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On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to talk to a few dozen BYU-Idaho journalism students and their professors who traveled down from Rexburg to Salt Lake City for the day. They asked some great questions and I tried to provide them with some advice.

Since I’d just spent several hours with Angela Duckworth, the author of “Grit,” when she was at BYU in Provo last week, I decided to share some of what she said to students that day about, passion, perseverance and resilience.

Now I’m going to share with you here some of what she said both during a question-and-answer session and in my hourlong interview with her. Her BYU presentation and these answers she provided can’t be found anywhere else because they weren’t broadcast or recorded.

Question from a BYU student: You took quite a detour before you found your passion for teaching human psychology. How can I cultivate my passion when I feel most of my studies so far have been a detour?

Angela Duckworth: I was 32 when I started my Ph.D., which made me 10 years older than most of the other Ph.D. students at the time, and I was already married and Jason and I were pregnant with our second child. That 10 years of not knowing — I would have wanted to start my Ph.D. when I was 22 if I had certainty about what I wanted to do, but I had a decade of just not knowing what I wanted to do with my career, a torturous decade, I can assure you.

I want to share with you this research on sampling. Researchers got curious about Olympic athletes and professional basketball players; one of the papers I’m thinking of is actually co-authored by the NBA. What they wanted to do is ask the question that if you grow up to be a world class champion, what is your childhood, your adolescence and your early career like? They had two possibilities. They thought, well, maybe you’re a specialist right from go. Maybe most people who end up world class champions were prodigies, they were just really focused and they always knew. They didn’t have 10 years wandering around figuring out what they wanted to do. That was one possibility.

The other possibility was sampling, that the best way to figure out what you’ll eventually pursue with passion and perseverance is actually to experiment, to take an internship and kind of hate it and then change your mind and then do a different internship the next summer, and maybe the first job isn’t the job that you keep forever. The sampling period in athletes was actually playing literally different sports. I have to say this because I’m from Philly, but we have this guy named Joel Embiid. He’s pretty good. He grew up in Cameroon, and he literally picked up a basketball for the first time at age 16. That’s kind of late if you’re going end up being an NBA player. Before that, he was playing different sports and sampling.

What the scientists have found is that when you aspire to love something with all your heart, and to think about it obsessively all the time, and to pursue it with perseverance, is that very often, in fact more often than not, you spend years sampling, using the process of elimination. I think you’ve learned from all those things that you sampled. I actually learned a lot from McKinsey that I’m grateful for. My piece of practical advice for you, who now are samplers, young people who don’t have complete conviction about what you’re going to do for the rest of your career, is actually advice from Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. When a roomful of 22-year-olds asked for his best advice for their careers, he said, “I know you’re not going to stick with that first job forever. It may be with Microsoft, it may be with somebody else, but while you’re here, just work your heart out. It may be that this is a sample for what you’re going to do, that you don’t stay with it, but learn everything you can and be the best person that you can be, and the rest takes care of itself.”

So engage in sampling but sampling with all your heart. I think that’s the way to do it.

Question from a BYU student: So I think one of the great things about BYU I love is that we have high standards of excellence, like all institutions should. I’ve seen that it’s very easy for people around me to be very hard on themselves, and for that to be very discouraging. What are some things that we could do to inspire a better mentality for everybody around us to feel better?

Duckworth: So I wonder if any of you feel that sometimes you’re a bit of a perfectionist. I think that’s maybe a little bit what you’re getting at, that you have such high standards.

Student: I’ve heard that’s something that takes place at BYU. (Laughter)

Duckworth: Let me give you some advice based on the following. First of all, I like perfectionism. I think it’s great, because you know what comes out of world-class standards? World-class performance. High standards and excellence as identifying principles of BYU? I think that’s terrific. But how do you manage it, right? I have personal experience with the fact that can sometimes make you feel bad. It also can sometimes be paralyzing, right? So if I am too much of a perfectionist, I’ll never get a second book done, for example, right?

So here’s my very practical advice. I believe in short-cycle perfectionism. Here’s what I mean. So if you’re sitting down to write a paragraph or do something else, I do believe that you should have as high standards as you can and work as hard as you can and be critical, etc., but what I mean by short-cycle perfectionism is that when that cycle is over, whatever you’ve got, you’ve got. You just tried really hard to write the best paragraph you can, but at the end of the day, you have to do something, as opposed to long-cycle perfectionism, which is you just expect it to be perfect over years, and so you’re just never going to be satisfied. I believe in having this perfectionistic mindset in the short term.

By the way, as I’m speaking to you, I’m speaking to myself, because this is the advice that I need to hear and to take, but I do believe if you’re doing an assignment, right, or you’re doing a problem set for a professor, or you’re sitting in a lecture, you should say, “Today, I’m going to be as best as I can be, I’m going to have high standards,” but the idea is that the timeframe is manageable, right? I’m going to do as as well as I can do this Thursday night, right, and then you’ll do however you do and Thursday night will be over and then we’ll do Friday, etc. I think for me, if I can keep in mind a short-cycle perfectionism, I can embrace the excellence that I really do care about but also keep going, have the stamina and be happy, which I also want to be. 

