A Conversation with Angela Duckworth and Pete Carroll on Grit and the Science of Hope
“This growth mindset, the belief that people are designed for change and growth, is what disposes people to be resilient when things don’t go well.”
Angela Duckworth, award-winning psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, recently joined Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll in a discussion about grit, resilience, and the science of hope. (Their conversation has been edited for clarity).
Pete Carroll: A couple springs ago, I happened to be sitting at my desk and turned on the TV to Angela’s TED Talk. As she was talking about grit, everything she said hit home with the philosophy and the beliefs that we had. Then she gets to the end and says, “The one thing I regrettably have to say is that we don’t know how to teach grit. Thank you very much,” and signed off. Wait a minute. Turn it back on.
It floored me because I think we teach this stuff all the time. It’s something we’ve been in pursuit of for quite a while. I said, “We’ve got to get on the phone, we’ve got to figure this out. She’s got to be wrong.” About fifteen minutes later, I call her up and say, “Angela, this is Pete.” She said, “Pete who?”
Angela Duckworth: I didn’t know a lot about football. I do now.
Pete: No football, no background. We started a conversation and I started grilling her. Why did I have such an attitude? Because I’m gritty.
Angela: You’re definitely gritty.
Pete: We started the conversation and we’ve been talking ever since. Then she turned out a great book. The whole thing is so exciting to us because we want a culture of grit around our football team.
Angela: Maybe I can say something about what I said in the TED Talk, and also a little bit about what I have learned since the TED Talk, partly from you guys. When I say “grit” I don’t just mean old fashioned mental toughness. I was talking to an ESPN reporter today, and he said that this terminology can mean grinning through things. It’s not just that.
When I talk about grit, I really mean this combination of perseverance and passion for what you’re doing over the long term. It’s not just being mentally tough in the moment. It’s all the other moments. It’s all the practice that goes into being truly world class in what you do. It’s being preoccupied by what you do. Not just an occupation, but a preoccupation.
I think the reason why I’m so interested in whether you can build a culture as a team is because when I look at individuals who have grit it is invariably a characteristic that I find in the high achievers in every domain that I study. The question is, can we get a little more of that out of people? Can they cultivate it themselves?
When I did the TED Talk, I wanted to be conservative as a scientist and say, “We don’t know,” but if you look collectively at everything that’s known about growth mindset and how experts practice, there’s no reason why people should think that their amount of grit is fixed. Why can’t you learn to practice better, more efficiently? Why couldn’t that change?
Pete:It makes so much sense. Can’t we help somebody become a little more passionate about what they’re dealing with? With our team, people come to us and they get ahold of the energy that is around our program and the players that we have on our team, and they see, “This is pretty cool. I could be a part of this,” and they like it and so they start finding ways to engage more. We start to see them become one of our guys.
Can we teach them to persevere, to hang tough, and finish things with a better attitude by showing them through the example of other players and coaches? Can we help them be a little more resilient? Could you explain perseverance?
Angela:If you look at what I would call “paragons of grit,” people who are world class in whatever they do, they’re typically paragons of passion. They tend to evolve through three stages.
At the very earliest stage, which some scientists have called the early years, or the romance period, there’s a budding interest. You think about kids getting into football. That early stage is very playful, it’s fun. They’re developing an affection for the sport.
The second stage, called the middle years or the precision period, kids start to practice. They practice in a particular way, with intention. They’re practicing on very specific aspects of their overall performance, like specific moves, specific muscles. They’re doing it with full attention.
Then they’re getting feedback: on what they’re doing right, on what they could be doing better. Then finally, they’re reflecting on that feedback. They’re making these little adjustments and they’re doing the whole thing over again.
The final stage of evolution of a paragon of grit is purpose. It’s a purpose that serves beyond self-motivation. Not just that I’m personally interested in football, not my own well-being entirely, but what matters for me is the team, the sport, Seattle, the community. This “beyond the self” purpose tends to happen in the final stage of evolution. You’re still practicing, you’re still trying to get better, but now there’s a much deeper motivation. That sustains people over the arc of their career, especially as they mature into the later stages of development.
Those are the three stages. That last stage is called the integration period. This is something that I hear you say to the players all the time: you want people to be their individual selves, but their best individual. You’re not trying to have a cookie cutter Seahawk. That integration period is often described as having that “beyond-self” purpose, but also integrating your individuality. These things are idiosyncratic — the music you like to listen to, or the way you like to play.
