Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth (2016)
Part II. GROWING GRIT FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Chapter 9. HOPE
There’s an old Japanese saying: Fall seven, rise eight. If I were ever to get a tattoo, I’d get these four simple words indelibly inked.
What is hope?
One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. It’s the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the universe to make things better.
Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.
In the spring semester of my first year of college, I enrolled in neurobiology.
I would come to each class early and sit in the front row, where I’d copy every equation and diagram into my notebook. Outside of lecture, I did all the assigned readings and required problem sets. Going into the first quiz, I was a little shaky in a few areas—it was a tough course, and my high school biology coursework left a lot to be desired—but on the whole I felt pretty confident.
The quiz started out fine but quickly became more difficult. I began to panic, thinking over and over: I’m not going to finish! I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m going to fail! This, of course, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more my mind was crowded by those heart-palpitating thoughts, the less I could concentrate. Time ran out before I’d even read the last problem.
A few days later, the professor handed back the quiz. I looked down disconsolately at my miserable grade and, shortly thereafter, shuffled into the office of my assigned teaching assistant. “You should really consider dropping this course,” he advised. “You’re just a freshman. You have three more years. You can always take the class later.”
“I took AP Bio in high school,” I countered.
“How did you do?”
“I got an A, but my teacher didn’t teach us much, which is probably why I didn’t take the actual AP exam.” This confirmed his intuition that I should drop the course.
Virtually the same scenario repeated itself with the midterm, for which I’d studied madly, and after which, I found myself in the teaching assistant’s office once again. This time his tone was more urgent. “You do not want a failing grade on your transcript. It’s not too late to withdraw from the course. If you do, nothing will get factored into your GPA.”
I thanked him for his time and closed the door behind me. In the hallway, I surprised myself by not crying. Instead, I reviewed the facts of the situation: two failures and only one more exam—the final—before the end of the semester. I realized I should have started out in a lower-level course, and now, more than halfway through the semester, it was obvious my energetic studying wasn’t proving sufficient. If I stayed, there was a good chance I’d choke on the final and end up with an F on my transcript. If I dropped the course, I’d cut my losses.
I curled my hands into fists, clenched my jaw, and marched directly to the registrar’s office. At that moment, I’d resolved to stay enrolled in—and, in fact, major in—neurobiology.
Looking back on that pivotal day, I can see that I’d been knocked down—or, more accurately, tripped on my own two feet and fell flat on my face. Regardless, it was a moment when I could have stayed down. I could have said to myself: I’m an idiot! Nothing I do is good enough! And I could have dropped the class.
Instead, my self-talk was defiantly hopeful: I won’t quit! I can figure this out!
For the rest of the semester, I not only tried harder, I tried things I hadn’t done before. I went to every teaching assistants’ office hours. I asked for extra work. I practiced doing the most difficult problems under time pressure—mimicking the conditions under which I needed to produce a flawless performance. I knew my nerves were going to be a problem at exam time, so I resolved to attain a level of mastery where nothing could surprise me. By the time the final exam came around, I felt like I could have written it myself.
I aced the final. My overall grade in the course was a B—the lowest grade I’d get in four years, but, ultimately, the one that made me the proudest.
Little did I know when I was foundering in my neurobiology class that I was re-creating the conditions of a famous psychology experiment.
Let me wind back the clock to 1964. Two first-year psychology doctoral students named Marty Seligman and Steve Maier are in a windowless laboratory, watching a caged dog receive electric shocks to its back paws. The shocks come randomly and without warning. If the dog does nothing, the shock lasts five seconds, but if the dog pushes its nose against a panel at the front of the cage, the shock ends early. In a separate cage, another dog is receiving the same shocks at exactly the same intervals, but there’s no panel to push on. In other words, both dogs get the exact same dosage of shock at the exact same times, but only the first dog is in control of how long each shock lasts. After sixty-four shocks, both dogs go back to their home cages, and new dogs are brought in for the same procedure.
The next day, one by one, all the dogs are placed in a different cage called a shuttle box. In the middle, there’s a low wall, just high enough that the dogs can leap the barrier if they try. A high-pitched tone plays, heralding an impending shock, which comes through the floor of the half of the shuttle box where the dog is standing. Nearly all the dogs who had control over the shocks the previous day learn to leap the barrier. They hear the tone and jump over the wall to safety. In contrast, two-thirds of the dogs who had no control over the shocks the previous day just lie down whimpering, passively waiting for the punishments to stop.
This seminal experiment proved for the first time that it isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.
