On this episode of Dare to Lead
This week I’m talking to Dr. Angela Duckworth, professor, founder and CEO of Character Lab, and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. We dig into what grit is, but also what grit is not. We talk about taking the windy path, the danger of oversimplifying complex ideas, and why ruling out what does NOT bring you joy is part of finding what does.
Listen to the episode
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed—be it parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.” She mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. She also shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers—from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll. Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown and this is Dare to Lead. I feel like I have been waiting to have this conversation for a very long time. In this episode, I am talking with Dr. Angela Duckworth about her research on grit. And it’s so funny because Angela and I have been in the same places at the same time but kind of missed each other by minutes, whether we’re at a conference and we’re both speaking, or we’re at a university doing something. And I’m always like, “Ah, I just wanted to talk to her for five minutes.” But this time, we get to jump in and do a deep dive on her work.
BB: Here’s what I love about our conversation: We dig into what grit is, but we also dig into what grit isn’t. You know, grit is passion and perseverance over time, and that’s a hard thing in this kind of short bumper sticker world to say, “I’m going to build mastery. I’m going to stick with something.” And I think people understand that part about grit, but what I don’t think we all understand is there’s another side to grit that people don’t talk about as much, which has been kind of revelatory for me and a big part of my personal experience in my career, which is the openness to trying things and learning that they’re not for you. And some people say, “Well, grit is sticking with it whether it’s for you or not.” And that’s not what grit is, and that’s really important, I think, for parents and for educators and for us, personally, where we’re like, “Wow, I tried this.” I think we shared examples about our kids trying to finish seasons of sports they start. You know, “I tried this, I hated it. I don’t want to do it again. Does that mean I don’t have grit?” No, did you learn? Did you get closer to what you might love by trying things that you don’t? It’s just a great conversation. We dig into everything from the research construct of grit to criticism and careers. It’s a conversation I’ve been waiting a long time to have with Angela Duckworth.
BB: Alright, so I have to start by saying that I have wanted to talk to you for a very long time. [chuckle]
Angela Duckworth: No! You know, I think your agent sent me, I think it was Dare to Lead, and so I read your work, but I remember reading at least one of your books very carefully, and I was saying all these things to myself. I was just like, “What a great psychologist, amazing writing/amazing intuitions about human nature.” So I’m a fan.
BB: Thank you. And we’re in places together all the time, so I’ll get somewhere, it’ll either be like a conference where we’re both speaking and, “Oh, yeah, Angela Duckworth opened it, and you’re closing it.” Or it’s a company where I’m going in to do leadership work and you’ve been working with them. And people always say, “Oh, we love the combination of grit and vulnerability.” And I’m like, “I need to meet her.”
AD: So it’s bizarre we haven’t met yet, right?
AD: Like run into each other literally in a hallway or something.
BB: Yeah, exactly, but here we are.
AD: Here we are.
BB: Okay, my first question: Tell us your story.
AD: How long should I take, like a minute?
BB: No, like 10, 15 minutes. We want to know your real story.
AD: I think that’s the one thing we always want to know about another person, and we all have one, so okay, here’s mine. My parents came to the United States in their late 20s, they settled in this suburb of Philadelphia, which is where I’m from and where I am right now. My dad was very much obsessed with achievement, and I think his father, his own dad, was obsessed with achievement and very powerful. He was like a textile magnate. I think in that historical time, there was this communist versus the national. And anyway, I feel like my grandfather was one of the reasons why they had a revolution, just a very wealthy, powerful, silk empire ruler. And then my dad grew up with this larger than life dad, and then my dad grew up wanting to be very successful, and then he bequeathed to his three children this desire to be successful.
AD: My dad’s now passed, but when my dad talked about achievement, and his own achievement, and whether somebody he knew might win the Nobel Prize, and whether he might win the Nobel prize, it was all about who has the gift or the talent or who’s really smart. And I think it was not necessarily what he modeled because he also modeled loving what he did and being passionate about getting better. But I grew up as a little girl thinking, “There’s got to be something else to the equation of achievement in life than whether things come really easily to you.” And in fact, that’s what I ended up studying. So I study grit as a psychologist, which is not correlated with your measured talent or IQ, and it’s defined as the combination of passion and perseverance over really long periods. And I think that’s what sets grit apart from other characteristics. It’s really about stamina for years, honestly, or in some cases, decades, to try to do something that is meaningful to you, that you can’t accomplish in days or weeks or months.
BB: What were you like in high school? Tell me about college. Take us to awkward, cringy middle school Angela.
AD: Well, I did have more than one really bad perm.
BB: Oh, I love that.
AD: And I had braces and I grew up in… You’ve seen 16 Candles, right?
BB: Oh, yeah.
AD: We are, of course, roughly the same generation, and that was my high school. Huge high school, there were the jocks, there were the nerds. I was a cheerleader. I’m, as I said, the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, and I really wanted to fit in and I wanted to be “American,” as my 16-year-old self would have put it. And so I read in Seventeen Magazine once, there was one of these features. It was like, “Which perfume are you?”
BB: Oh, yeah.
AD: And then there was a full page for each of these complete stereotypes, by the way, of, “Are you the bookworm? Are you the… ” And there was one that was the cheerleader. And I saw that ad when I was in middle school because, of course, girls who are under the age of 17 loved to read Seventeen.
BB: That’s right.
AD: And then as this little girl, I was like, “I don’t want to be the bookworm because that’s a Chinese stereotype, so I’m going to be the cheerleader.” So I tried out for cheerleading and I was a cheerleader from eighth grade all the way through senior year of high school. So if you ask me what I was like as a teenager, I was trying to fit in, and my strategy was to go counter to stereotype and to have raucous keg parties at my home when my parents were away and to not be what I thought a lot of people thought I might be that I didn’t want to. I was also still taking AP classes, so I was in honors classes. [chuckle] I think during that time, I had this slightly overbearing father who was obsessed with achievement and he was also kind of grumpy. I don’t think that my dad was actually very happy growing up. And then I had a mother who, by contrast, was the most selfless person I’ve ever met. My mom is still alive.
AD: And so I had my dad and my mom in my life and I was making my way through this big American high school. I was born in the United States, but again, to these Chinese parents. And I would say that in those years, trying to figure out your identity, I felt like I both inherited or I developed, I don’t know what word to use, my dad’s obsession with achievement. And then also, whenever I do anything kind or nice, I literally say sometimes out loud, “I am my mother’s daughter.” So I have been trying to both live a life where I’m my father’s daughter and also my father’s daughter being somebody who wants to prove her father wrong, in some ways. But also, I’m trying to be my mother’s daughter, too. So that was me in my teenage years.
BB: So then, you go off to college.
BB: So was it college, teaching, graduate school?
AD: I did not take a linear path. I went to Harvard, and then my dad thought a really good way to make your way in life is to go to Harvard and then become a professor at a place like Harvard, which is what much of my family has done, right? Like you go and you get an MD or a PhD or both, and you become a professor, and it’s very prestigious, which my dad would like a lot, but also, it’s very secure and very low-risk.
AD: So that was my dad’s mental model. When I got to Harvard, my mom, by the way, was like, “Do whatever you want.” My mom was supportive, but not necessarily super demanding or certainly not overbearing. I will say this, when I got to college, I was really unhappy and I don’t know whether… Well, I do, a little bit from your writing. I think this might resonate. I had “it all” right? I had achieved my father’s ambitions, so I had achieved satisfaction in my dad’s eyes at that point, at 18 years old, anyway, whatever I was supposed to achieve at 18. I was really unhappy. I wrote to Dear Abby, and I remember sending this letter in days before word processors, I typed it out, and I don’t remember exactly what I said, except for I said that I was really unhappy. And also, I think I said, “I know I’m not supposed to be unhappy because I’ve checked the boxes, and I have friends, and I’ve got this boyfriend, and I’m going to the place that everyone says I should go to. And I’m pretty excited about it, too, and I’m still so unhappy. What should I do?” And I remember I didn’t get published in the newspaper, but I did get a reply, and the reply said…
AD: Yeah! I kind of wonder, I don’t know, I mean I’m one person, so I can’t say. But I wonder whether everybody gets a reply. Anyway, I got a reply.
