Angela Duckworth on Grit vs Character (and why both matter)

I first met Angela Duckworth when our Student Innovation Lab kids toured her Character Lab facility down at the University of Pennsylvania campus. We weren’t sure she was going to be there, but when she showed up, our students eagerly asked questions and one even took out a camera for an impromptu 5-minute interview.

What I saw at Character Lab that day was the organic outgrowth of Angela’s work around “grit”, this time focused on building character in all kids, so every one of them can thrive. Character Lab turns scientific discoveries about the mindsets and skills that develop character into actionable advice for parents and teachers.

Flash forward a year later and our school district (Centennial) is one of six nationwide district partners of Character Lab’s Research Network. The Research Network is a consortium of innovative schools around the country. It enables schools to work collaboratively with leading scientists to conduct more sophisticated research—research that is student-centered and aligned with school needs.

I sat down to talk with Angela for a new episode of the Scratch Your Itch Podcast. We talk with Angela about her current work with Character Lab, what she has seen work with students and adults, and what she’s currently curious about. She also shares her story of growth and scratching her own itch!

You can listen to the podcast below, or check it out on iTunes or the Google Play store.

One of the main topics of conversation is how do we define Grit, how do we define Character, and what can we do to foster these attributes in kids (or any learners). I think the Character Lab does a fantastic job of breaking it all down, and I share their thoughts below.

Why does grit matter?

Excellence sometimes seems like the result of natural talent. But no matter how gifted you are—no matter how easily you climb up the learning curve—you do need to do that climbing. There are no shortcuts. Grit predicts accomplishing challenging goals of personal significance. For example, grittier students are more likely to graduate from high school, and grittier cadets are more likely to complete their training at West Point. Notably, in most research studies, grit and measures of talent and IQ are unrelated, suggesting that talent puts no limits on the capacity for passion and perseverance.

Pulse Check

To gauge your current level of grit, consider how true the following are for you.

  • I enjoy projects that take years to complete.
  • I am working towards a very long-term goal.
  • What I do each day is connected to my deepest personal values.
  • There is at least one subject or activity that I never get bored of thinking about.
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me for long.
  • I am a hard worker.
  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • I never stop working to improve.

How do I encourage grit in others?

Model it. If you love what you do, let others know. Wear your passion on your sleeve. When you fail, openly share your frustration but go out of your way to point out what you learned from the experience. Emphasize playing the long game—life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Celebrate it. When you see grit, draw attention to it: “Your work this past quarter has demonstrated enormous dedication. I know it wasn’t always easy.” Praise passion: “You’re so into this! That’s just awesome!”

Enable it. The paradox of grit is that the steely determination of individuals is made possible by the warmth and support of friends, families, teachers, and mentors. Don’t let people you love quit on a bad day.

Why character?

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Our goal is to make this vision a reality.

Overwhelming scientific evidence now shows that character strengths like self-control, curiosity, and gratitude are critically important to social and emotional well-being, physical health, and achievement. Although character strengths are malleable, surprisingly little is known about how they can be intentionally cultivated. This is why Character Lab exists—to research and create new ways to help all children develop character.

What kind of character strengths lead to thriving?

Research has demonstrated that character is plural, encompassing a multitude of strengths that can be organized into three dimensions: Interpersonal strengths, like gratitude, enable harmonious relationships with other people; intrapersonal strengths, like grit and self-control, enable achievement; and intellectual strengths, like curiosity, enable a fertile and free life of the mind.

How can we cultivate character?

Character Lab believes that helping children develop character is an age-old challenge that will yield to a new solution: world-class scientists working hand-in-hand with expert educators and visionary designers.

The result are Playbooks, which help parents and teachers develop character in children and, as role models, in themselves. As James Baldwin once observed, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Strengths of heart

  • Interpersonal or “giving” strengths
  • Help you relate in positive ways to other people
  • Examples: gratitude, kindness, empathy

Strengths of mind

  • “Intellectual” or “thinking” strengths
  • Help you wonder, reason, and create
  • Examples: curiosity, creativity, humor

Strengths of will

  • Intrapersonal or “doing” strengths
  • Help you achieve your goals
  • Examples: grit, self-control

What are some tools for Grit in the classroom?

Every now and then I’m blown away by something I find online. This happened when I stumbled across the “GRIT Rubric” created by the College Track program in San Francisco. “College Track is an after-school, college preparatory program that works to increase high school graduation, college eligibility and  enrollment, and college graduation rates in under-resourced communities.”

The program is awesome, but what blew me away was the GRIT acronym and student rubric. College Track has broken the word Grit down to four factors: Guts, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity. From their site:

It takes a lot beyond academic readiness to succeed in college. Tackling challenges like dealing with a difficult roommate, finding the financial aid office and registering for classes requires resiliency and tenacity, and these are two character traits that College Track San Francisco is targeting.The site is working to make habits of mind and GRIT visible to all students by recognizing positive character traits that are linked to college success.

They went a step farther and created a rubric for students that measures the seemingly immeasurable GRIT:


How cool is that?!?! This program is taking a BIG idea like Grit, and making it tangible for students to understand. In a world that is constantly connected, and “flattening” more and more by the day, the people that succeed need grit. This rubric may be made for college, but it applies to all levels of life. If you want to be successful, you need Guts, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity. Please share this with educators, parents, and students you know. It may just open their eyes.

Would love to hear your thoughts below!

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  • Elizabeth Clarke says:

    This is a very powerful post! We are all building the “whole” child and this speaks to how we can get there. The rubrics are amazing, as well as the Strengths….love, love love it all!!

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