Many years after deciding to major in the subject I was failing, I sat in a graduate student cubicle a few doors down from Marty’s office, reading about this experiment on learned helplessness. I quickly saw the parallels to my earlier experience. The first neurobiology quiz brought unexpected pain. I struggled to improve my situation, but when the midterm came, I got shocked again. The shuttle box was the rest of the semester. Would I conclude from my earlier experience that I was helpless to change my situation? After all, my immediate experience suggested that two disastrous outcomes would be followed by a third.
Or would I be like the few dogs who, despite recent memories of uncontrollable pain, held fast to hope? Would I consider my earlier suffering to be the result of particular mistakes I could avoid in the future? Would I expand my focus beyond the recent past, remembering the many times I’d shrugged off failure and eventually prevailed?
As it turns out, I behaved like the one-third of dogs in Marty and Steve’s study that persevered. I got up again and kept fighting.
In the decade following that 1964 experiment, additional experiments revealed that suffering without control reliably produces symptoms of clinical depression, including changes in appetite and physical activity, sleep problems, and poor concentration.
When Marty and Steve first proposed that animals and people can learn that they are helpless, their theory was considered downright absurd by fellow researchers. Nobody at the time took seriously the possibility that dogs could have thoughts that then influenced their behavior. In fact, few psychologists entertained the possibility that people had thoughts that influenced their behavior. Instead, the received wisdom was that all living animals simply respond mechanically to punishments and rewards.
After a mountain of data had accumulated, ruling out every conceivable alternative explanation, the scientific community was, at long last, convinced.
Having thoroughly plumbed the disastrous consequences of uncontrollable stress in the laboratory, Marty grew more and more interested in what could be done about it. He decided to retrain as a clinical psychologist. Wisely, he chose to do so under the wing of Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist and fellow pioneer in understanding the root causes and practical antidotes for depression.
What followed was a vigorous exploration of the flip side of learned helplessness, which Marty later dubbed learned optimism. The crucial insight that seeded Marty’s new work was available from the very beginning: While two-thirds of the dogs that had experienced uncontrollable shock later gave up trying to help themselves, about a third remained resilient. Despite their earlier trauma, they kept trying maneuvers that would bring relief from pain.
It was those resilient dogs that led Marty to study the analogous I won’t quit response to adversity in people. Optimists, Marty soon discovered, are just as likely to encounter bad events as pessimists. Where they diverge is in their explanations: optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes of their suffering, whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame.
Here’s an example from the test Marty and his students developed to distinguish optimists from pessimists: Imagine: You can’t get all the work done that others expect of you. Now imagine one major cause for this event. What leaps to mind? After you read that hypothetical scenario, you write down your response, and then, after you’re offered more scenarios, your responses are rated for how temporary (versus permanent) and how specific (versus pervasive) they are.
If you’re a pessimist, you might say, I screw up everything. Or: I’m a loser. These explanations are all permanent; there’s not much you can do to change them. They’re also pervasive; they’re likely to influence lots of life situations, not just your job performance. Permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity turn minor complications into major catastrophes. They make it seem logical to give up. If, on the other hand, you’re an optimist, you might say, I mismanaged my time. Or: I didn’t work efficiently because of distractions. These explanations are all temporary and specific; their “fixability” motivates you to start clearing them away as problems.
Using this test, Marty confirmed that, compared to optimists, pessimists are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. What’s more, optimists fare better in domains not directly related to mental health. For instance, optimistic undergraduates tend to earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out of school. Optimistic young adults stay healthier throughout middle age and, ultimately, live longer than pessimists. Optimists are more satisfied with their marriages. A one-year field study of MetLife insurance agents found that optimists are twice as likely to stay in their jobs, and that they sell about 25 percent more insurance than their pessimistic colleagues. Likewise, studies of salespeople in telecommunications, real estate, office products, car sales, banking, and other industries have shown that optimists outsell pessimists by 20 to 40 percent.
In one study, elite swimmers, many of whom were training for the U.S. Olympic trials, took Marty’s optimism test. Next, coaches asked each swimmer to swim in his or her best event and then deliberately told each swimmer they’d swum just a little slower than was actually the case. Given the opportunity to repeat their event, optimists did at least as well as in their first attempt, but pessimists performed substantially worse.
How do grit paragons think about setbacks? Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that they explain events optimistically. Journalist Hester Lacey finds the same striking pattern in her interviews with remarkably creative people. “What has been your greatest disappointment?” she asks each of them. Whether they’re artists or entrepreneurs or community activists, their response is nearly identical. “Well, I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well okay, that didn’t go so well, but I guess I will just carry on.’ ”
Around the time Marty Seligman took his two-year hiatus from laboratory research, his new mentor Aaron Beck was questioning his own training in Freudian psychoanalysis. Like most psychiatrists at the time, Beck had been taught that all forms of mental illness were rooted in unconscious childhood conflicts.
