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Angela Duckworth, Founder & CEO of Character Lab

Angela Duckworth is an expert on “grit,” which she refers to as “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.” Her first book on the topic, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, became a New York Times #1 Bestseller and she went on to win a MacArthur “genius” grant for her research on character development.

Amongst her long list of accomplishments, one Angela is most proud of is founding a summer school for low-income children. She is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change For Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.

Angela is a unique example of a woman who has identified her purpose and is going after it with gusto. We were honored to sit down with this phenomenal mentor to talk about her jump from the corporate world to non-profits, the difference between interest and purpose, and the power of role models.

Your work focuses on the power of grit and how perseverance and passion have a tremendous impact on one's success. How did your personal experience pivoting from a corporate job to pursue education teach you about these values?

I think my values are what got me to pivot in the first place. Plenty of people find meaning and purpose in consulting. But for me, my heart was with kids. I needed to get back to helping kids, which is really my dearest held purpose. 

You describe grit as "having what some researchers call an 'ultimate concern'–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do." What advice would you give those looking to figure out what their 'ultimate concern' really is?

Write it down in 10 words or fewer. Make sure it says something about what you personally see as your purpose here on earth. And if you like, also include what your core interest is. Mine, in full, is: Use psychological science to help kids threw. Psychology is my interest; helping kids is my purpose. 

Although your research has primarily focused on the power of grit in K-12 education, how do your findings translate to the development of young professionals, entrepreneurs, and future leaders?

We're all growing up, aren't we? So we're all kids, in a sense, all our lives, continuing to screw up, stumble forward, fall down, and get up again. And I think great leaders see themselves as teachers and vice versa. 

As millennials enter the realm of parenthood, what are some of the key principles our generation should be thinking about when it comes to instilling grit in our own children?

Modeling is the most important thing parents do. Model the values and habits you want your kids to themselves live up to. And forgive yourself and your mistakes! Parenting is tremendously humbling because it is so hard, but don't feel like you're a failure if you occasionally say the wrong thing. Your kids will forgive you if they know at heart you love them. 

What advice would you give your younger self today that you didn't know when you were just starting out your career?

It's going to be okay, but it's not going to be perfect. Give up on perfection. 

Daily habit or routine that builds grit or provides a greater sense of meaning?

I'm trying to read every night, fiction or non-fiction. It feeds my brain and my soul. 

Most valuable advice you've ever received?

Everyone's life tells a story. Tell a story you can be proud of. 

Most gifted book (other than your own)?

I love About Alice by Calvin Trillin. A love letter from a husband to his wife.