What is more important for success: talent or effort?
Most of us would say it’s talent. But according to psychologist and best-selling author Angela Duckworth, most of us would be completely wrong.
This is one of the key points of his best-selling book Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. In an interview with Rosanna Lockwood at the CFA Institute’s Alpha Summit GLOBAL, Duckworth, who is also founder and CEO of Character Lab and co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, explained what his research has revealed about the nature. of success and how talent and value contribute to it.
From an early age, Duckworth understood our tendency to overestimate talent. His parents’ obsessive focus on achievement and success was a key factor.
“It was talked about all the time in our house,” she said. “Who was the most successful person in our family? Who is the most successful of our cousins? Who is the most brilliant physicist who ever lived? Who is the greatest painter who ever lived?”
His father especially saw talent as almost synonymous with ultimate success.
But Duckworth took a different tack. “I grew up to be a psychologist who studies pretty much everything that is no your innate talent, your gifts,” he said. “The one common denominator I’ve identified in great achievers, whether they’re athletes, musicians or investors, is heart.”
The core concept of grit sounds very simple: “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” in Duckworth’s words. But it gets complicated. “This grain quality is malleable and doesn’t correlate at all with measures of talent,” he said.
So not only do we need to overcome the belief that talent defines our potential and limits what we can achieve, but we also need to rethink how we think to get the most out of our talent.
Consider the so-called 10,000-hour rule. This concept, based on a single study of German musicians, created the misconception that mastery could be achieved simply by putting in the time. But this is an oversimplification. The actual study found that a very specific and extremely demanding type of practice differentiated the superior from the very good, that the quality of effort over time matters at least as much as the sheer amount of time.
Interpreting these findings through the lens of the “big,” Duckworth divided the principle into three elements:
- Focus on one specific aspect of overall performance and make deliberate efforts to improve it.
- Focus on this effort with 100% intensity, without multitasking, because half-hearted or mindless “practice” will not suffice.
- Ask for continuous feedback on how to do better and repeat steps 1-3 endlessly until excellence is achieved.
All this may seem like pure persistence. But grana has another critical component: passion. “Happiness, heart and success are all related,” Duckworth said. “Can you become truly world-class by doing thousands and thousands of hours of this kind of difficult deliberate practice without loving what you do?”
So there is nothing magical about the 10,000 hour rule. But there’s something magical about hours and hours of high-quality practice.
Persistence + Passion = Success?
Still, there’s more to the sand equation. Yes, persistence pays, but most of us still think of talent as a rigid, inflexible substance. Duckworth’s research has explored how this mindset influences us, and the hardest part of achieving true noise may be understanding that our abilities are more malleable than we imagine.
“Your bravery, your curiosity, your humility — there’s nothing about you that’s completely fixed in terms of your mindsets, your habits, your character,” he said.
In Duckworth’s studies, “success” is always defined as objectively possible by accounting or measurable criteria. But the malleable nature of our potential is more subjective and dependent on conviction. The only way to measure it is to have the passion to persevere in the pursuit of something difficult for a long time. Throughout the process, we simply cannot know whether this hyper-focused effort will lead to success. Our preconceptions about the limits of our abilities can limit us more than our innate abilities.
But there is another subjective factor: happiness.
“Happiness and success must be related, but they are not the same thing. Happiness is how you feel about your life. It’s subjective, not objective,” Duckworth said. “Grit not only predicts objective measures of success, but it also subjectively predicts feeling happy, feeling a lot of positive emotion every day, and also feeling generally satisfied with your life “.
So what will make us happy is grinding persistence in the pursuit of some kind of unknown potential that can only be realized after years of sacrifice? Counterintuitive as it may sound, that’s exactly what Duckworth’s research suggests.
“I think what being tough really is is having some alignment in your goals, and so you have the opposite of conflict — that you’re chasing things aerodynamically with a lot of enthusiasm,” he explained. “There’s a wonderful harmony when you feel like what you’re pursuing aligns with your values and aligns with your interests, aligns with the way you spend your time. And that’s what I find from people very serious.”
When it comes to happiness, a sense of purpose can be more important than material wealth. “What really motivates people? More than money, honestly, it’s important,” Duckworth said. “It’s important, to be useful and to be appreciated by other people.”
There are more. Not only are serious people happier, they also tend to score high on other virtues. “There is a positive correlation between rigor and kindness, gratitude, empathy, curiosity and more,” he said. “These things are positively correlated, but they are not exactly the same. So we have to remind ourselves of the importance of ethics and other people.”
Beyond individual achievement
Grit does not develop in isolation but in a context. And culture is a critical element of this process, according to Duckworth. All shared national, local and family beliefs, values and rituals can contribute. Without the right environment, sand alone may not be enough.
So if you want to be braver, more humble, or whatever, you need to find a place where that’s more the norm. “If you’re in a culture where you’re constantly swimming against the tide, when you’re constantly trying to be something that nobody else cares about, that nobody else embodies, you’re going to feel very tired,” he said. “And then eventually the current takes you away.”
This grainy aspect poses a challenge for leaders. Organizational cultures can discourage noise and encourage toxic behaviors. In his book, Duckworth details company cultures that prioritized “talent” above all else. Narcissists tended to thrive at the expense of their more humble and steadfast counterparts, whose qualities were more correlated with long-term success. This often led to dysfunctional workplaces and even business failure.
The lesson is that many organizations may be looking for the wrong qualities when hiring their staff. Duckworth’s study of an intensive first summer program at the United States Military Academy at West Point is instructive in this regard. West Point leaders valued these “talent” factors like higher test scores and athletic achievement than the qualities more associated with toughness. But Duckworth found that talent had virtually no correlation with whether a cadet was successful in that summer program. Grit, however, had more predictive value.
Unfortunately, there is no standardized test for determination, so employers will need to look more closely at candidates’ histories and accomplishments. “In a high-stakes environment like recruiting,” he said, “I think my best idea at this point is to look at someone’s resume.”
Duckworth recommends that hiring managers keep an eye out for candidates who have fulfilled multi-year commitments, demonstrated upward progression, and demonstrated passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals.
Of course, a sand-centered culture is no antidote to toxic behavior. “It is possible to be very, very tough and still be ethical,” he said. “It is possible to be very, very harsh and totally unethical.”
That is why it is very important to emphasize ethics. No matter what type of team you’re building, you need to focus on a higher goal.
“Everything must ultimately serve an ethical purpose,” he said.
Our talent bias intersects with another of our biases: age. While many people believe that older people are less adaptable, flexible, innovative and creative, Duckworth’s research and personal observations tell a very different story.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are or who you are, you can change,” she said. “You can improve.” He cites the example of Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering work on behavioral finance. Well into his 80s, he still passionately pursues new interests.
“Danny Kahneman is as in love with research as he was when he was young, and he works as hard as ever,” he said. “And it’s voluntary.”
If age didn’t stop Kahneman, it shouldn’t stop us either.
“There’s no time and date stamp on when sand runs out or when it’s not age appropriate,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful way to live your life.”
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All posts are the opinion of the author. Therefore, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the views expressed necessarily reflect the views of the CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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