Beck disagreed. He had the audacity to suggest that a psychiatrist could actually talk directly to patients about what was bothering them, and that the patients’ thoughts—their self-talk—could be the target of therapy. The foundational insight of Beck’s new approach was that the same objective event—losing a job, getting into an argument with a coworker, forgetting to call a friend—can lead to very different subjective interpretations. And it is those interpretations—rather than the objective events themselves—that can give rise to our feelings and our behavior.
Cognitive behavioral therapy—which aims to treat depression and other psychological maladies by helping patients think more objectively and behave in healthier ways—has shown that, whatever our childhood sufferings, we can generally learn to observe our negative self-talk and change our maladaptive behaviors. As with any other skill, we can practice interpreting what happens to us and responding as an optimist would. Cognitive behavioral therapy is now a widely practiced psychotherapeutic treatment for depression, and has proven longer-lasting in its effects than antidepressant medication.
A few years after I’d gotten a toehold in grit research, Wendy Kopp, the founder and then CEO of Teach For America, came to visit Marty.
Then still his graduate student, I was eager to join their meeting for two reasons. First, Teach For America was sending hundreds of recent college graduates into disadvantaged school districts across the country. From personal experience, I knew teaching to be a grit-demanding profession, nowhere more so than in the urban and rural classrooms where TFA teachers are assigned. Second, Wendy was herself a paragon of grit. Famously, she’d conceived of TFA during her senior year at Princeton and, unlike so many idealists who eventually give up on their dream, she’d stuck with it, starting from nothing and creating one of the largest and most influential educational nonprofits in the country. “Relentless pursuit” was both a core value of TFA and the phrase often used by friends and coworkers to describe Wendy’s leadership style.
At that meeting, the three of us developed a hypothesis: Teachers who have an optimistic way of interpreting adversity have more grit than their more pessimistic counterparts, and grit, in turn, predicts better teaching. For instance, an optimistic teacher might keep looking for ways to help an uncooperative student, whereas a pessimist might assume there was nothing more to be done. To test whether that was true, we decided to measure optimism and grit before teachers set foot in the classroom and, a year later, see how effectively teachers had advanced the academic progress of their students.
That August, four hundred TFA teachers completed the Grit Scale and, in addition, Marty’s questionnaire assessing their optimism. To the extent they thought of temporary and specific causes for bad events, and permanent and pervasive causes of good events, we coded their responses as optimistic. To the extent they did the reverse, we coded their responses as pessimistic.
In the same survey, we measured one more thing: happiness. Why? For one thing, there was a small but growing body of scientific evidence that happiness wasn’t just the consequence of performing well at work, it might also be an important cause. Also, we were curious about how happy the grittiest teachers were. Did single-minded passion and perseverance come at a cost? Or could you be gritty and happy at the same time?
One year later, when Teach For America had tabulated effectiveness ratings for each teacher based on the academic gains of their students, we analyzed our data. Just as we’d expected, optimistic teachers were grittier and happier, and grit and happiness in turn explained why optimistic teachers got their students to achieve more during the school year.
After staring at these results for a while, I began reminiscing about my own experience of classroom teaching. I remembered the many afternoons I’d gone home exasperated and exhausted. I remembered battling catastrophic self-talk about my own capabilities—Oh god, I really am an idiot!—and those of my young charges—She got it wrong again? She’ll never learn this! And I remembered the mornings I’d gotten up and decided, after all, that there was one more tactic worth trying: Maybe if I bring in a Hershey bar and cut it into pieces, they’ll get the idea of fractions. Maybe if I have everyone clean out their lockers on Mondays, they’ll get in the habit of keeping their lockers clean.
The data from this study of young teachers, along with Wendy Kopp’s intuitions, interviews with grit paragons, and a half century of psychological research all point to the same, commonsense conclusion: When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.
Or as Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t—you’re right.”
Around the time Marty Seligman and Steve Maier were linking hopelessness to a lack of perceived control, a young psychology major named Carol Dweck was making her way through college. Carol had always been intrigued that some people persevere while others in identical circumstances give up. Right after graduation, she enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology and pursued this question.
Marty and Steve’s work had a profound influence on young Carol. She believed their findings but was unsatisfied. Sure, attributing your misery to causes beyond your control was debilitating, but where did these attributions come from in the first place? Why, she asked, did one person grow up to be an optimist and another a pessimist?
In one of Carol’s first studies, she worked with middle schools to identify boys and girls who, by consensus of their teachers, the school principal, and the school psychologist, were especially “helpless” when confronted by failure. Her hunch was that these children believed that a lack of intellectual ability led to mistakes, rather than a lack of effort. In other words, she suspected it wasn’t just a long string of failures that made these children pessimistic, but rather their core beliefs about success and learning.