BB: And what did it say?
AD: And it said… I was very disappointed and now I realize the wisdom in the advice, but at the time, I was like, “What?” The reply was very brief and it said something empathic, and then it said, “I think you should see someone. I think this is why people go to therapists, and you might benefit from that.” And I now realize that that was excellent advice, which I, of course, did not take it. [chuckle] Totally ignored…
BB: Yes! Yeah, of course. Oh, yeah, I mean, come on, we’re 18.
AD: Yeah. Anyway, yes, I didn’t have the wisdom of a 50-year-old woman and also, it was a time in life, probably a time in history, that going to therapy wasn’t as common and as accepted as is now. Anyways, so I was a relatively unhappy college student, at least during parts of college, I think. And then I did not go straight to graduate school. We can talk more about why I was unhappy. I’m not sure I fully understand why I was unhappy. Maybe if I had gone to therapy then, I would know better. But I became a teacher, I started a summer school for kids. I basically took a different path than my dad had in mind for me, and that led to a lot of friction. My dad, at one point, stopped speaking to me actually for about six months. [chuckle] I guess he was speechlessly angry. And I veered off the MD-PhD path.
AD: And I think this in a way, the people want to grow up to be lawyers and then they become lawyers, or they want to grow up to be college professors and they become… They’re so lucky, in a way, because those are the well-lit, well-paved paths. And you just follow them and you take one step, and then another, and then you end up a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. I think the majority of people are like me, which is like that’s not the narrow, straight, well-lit, paved path for you. So I just ended up taking a much more circuitous… I couldn’t see down the path. I was like, “What am I doing now? [chuckle] Like, where does this lead?” But it took 10 years between college graduation and starting my PhD. I don’t know when you started yours, but I was 32 when I started mine.
BB: My path curved earlier than yours. I started college at 17 and graduated at 29.
AD: Oh! [chuckle] So you’re…
BB: Yeah, I was on a 12-year plan. I quit, I hitchhiked around Europe, I bartended a lot, I traveled, yeah.
AD: What? Yeah.
BB: Yeah, no, I didn’t finish my Bachelor’s until I was 29, and then I went straight through Master’s and PhD.
AD: If you had been my father’s daughter, wow! I don’t know. I don’t know whether he would been speechlessly angry or just with like…
BB: Yeah, no, it… Yeah.
AD: Picked you up and deposited you back on campus. But was your family upset?
BB: It’s really weird, and I have this question for you, but it was really weird because my family was breaking down at the time. So my parents were going through a very tumultuous divorce that lasted a couple of years. I was the oldest of four. I’m not sure they knew where I was, exactly, or what I was doing. And they were scrambling for their lives, I think. And so I don’t think they thought anything about it, one way or the other. They were distracted by their own trauma.
AD: They were distracted by other more urgent things.
BB: Yeah, for sure.
BB: Yeah. And I think, too, when I look back, I did, I hitchhiked through Europe for a long time. I waited tables, I worked at AT&T in Spanish-speaking call center.
AD: Do you speak Spanish? Okay.
BB: Yeah, I did, I was really fluent, but I actually spoke French, and then I learned Spanish to get this job because I needed a job. I used to be pretty quick at picking up languages. So then, I end up graduating when I was 29 with a Bachelor’s in Social Work, but I think I learned… And this is my question for you. I would not have the career I have now had I gone straight through because I learned more in those years about what I’m trying to understand now, than I would have in a straight path.
AD: With a straight shot, right? I don’t really understand the straight shot as much, that’s why I have a little envy or a lot of… But for me, I think I, in college, was at one point, maybe by my senior year, I think I counted up the hours, I was spending more time outside of the lecture halls and the labs doing work with kids, mostly, but community service, etcetera, than I was in them. And it was an interesting observation because I was like, “Oh, this says something.” And I think in my freshman year, again, this I credit to my mother, but I did have a genuine desire to be helpful.
AD: So in my freshman year, I signed up for two things: One was tutoring, and the other one was visiting a nursing home. It was like a publicly-funded nursing home, and you just got randomly assigned to visit a couple of patients, and then that was your job, right? You did that. And I did it for the whole year. It was hard, it was very… I think it was meaningful, in a sense, although at the end of that year where I was like, “Okay, I’ve tutored little kids, and then I’ve visited a nursing home and two women, in particular, and I will say this,” I was like, “If I want to make a positive dent in the universe… ” for me, I feel like it made me think about kids. I was like, “Oh, there are lots of people to help. I feel like I want to help kids because if I help them when they’re young, then potentially, their whole lives will go better.” I don’t know, it was getting in an efficiency argument. I was like, “This makes more sense to me at the front end of the lifespan in terms of helping.”
AD: So I really shifted the center of gravity of my attention and certainly, my hours outside of class. And I more and more where I was a big sister to later I started an afterschool enrichment program. Anyway, at some point, it really was, I was kind of practically a half-time educator while I was also finishing my degree in neurobiology. And then the first thing I did when I graduated was I opened the doors to a summer school for kids that I spent my senior year setting up. So yeah, I don’t think I would have anticipated or could have gotten so interested in kids if I had kind of straight shot gone through and graduated and marched on to get a PhD. So that very windy path, for me, my winding was… A lot of it was after college, but sounds like we kind of ended up maybe roughly the same age when we started our graduate work. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah. Yeah.
AD: And it really is a little, I don’t know if random is the right word, but idiosyncratic. I interact with a lot of people. For me, I, like you, and also, a professor, so it’s a lot of these young people. And it’s hard to explain to them that there is this kind of random path dependent… You may end up working on fish in a certain bay, and I know it seems so arbitrary, and I could have ended up working on something else. But somehow, those earlier experiences led me down the path of kids and education, and that’s the path I am on now. And I’m not going to change paths, either. So it’s a strange thing, I think, for young adults to grapple with. You’re like, “What? That’s kinda random.” You’re like, “Yeah, kinda. It’s like life.”
BB: I mean, yeah. It is completely like life. And I’ve got a daughter who’s getting ready to start graduate school, and we talk about it all the time. I just keep telling her she’ll do an internship and at the end of it she’ll say, “I know I do not ever want to do that.” I’m like, “What a success, then.” Nothing wasted. Nothing is wasted. There’s not an experience that I would undo or redo only because, I don’t know, I’m just the sum total of a lot of…
AD: But does your daughter feel the same way? Because I feel like when you say to young people that process of elimination is pretty much the only way to life, it’s like, “Oh, great, I’m really glad you hated that internship because you learned that you don’t want to be an accountant.” But I don’t know that young people are doing jigs of joy when their summer internship was horrible. I don’t think they always process it as, “Great, I’ve eliminated that.” You know what I mean?
BB: Yeah. [chuckle] Fair. But there’s so much pressure, and so what ends up happening is I…
AD: Yeah, it’s so much anxiety.
BB: I end up interviewing all these people, especially young women, many of them people of color, Black, indigenous, Asian-Americans, I end up interviewing them in their late 20s, and they’re lawyers or engineers or physicians, and they’re unhappy.
AD: And they’re miserable.
BB: God, they’re unhappy. The pressure is great.