The fourth thing that is characteristic of true grit paragons is not only that they have interest, not only that they practice every day to get better, not only that they have a beyond-the-self sense of purpose, but they never lose hope, they’re resilient. They have setbacks like anyone else, because the road is not smooth for anyone, but they truly have the mindset that they can improve.
The question is: could you get kids or grown-ups to develop their interest, learn how to practice, cultivate a sense of purpose, and learn to have resilience or hope? I answer in the affirmative.
Pete: Of course I do too. In terms of being resilient, we can find ways to instill resilience by training people to believe that they have abilities that allow them to maintain hope. The reason you bounce back is because you know you have a chance and you believe.
These fans have seen the ups and downs of the team and watched us. There’s this, I hope, undying sense and belief that, “Of course we can do that, of course we can overcome.”
Angela: There’s actually a science of hope. It starts about fifty years ago. To understand hope, you also have to understand hopelessness. What’s the difference between somebody who believes that you can change and somebody who believes you can’t?
Around fifty years ago, there was a very famous experiment on dogs. Half the dogs are stressed (there’s little shocks), and they have a panel in their cage. If they push the panel with their nose hard enough the shocks will shut off. You have some control over the duration of that stress.
The other half of the dogs are also in cages, they’re getting the same exact shocks at the same schedule. In fact, they’re hooked up to the same machine, but there’s no panel in their cage, so all they experience is unpredictable, uncontrollable stress. That’s the manipulation.
The next day you put them in a different situation. In this case, all the dogs are in the same situation. They’re in a cage and the floor has a painful but not harmful shock. There’s a little wall, very low. All the dogs have to do is leap over the wall, which is completely doable, and then they’re safe.
This growth mindset, the belief that people are designed for change and growth, is what disposes people to be resilient when things don’t go well.
Here’s the finding: if you were a dog in the cage that had control, you will leap over that wall within one or two trials. It’s what normal dogs do. If you didn’t have control, two thirds of those dogs lose hope, stop trying, and never learn to just jump over that wall to safety. Two thirds of the dogs have learned to be hopeless because they’ve experienced stress that they can’t change.
Here’s the thing: one third of the dogs kept fighting anyway. That led to growth mindset research, because Carol Dweck at Stanford asked, “What is it about the one third of the dogs that made them keep going?” She decided to study it in people, and she discovered that everybody walks around with theories about how the world works. You have a theory about ability and whether ability is something that could change and grow.
This growth mindset, the belief that people are designed for change and growth, is what disposes people to be resilient when things don’t go well. I’m curious to know whether that resonates with you in terms of looking at all the players that you’ve coached. Maybe there aren’t any players who would get to this elite level of performance if they didn’t have a growth mindset.
Pete: It varies. In the work that we did in Los Angeles, in an inner city situation, we had town hall meetings. The kids would say, “I’m either going to die or I’m going to jail, so what difference does it make?” That same theme kept coming to the front.
It finally hit me, they’re right. That is what’s going to happen, because that’s the vision that they hold for their life, and they are hopeless. They have no hope for anything other than that to happen.
Angela: It’s self-fulfilling.
Pete: It was so obvious that when we did communicate with kids on a one-on-one basis and give them a plan, in essence coaching them, most of the kids would develop hope. It was a really clear indicator of how powerful hope is, and how it is somewhat teachable.
Pete: Certainly. Some guys have all the talent in the world and they can play for a while just because of that. Other guys have much less talent but they have this makeup that drives them to do remarkable things. I do believe that we can nurture this and bring it about.
Angela:The word “grit” kind of makes it feel like it’s all on the individual, that they should have grit, and then we don’t have to fix anything else about their lives. Grit is not something that people can entirely cultivate on their own. They need someone to coach them, to challenge them. But crucially, they need someone to support them and to know that when they slip and backtrack, someone has unconditionally committed to sticking with them.
Children of all backgrounds need caring people around them. It’s naïve and unfair to think that they can develop any of these character strengths on their own. Think about kids growing up in poverty: it’s unpredictable, uncontrollable pain and suffering that would precipitate this kind of helplessness.
I’ll tell you about one more experiment, because it is the epilogue of that experiment that happened fifty years ago.
Two scientists did that original experiment on how animals learn to believe that change is possible. One of them was Marty Seligman. He was my PhD advisor. The other guy is named Steve Mayor. He took a slightly different path. He became a neuroscientist to understand the circuitry behind hope and its opposite.