To test her idea, Carol divided the children into two groups. Half the children were assigned to a success only program. For several weeks, they solved math problems and, at the end of each session, no matter how many they’d completed, they received praise for doing well. The other half of the children in Carol’s study were assigned to an attribution retraining program. These children also solved math problems, but were occasionally told that they hadn’t solved enough problems during that particular session and, crucially, that they “should have tried harder.”
Afterward, all the children were given a combination of easy and very difficult problems to do.
Carol reasoned that, if prior failures were the root cause of helplessness, the success only program would boost motivation. If, on the other hand, the real problem was how children interpreted their failures, then the attribution retraining program would be more effective.
What Carol found is that the children in the success only program gave up just as easily after encountering very difficult problems as they had before training. In sharp contrast, children in the attribution retraining program tried harder after encountering difficulty. It seems as though they’d learned to interpret failure as a cue to try harder rather than as confirmation that they lacked the ability to succeed.
Over the next four decades, Carol probed deeper.
She soon discovered that people of all ages carry around in their minds private theories about how the world works. These points of view are conscious in that if Carol asks you questions about them, you have a ready answer. But like the thoughts you work on when you go to a cognitive behavioral therapist, you may not be aware of them until you’re asked.
Here are four statements Carol uses to assess a person’s theory of intelligence. Read them now and consider how much you agree or disagree with each:
Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
If you found yourself nodding affirmatively to the first two statements but shaking your head in disagreement with the last two, then Carol would say you have more of a fixed mindset. If you had the opposite reaction, then Carol would say you tend toward a growth mindset.
I like to think of a growth mindset this way: Some of us believe, deep down, that people really can change. These growth-oriented people assume that it’s possible, for example, to get smarter if you’re given the right opportunities and support and if you try hard enough and if you believe you can do it. Conversely, some people think you can learn skills, like how to ride a bike or do a sales pitch, but your capacity to learn skills—your talent—can’t be trained. The problem with holding the latter fixed-mindset view—and many people who consider themselves talented do—is that no road is without bumps. Eventually, you’re going to hit one. At that point, having a fixed mind-set becomes a tremendous liability. This is when a C-, a rejection letter, a disappointing progress review at work, or any other setback can derail you. With a fixed mindset, you’re likely to interpret these setbacks as evidence that, after all, you don’t have “the right stuff”—you’re not good enough. With a growth mindset, you believe you can learn to do better.
Mindsets have been shown to make a difference in all the same life domains as optimism. For instance, if you have a growth mindset, you’re more likely to do well in school, enjoy better emotional and physical health, and have stronger, more positive social relationships with other people.
A few years ago, Carol and I asked more than two thousand high school seniors to complete a growth-mindset questionnaire. We’ve found that students with a growth mindset are significantly grittier than students with a fixed mindset. What’s more, grittier students earn higher report card grades and, after graduation, are more likely to enroll in and persist through college. I’ve since measured growth mindset and grit in both younger children and older adults, and in every sample, I’ve found that growth mindset and grit go together.
When you ask Carol where our mindsets come from, she’ll point to people’s personal histories of success and failure and how the people around them, particularly those in a position of authority, have responded to these outcomes.
Consider, for example, what people said to you when, as a child, you did something really well. Were you praised for your talent? Or were you praised for your effort? Either way, chances are you use the same language today when evaluating victories and defeats.
Praising effort and learning over “natural talent” is an explicit target of teacher training in the KIPP schools. KIPP stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, and it was started in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two gritty young Teach For America teachers. Today, KIPP schools serve seventy thousand elementary, middle, and high school students across the country. The vast majority of KIPPsters, as they proudly refer to themselves, come from low-income families. Against the odds, almost all graduate from high school, and more than 80 percent go on to college.
KIPP teachers get a little thesaurus during training. On one side, there are encouragements teachers often use with the best of intentions. On the other, there is language that subtly sends the message that life is about challenging yourself and learning to do what you couldn’t do before. See below for examples appropriate for people of any age. Whether you’re a parent, manager, coach, or any other type of mentor, I suggest you observe your own language over the next few days, listening for the beliefs your words may be reinforcing in yourself and others.
Undermines Growth Mindset and Grit
Promotes Growth Mindset and Grit
“You’re a natural! I love that.”
“You’re a learner! I love that.”
“Well, at least you tried!”
“That didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better.”
“Great job! You’re so talented!”
“Great job! What’s one thing that could have been even better?”
“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.”
“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.”
“Maybe this just isn’t your strength. Don’t worry—you have other things to contribute.”I
“I have high standards. I’m holding you to them because I know we can reach them together.”
