In her 20s, Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD, tried out a couple of different career paths, working as a management consultant and a middle-school teacher. But eventually she decided that she needed to settle down, choose a field and commit to it. She chose psychology, and today, she is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. As of September, she is also one of only about a dozen psychologists ever to win a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as a "genius grant."

Her story — picking a field and sticking to it, then excelling — in some ways illustrates her work. Duckworth studies what she calls grit: the hard work, dedication and perseverance that lead people to stick with a goal for years or decades until they succeed. She's found that grit, as much as or in some cases more than talent, can predict success in a variety of difficult situations, including cadet training at West Point and the National Spelling Bee.

Duckworth spoke to the Monitor about her work and what she plans to do with her no-strings-attached $625,000 grant.

You study grit and self-control. How are these two traits related?

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance, sustained over time. So the emphasis is on stamina.

Self-control is related — we often measure self-control and grit in the same sample and find a strong correlation — but the difference is time scale. Self-control is the ability to resist momentary distractions and temptations in order to reach a goal, but the goal doesn't have to be something that you're pursuing for years or decades. You might have a goal of staying on an exercise routine or doing your homework that night. And if you fail to do that and instead sit on the couch or watch TV, that's a failure of self-control. But the goal doesn't have to be something you're working on for years and years.

Francis Galton was the first to tease [grit and self-control] apart, in 1859, when he [wrote about] the characteristics of the most eminent individuals in society. He said that those people are typically blessed with talent, with zeal and with a capacity for hard labor. I would say that the last two elements more or less correspond to grit: zeal, or passion, and then the capacity for sustained hard labor, or perseverance.

Then Galton said: This is not to be confused with that capacity we have to resist the hourly temptations, which is important in everyday life. So that's self-control.

We find similar patterns in our modern empirical data. If you're looking at who succeeds in a very, very challenging environment like West Point Military Academy or the National Spelling Bee, grit ends up being more predictive than self-control. But if you're looking at something like how much homework a student does — these more routine things — then self-control ends up being a marginally better predictor.

People who are gritty do tend to be self-controlled and vice versa. But not always.

It seems like it might be easier to have self-control without grit than grit without self-control?

I think [both situations are] possible. I know very gritty people who are very determined, they have passion for their work and they've been working on the same thing for years and years, but they can be, frankly, very distracted in the moment. When you're talking to them, their minds are going in different places.

But grit is really about what they do when they wake up the next day, and the next year. Do they persevere?

So I do know some very gritty individuals who are not paragons of self-control. And as you point out, it's also easy to think of paragons of self-control who lack a passion — who lack any guiding north that is really meaningful to them.

But the exceptions are exactly that, exceptions. Most people who have one have the other.

You mention succeeding at West Point and at the National Spelling Bee. What other situations have you found where grit predicts success?

We have other studies under review where grit predicts completing special forces training in the Army, graduating from the Chicago public schools, and actually, for men, staying married. That's not true for women, interestingly.

We're starting to see this kind of "showing up" pattern in the data. You know, Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. And I think grit inclines individuals to show up for their commitments, and to keep showing up.

Can grit be taught, or is it mostly innate? Can educators encourage grit in their students?

All traits that psychologists are interested in are both heritable and subject to environmental influence. Since I can't change people's genetic heritages, I have less interest as a researcher in the genetic part, but I'm always quick to remind non-scientists that the genetic piece is there, and it's real.

Still, if you take as an assumption that self-control and grit on balance are good, then as a parent we would like to have more of it in our kids and as a teacher we'd like to see more of it in our students. So what do you do? I think the key [to figuring this out] is asking, who are these gritty people and why are they gritty?

What gritty people do is they stick with it over a long period of time and they continue to spend effort toward their goals. And there are three reasons why I think they do that. One is self-efficacy, or your judgment that the outcome will be positive if you put in effort. That's why I think things like optimism and a growth mindset are correlated with grit. People who think things are fixed or unchangeable have trouble when bad things happen — and a lot of grit is about overcoming setbacks.

The second driver is valuing your goal. I recently heard from a guy who became a quadriplegic, and now he's a social worker, and works with people who have had severe personal tragedies happen to them. This is something my graduate student Lauren Eskreis-Winkler has been studying. It's called survivor mission. The idea that if your daughter is killed in a drunk driving accident, the value of that goal — to reduce drunk driving — is very strong.