Here’s an experiment he ran not long ago. He knew that manipulation of stress without control could lead to helplessness, but he wondered whether you could inoculate an animal against this helplessness response by giving them a mastery experience early on. He took teenage rats and randomly assigned them to conditions.
The rats who experienced stress, their tails get little shocks. Apparently it’s especially stressful because these rats have been basically just sitting in a cage eating rat chow for their entire life, and there’s no predators. There’s a little wheel in their cage, and if they turn the wheel fast enough they can terminate that shock. Those rats grow up compared to other rats who had the stress but without the control. Given a challenge plus mastery – the rats who had adversity, but had control over it – in adulthood they’re more or less inoculated against this helplessness response.
That says to me that people have to experience mastery, experience challenge, through their own volition but with support from the people around them. That’s also what builds resilience. I don’t think you can just talk somebody into it.
Pete: No, you have to have experiences to draw from. I don’t think there’s anything like the real experience of overcoming great adversity to keep you connected to the belief that you can overcome. It’s worth investigating more for us to understand what it takes to get people there.
If we’re all striving for our best, then I need you to make me work hard. When you make me work hard you make me better.
Angela: If you ask Steve Mayor what happens when the rat had the mastery experience, he would say that the hopelessness circuit got inhibited by the hope circuit. It’s only by activating the hopelessness circuit and the mastery at the same time that strengthens this hope circuit. I’m using metaphors here, because it doesn’t matter what the particular brain areas are. Hope is real and hopelessness is real. What that shows is that there’s plasticity, that your experiences and the support you get changes neurobiology.
In terms of culture, when I came out to see your team, I wanted to see what this looked like in action. Every team has a particular culture. Every family has a culture, every organization has a culture. Sometimes it’s intentional, like at the Seahawks, and sometimes it’s not that intentional but it’s still real.
Some of the things that I observed were you guys have a language at the Seahawks. For example, you say “always compete.” You use the word “compete” differently. For people who are not Seahawks, what do you mean by “compete”?
Pete: There’s different definitions of “compete.” We’ve chosen “striving together.” Striving is what “compete” is all about. Striving for excellence, striving for knowledge.
Angela: Not beating the other person, necessarily.
Pete: It has nothing to do with winning or losing. It is about a mentality and a mindset. Our players are striving for their best, and we as coaches are striving to bring out the best in them. We’re in relentless pursuit of the competitive edge in everything that we’re doing. We’re trying to do things better than ever before. Those are the kinds of phrases that we have around our mentality.
Our players understand that it is the people that they work with, the offense with the defense, that makes you who you are. If we’re all striving for our best, then I need you to make me work hard. When you make me work hard you make me better. I can’t give enough to you, because you’re so crucial to my growth and my well-being. In essence, this guy is making you the best. Can’t you show him by giving it back?
In practice we train them to respect the people around them. Basically you think it could be beating somebody, stomping them into the dirt. That’s not at all what we’re talking about. We’re trying to find the very best in everything we do. The understanding and integration of the other people who are part of your growth is huge.
Angela: There’s two ways that people could misunderstand “always compete.” One is, it does sound like you want to beat the other person, but it’s not about that, it’s about achieving excellence. The other thing is that it’s with each other, like strive with each other.
Pete: Yes, strive together. Let me take it a little farther. When we first came to Seattle with our approach, it was really important to me that our language and our mentality would be extended to the fans. I’ve tried to make this available. I’m not the coach that doesn’t want to talk about it. I want it out there, because I want them to understand and relate, so that they can sense what we’re all about.
Angela: Does that also change the players’ connection? It’s not just your interest. You are playing for something bigger than yourself.
Pete: I think for the most part when our guys get interviewed, or the interactions that they do in the community, they have a sense of themselves and those that they’re dealing with, and they do it with purpose. They want to make those exchanges meaningful, because that builds the energy that supports what we’re all about.
Angela:Yeah, I totally agree.
Pete: There’s a guy named David Brooks who’s written about the road to character. He’s giving me language that’s helping understand where our team is right now. Our team has been together for six years, and it’s time for us to grow into another level of understanding and awareness of what we’re all about, “purpose.” It’s hard to talk about. It’s not a very tangible thing.
When I see people who are truly great at what they do, very quickly it becomes clear that they’re not just ambitious. They have a sense of mission, and they have a sense of purpose that is in service to others.