AD: It is. I think uncertainty is a generally uncomfortable state for a human. And just this morning, I was on the phone with a beloved student. You’re not supposed to have favorites as a professor or teacher, but I can’t help it. And I do love all my students, but some… I just adore this student. And she’s in her first job, and she’s really unhappy. And the thing I wanted to say to her, I was like, “First of all, I was miserable when I was your age, and more miserable than I was at any other age because of I think the uncertainty.” It wasn’t because I was working hard, it wasn’t because I didn’t have a lot of money. It was because I didn’t like not knowing the end of the story. I didn’t like not knowing, you know, “What am I going to do? And who am I going to end up with? And will there be children in my life? And where will I be geograph… ” I mean, I hated it. So when I remember myself at that age, I have so much empathy and I think uncertainty is super hard to take. And I would never relive my 20s if… As much as I learned, and I’m so much happier as a menopausal 50-year-old with abdominal fat.
AD: I told her, I was like, “And you’re going to get fatter and it’s totally going to be fine.” [chuckle] I’m not kidding, but yeah, the 20s are rough.
BB: Yeah, no, I think it is. And especially right now, I feel like I don’t know that we’ve really done a great job of modeling, at least as a country here, what productive adulthood looks like. [chuckle] I know that… [chuckle]
AD: Are we even modeling adulthood? I feel like we’re… [chuckle]
BB: I don’t think so. [chuckle]
AD: Yeah, badly-behaved kindergarteners.
BB: Yeah, so let me ask you this question: Your work has become just household. My kids have not been in a school when we have not had a presentation on grit, we haven’t talked about it. Is the best definition of grit, as we talk about these kids in their 20s or these young adults in their 20s, when we talk about our students, I’m getting ready to teach a class in the fall, an MBA class, and I’m really excited because it’s been a while since I’ve been in the classroom, but is it a combination of passion and perseverance over time? Is that the clearest definition of it?
AD: I think that’s the clearest definition of it, and I want to put an asterisk next to it, especially given what we were just saying about young people, young adults. And my daughters are, well, actually, today, 18 and 19. And I don’t think that passion and perseverance over really long periods is developmentally what you would expect or want in an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old, a 22-year-old. The idea is that when you want to accomplish something great in life, it’s going to take a long time, so you have to have passion and perseverance over really long periods. But the thing that is, I don’t know if it’s paradoxical, I feel like every time I use that word I use it wrongly, but anyway, it is non-intuitive that I think earlier in life the people who end up with passion and perseverance for long-term goals actually are doing more sampling, more quitting things, and saying like, “Oh, that’s not for me,” than others. So yes, when I study Nobel laureates, they have a kind of obsessive focus on a given question that they are… Sometimes, they will literally use this expression: Like a dog with a rag in its teeth. And one MacArthur Fellow that I had a conversation with, who was, I think, in his 90s. He’s a poet, actually. And he said, “Oh, yeah, it’s like a dog with a rag.” And I said, “Right.” And he was like, “No, no, no, but I’m the rag. [laughter] And the poem is the dog,” right?
AD: But anyway, yeah, there is this wake up seven days a week, I want to do… Like working really hard. But when you ask the question: What were they like when they were teenagers? Like you asked me. Or what were they like in their 20s? There’s a lot of wandering around because in all that learning, in the kind of, “Oh, wow, that internship wasn’t what I expected. Oh, I hate sitting down all day, that’s terrible. I want to be with people.” Those lessons, those corrections in your trajectory where you’re like, “Oh, wait, I want to do something different,” I think that’s how you get to specialization. So sometimes, I worry that people… Yeah, I know my grit talk is probably shown too many times to unsuspecting students whose teachers force them to watch it. But I don’t want the lesson to be that you should already know what you want to do in your life at some prematurely young age. And I hope I’m not adding to that pressure that clearly young people are already under too much of, to kind of know where they’re going.
BB: This is a phenomenon that I’ve experienced with my own work. I don’t actually get that from your work. What I get that from are people who are looking to oversimplify your work and present it as a secret sauce, and that is some bullshit, I have to tell you, because…
AD: I really want to talk about this because you are one of the very few people I think I can just ask. I’m like, “From your personal experience, Brené,” and I don’t know, I don’t even know if you have critics. Everybody I know seems to love you. I don’t know if you feel like there are major themes of misunderstanding. How is it for you? And I do promise to share how it is for me, but there aren’t that many people I can ask.
BB: I’ll just give you a great example or a couple of examples. So when Braving the Wilderness came out, it was a book re-examining and kind of pushing forward these ideas about belonging, that it emerged from data when I was writing The Gifts of Imperfection. And it was about belonging and it was about loneliness. And I remember looking at an article that they had run in, I don’t know, one of the UK papers that said, the title of it was, “Brené Brown says, ‘Never experience loneliness again. Here are the five steps.'” And I was like, “Oh, hell no.” And I lost my shit.
AD: You can’t do anything about it. It was already published, right? They’re a newspaper, right? Yeah.
BB: It was already published, yeah. And I was crying to my team. I’m like, “I would never say anything like that.” No researcher worth their salt would ever say, “Never feel this again,” or it’s so crazy.
AD: Right, it was the opposite of what you… Right? Yeah.
BB: Right. The article doesn’t even match the headline. And the people on my team were really empathetic, but they were also like, “You know, headlines are clickbait. You know that we don’t have creative control over headlines.” And I was just like, “How do you put your work into the world as someone who studies human behavior, and you can say a million times that there’s no causation here, maybe there’s correlation, but here’s what I’m finding, and it’s important and helpful, I think?” And then you have this world starving to death for answers that are panaceas and deliver them from discomfort.
AD: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Even, I have to say, you can see my grit book, it’s so funny because my grit book has coffee stains. My grit book is grit. “Psychologists,” I’m reading this from Dan Gilbert on the front, “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it.” Never in here do I see you saying, “I have found the secret to success.” What I read you saying is, “People are complicated. There’s no way to study them without making them into lab rats, but here’s what my observations say, here are what the data say, and here’s what we need to understand more about.” That’s my read of what you’re saying.
AD: Just this week, I think yesterday, there’s a book that came out and oh my gosh, it’s probably a repression, technically, like… I can’t even think of the name, but it’s by Jesse Singal, and I don’t know this journalist very well, but I think he’s a science writer, and he writes for New York Magazine, and there’s a whole chapter devoted to grit. And I think the premise, although I have to confess I haven’t yet read this in detail, is basically totally overblown. Angela Duckworth over claims, exaggeration. And when you read that little blurb from Dan Gilbert, my colleague and friend at Harvard, I think that very line is used in this chapter to say that there was exaggeration, “All you need to do is be gritty. It doesn’t matter if you’re poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re being oppressed. It doesn’t matter if society’s racist. It doesn’t matter how much ability you have. Angela Duckworth is kind of saying, ‘Grit is everything.'” And I have a few reactions to this: One is I will say that I’ve come to think that, like you were saying, there is a kind of… We both study human nature, so I’m sure for both of us, we’re also at some level trying to understand this, right? And I think there’s a yearning for simplicity and for quick answers, and not a lot of people want to read whole books, honestly. And even 18 minutes for a TED Talk now seems long. It’s like “18 minutes? Well, I guess if I listen to it at 2x time, it’ll be nine minutes.” [chuckle]
BB: Jesus! It’s true.
AD: While I also multi-task…
AD: So I think nuance and complexity are always going to be hard to communicate because it’s probably part of the nature of human nature to want simpler and faster solutions. So that’s one reaction. Another reaction is some defensiveness, some kind of like, “Hey, I really tried hard to explain things honestly and with as much complexity as you can for a non-scientific audience.” But here is my third reaction: I slept really well on Tuesday night. So this book comes out, and it’s very critical of me, and I think the idea is this could do more harm than good, grit as an idea, the popularization. And I slept really well, which is actually uncharacteristic of me because I usually sleep like total shit. I guess, I will also say this, I always try to say this to my 20-something students, I’m like, “Wow, there’s some benefits to being 50.” I think I have a little perspective, a little maturity.