Tad Walch: You talked about your decade in the wilderness and about being kind to yourself and allowing yourself to fail over and over again because you’re building. We don’t always see that we are growing when we fail, do we?

Duckworth: I remember what it was like. I think we do this even when we’re not students, but we look at other people’s lives and they just seem to just have everything together. We only see their highlight reel, right? They’re so confident, they’re so fluent and they’re so clear, and they have such conviction. I try to go a little bit out of my way with students to share the real stories. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m riddled with self doubt constantly.”

For me, when I think about what it was like to be a student their age, just to know a little bit sooner than I did that, wow, everyone, even people who do great things or things that are excellent, it’s just a rocky, windy journey. I don’t know anybody who truly says everything is perfect, I wake up every day and I know exactly what I’m doing. Maybe I know one person like that, but I don’t know if I believe them.

So I did try to share in the Q&A that I have a tremendous passion and perseverance in what I’m doing, but oh, my gosh, if I could go back in time and take you with me, you’d be like, who is that totally lost 26-year-old who’s like crying all the time about not knowing what she wants to do. Whether it’s a kindness or whether it’s being honest or both, I always feel like those are the ways I want to interact with people their age.

Tad Walch: You’re a perfectionist yourself, aren’t you?

Duckworth: I am a perfectionist. I think I didn’t realize it quite as much as I have this year. We were driving over from Park City in the car and my husband and I were talking about different people we knew and who was happy and who was not happy and some of these people who kind of ‘have it all.’ And even myself, I would say like, wow, I have no reason to complain, but I’m capable of making myself unhappy. He said, “It’s all about your standard, isn’t it?” So I think perfectionism is having an extremely high standard, and that’s why I thought the student’s question was so insightful and I want them to have that high standard but I do need them to almost contain it in these short time periods so that they don’t get paralyzed and beat themselves up too much.

I do think that sometimes people think, can you do that and still be excellent? Can you be ambitious but also be kind to yourself? They sometimes do feel like two ends of a continuum. I want students to know that I am not saying it’s easy, but I think it is possible to chase excellence and also to be self compassionate.

I mean, honestly, last week was a terrible week for writing for me. I printed out the first three chapters of this book I’m writing, and when I wrote them, they seem so good, and now that I look at them it feels like somebody put a book in a blender and and turned it on. So the self compassion that you need, in a way, is not just that you can do it, but almost that you need to, because if you just beat yourself up too much, well, there will be no other book or you never do anything.

I remember asking this sports psychologist named Michael Gervais, a long-time sports psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks, a general question about overtraining and burnout and self compassion. He said, for some of your most competitive players, the hardest thing for them to do is to take a day off. The hardest thing for them to do is to miss a game. The hardest thing for them to do is to not do all the reps or do more than the reps that they were supposed to in the weight room, and he has to tell them that their prescription, if you will, is to actually rest or to give themselves a break.

I’m not saying I know how to do it myself the way I really want to, but I try. I think in the long game, that’s the way to go anyway.

My recent stories

‘Grit’ and circumstance: Bestselling author Angela Duckworth brings her wisdom to BYU (Feb. 28)

About the church

General conference will be held April 1-2 in five general sessions, including the Saturday evening session, the First Presidency announced. In-person attendance will be limited again because of ongoing renovation and construction work on and around Temple Square.

President M. Russell Ballard spoke at the MTC about the kinship he and other senior church leaders feel with missionaries: “Apostles are missionaries, too — full time, until we die.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Sister Susan Gong visited their families’ ancestral homelands of Hawaii and Ireland for RootsTech Family Discovery Day.

The Montpelier Idaho Temple groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled in June.

The church released the exact site location for the Maceió Brazil Temple.

Meet eight new temple presidents.

The First Presidency welcomed a visit from the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, the spiritual leader for the Muslims in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus region.

A former bishop was sentenced to spend what likely will be the rest of his life in prison for sexual abuse.

ICYMI, here’s what happened at RootsTech 2023.

What I’m reading

This is a pretty good read about a father, a son and a ticket to a basketball game that the son sold at auction 37 years later. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it was worth enough that an armored vehicle came to pick it up to take to the auction house.

My friend Aaron Shill wrote a fun piece about his conversation with the clean comedian Nate Bargatze, in which he shares when it was that he realized Utah loves his comedy. Here’s one quote from the story: “I can tell when something feels too mean. I have to do a lot of it with my wife material. I want to be relatable, but I love my wife. There’s a line where you’ve got to learn how to tell that story, or if I tell a story about her, you can tell that there’s love there.”

The disciples of Jesus Christ were first named Christians in Antioch after the Resurrection. Here’s a story (paywall) about how the earthquake that hit Turkey obliterated many of the priceless Christian and Muslim landmarks that had survived for millennia.

The father of a young professional baseball player trying to reach the major leagues is on his own quest to collect his son’s baseball cards.

Colorado University hired Deion Sanders to run its football program. Then the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the school a letter complaining that he was referencing Christianity and allowing players to pray in team meetings. Here’s some good coverage of how a religious group is instructing the university on the facts that some prayer is constitutionally allowed on campus. Here’s a past story on the same subject that I did after BYU and Boise State players prayed together on the field after a football game, in which a religious liberty law group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation “a bully.”

This baseball player became a star after he started making his bed daily.