Language is one way to cultivate hope. But modeling a growth mindset—demonstrating by our actions that we truly believe people can learn to learn—may be even more important.
Author and activist James Baldwin once put it this way: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” This is one of Dave Levin’s favorite quotes, and I’ve watched him begin many KIPP training workshops with it.
A psychologist in my lab, Daeun Park, recently found this to be exactly the case. In a yearlong study of first- and second-grade classrooms, she found that teachers who gave special privileges to higher-performing students and emphasized how they compared to others inadvertently inculcated a fixed mindset among the young students. Over the year, students of teachers who acted this way grew to prefer games and problems that were easy, “so you can get a lot right.” By year’s end, they were more likely to agree that “a person is a certain amount smart, and stays pretty much the same.”
Similarly, Carol and her collaborators are finding that children develop more of a fixed mindset when their parents react to mistakes as though they’re harmful and problematic. This is true even when these parents say they have a growth mindset. Our children are watching us, and they’re imitating what we do.
The same dynamics apply in a corporate setting. Berkeley professor Jennifer Chatman and her collaborators recently surveyed employees of Fortune 1000 companies about mindset, motivation, and well-being. They found that, in each company, there was a consensus about mindset. In fixed-mindset companies, employees agreed with statements like “When it comes to being successful, this company seems to believe that people have a certain amount of talent, and they really can’t do much to change it.” They felt that only a few star performers were highly valued and that the company wasn’t truly invested in other employees’ development. These respondents also admitted to keeping secrets, cutting corners, and cheating to get ahead. By contrast, in growth-mindset cultures, employees were 47 percent more likely to say their colleagues were trustworthy, 49 percent more likely to say their company fosters innovation, and 65 percent more likely to say their company supports risk taking.
How do you treat high achievers? How do you react when others disappoint you?
My guess is that no matter how much you embrace the idea of growth mindset, you often default to a fixed mindset. At least, this is the case for Carol, Marty, and me. All of us know how we’d like to react when, say, someone we’re supervising brings us work that falls short of expectations. We’d like our knee-jerk reflex to be calm and encouraging. We aspire to have an Okay, what is there to learn here? attitude toward mistakes.
But we’re human. So, more often than we’d like, we get frustrated. We show our impatience. In judging the person’s abilities, we allow a flicker of doubt to distract us momentarily from the more important task of what they could do next to improve.
The reality is that most people have an inner fixed-mindset pessimist in them right alongside their inner growth-mindset optimist. Recognizing this is important because it’s easy to make the mistake of changing what we say without changing our body language, facial expressions, and behavior.
So what should we do? A good first step is to watch for mismatches between our words and actions. When we slip up—and we will—we can simply acknowledge that it’s hard to move away from a fixed, pessimistic view of the world. One of Carol’s colleagues, Susan Mackie, works with CEOs and encourages them to give names to their inner fixed-mindset characters. Then they can say things like “Oops. I guess I brought Controlling Claire to the meeting today. Let me try that again.” Or: “Overwhelmed Olivia is struggling to deal with all the competing demands, can you help me think this through?”
Ultimately, adopting a gritty perspective involves recognizing that people get better at things—they grow. Just as we want to cultivate the ability to get up off the floor when life has knocked us down, we want to give those around us the benefit of the doubt when something they’ve tried isn’t a raging success. There’s always tomorrow.
I recently called Bill McNabb for his perspective. Since 2008, Bill has served as the CEO of Vanguard, the world’s largest provider of mutual funds.
“We’ve actually tracked senior leaders here at Vanguard and asked why some did better in the long run than others. I used to use the word ‘complacency’ to describe the ones who didn’t work out, but the more I reflect on it, the more I realize that’s not quite it. It’s really a belief that ‘I can’t learn anymore. I am what I am. This is how I do things.’ ”
And what about executives who ultimately excelled?
“The people who have continued to be successful here have stayed on a growth trajectory. They just keep surprising you with how much they’re growing. We’ve had people who, if you looked at their résumé coming in, you’d say, ‘Wow, how did that person end up so successful?’ And we’ve had other people come in with incredible credentials, and you’re wondering, ‘Why did they not go further?’ ”
When Bill discovered the research on growth mindset and grit, it confirmed his intuitions—not just as a corporate leader but as a father, former high school Latin teacher, rowing coach, and athlete. “I really do think people develop theories about themselves and the world, and it determines what they do.”
When we got to the question of where, exactly, any of us begin formulating these theories, Bill said, “Believe it or not, I actually started out with more of a fixed mindset.” He chalks up that mindset, partly, to his parents enrolling him, while he was still in elementary school, in a research study at a nearby university. He remembers taking a whole battery of intelligence tests and, at the end, being told, “You did really well, and you’re going to do really well in school.”