BB: Yes, amen.
AD: You know what I mean? I’m like, “Oh, not super loving that this chapter…” But also, it’s like, “Look, it’s a journalist. First of all, he has a point of view. Second of all, he might have some things to say that are valid. I’m sure he has lots of things to say that are valid.” Maybe not the style that I would have taken, but there are much bigger problems in the world than to worry about the almost inevitable misinterpretation or alternative interpretation, if you want to say that than that. I’m like I went to bed, I read the last few pages of Bridgerton, and I went to sleep, and woke up in the morning, and sun was shining.
BB: And still standing.
AD: Yeah, right. And I think that that’s changed. I think I would have freaked out more five years ago, honestly. I would have freaked out much more at points in my life where your problem at the moment blots out the sun, and you can’t think of anything else. And now I have just a little more perspective, I think.
BB: Do you think perspective… One of the reasons I’m really interested in this, this is great, we’re getting very meta here. I like that.
AD: Because we’re both human nature scientists, I think, but anyway. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah, I think that’s why. I think because we study that. First of all, I love what you said about the stick-to-itiveness and the sampling. And so the way I kind of characterized grit for my kids is not, “You’re going to try this sport,” because my kids are both athletes. We do have a rule that you stick out a season.
BB: But it’s not that “You’re going to try this sport and you’re going to become great at it,” it’s that the grit is, “If that sucked and you really hated it, we’re going to try another one.”
BB: So the grit is in the sampling to me.
BB: Does that make sense?
AD: Yeah. And here’s the nuance that hopefully, in conversation, because our conversation is longer than a bumper sticker. In my family, too, right? I said, “There’s a hard thing rule, everybody in the Duckworth family has to do a hard thing.” A hard thing is defined as something that requires deliberate practice, which because they were my daughters and because I was doing research on this kind of practice that Olympic athletes and other experts do, they knew what that was. Meaning there’s feedback on their goals, there’s the goal of improvement. So you can’t just sign up for pottery class at the wonderful studio where, honestly, you’re just going to hang out and eat goldfish crackers and make some things, but it’s not real hard practice.
AD: Okay, you’ve got to do that. You can’t quit before the end of the season, or the end of the session, or when the tuition payments are still… You make a commitment, and I do think even five-year-olds can learn what it means to have a commitment and to honor your word, right? When you look at a coach and you say, “I’m here for track season,” if my daughter, you realize at your very first track meet that this is not for you, guess what? You have seven more weeks of track season.
AD: But the third thing was really important. I think it gets to kind of like the grit is in the sampling. The third thing was that nobody can pick your hard thing but you. And once you do honor that commitment, once you do finish the track season or the ballet session or whatever, then you can pick another thing. And my 18-year-old, whose birthday is today, she cycled through a half dozen or more things, and actually, for a lot of her high school years, because she’s now a senior, I kept trying to get her to quit viola. And that was her hard thing. So she had kind of cycled through a bunch of things; ballet, and I think briefly, piano, definitely track, gymnastics, and I’m forgetting a couple of them. But she landed on viola, and I think one of the reasons why she stuck with viola was that the more she had done it, I think she didn’t want to squander because she was like, “Oh, you know, I’m already 16.” I’m like, “Yup, trust me, it’s not that old.” She’s like, “I’ve already invested so much. It’s too late to try other things.”
AD: Anyway, kept trying to get her to quit. And the reason I kept trying to get her to quit was that it was so clear to me that there was very little interest and enjoyment in this musical instrument, except for that she really liked her teacher. And she did have a wonderful teacher. But I was like, “That’s just not enough. You just can’t keep doing something because your teacher’s so great. If you have no desire to listen to viola music, to think about viola music, to do it. If it’s just a hard thing, then that’s not great.” So I completely agree with you, Brené. The grit is actually in the process, if you will. And especially for our young people, I think that while they are honoring commitments and learning work ethic and learning how to practice hard things, we need to actually not only make it possible, but sometimes, kind of nudge them to do things that they’ve chosen, not anybody else, and also to keep re-choosing until they find something better.
AD: And happy to say that the 18-year-old under my roof is no longer playing viola, and she’s baking a lot. She’s super interested, and it’s not like she wants to be a baker for the rest of her life either, but she’s sort of becoming interested in hospitality, whatever. But she’s worked in restaurants. Anyway, that makes sense to me because she’s reading cookbooks and she’s watching YouTube videos on cupcake decoration. And now, that, to me feels a lot more like grit, right? Like, “Oh, you want to think about this thing even after you have to think about it.” And I think that’s the direction young people productively move in.
BB: God, that’s so beautiful! While you’re saying it, I’m thinking of… Of course, Steve and I met coaching swimming, and so we’re both big swimmers.
AD: Do you still swim?
BB: I do still swim. He still will swim the master’s class competitively.
AD: Oh, that is so impressive!
BB: Yeah, he’ll go to his master’s class and I’ll be like, “Are you going to swim lessons?” He’s like, “Shut up.” It’s like grownups. But it was funny because when Ellen was… I don’t know how old she was, maybe eight or nine, she decided to sign up for the swim team and it was a year-round. And I’m like, “Are you sure?” And she goes, “Yes.” And so she, on day two of 365 days of swim team, she realized…
AD: Wrong decision.
BB: “I’ve never hated anything else so much in my life.” And I even had to have a conversation with Steve, where I was like, “Do we hold her accountable for… This season is a year.” Yeah.
AD: Oh, one year. Oh, I’d never had to deal with that.
BB: Yeah, and so she did it. And the last day, I think she was nine on her last day, she handed us a cap and goggles and said, “I get that y’all are swimmers. I will never be on a swim team again.” And we said, “That’s great.” But I’ll tell you how that paid off now that she’s almost 22, is she thinks about what it took to get through that when she’s in love with something that she wants to do and she questions her stamina.
AD: Oh, interesting. So she says like, “If I could be on that swim team for a year… ”
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AD: That is really interesting.
BB: But that is sampling. That is getting to know who you are and what you’re capable of, and it was a lot of life. A lot of stories come out of that swimming year because it really taught her what she was capable of, in some ways. And we didn’t push it, like we would say, “You don’t have to go to every meet. You have to work that out with your coach.” But I think grit in kids, to me, is about the passion and perseverance of trying things that you’re not already good at doing.
AD: Oh, so interesting.
BB: Do you know what I mean?
AD: Yes, yeah.
BB: And that is a freaking skill because how many of us get to be adults where we will not try anything we’re not already good at?
AD: It’s like exposure therapy for your insecurity, right? So for those who don’t know what exposure therapy, Brené and I both know, but it’s when you have a phobic patient and a clinically phobic, like afraid of snakes or heights, right? The number one and probably one of the most efficacious treatments that’s ever been developed for anything, is the exposure therapy sequence where you have somebody who’s afraid of snakes and they don’t even want to think about them, but you just say, “Can you look at this word typed out on a piece of paper, S-N-A-K-E?” “Sure, I can do that.” “Okay, now, can I look at a picture of one from a Google image?” It’s like, “Well, maybe,” right? And then you progressively expose somebody to more and more now formally scary things, and then they overcome it, and they extinguish the phobia.
