Angela Duckworth on grit and goal hierarchies

This is really fun interview with Steve Levitt – recommended.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: The two-minute version of Grit is that when you look at high achievers, so Olympic athletes and frankly, Steve [Levitt], people like… you, entrepreneurs who are really successful across all these different fields, they have one thing in common. Likely not the only thing, but one common denominator that I’ve studied as a psychologist is this combination of perseverance and passion over really long periods. That’s what I call grit. And I think if you wanted a one-word synonym, it would be stamina.

It turns out that these Nobel laureates and Olympic athletes and high achievers across other domains try to do things that are really hard. They’re typically trying to achieve a certain thing. So, they’re not waking up every day working really hard on a variety of different pursuits. They are trying to achieve what I sometimes call a top-level goal, something that might take years or decades or a lifetime, but which is for them worth pursuing at the cost of other, maybe easier, maybe more novel directions. 

LEVITT: You mean, “Okay, grit is a great trait to have when applied to a big, life-long problem.” But [I worry that] the parents who read it are going to say, “Oh, my kids aren’t gritty enough. I need to train them to persevere, no matter how difficult a problem is and how useless it is,” and that people will use your concept in the wrong way. Does that make any sense to you?

DUCKWORTH: Human beings have goals at different levels of abstraction. The concrete, specific, tactical, really tactical — like, “must open my MacBook Pro and plug in my Rode microphone” — these are goals. And then, as a human being, I execute them. Then, I have really abstract goals. So, for the last five years, I’ve been walking around the planet Earth with the top-level goal in my head of: Use psychological science to help kids thrive. But I think there’s even a more abstract goal that I’ve realized that really subsumes everything I really want to do and that is: To increase psychological literacy, period.

Okay. Human beings not only have a spectrum of goals from the specific to the abstract, but they’re arranged hierarchically where the more abstract goals, the long-term goals, are more identity-relevant. They’re more important to us as people. If somebody said, “You know what? You cannot open your MacBook Pro at 9 a.m. Eastern Time,” I’d be disappointed. Maybe a mistake that people make is to think that grit is about being tenacious about these tactical goals. But if you said to me, “You cannot pursue your top-level goal of increasing psychological literacy,” that’s where I’m going to push back. That’s where I’m going to say, “No. There has to be a way that I can do that. Let me keep trying.” So, I think the idea is flexibility and giving up at the bottom of your goal hierarchy.

And then, at the top, these are the goals that rule the other goals. The reason why you have these tactical goals is so that you can further the master goals…. So, I think the secret of applying grit correctly … is to be tenacious at the right level of your goal hierarchy.  

Angela Duckworth on People I (Mostly) Admire

3 thoughts on “Angela Duckworth on grit and goal hierarchies”

  1. “… so, I think the secret of applying grit correctly … is to be tenacious at the right level of your goal hierarchy. ”

    Thank you, Angela, for punting on what is basically an unquantifiable, and largely meaningless concept. I think that most people 1. don’t have rigidly defined goals and 2. find hierarchies baffling. Rather, we daydream – nearly 50% of the time. Far better than trying to define “stamina,” Duckworth’s time might be better devoted to understanding why we are generally directionless, which must have some environmental fitness, no? Else why would it continue to occupy so much of our waking life?

    1. I agree that we daydream and drift, and that maybe this psychology is a punt, but not about goals…
      I think we’re generally directionless when we’ve met our fundamental needs (ala Maslow)… until we come to a set of values (helping others, contributing in some way etc) that give us purpose.
      (What we’ll do if and when no-one needs anyone’s help anymore I’m less sure of!)

      I think the idea of a goal hierarchy is a helpful way to think about vision / mission / near term objectives (one fairly constant, the others less so) in organisations too. I guess it’s really a way of talking about ends vs means.

  2. Thanks for posting. I also listened to tthis podcast … really good.
    I also listen to the podcast “No Stupid Questions” which has Angela Duckworth and Streve Dubner talking about all sorts of things … very entertaining!

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