Angela: It’s really hard to talk about. David Brooks would say that things that we strive for in the service of achieving something for yourself are resume virtues. He would say in addition to your resume virtues you have eulogy virtues, that which you really think is important. That’s your legacy, what you want to be remembered by. These are invariably other-centered: honesty, integrity, generosity, kindness. If you don’t have these, other people suffer. If you do have these, other people benefit.
Here’s where we agree about grit. In theory, you could have grit and lack purpose. You could just be gritty about your own selfish personal motives, but I haven’t found those people yet. When I see people who are truly great at what they do, very quickly it becomes clear that they’re not just ambitious. They have a sense of mission, and they have a sense of purpose that is in service to others.
One guy that I interviewed for my book, Antonio Galloni, is a world class wine taster. I asked him, “It seems kind of like a selfish thing, tasting bordeaux. What motivates you?” He said to me, “When I was growing up as a boy, wine was a part of our life, our family memories, what made certain events special. I’m trying to make that happen in other people’s lives.”
He literally said, “I know I’m not a brain surgeon, I know I’m not doing things that you would conventionally consider helping the world.” But he said, “When I walk into a restaurant and I see a beautiful bottle of wine and a memory being made, it is like a light bulb goes off. My mission in life is to make a million light bulbs go off.”
People could also consider football selfish. It’s a game. I think that Seahawks absolutely feel a sense of purpose and that there’s true benefits to people who are not you, not just the individual player. That’s what I think that David Brooks is getting at.
Pete: I think this is such a crucial area for us right now. At least in America, we’re pretty dedicated to the resume lifestyle: how many things can we accomplish, how many wins can you get, how many trophies can you get, how much money can you make, your next contract. But there’s a whole other aspect of life and growth and development. We have to satisfy these resume issues, and then we have a chance to mature our way to finding the purpose that drives us to profound character. That’s a thought that I’m wrestling with these days. “Okay, is this all there is? I’ve been doing this for so long.”
Angela:“What is it for?”
Pete: “What have I done this for? What do I have now?” There’s a lot of people that have asked that question. It’s a legit question. For us, where we are in our development as a team, it’s time for our focus to be on everything other than all of the resume concerns, and to build the sense of what our eulogy may be written about. How did we impact others, and who did we impact, and did we find our way to helping people in significant, profound ways that makes your life more meaningful and powerful?
I don’t think you give up anything in terms of your success. I think you only enhance that. It’s exciting to see young guys in this conversation, them trying to formulate, “Okay, this is a different way of looking at my life.” We’re looking to construct the purpose that is going to design what happens as we move forward.
[Questions from the audience]
Audience member: How do you respond to allegations that grit is inherently racist?
Angela: I don’t think the idea of an individual trying to do something with passion and with perseverance is itself racist, but I can see where it’s coming from. I want to have empathy for the concern. When I talk about character, when you talk about character, I don’t think either of us mean that poverty doesn’t matter, or that racism doesn’t matter. I think racism still exists in this country, and inequality exists, and it’s getting worse. When we talk about character and grit, it is not to undermine the importance of these.
I’ll even go further. When kids grow up feeling like they don’t count in a society, and they are exposed to repeated, uncontrollable stress, like we described in that experiment, but is essentially the conditions of poverty for many kids, not only do those things matter in addition to character, they are the foundations of character. Kids need to be growing up in environments with adults who do what they promise to do, and with support.
Just to clarify, I don’t think it’s possible to truly develop other-centered purpose or grit or curiosity when growing up you don’t have a fair shot at those things, when you are growing up in an environment which is without support, without meaningful challenges, without enrichment. There’s a lot of work to be done. Those are urgent issues.
Audience member:In your research, have you seen non-gritty adults transform into gritty?
Angela:Yes. A general who runs West Point pointed out that when he inducts a new class, it’s easy to come to judgments very quickly about who’s going to end up being the grittiest, the most successful. He said that one thing he’s learned is to not come to those snap judgments, because people do change.
I’m not saying that you’re going to go to sleep tonight and wake up an entirely different person. It’s not that. I believe that people who are not motivated, who lose sense of what they’re doing, and maybe lose some confidence, I do think those people can change. I get emails from people who tell me their personal stories, and at a certain point in their life they couldn’t say that they had a passion, they wouldn’t say that they were resilient, they didn’t have something that they were willing to work on every day, and through a series of experiences that did change.
Audience member: Okay, Pete, this one’s directed at you. During the draft process, how do you identify players that have grit?
Pete:That’s a good question, and that’s something that we don’t share on the airwaves.