For a while, an authoritative diagnosis of talent, in combination with early success, boosted his confidence: “I took great pride in finishing tests faster than anyone else. I didn’t always get one hundred percent, but I usually came close, and I took great pleasure in not working that hard to achieve what I did.”
Bill attributes his switch to a growth mindset to joining the crew team in college. “I’d never rowed before, but I found I liked being on the water. I liked being outside. I liked the exercise. I sort of fell in love with the sport.”
Rowing was the first thing Bill wanted to do well that didn’t come easily: “I was not a natural,” he told me. “I had a lot of failures early on. But I kept going, and then eventually, I started getting better. Suddenly, it began to make sense: ‘Put your head down and go hard. Hard work really, really matters.’ ” By the end of his freshman season, Bill was in the junior varsity boat. That didn’t sound so bad to me, but Bill explained that, statistically, this placement suggested there was no chance of ever making varsity. That summer, he stayed on campus and rowed all summer.
All that practice paid off. Bill was promoted to the “stroke seat” of the junior varsity boat, making him the one who sets the pace for the other seven rowers. During the season, one of the varsity rowers was injured, and Bill had the opportunity to show what he could do. By his account, and also the team captain’s, he did terrifically well. Still, when the injured rower recovered, the coach demoted Bill again.
“That coach had a fixed mindset—he just couldn’t believe that I’d improved as much as I did.”
There were more ups and downs, but Bill’s growth mindset kept getting affirmed. “Because I’d come so damn close to quitting and yet hung in there, and because things eventually did work out, I learned a lesson I’d never forget. The lesson was that, when you have setbacks and failures, you can’t overreact to them. You need to step back, analyze them, and learn from them. But you also need to stay optimistic.”
How did that lesson help Bill later in life? “There have been times in my career where I felt discouraged. I’d watch someone else get promoted before me. I’d want things to go a certain way, and they’d go the opposite. At those points, I’d say to myself, ‘Just keep working hard and learning, and it will all work out.’ ”
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche once said. Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson echo the same sentiment, and there’s a reason we keep repeating it. Many of us can remember a time when, like Bill McNabb, we were confronted with challenge and yet emerged on the other side more confident than when we began.
Consider, for example, the Outward Bound program, which sends adolescents or adults into the wilderness with experienced leaders, usually for a few weeks. From its inception a half century ago, the premise of Outward Bound—so named for the moment a ship leaves harbor for the open seas—has been that challenging outdoor situations develop “tenacity in pursuit” and “undefeatable spirit.” In fact, across dozens of studies, the program has been shown to increase independence, confidence, assertiveness, and the belief that what happens in life is largely under your control. What’s more, these benefits tend to increase, rather than diminish, in the six months following participation in the program.
All the same, it’s undeniable that what doesn’t kill us sometimes makes us weaker. Consider the dogs who were shocked repeatedly with no control. A third of the dogs were resilient to this adversity, but there was no evidence that any of the dogs in the uncontrollable stress condition benefited from the experience in any way. On the contrary, most were much more vulnerable to suffering in the immediate aftermath.
So, it appears that sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes it does the opposite. The urgent question becomes: When? When does struggle lead to hope, and when does struggle lead to hopelessness?
A few years ago, Steve Maier and his students designed an experiment nearly identical to the one he and Marty Seligman had conducted forty years earlier: One group of rats received electric shocks, but if they turned a small wheel with their front paws, they could turn off the shock until the next trial. A second group received the exact same dose of electric shocks as the first but had no control over their duration.
One crucial difference was that, in the new experiment, the rats were only five weeks old—that’s adolescence in the rat life cycle. A second difference was that the effects of this experience were assessed five weeks later, when the rats were fully mature adults. At that point, both groups of rats were subjected to uncontrollable electric shocks and, the next day, observed in a social exploration test.
Here’s what Steve learned. Adolescent rats who experienced stress they could not control grew up to be adult rats who, after being subjected to uncontrollable shocks a second time, behaved timidly. This was not unusual—they learned to be helpless in the same way that any other rat would. In contrast, adolescent rats who experienced stress they could control grew up to be more adventurous and, most astounding, appeared to be inoculated against learned helplessness in adulthood. That’s right—when these “resilient rats” grew up, the usual uncontrollable shock procedures no longer made them helpless.
In other words, what didn’t kill the young rats, when by their own efforts they could control what was happening, made them stronger for life.
When I learned about Steve Maier’s new experimental work, I just had to talk to him in person. I got on a plane to Colorado.
