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Guardian Angels

Why gritty people ask for help

Angela Duckworth—co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of  Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance—talked to us about how to cultivate grit. Here are a few highlights:

How do you define grit, and what makes it special?

I define grit as the combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals. To me, what makes grit special is the emphasis on goals that take a long time to achieve. If you’re in first grade, “a long time” can mean doing something for a couple of weeks. By the time you’re in high school, “a long time” might be doing things for more than one year. For adults, that time frame gets extended further still. For instance, at some point in your career, you might dedicate yourself to something for decades. I can speak for myself: I intend to be a psychological scientist for the rest of my life.

What do parents get wrong about grit?

Grit isn’t just perseverance. When I began to study high achievers, I noticed it’s not just that they’re hardworking, it’s not just that they’re resilient—it’s also that they truly love what they do and stay in love with what they do over extended time periods.

How has your concept of grit changed over the years?

One thing has become more apparent to me over time: Gritty people are more dependent on other people, not less. They rely more on their coaches, mentors, and teachers. They are more likely to ask for help. They are more likely to ask for feedback. Grit sounds like being a strong individual who figures things out all by themselves. But gritty people try to find other people to make everything they’re striving to accomplish easier. It’s very much about developing relationships, being vulnerable, saying what you can’t do, and then, with the support of other people, figuring out how to do it.

How can we help kids get that support?

Young people need an adult in their lives who’s both supportive and demanding. This combination, which is the magic recipe for parenting, is also essential for influential relationships children have with other adults. For instance, I’ve seen from my own two girls, Amanda and Lucy, how invaluable it was to have teachers and coaches who changed their lives forever.

Like Miss Tanya, who taught them ballet, and Kerri, Lucy’s viola teacher, and Ms. Parker, who helped Amanda start a tutoring program. These were adults in their lives who held them to high standards and pushed them to try hard—but were also incredibly encouraging, understanding, and loving. I think of these caring adults as guardian angels who watch over children, nag them sometimes, and challenge them to do things they can’t yet do.

It seems like great luck to have guardian angels in your life, but aren’t there many aspects of your situation you can’t change?

I would agree entirely that there are many, many things about your situation that you cannot change. But that should not blind us to the things that you can. For instance, the other day, Lucy told me she was having problems procrastinating. I asked her what drew her attention away from work that needed to get done. Surfing the web, she said, and also, of course, TikTok and Instagram. I said, why rely on willpower when you can just change your situation? The next day, she texted me: “Mom, guess what? I installed one of those website blockers on my phone!” I texted back: “Yay yes see??? #easier!” And she replied: “#easier!”