AD: And I think when kids do hard things, and maybe especially when there are hard things for which it’s not natural, like it’s not, “Oh, yeah, and everything went great.” There’s struggle, and there’s doubt, and there’s a lot of the other things that we don’t want to come into the lives of our kids. But I think it is a little bit like exposure therapy in that the problem with phobias, again, as I think you know, Brené, is that when somebody’s really afraid of snakes or heights or airplanes or whatever, the reason why they don’t just grow out of these fears is that they will avoid the things that they were afraid of in the first place. And they will never learn that it’s not that bad. And in therapy, you expose them to these higher and higher doses, and I’ve often thought about that as my daughters are growing up, that part of the job of a parent is exposure therapy treatment. It’s like you have to make sure that they are exposed to things that they have a little bit of fear about, they have a little bit of anxiety about, they have a little bit of hesitation, or they don’t really feel like doing something because if you just leave them to their own devices, sometimes literally to their own devices, I guess, with kids, they will never learn like, “Oh, I can do it.” Like, “Oh, it’s possible to lose a game and the world doesn’t collapse,” right?
BB: That’s right.
AD: It’s possible to have somebody write a book that says you’re not a great scientist and sleep through the night, and wake up and the sun is still shining. So I do think that’s why we send our kids, by the way, a lot to do sports and to do music, not like we think they’re going to become athletes or musicians, but that we’re exposing them to tough coaching, to, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t really feel like doing this,” or, “Sucks to lose a game.”
BB: Right. I have seen myself described by people and heard myself described by people as a very gritty and tenacious person, and I probably do have a lot of grit. I have a lot of passion, and I have a lot of perseverance. And it’s not unusual for me to set a goal that’s five or 10 years out because I always think, “Well, hopefully, I’ll still be alive anyway in 10 years, and what’s the difference if I’m still working on this? It doesn’t scare me.” But I wonder, sometimes, “What role does perspective have in grit? Is that a variable in grit?”
AD: Well, first, let me try to understand… I think I know what you mean by perspective taking, but I want to make sure. When I go to sleep at night and someone’s really criticized me and I can still operate without ruminating entirely on it, I think it really is almost zooming out and saying, “Hey, this thing is there. But look at all these other things on the landscape,” right?
AD: The avocados are ripe, and then also, I have this other problem, which is actually a bigger problem, right? So it’s really putting things in perspective almost literally, right?
BB: A hundred percent.
AD: Okay, so that’s what you mean. Grit, honestly, is something that I feel like has multiple parts, and some people could argue that it’s not very helpful to have a characteristic that has so many parts. Part of grit is being resilient, I think. But part of grit is being really interested in what you’re doing, and part of grit is feeling like what you’re doing is aligned with your core values as a person.
AD: And part of grit is being willing to practice. And so one could argue that it’s not super helpful to have this composite of all these things. And yet, I think it has some benefits, too. I do think that perspective-taking is really important to resilience. I think that it’s so easy to be thrown off by a critic, or you just have a massive failure. I’m sure you and I have recent stories of pretty big screw-ups. I do.
BB: Oh, God, yeah.
AD: Right? And how do you keep going? So I think perspective-taking is relevant to that aspect of grit. “Maybe I should just quit my job and hide in my living room or my bedroom because this journalist thinks I’m pretty awful.” If I don’t put that into perspective, then it does blot out the sun. And I think that, like so many of the things that you and I work on, perspective-taking is a skill.
AD: Whether you have it or not, doesn’t mean that you won’t have it later because I’ve certainly learned so much more about perspective-taking as I’ve gotten a little more experienced.
BB: When I think about my grit, I think about my ability to look at something, even if I’m losing my shit in the moment, I can take a couple of deep breaths and I do this 5555 thing where, “Will this matter in five minutes, five hours, five weeks, five years?”
AD: I haven’t heard that. I love that. Wait, say it again. Can you say it again?
BB: It’s actually five 5s, now that I think about it. Because I always say, “Will this matter in five minutes, five hours, five weeks, five months, or five years?”
AD: Oh, that’s good.
BB: Yeah. And so, for me, because I have a long horizon in my mind because it took me 20 years to build this career, so that seems reasonable to me. So unless it’s really going to be bothering me in five months or five years…
AD: You’re like, “Maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about this.”
BB: Maybe it just can’t blot out the sun, to use your language, which I love so much. Maybe I just need to enjoy the avocado, see my therapist, and move on.
AD: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. [chuckle] And I do the Three Blessings Exercise when I wake up in the morning, thinking of three good things, which by the way, side bar, I was doing another scientific experiment that I needed to use a thing that people had to do over and over to see if we can make a habit. And I will tell you, from my own data, but lots of others, it really works.
BB: Oh, God! I believe it.
AD: Thinking of three good things is just like, makes you happier and everyone else, too. I feel like thinking of those good things… Honestly, most bad things, if you use a five 5s, not only am I not going to care about it in five years or five months. Most of these things, it’s like I’m not even going to care about them in five minutes. [chuckle] I’m just like… Yeah. [chuckle]
BB: Yup, I mean, that’s… There’s a lot.
AD: When you ask the question, right?
BB: Yeah, there’s a lot.
AD: Yeah. I think emotions, also… Again, the way emotions work, and they still feel this way to me, I just have a little more perspective I guess, is they just feel like forever. When you’re really sad and someone says, “Hey, but you’re not going to feel that way maybe even tomorrow,” it’s like it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like forever, you know what I mean?
BB: God, it does not. It does.
AD: And when you’re anxious, it’s very hard to see around the corner. Of course, it’s impossible to see around the corner, but just psychologically. So I think perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t feel like forever, but there’s just some part of you that has a good sense to take a few paces back. And my uncle, by marriage, actually, not on my Chinese side of the family, my husband’s this white guy, and his uncle is Ken Duckworth. And he is the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So I always think of him as the nation’s psychiatrist. And I asked him once, because I am very impatient, so I was like, “Can you give me the gist of therapy? Because I’m not clinically-trained, I’m a researcher.” And he was like, “What? In a sentence?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I mean with semicolons or something,” right? And he was like, “Well, it’s kinda complicated, but I think a lot of therapy is three things: Notice it. Sit with it. Put it in perspective.”
AD: And then he did unpack it for me. He was like, “You know, I think a lot of mental health is to notice when you are feeling sad, anxious, insecure, or crazy, you know what. Then you have to sit with it.” I was like, “What does ‘sit with it’ mean?” He was like, “Well, we can do a lot of trouble when we can’t experience the distress and just be distressed, right? We have to smoke something, we have to eat something, we have to hit something.” He was like, “So a lot of mental health work is like helping individuals after they notice it, just to sit, to sit with this.” He’s like, “And the last part is, ‘Put it in perspective.’ Zoom out this thing, this terrible thing, this mistake, this bad relationship, this whatever it is. This problem is part of a picture, but you have to be able to see the rest of the picture.” And I’ve never forgotten that because I’ve tried to do that more intentionally. Notice how I’m feeling, good or bad, sit with it, which I wasn’t very good at doing in my 20s, for sure. And then more and more to put things in perspective.
BB: I found in my work that perspective is very much a function of experience. And that’s why, one of the reasons I love seeing a therapist is that while I have a lot of experience and I’m in my 50s, I still sometimes cannot get to zoom out working on my lens when I am caught in emotion. The emotion…
AD: Right. The emotion zooms you in, right? Like…
BB: It zooms you in, I mean like granular…
AD: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. [chuckle]
BB: And then I’ve got all the weird shit that I do where I’m like, “You study emotion, you should be able to label this, regulate it. You’re on a clock here.”
AD: Right, right.
BB: So I think that’s helpful.
AD: Can I ask you this like real briefly?
BB: Yeah, please.
