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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Anne Foster

Leaving Your Talent at the Door

Author and Psychologist Angela Duckworth claimed that talent counts but effort counts twice.

Angela Duckworth said the key to success isn’t found in money, brains or connections, but grit.

Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Angela Duckworth addressed Elon University students, faculty and staff on Thursday in the Alumni Gym for Spring Convocation in order to inspire students to think beyond their natural talent and to focus on their passions and deliberate practice in order to meet success. 

Raised by a father who constantly told her she was no genius, beauty queen or Picasso, Duckworth had the desire to prove her father wrong.

Duckworth has spent the last decade conducting research on what traits and characteristics make individuals successful.

Are you are a hard worker, do you finish what you begin and lastly and do you have difficulty focussing on a project for more than a few months?

If you answered 'yes' to all three, Duckworth would consider you to have a high level of grit. She uses these questions along with many others to construct research on what traits and habits successful individuals possessed and how much natural talent weighs in their achievements.

Psychologist and best-selling author Angela Duckworth.

When defining what it means to have true grit, she pointed to an interview with actor Will Smith who explained what makes him different is the fact that he isn’t afraid to die on a treadmill.

“A person might have more talent than me, be sexier, smarter or better than me, but I will not be outworked,” Smith said. “Two things can happen, they will get off the treadmill before me, or I will die there.”

Although Smith is a talented actor, Duckworth pointed to his passion and perseverance over his skill as being his greatest quality. She explained that he is not the only case but that her data supports the idea that talent is not the sole determiner of success.

When a person loves what they are doing, they continue to seek opportunities for growth and understanding rather than those who reach what Duckworth calls a “plateau of arrested development.” This term refers to professionals left running through the motions of life, avoiding growth and upward mobility.

Another great obstacle to the plateau is the desire to quit. 

Although she claims that quitting isn’t innately wrong, due to the fact that a lot of things have to be quit in order to be successful in other things, it does show how committed a person is to their task at hand.

“When looking at SAT scores, there is no correlation between high scores and who sticks out the hard days in life,” Duckworth said. “It also shows that if you didn’t get that high score, there is no ceiling limiting your success.”

Duckworth presented her data on students at the highly esteemed and prestigious West Point Military Academy that graduated from the tops of their classes while also being varsity captains of their sports, class presidents, homecoming kings and queens and overall talented individuals. Despite their talents, a large percentage of them would drop out of the Academy the moment it got hard, proving that talent does not equate to grit.

But talent is not completely useless in Duckworth's eyes.

While speaking with her two daughters who talk about the gifted students, athletes or thespians at their school, her response is always, “Of course talent counts, but effort counts twice.”

In order to build this type of effort, Duckworth proposes four elements to create a deliberate practice.

Set a goal that is simple and achievable. She warns against trying to do everything at once, which often leads to achieving nothing at all. Get feedback from those you trust. Her main point: listen. Reflect and refine on what you have done and keep aiming to achieve more. Create a new goal once you have achieved your last.

“One thing you don’t see when you watch Olympic athletes or world-class musicians online is how many of these cycles those individuals went through,” Duckworth said. “You don’t achieve greatness overnight, it takes deliberate practice and dedicated hours of hard work.”

Duckworth acknowledged the fact that this cycle is a major time commitment and many individuals fear that success comes at a cost of their happiness.

“Statistically people who are passionate and dedicated have not given up their happiness, but are actually living in their greatest joy,” Duckworth said. “Even though my life is extremely hard, I would never trade it for something easier because I absolutely love what I do.”

In order to build grit, Duckworth offered the audience to choose one out of the four options, emphasizing that a person should truly only focus on one at a time.

1. Develop your interests

Duckworth suggests exploring what you love and seeking opportunities to intern or shadow those in your interested field. By finding what you are interested in, work becomes your preferred past time instead of a burden. 

2. Know the science of deliberate practice

In her data, Duckworth found that students that learned that working through the challenging, yet productive cycle achieve greater success while also staying focused and committed to their work. 

3. Cultivate purpose

Asking the question, "how will my work affect others?" helps determine how meaningful your world will be not only to the world but also to your own fulfillment.

4. Have a growth mindset

According to Duckworth, having a mindset that accepts and welcomes challenge and change versus a fixed mindset is one of the key elements in achieving goals and becoming the best version of yourself.

Her closing advice: find someone who doesn’t allow you to quit on the hard days.

While writing her immediate New York Times bestselling book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth almost threw her laptop in the Atlantic Ocean. But she didn't. Only because her husband was there and wouldn't allow her to quit right when things got hard.

"Trust me, things will get tough, no matter who you are and no matter what you are doing," Duckworth said. " You have to find someone who will encourage you when things get tough, scrape you off the floor and not let you quit as soon as you face adversity."

Duckworth encouraged the audience to welcome those voices into their lives and to find someone that they can support and encourage in the same way they need to be loved and supported.

"You can let them quit, just never let them quit on the hard days," Duckworth said.  "That is what proves true grit."

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