Brandeis International Business School

016: Get into the GRIT with Angela Duckworth

The power of passion and perseverance

Angela Duckworth is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit with the mission of advancing the science and practice of character development – but you probably know her best as the author of New York Times Bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

From the Dorm Room

Angela attended Harvard, where she was a Neurobiology Major, a choice she made in part because she was failing her neurobiology course. It was getting to that point in the semester when you have to choose if you’re going to drop any courses, and her professor urged her to drop neurobiology. So Angela went to the registrar, but she decided “to major in it to prove him wrong.”

Angela was a very determined student, and she got a lot out of my college experience, but she didn't actually have a sense of what she wanted to do next. She was interested in medicine and medical research, but that was in part because her father wanted her to be a doctor. So, she figured she’d graduate, take the MCAT and then go to medical school.

But a funny thing happened on the way to medical school – Angela started working with public school children near campus. It was a sharp contrast to the green lawns and ivy-covered lecture halls of Harvard. She saw poverty. She saw inequality. She saw kids who were four grade levels below where they should be by the time they were in fifth grade.

So, that put Angela on a different course. She ended up starting a summer school and an after-school program right after college, which opened up just two weeks after she received her diploma. “So, I have ever since then been working in education and trying to figure out how to get kids to be more successful, happier and healthier.”

To the Boardroom

The idea of starting a summer school and an after-school program was one chapter of a very long book. Afterwards, Angela became a McKinsey consultant for a year, went to Oxford and studied neuroscience, she was a classroom teacher for several years, and she ran a non-profit.

But when Angela was 32, she didn’t just want to know what the next chapter of her life would be – she wanted to know what the rest of the book was going to be.

So, after nights of feeling lost, Angela took a methodical, top-down approach to drafting the rest of her book. She started by asking questions. Who am I? What am I good at? What do I enjoy? She put the answers together like a math problem: “I am somebody who really cares about kids” + “I love understanding human behavior” + “I like math... and statistics” = “I should become a psychology researcher and professor, work on these problems, and thereby, make an effect in education.”

That's how Angela found her path – but it took a full decade of twists, turns, and stumbles to figure that out.

But even if you aren’t chasing a calling when you graduate – which is more than okay! – you should still give your all in every job that you have. “My most important piece of advice for people who are having that first job is to understand their commitment... And then, when you've made that commitment, even if it's not forever, just throw yourself into it. Be amazing. Learn as much as you can. Contribute as much as you can.”

During these years, you are investing in your own education and you are investing in your relationships. If you don’t do that work early, it’s going to be difficult to open doors down the road.

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

Angela has a bit of a social entrepreneurial streak, which really came to a head when she decided to open a school after graduation.

When you think of starting an entrepreneurial venture, lots of people think of doing something big and new; they think in very grandiose terms like, "I'm going to start the next Facebook” or “I'm going to start the next Google," but that’s not what being an entrepreneur is really like.

Many entrepreneurs, like Angela, start closer to home. They reflect on their experiences, identify problems, try to come up with a solution and then leverage resources to test the solution on a local level. “And I don't know anybody who's really come to a good idea, either in changing the world or in studying something academically, that didn't take that path.”


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