AD: A friend of mine, also a psychologist, but like me not a clinical psych. I don’t know when this was. It was definitely during the pandemic. She was like, “You know, you used to go to therapy.” And I was like, “Yeah, I did.” And she was like, “But you don’t anymore.” I was like, “No, I don’t.” Partly that was because the therapist had that… You know how certain therapists, they’re like, “This is the end of therapy.” It’s not their groove to see you forever. And then she recommended I go again, and I can’t remember the exact precipitating reason why she brought that up. But I just wonder for you, do you go as a matter of maintenance kind of like the way other people might go to the gym? Or do you feel like you go to therapy because it is helping with certain specific things, it’s not for just general hygiene?
BB: I have both a coach, that’s in my professional world, and then a therapist, that’s a regular therapist. And like you, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a social worker, but I am trained in research, so I’m not a clinician. But I think for me, I unfortunately have to wait until my tire is flat in order to get… I’m not great on maintenance. And so, I usually go because… Is it your uncle or your brother-in-law? Who was it that…
AD: Uncle by marriage.
BB: Uncle. I start making bad choices about what to do with what I’m feeling. I’m either working my shit out on people I care about or I’m working it out on myself and it feels bad. So usually, there’s some kind of event. Then when I get in it, like I’m in it now, I’m like, “Why don’t I do this all the time?” And so I think what my plan is now is to probably stay in it kinda weekly, and then I think I’m going to see if I can work with my therapist in doing something monthly, where I can just say…
AD: Oh, I like that idea.
BB: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s what I’m going to do because…
AD: Oh, that’s a good idea. Never even thought of that. People do that? Why not?
BB: Oh, people totally do it. People totally do a monthly check-in.
AD: Oh, I think that feels like maybe I’m going to try to do something like that, yeah. Because I’m thinking like, “God, when am I going to find an hour in the week?” But I can find an hour in the month.
BB: Oh, I know. I think the monthly check-in is really help… And I’m really terrible because my therapist is like… I’m always like, “Okay, well, that was a great session. I have all my notes. What’s my homework? How do you think I did?” She’s like, “Jesus! I don’t have gold stars, I don’t give gold stars. Your homework is to… ”
AD: You’re like, “Did I get an A?”
BB: Yeah, yeah, like an A. She’s like, “Your homework is to feel your feelings.” I’m like, “Fuck! Okay, great.” But yeah.
BB: I will say that in my entire life, I have never had as many emails, texts, and calls, people asking for help, trying to find someone to see as I have in the last three months. I think the pandemic and everything has really… The next wave will be a mental health crisis. I mean, we’re already in one, but…
AD: I think we know we are in one, right? The statistics are off the charts.
BB: We are in one. Yeah. And it was important. I talk about this openly, very difficult season on marriages, on my marriage, very difficult parenting season. How do you keep our kids safe? And I’ve come to this thing where I’m like, “There’s two groups of people: People who experience pain and struggle and get help. And people who experience pain and struggle and work their shit out on themselves and other people.”
AD: Right, but there’s no category of people who don’t experience the… [chuckle]
AD: Yeah. That’s also the category you hope to be in, want to be in. It’s helpful to know that, “Oh, yeah, that that column doesn’t exist.” That there’s no room on the sheet for that. You know, with the pandemic, I’m thinking about other friends, family members who are experiencing burnouts, depression, anxiety. And I think there’s something about the… In some ways, the universality of the pandemic, there’s not a place on the planet that hasn’t been influenced by it, there’s not a day that there isn’t a headline about it. In some ways, that should make it all… That we should understand that it’s going to now have effects on mental health. So I don’t know, strangely, I feel like there’s something about the constant headlines that I think there’s… For the people that I am individually thinking about, they don’t feel justified in feeling burnt out. I see this, and I’m like, “Of course, you can’t work these hours and have this little physical contact with other people. And you can’t have this much uncertainty in your life and this much economic disrup… And not have these issues.” But there’s something about the pervasiveness of the pandemic, which I think, for the people that I’m thinking about, I think they’re feeling bad on top of the bad. You know what I mean?
BB: Oh, yeah, like the meta-shame, like shame about feeling shame.
AD: Meta-shame. [chuckle]
AD: Yes! Is that a thing? I mean what’s that even mean?
BB: Oh, it’s a total thing, it’s huge. It’s that, “I feel shame for feeling shame.” Or, “I feel guilty that I don’t deserve to get help because my stuff is not… ” It’s like comparative suffering.
BB: And talking about derailing grit, if grit is really… You say, just want to make sure I’m right, it’s more about stamina than it is about intensity, right?
AD: That’s my view, yeah.
AD: And honestly, I think so much of life is more about consistency than about intensity. And intensity steals the limelight. You know what I mean? Intensity seems like it steals our attention. It’s very impressive when somebody, or I don’t know if it’s impressive, but it’s dramatic when somebody stays up all night for three nights or does something with a lot of excitement. But I really think the long game… I mean, think about friendships, right? I had very intense friendships when I was in my, I’m thinking in my 20s, in particular, and I remember almost like being in love with a friend, you know what I mean?
BB: Oh, yeah.
AD: You’re like, “I want to eat every meal with you for the rest of my life.” And like, “Let’s go the bathroom together.” And like, “Let’s just merge our lives.” And that intensity is wonderful. It was wonderful. It was not a predictor of friendship. So now that I think of my most treasured girl friends, these are not necessarily the people that I had that intoxicating all-night, all-morning, let’s do everything together. It was more consistency. It was like, “You know what? I am friends with the people who kept calling me back.” [chuckle] And I kept calling them. Kind of boring, actually, in a way. So I’m a big fan of consistency.
BB: It ties to me to the Nietzsche quote that is in grit, where you talk about not only do we love intensity, but we love this mythical idea of genius.
AD: I wish I could reincarnate Nietzsche.
BB: Oh! Yeah.
AD: You know?
AD: I mean, I have a long list, but he’s on it. He’s on it.
BB: So tell me about this idea that just like intensity, we think of genius as magical because he would argue that it gives us permission not to even compare ourselves with this group of people because they’re beyond compare, they’re geniuses, they’re incredible at what they do, which negates not only our ability to achieve but their work.
AD: Yeah, Nietzsche was in a argument, I guess it was a fairly extended back-and-forth with Wagner. And Wagner said to Nietzsche in writing, I think, as well as in speech, “You are genius.” And Nietzsche was arguing, “No, I’m not. And in fact, I think you misunderstand the very idea of excellence.” And so the two sides of debate were that Wagner thought of Nietzsche as an example of somebody… It’s like divine, these people are different from everyone else, what they do. It happens spontaneously, mysteriously. And there’s really no point in the rest of us trying to play the Nietzsche game because we will never win. Nietzsche is special. And Nietzsche said, arguing the other side, again, I think kind of interesting that he was arguing. That’s an honorific that most people would love. It’s like, “Oh, you’re going to tell me that I’m special?”
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AD: “That I’m unique, even?” But actually, he thought that the misunderstanding was that when we see truly excellent things, a beautifully-crafted meal, a masterpiece oil painting, a book that you read it and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh! It’s so fluent, so beautiful,” that you misunderstand that as having come in an instant and with ease, where almost inevitably, there are hours of hidden labor, there are hundreds of drafts that were imperfect and flawed. And he said that the motivation to anoint a rare few individuals with this Appalachian-like genius actually comes from the secret desire that most of us have to not compete. And I think the phrase that Nietzsche used, again, translated from the German, is like, “Here, I do not have to compete.” If it’s true that greatness is only for a rare few gifted, and if I am not that way, then I can just relax and binge-watch Netflix and not move off the sofa. Okay, that is a contemporary raising of what Nietzsche. [chuckle] I think that…
BB: Right, right.
AD: And I feel like even when I was writing Grit, I fell into this trap. It’s torture, and you just feel like shit, and you’re like, “Oh, my God! This chapter is terrible. And I’m never going to be able to write a sentence that has any meaning or worth.” And while I was writing Grit and berating myself and feeling awful, I went to bed one night and I was reading Mindy Kaling’s book that came out I guess the year that I was writing the manuscript. And I think it’s like Everyone’s Hanging Out Without Me. [Note: Correct Title is: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?]
