint business as a Christmas present to her, he bought her a mink coat instead.
Then her father retired, allowed her to sell the business and he became ill, sleeping most of the day. Her mother had time to return to painting. Today, at 87, she paints all day long.
“When I paint, actually I forget that I am old. I have no age,” her mother wrote. “I am what I am. I want to learn and I want to grow as an artist. I don’t know if I will ever reach my goal, but I will try.”
The grit was always there, Duckworth said. But her mother’s circumstances kept changing, from childhood to marriage to retirement.
Situation and circumstance
Duckworth’s untitled second book will be about situation and circumstance, she said in an interview. The lessons and moral of her mother’s story will be a part of it. She believes the moral of her mother’s story can be about two types of circumstances, those beyond her control and those within her control, and that they can be reconciled.
“As a scientist who studies success,” Duckworth said, “I have come to believe that the only way to live a full and happy life is to hold these seemingly contradictory truths in your mind at once: First, your situation is as powerful as gravity. Second, you can reimagine, and then reshape, your situation.”
She told BYU students they are shaping some of their own circumstances right now.
“One circumstance you chose was coming to BYU,” Duckworth said. “This is a special place, with special people, and an identity and value system that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. BYU is different from every other university because of its unique mission and the people who feel called to serve it. You chose these circumstances, and now those circumstances are shaping you.”
She advised students not to ignore the circumstances within or beyond their control. The ones beyond their control are calls to understanding, she said.
“It’s easy to underestimate how powerful a role circumstances play in the choices a person makes.”
It’s easy to underestimate that in one’s own life, she said during the question-and-answer session, when a student asked her how he should approach his frustrations that his studies so far now appear to have been a detour from what he’s passionate about.
Duckworth said she spent a decade not knowing what she wanted to do and started graduate school in psychology at 32.
“A torturous decade,” she called it.
Then she gave the students permission to sample — to experiment and fail and start over.
“We ought not jump to conclusions about why people do what they do. We ought not count people out when, really, we have so little perspective into what they’re going through and the battles they’re fighting,” she said.
Duckworth also shared Maughan’s advice to “judge less and love more.”
During the Q&A, she noted that she regularly experiences doubt herself. She said she cried on about half of the days she spent writing “Grit.”
Duckworth told students they should pay close attention to the circumstances within their control, too.
“There’s been a lot of research on the belief that you can influence your circumstances,” she said. “And research shows that, without question, focusing your attention on what you can change is a tremendously positive asset. In fact, believing that you can influence your circumstances is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People with this positive attitude are more likely to seize opportunity, to persevere and to accomplish their goals.”
She left students with two pieces of advice.
“You have a lot of choices that my mother never had,” she said. “What circumstances will you choose? For one thing, I advise you to choose friends who bring out your best.”
Second, she said, “You need other people to support you ... I hope you find someone to spend your life with who is going to support your dreams.”
Duckworth and her husband, Jason, will celebrate their 25th anniversary in March.
“I am blessed to have married someone who is so dedicated to our children and to me. We are partners in the fullest sense, raising our children and supporting each other’s ambitions,” she said.
She expanded that advice during the Q&A.
“So much of my strength comes from the people who care about me,” she said.
She encouraged students to stay connected to the people who care about them. She said Hall of Fame BYU and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young once told her that without his parents, he would have quit football and other pursuits many times.
Duckworth asked him recently how much he relies on his parents now.
“Just about every day,” he told her.
Duckworth ended the assembly by repeating the Serenity Prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
The BYU audience gave Duckworth a hearty standing ovation.
“You can tell she’s full of love,” said Cloé Hechmati, 28, a senior from Los Angeles majoring in European Studies.