Steve walked me around his laboratory and showed me the special cages equipped with little wheels that, when turned, cut off the current to the electric shock. Afterward, the graduate student who ran the experiment on adolescent rats that I just described gave a talk on the brain circuits and neurotransmitters involved. Finally, when Steve and I sat down together, I asked him to explain, from this experiment and everything else he’d done in his long and distinguished career, the neurobiology of hope.
Steve thought for a moment. “Here’s the deal in a few sentences. You’ve got lots of places in the brain that respond to aversive experiences. Like the amygdala. In fact, there are a whole bunch of limbic areas that respond to stress.”
“Now what happens is that these limbic structures are regulated by higher-order brain areas, like the prefrontal cortex. And so, if you have an appraisal, a thought, a belief—whatever you want to call it—that says, ‘Wait a minute, I can do something about this!’ or ‘This really isn’t so bad!’ or whatever, then these inhibitory structures in the cortex are activated. They send a message: ‘Cool it down there! Don’t get so activated. There’s something we can do.’ ”
I got it. But I still didn’t understand, fully, why Steve had gone to the trouble of experimenting with adolescent rats.
“The long-term story needs some more explanation,” he continued. “We think there is plasticity in that circuitry. If you experience adversity—something pretty potent—that you overcome on your own during your youth, you develop a different way of dealing with adversity later on. It’s important that the adversity be pretty potent. Because these brain areas really have to wire together in some fashion, and that doesn’t happen with just minor inconveniences.”
So you can’t just talk someone into believing they can master challenges?
“That’s right. Just telling somebody they can overcome adversity isn’t enough. For the rewiring to happen, you have to activate the control circuitry at the same time as those low-level areas. That happens when you experience mastery at the same time as adversity.”
And what about a life history of challenge without control?
“I worry a lot about kids in poverty,” Steve said. “They’re getting a lot of helplessness experiences. They’re not getting enough mastery experiences. They’re not learning: ‘I can do this. I can succeed in that.’ My speculation is that those earlier experiences can have really enduring effects. You need to learn that there’s a contingency between your actions and what happens to you: ‘If I do something, then something will happen.’ ”
The scientific research is very clear that experiencing trauma without control can be debilitating. But I also worry about people who cruise through life, friction-free, for a long, long time before encountering their first real failure. They have so little practice falling and getting up again. They have so many reasons to stick with a fixed mindset.
I see a lot of invisibly vulnerable high-achievers stumble in young adulthood and struggle to get up again. I call them the “fragile perfects.” Sometimes I meet fragile perfects in my office after a midterm or a final. Very quickly, it becomes clear that these bright and wonderful people know how to succeed but not how to fail.
Last year, I kept in touch with a freshman at Penn named Kayvon Asemani. Kayvon has the sort of résumé that might make you worry he’s a fragile perfect: valedictorian of his high school class, student body president, star athlete … the list goes on.
But I assure you that Kayvon is the very embodiment of growth mindset and optimism. We met when he was a senior at the Milton Hershey School, a tuition-free boarding school originally established by chocolatier Milton Hershey for orphan boys and, to this day, a haven for children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. Kayvon and his siblings ended up at Hershey just before Kayvon entered the fifth grade—one year after his father nearly strangled his mother to death, leaving her in a permanent coma.
At Hershey, Kayvon thrived. He discovered a passion for music, playing the trombone in two school bands. And he discovered leadership, giving speeches to state politicians, creating a student-run school news website, chairing committees that raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity, and in his senior year, serving as student body president.
In January, Kayvon emailed to let me know how his first semester had gone. “I finished the first semester with a 3.5,” he wrote. “Three A’s and one C. I’m not completely satisfied with it. I know what I did right to get the A’s and I know what I did wrong to get the C.”
As for his poorest grade? “That C in Economics caught up to me because I was in a hole from my conflicted thoughts about this place and whether I fit in… . I can definitely do better than a 3.5, and a 4.0 is not out of the question. My first semester mentality was that I have a lot to learn from these kids. My new mentality is that I have a lot to teach them.”
The spring semester wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, either. Kayvon earned a bunch of A’s but didn’t do nearly as well as he’d hoped in his two quantitative courses. We talked, briefly, about the option of transferring out of Wharton, Penn’s highly competitive business school, and I pointed out that there was no shame in switching into a different major. Kayvon was having none of it.
Here’s an excerpt from his email to me in June: “Numbers and executing quantitative concepts have always been difficult for me. But I embrace the challenge, and I’m going to apply all the grit I have to improving myself and making myself better, even if it means graduating with a GPA less than what I would have earned if I just majored in something that didn’t require me to manipulate numbers.”
I have no doubt that Kayvon will keep getting up, time and again, always learning and growing.