BB: Oh, God! Yeah, it’s so fun.
AD: Right? You read it, it’s like butter, it’s like awesome. And I remember saying to my husband, I was like, “Well, why can Mindy Kaling write a book that, obviously, she just sat down and the words flowed? It’s just beautiful. And I’m just torturing myself with… ” And he was like, “I think you’re falling into the trap that your chapter is about, like literally, right now.” [chuckle] But anyway, I do think we often mistake fluency and excellence for giftedness and lack of effort. And I’m on Nietzsche’s side. Every person that I’ve ever met or studied who’s truly a great performer has earned it. And I’m not saying that they’re not talented. Of course, Usain Bolt had some talent, of course. But there are no shortcuts. Really, that’s why I study grit. I just think that excellence and achievement take a lot of time and effort and mistake-making, and we shouldn’t think otherwise.
BB: I love this idea that there are no shortcuts. I actually really believe that. And it’s funny, too. I don’t know what this phenomenon is, but when I was younger, kinda before the mid-life break down spiritual awakening, whatever you want to call it, that prompted The Gifts, but when I was younger and I would see what we would call genius in a book or in a play or art, I would be so discouraged. I would be so like…
AD: Because you were like, “I can’t do that?”
BB: Yeah, I would just be like, “What’s the point of even trying anything?”
AD: Yeah, “I do not have to compete.”
AD: Or, “I cannot compete,” yeah.
BB: Right. I would be like, “What’s the point?” Now, at this point in my life, and probably for the past maybe 10 years, when I find what I would consider brilliance in someone’s efforts so life-affirming, if I read Yaba Blay’s book, One Drop, or I see Hamilton, or I see a film, I think, “Oh, my God! Humans are capable of so much. This is so empowering.” But back before I did kind of my own work on my perfectionism, I would think to myself, nihilistic about it and would be like, “What’s the point?”
AD: Right, like, “By comparison, I am this like… ”
BB: “I am nothing.” Yeah.
AD: “Tiny, little… ” Right, yeah, yeah. Here’s a question… By the way, I’m still jealous of people. I have found that my capacity for jealousy is alive and well, unfortunately. But yeah, since I have perspective-taking, I’m like, “Oh, but in perspective, there are other parts of me.” But I wonder when you see greatness, especially if somebody is doing something great that’s close to what you do, right? If you saw somebody who just gave a fantastic talk, like really, really moving, powerful, or somebody who writes really well, or somebody who thinks about the kinds of human nature issues that you do, do you feel A, like, “Oh, they’re amazing. That tells me that I can do it.” Or B, do you just not even think about yourself and you’re just thinking, “That’s amazing. Human beings are amazing?” I know maybe a younger version of yourself, certainly, I would, like by comparison, I can’t do that, so I’m in the equation and I’m feeling diminished. But I think there are two alternatives to that, at least. One is you’re in the equation, but now, you’re inspired. Or you’re not even in the picture, the exclamation doesn’t actually have a lot to do with Brené, it’s just sort of, “Wow, that’s really amazing that this person wrote this book.” You know what I’m saying?
BB: Yes, if it’s someone close in my area, that was a huge shift. I mean, I never even thought about it until this conversation, so it’s weirding me out in real-time, but…
BB: That was a huge marker in my life where I could read something by someone in my area that I thought was brilliant and not feel scarcity as a result of it. So now, when I read something in my area that I think is great, I just really want to learn from it, and I want to be inspired by it, and I don’t think about how it impacts my work either way, I just want to learn from it and be inspired by it. Just to be super honest, that probably came with two things: Experiencing some of my own success and feeling good about some of my own work. And also, seeing what that looked like in other people and not wanting to be that way.
AD: Oh, seeing the not so wonderful reactions of other people and thinking like, “I don’t want to be like that.”
BB: Yeah, I saw something written by someone online one day, I think probably years ago, that was about creative fiction, and someone who wrote creative fiction said, “It was so good, it was personally devastating. I couldn’t even finish it. I was so depressed about how good it was.” And I was like, “Dude, God, I get it. I’ve been there, but I don’t want to be that person.”
AD: But I don’t want to be that person. Yeah, that is interesting.
BB: What about you?
AD: I don’t know. If I were a number line, where would I be on this? Like how evolved am I? Well, like I said, I definitely have twinges of jealousy. I read scientific papers and I’m like, “Oh, I want to do that study. I wish I had done, specifically, that study.” And I do still feel a little bit of diminishment and sort of like, “What am I doing? I haven’t done anything.” So I’m not quite as evolved, I think, on that dimension. I think in terms of feeling inspired and not feeling so discouraged in the medium term, so I also have this reflexive sort of like, “Oh, I’m so jealous.” I don’t know, I guess I would say this: I’ve started to refer to myself as in my 50s. I started doing that the day I turned 50, and I feel like it may be part of my now identity. I mean, 50 is not that old, but I keep thinking like, “Oh, now, it’s my turn to be that generous, gracious person who helps the next, hopefully, successful psychologist come along.”
AD: So I think, by the way, this is not bragging, I think it’s its own kind of vanity. I think my ego trip might be that I’m going to be really nice. [chuckle] So it’s not really anything to brag about because I do, I think it’s its own kind of vanity to be like, “Oh, I’m going to be selfless and shepherd along the next generation.” But anyway, I am trying to put on this mantle of when somebody does something great, I guess older or younger than me, to just be like, “Oh, wonderful.” I will applaud louder than anyone. And like I said, it’s probably still vain, but there are worst kinds of vanity, for sure. [chuckle]
BB: There’s worse kinds of vanity, man. And I will tell you, one of the things that really fuels my grit, and I don’t know if this is the right way to put it, because grit is a construct, and first of all…
AD: Yeah, you can say that, you can say that.
BB: I will say this: I don’t trust a construct that doesn’t have a lot of properties if you’re talking about human nature.
AD: Oh, thank you. I like that because I get yelled at a lot for…
BB: Oh, no, ma’am. No, ma’am.
AD: Okay, good.
BB: When people are like, “That’s too complex,” I’m like, “Sit down,” like just…
AD: Yeah, you’re like, “We’re going to talk about people now.
BB: People now, not rats.
AD: Yeah, more complex than particles.
BB: So I like the complexity of constructs. Again, I’m thinking about Adam Grant and his new book, which I thought was just brilliant. And he writes about the crisis of oversimplification.
BB: If it’s about people and there’s not some complexity to it, that doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it elegantly and simply, but if there’s not some complexity…
AD: Right. And if you’re not rethinking and being like, “Oh, wait, hold on. Wait, maybe I didn’t get the whole thing there,” yes, I agree. I agree with that.
BB: Yeah. Are you ready for the rapid-fire speaking of let’s not oversimplify things?
AD: Sure, yeah. I’ll just push my Invisalign back in, and yeah, I’m ready, yeah.
BB: Alright, I love it. God, you’ve inspired me to do that.
AD: Yeah, I hope so. And LASIK, but it sounds like you don’t need LASIK, right?
AD: Do you wear contact lenses?
AD: You have perfect vision.
AD: Wait, are you walking around blind?
BB: No, I wear glasses to see in the movies and then when I’m driving, that’s it.
AD: Oh, so you’re like almost perfect vision?
BB: It’s pretty close. I’ve had pretty good vision, and I don’t have readers yet.
AD: I think that’s very badass. That’s very admirable. But I just wanted to endorse LASIK as somebody who has had it.
BB: My daughter really wants to get it. I feel scared shitless, but I will.
AD: Don’t, don’t be scared.
