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Grit Is About Intrinsic Motivation, Alignment, and Character: 3 Takeaways from Angela Duckworth’s Conversation With MX

March 10, 2021|0 min read
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Angela Duckworth, bestselling author of Grit and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, sat down with Brandon Dewitt, co-founder and CTO at MX, to talk about the concept of grit in organizations. She recounted a few things from her book as well as many things she’s learned since writing it.

To set the scene, Duckworth introduced herself and her work. “I'm a scientist who's basically trying to reverse-engineer human excellence,” she says. “I study the outliers in the field, people who are Olympic gold medalists numerous times over or Nobel Prize winning scientists — anybody who really stands out in their field.”

She says, “When I say grit I'm referring to a common denominator that I have observed across these super performers, and it is the combination of passion and perseverance over really long periods. And I think that's a thing to emphasize about grit: It's passion and perseverance, not for a few weeks or even a few months, but it's a willing devotion to something that lasts for years or decades and, frankly, in some cases, even a lifetime.”

With that definition in mind, here are three takeaways directly from Duckworth.

1. Grit Is About Intrinsic Motivation.

“There is new research that I don't think I've even published yet, but I'll share it with you.

When you ask the question, 'What really motivates pretty people over such long periods?' you could ask, 'Is it extrinsic motivators like cash rewards, performance bonuses, or status?'

That's one possibility, and obviously those things are to some extent motivating, otherwise they wouldn't exist. But there is another group of motivators that psychologists call intrinsic motivators, and these are primarily your interests and your values. We call them intrinsic because they are from within you, and when you do something that is interesting and enjoyable to you, your attention goes to it and you want to be doing it. ...

Psychologists will call it intrinsic motivation or autonomous motivation because it feels like it comes from within you as opposed to from outside of you.

In our data we see unequivocally that what primarily drives gritty individuals is more of the intrinsic motivation than the extrinsic motivation. And I'm not saying that these people don't want to get paid or don't have mortgages or don't care at all about status. But … really gritty individuals have the kind of resilience, the kind of relentless pursuit. They are not Monday-to-Friday nine-to-five people.

It's really about being motivated from interest and from values, to search for truth and curiosity. 

So that's my recommendation for people who would like to be a little grittier: Understand that you're motivated by external and internal factors. I really think the things that come from inside you are the ones that keep you at something consistently for a long time.

grit angela duckworth

2. Grit Is About Alignment. 

"Let me start with what a gritty person is — and this is stuff that I write a little bit about in the book — but I think I've really come to understand it may be the most important thing I've learned about grit in the last five years since reading the book.

When you look at a gritty individual, there is an alignment between their many sub goals — the things they’ve gotta do today and tomorrow or next week — and their higher level goals.

When you ask the why question — “Why do you have to take this meeting?” or “Why is it important to get that email out next week?”— there's this higher level goal that it's aligned to. It's like, “Oh well, that's because that's part of our three-year strategic plan.” And then you ask, “Why is that important?” And it always tiers all the way up to some unifying top-level goal for that individual that really gives meaning, purpose, and direction to everything that that individual does. 

So there's a tremendous amount of internal alignment in a very gritty individual as opposed to a lot of conflict and ambivalence like, “While I'm doing one thing, I say another.”

And by the way, I think that's partly why I find that gritty individuals tend to be happier overall. They are not living an easy life, but they are actually on average higher in overall life satisfaction than less gritty people. 

I think of the times in my life where I had a lot of ambivalence and goal conflict, and those were not happy times. ...

At the organizational level, I think the reason why a gritty organization isn't just a bunch of gritty people in a collection is because there has to be alignment. There has to be a collective purpose — a top-level goal that each person in the organization has and can articulate clearly. They understand how in the grand scheme their day-to-day actions and their personal key performance indicators line up.

One of the happiest things that can happen to a human being is to be part of a great team that's executing on an inspiring vision because it feels wonderful to win. It feels euphoric to win as a team. … It can be extremely gratifying to be a part of such an organization.”

grit angela duckworth

3. Grit Is About Character.

“I'll say this first as a psychologist: Whenever you measure things like personality or character, whatever is positive usually goes along with everything else that's positive. That could be just because people who are answering questionnaires just tend to answer positively about or negatively.

But there's a more profound reason though, which is that many high-functioning individuals know that these things are often correlated. Some of my favorite people are not only gritty, they're also curious. And they're not only curious, they're also fairly empathic and good at taking other people's perspectives.

You can always find exceptions to the rule, but one reason I think those things go together is that those individuals have a certain amount of security. They're not incredibly insecure in an objective or psychological sense.

But I also want to say at the same time that these things are correlated and that empathetic people, on average, are kinder, more curious, and grittier. The important thing also to say is that they're not correlated at one. And that means that I love when a company like MX has grit as a value, but I also love that you have other values too, because you think twice about hiring somebody who's a 10 out of 10 on grit but maybe a 4 out of 10 on empathy or 2 out of 10 honesty. ...

That's why, when I started my nonprofit instead of calling it a “grit lab,” I called it a “character lab” — because like Aristotle said character is all of the things that you need to lead a good life for yourself and for others." 

grit angela duckworth

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