Collectively, the evidence I’ve presented tells the following story: A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity, and that, in turn, leads to both giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place. In contrast, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that, in turn, leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger.
My recommendation for teaching yourself hope is to take each step in the sequence above and ask, What can I do to boost this one?
My first suggestion in that regard is to update your beliefs about intelligence and talent.
When Carol and her collaborators try to convince people that intelligence, or any other talent, can improve with effort, she starts by explaining the brain. For instance, she recounts a study published in the top scientific journal Nature that tracked adolescent brain development. Many of the adolescents in this study increased their IQ scores from age fourteen, when the study started, to age eighteen, when it concluded. This fact—that IQ scores are not entirely fixed over a person’s life span—usually comes as a surprise. What’s more, Carol continues, these same adolescents showed sizable changes in brain structure: “Those who got better at math skills strengthened the areas of the brain related to math, and the same was true for English skills.”
Carol also explains that the brain is remarkably adaptive. Like a muscle that gets stronger with use, the brain changes itself when you struggle to master a new challenge. In fact, there’s never a time in life when the brain is completely “fixed.” Instead, all our lives, our neurons retain the potential to grow new connections with one another and to strengthen the ones we already have. What’s more, throughout adulthood, we maintain the ability to grow myelin, a sort of insulating sheath that protects neurons and speeds signals traveling between them.
My next suggestion is to practice optimistic self-talk.
The link between cognitive behavioral therapy and learned helplessness led to the development of “resilience training.” In essence, this interactive curriculum is a preventative dose of cognitive behavioral therapy. In one study, children who completed this training showed lower levels of pessimism and developed fewer symptoms of depression over the next two years. In a similar study, pessimistic college students demonstrated less anxiety over the subsequent two years and less depression over three years.
If, reading this chapter, you recognize yourself as an extreme pessimist, my advice is to find a cognitive behavioral therapist. I know how unsatisfying this recommendation might sound. Many years ago, as a teenager, I wrote to Dear Abby about a problem I was having. “Go see a therapist,” she wrote back. I recall tearing up her letter, angry she didn’t propose a neater, faster, more straightforward solution. Nevertheless, suggesting that reading twenty pages about the science of hope is enough to remove an ingrained pessimistic bias would be naive. There’s much more to say about cognitive behavioral therapy and resilience training than I can summarize here.
The point is that you can, in fact, modify your self-talk, and you can learn to not let it interfere with you moving toward your goals. With practice and guidance, you can change the way you think, feel, and, most important, act when the going gets rough.
As a transition to the final section of this book, “Growing Grit from the Outside In,” let me offer one final suggestion for teaching yourself hope: Ask for a helping hand.
A few years ago, I met a retired mathematician named Rhonda Hughes. Nobody in Rhonda’s family had gone to college, but as a girl, she liked math a whole lot more than stenography. Rhonda eventually earned a PhD in mathematics and, after seventy-nine of her eighty applications for a faculty position were rejected, she took a job at the single university that made her an offer.
One reason Rhonda got in touch was to tell me that she had an issue with an item on the Grit Scale. “I don’t like that item that says, ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me.’ That makes no sense. I mean, who doesn’t get discouraged by setbacks? I certainly do. I think it should say, ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me for long. I get back on my feet.’ ”
Of course, Rhonda was right, and in so many words, I changed the item accordingly.
But the most important thing about Rhonda’s story is that she almost never got back up all by herself. Instead, she figured out that asking for help was a good way to hold on to hope.
Here’s just one of the stories she told me: “I had this mentor who knew, even before I did, that I was going to be a mathematician. It all started when I’d done very poorly on one of his tests, and I went to his office and cried. All of a sudden, he jumped up out of his chair and, without a word, ran out of the room. When, finally, he came back he said, ‘Young lady, you should go to graduate school in mathematics. But you’re taking all of the wrong courses.’ And he had all of the courses I should have been taking mapped out, and the personal promises of other faculty that they’d help.”
About twenty years ago, Rhonda cofounded the EDGE Program with Sylvia Bozeman, a fellow mathematician. EDGE stands for Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education, and its mission is to support women and minority students pursuing doctoral training in mathematics. “People assume you have to have some special talent to do mathematics,” Sylvia has said. “They think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. But Rhonda and I keep saying, ‘You actually develop the ability to do mathematics. Don’t give up!’ ”
“There have been so many times in my career when I wanted to pack it in, when I wanted to give up and do something easier,” Rhonda told me. “But there was always someone who, in one way or another, told me to keep going. I think everyone needs somebody like that. Don’t you?”
I. There’s an expression in sports: “Race your strengths and train your weaknesses.” I agree with the wisdom of this adage, but I also think it’s important that people recognize that skills improve with practice.