BB: No, I won’t. I’m going to go with her and pray. Okay, fill in the blank for me: Vulnerability is…
AD: Something I probably don’t really understand yet.
BB: What’s something people often get wrong about you?
AD: That I think that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
BB: What’s the hard maybe leadership or just life lesson that the universe keeps putting in front of you and forcing you to just learn, relearn, unlearn? What’s that one thing?
AD: One of the reasons why leadership is really hard for me is I am extremely impatient, and I think that comes from a sort of egocentric like, “Oh, what about this? Why isn’t it better?” I think the antidote to that is to really understand what a person is doing and experiencing from their perspective, in their shoes, and that’s really hard for me. So the leadership lesson that I am trying to learn is, we’re talking about perspective-taking, but really taking another person’s perspective and not mine. I think that would make me so much more patient than I sometimes am.
BB: God bless, I’m having an epiphany in real-time, y’all. I’m a very impatient person, and I never…
AD: I know this is supposed to be rapid-fire, so it’s like…
BB: I know, but I’ve never thought about how empathy is an antidote to impatience.
AD: Right? It is. I am deeply un-empathic, I think, when I am not patient. I think I can be ruinously impatient. And you just forget that other people aren’t you. There is this quote that I swear, if somebody who listens to you, one of your many followers could Google and find, I would be so grateful. I felt like it came from a novel once and it was like, “Love is understanding that someone outside yourself is real.” It must not be exactly that because I have Googled that specific phrase and haven’t found it. But I think when I give feedback to somebody and I’m like, “Oh, my God! This first paragraph, like where is the topic sentence? I don’t think it has a topic, that’s why it doesn’t have a topic sentence.” And then I’m just giving them as if I’m talking to myself, right? This is how my dad raised us; it’s like he was just talking to himself. So he just treated all his children like they were extensions of him. And really, that person who’s on the receiving end of the feedback is not me, they don’t have my thick skin. They’re also not secure.
AD: So I feel like sometimes I demolish other people’s motivation because I’m just talking to them like I’d be talking to myself, and they’re not me. And what I really need to be doing in that moment is to understand where they are and to see things from their… And I find it really difficult, and I do it all the time. And I at least have the metacognitive awareness that I do that, so then I’ll check myself and I try to get better, but it’s really hard for me.
BB: God! I’m having a serious God moment here, like you put this conversation… I needed to hear this today because how many times I’ve been told by, especially someone I love, “Ouch, Brené.” I’m like, “Hey, listen, I’m just giving it to you like I’d like to hear it.”
AD: Right, but they’re not you.
BB: You know? And that person going, “Yeah, I’m not you. And you’re not better than me, you’re not tougher than me, you’re not smarter than me.”
AD: Yeah, yeah, “Just not… Not you.” [chuckle]
BB: “You know, like just not you.”
AD: “Just not you.” My daughters, they’re only 18 and 19, but their whole middle school and high school years, they would have to do these essays for English class. And they’d always go to their dad for help, always, right? And I was like, “Hey, by the way, I also write, actually sort of for a living, and I’m a professor.” They never wanted my help. And I finally figured out why, and it’s because, because they told me, they’re like, “You’re scary. Why would we come to you for help? You are terrifying, honestly. But dad’s really nice and would patiently read.” And it would be better for everyone. And I remember on the day that I got this knowledge from them, I was like, “Whoa! That puts together a lot of things for me. Now I understand why I’ve occasionally probably made people cry.”
AD: Actually, I don’t have to imagine this. I was once in a conversation with a young, aspiring researcher, and again, confession here: Another professor was their actual advisor, but they couldn’t make the meeting. So I was like, “No problem, I’ll give them the feedback on the next phase of the experiment.” So we meet, and then the professor who couldn’t make the meeting calls me on my cellphone and she’s like, “Oh, I think we need to talk.” And I was like, “Why? You don’t like the experimental design?” She was like, “How do I put this? Um, yeah, the young person that you… They can’t stop crying, they’re devastated. They think they have no future in science.” And I was like, “Really? I thought it was a great conversation. I thought it was really productive and very efficient.” And again, when my own daughter has told me, “You’re terrifying. Who would ever want to get feedback from you?” It just put a lot of things together. The dots connected, finally. And I realize my deep impatience comes from a kind of egocentrism where I’m just talking to people like I’m talking out loud, like I’m talking to myself, and they’re not me. And I have to remember that they’re not me, and to take that into account on the next time I interact with them.
BB: That’s really hard. If you’re not sure exactly what vulnerability is, this is what it is.
AD: Oh, look, I’m making progress. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah, I mean…
AD: I have a little work to do there, that’s all.
BB: I’ve been on the receiving end of that from an academic who’s probably now in his 90s, who basically just said back in the day where it was like, “We’re just going to be awful, and if you’re still standing at the end, you graduate,” kind of thing. And I just remember it beat me down so bad. I could take it because I was kind of raised that way, but I am going to start thinking about that, that empathy is an antidote to impatience, and that when I’m being impatient, I’m not in my value around empathy. Angela, this is a life-changer for me. Thank you.
AD: Oh, well, I’m working on it, too, so we can keep trading notes, remind each other.
BB: Yeah, I love it. One thing that you’re really excited about right now?
AD: My mom got vaccinated twice, and I think this is the first time I have hugged my own mom. And I have to say, I think that’s why I’m sleeping well, I think. [chuckle] Honestly, I’m like…
BB: Oh, yeah.
AD: My mom’s living in my house. She made me an egg. It was great. I got to hug her, so I’m very excited. And I’m very excited to get vaccinated myself if Philadelphia would ever get around to… I feel like I’m in group Z or something, so anyway, I will be excited to get a vaccination when I qualify. And I’m very excited that my mom…
BB: Yay, Angela’s mom, I love that. Okay, last question: Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
AD: My husband’s birthday just passed, and my younger daughter, Lucy, wrote him a birthday letter that made me cry. And I guess it was her gratitude letter to her dad for everything he had taught her about life and what it means to live with character. And it was funny and it was wonderful, and I’m so grateful for that, I guess. It wasn’t my gratitude letter, she wasn’t writing a gratitude letter to me. But very, very blessed to have husband I love to death and my two amazing, kickass daughters.
BB: Amen, right? Yeah.
AD: I think so.
BB: Thank you so much for being on the podcast. And you know what? I have wanted to meet you for so long, and it was just…
AD: “I hope I didn’t disappoint you.”
BB: No, on the contrary, it just felt so real and so human and so connecting that I’m very grateful for that, so thank you.
AD: Thank you, Brené. I hope we can end it with, “To be continued.”
BB: To be continued. Amen.
BB: I loved this conversation. Sometimes, I think understanding something in a deeper, more meaningful way, including understanding what it isn’t, understanding how things sometimes get taken out of context, especially by those of us who are looking for the magic bullet, the panacea, the answer to everything, we can contort and conform work to our needs. I loved this conversation. I will always and forever be a fan of the deep dive. And I will always and forever be grateful to, really, this community of awkward, brave, and kind learners that are on this Dare to Lead podcast and Unlocking Uspodcast journey with me. We don’t have to do it alone, we were never meant to. So thank you for listening to both of the podcasts on Spotify, it means a lot to me. And we see all of your comments and questions in social media. We work them into our prep for podcast conversations, so just thank you for walking alongside. You can find Angela online at @angeladuckw on Twitter, and Angela Duckworth Grit on Facebook, and Angela Duckworth on LinkedIn. Her website is angeladuckworth.com. Again, I really appreciate you listening. You can find all the links, all the resources and downloads, including transcripts, on the podcast pages on brenebrown.com. Awkward, brave, and kind, folks. There’s no other way to be.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits. And the music is by The Suffers.
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