The passion part is about valuing something a lot. Not a little bit, not, "Oh yeah, on balance I'd rather have that," but really valuing it. The intervention implication of that would be, how do we help people find their passion? For most people, I hope, it doesn't come through adversity.

But finding something that you truly value, that's meaningful to you and then cultivating that is important. The important distinction between cultivation and discovery is that cultivation assumes that there's work to do, that loving piano, for example, isn't just going to happen to you, you have to find ways of deepening your appreciation.

And then the third thing is cost. I think really gritty people, who work unbelievably hard — and I'm privileged to work with some of those folks in psychology, and also in education and economics — I think they don't feel the costs, or put a high value on the cost, of working really hard. There's also the issue of opportunity costs. That really fascinates me. Really gritty people are not constantly worried about what they could be doing instead. They're not thinking, "Oh, if I wasn't a journalist, I could be a management consultant. If I wasn't a management consultant, I could be in medical school." It's a willingness to focus on where you are, and not constantly second guess the choices you've made.

So those are the three things that I think we need to cultivate.

Are there any negatives to being gritty? Could too much grittiness become stubbornness, for example?

It's a good question. Can you have too much of a virtue? Can you be too kind or too honest? [Psychologist] Ed Diener recently wrote — and this really resonates with me — that it may not be that having too much of a good thing is a problem, but instead the problem is having too much of that good thing in the absence of another good thing.

For example, that could be grit without judgment. So when you talk about stubbornness, it could mean pursuing something when there's obviously no chance of it working, that is grit without judgment.

Also, it may be that the kinds of things that gritty people do, like not valuing opportunity costs, may mean they miss opportunities. Maybe that's one of the tradeoffs. In situations where there really are high opportunity costs, then gritty people could lose out. So, for example, those people who don't drop out of West Point, maybe they could have found something better for them [if they had].

That's my thought, but really this is not only a philosophical question, it's an empirical question. I haven't seen any curvilinear trends where the more gritty fives are worse off than the less gritty fours. But I'd love for somebody else to test it.

Where is your research going next?

I'm going to continue the work on grit and self-control, and I'm going to continue it in two directions — measurement and intervention. Our measures of personality generally, and our measures of grit and self-control, could be a lot better. I'm particularly interested in measures that are behavioral, as opposed to questionnaires. I think the limitations of questionnaires are quite obvious to all of us, but we use them because of our familiarity with them and a lack of really good alternatives.

And then there's intervention. In self-control, I'm interested in the strategies that Walter Mischel identified as helpful to the preschoolers in his seminal work. Too little has been done to follow up on those findings. So I would really like to identify, in a systematic way, the strategies that people can use [to improve self-control], why they work and which strategies work best in which situations.

For grit, I'm particularly interested in the beliefs that seem to characterize gritty people. So for example, believing that practice can be extremely effective, and believing that practice ought to feel hard and confusing.

We're trying to do interventions, particularly with kids, in both those things. We have a particular interest in low-income and lower-achieving children, but we work with kids across the spectrum. We work with the most elite private schools in the country and with the lowest-income ZIP codes in the country. What we find is that the processes that underlie these things, the things that kids talk about grappling with, are actually remarkably similar. There's a kind of universality here.

How will the MacArthur grant affect your work?

I guess the question for me is: What could I do with the money — it's $125,000 a year, no strings attached — how can I use that money in a way that would be better than just using it in the way I would use any other grant? What are the things that I think are worthwhile, that would be hard to get funded?

I have two ideas. One is the idea of bringing together teachers with scientists, in workshops and retreats. Selfishly, as a scientist, I want to hear what the teachers have to say about improving these qualities and measuring these qualities. They have a perspective that's informed by direct interaction with children on a daily basis. I proposed this idea to a large foundation, but they said, "Oh, that's very interesting, but it's not in our portfolio." There's no RFP for it.

The second thing is … I was on the Today show yesterday, and I was on a segment with these two great high school kids. In the hour we had before we went on, I was asking them about who dropped out of their school and why, and who's successful, and, in their opinion, what does intelligence mean to them? It was clear that they had highly developed metacognitive awareness. They were aware of what they did that was adaptive and what they did that was not, and they had this kind of proactive attitude toward changing behavior and developing habits that worked better.

Their observations were so keen that I emailed them as soon as I got back to the office, and I said, you were the best part of my day. So I think that one of the things I really need to do is engage students because they have, again, a perspective that we've been missing. We've since interviewed both of those kids; they are the first members of a student advisory board we created to guide our future research.

To watch Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth's Ted Talk about grit, go to YouTube.