The day following a tense Presidential election seems like a tough time to teach any sort of class yet perhaps, also the perfect moment to learn about grit.
“I’m mindful that today’s an unusual day,” says Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, to a Zoom room of 80-plus undergraduates and teaching assistants. “However you voted, however you feel—and you probably don’t all have the exact same views—it’s an emotional day. Thank you for being here.”
With that, she dives into a lesson about the difference between character and ability. “In today’s lecture, we’re going to talk about both,” says Duckworth, the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in the Department of Psychology. “Part of developing grit is finding something that you’re good at.”
Students anonymously record their mood via a phone-based survey tool, which auto-populates a real-time grid they all see, then Duckworth answers questions they’ve raised in the week since last class. She asks them to think about how they define “talent” and to rate their own. Then after a short break, Penn president Amy Gutmann joins as the honored grit guest. “I can’t think of a time in my life when the need to understand and practice grit has ever been higher,” Gutmann begins, before responding to student queries about particular strengths she’s been able to apply to her work at the University and beyond.
Those three pillars—an interactive section, a lecture, and a conversation with a gritty person—make up the core of Duckworth’s Grit Lab, a course running for just the second time this semester. It’s part of the SNF Paideia Program, whose classes strive to teach wellness, citizenship, and service, in addition to broadening intellect. Given Duckworth’s reputation as one of the country’s leading scholars in this field, it’s no surprise that hundreds of students applied to take the course, open to all four undergraduate schools, focused on important life skills. It will run again this spring.
The emergence of Grit Lab
“Grit is a common denominator of high achievers across very different fields,” says Duckworth, who has researched the subject for a decade and a half, including for her doctorate at Penn. “I have been wondering since I started studying grit, how could you help a young person develop more passion and perseverance for long-term goals?”
That thought didn’t translate into a class until a hedge fund manager asked Duckworth to help him make his company grittier. She turned down the offer, refusing because she felt she didn’t know how to teach it. “He pointed out that if I’ve studied something for 15 years, I should be able to,” she recalls. “That’s when I started to create a course to give Penn undergraduates the opportunity to accelerate the development of their passion and perseverance.”
Early on, she tapped Paolo Terni to help. Under Duckworth’s tutelage, Terni had earned a degree from Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program and is now research project manager and senior scientist in the Duckworth Lab. “She said to me, ‘Let’s try to use everything we know about learning and behavior change to teach students about grit and help them form the habits of gritty people,’” he says. “By doing that, they can learn a useful set of skills that can naturally help their own careers but also their own self-exploration.”
Around the same time, the University received a $6 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to start the SNF Paideia Program. Grit Lab became one of four inaugural courses, along with a civil dialogue class taught by Harris Sokoloff of the Graduate School of Education, one on rhetoric and community with Jeremy McInerney of the Department of Classical Studies, and one on American Chinatowns co-taught by Kenneth Lum of the Weitzman School of Design and Chi-Ming Yang of the Department of English.
Juniors Surayya Walters and Connor Gibson both took Sokoloff’s course in the spring of 2020, and the experience prompted each to apply for a spot in the next Grit Lab.
“I was hoping the class would help me uncover my true passion,” says Walters, from New Rochelle, New York. “With grit, you can have all the perseverance in the world, but if you don’t have passion, you will not be able to achieve your goal. I’m hoping I can be more intentional with goal setting.”
It doesn’t hurt that Duckworth is something of a celebrity. “Professor Duckworth is one of our superstar faculty,” says Gibson, of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania. “I’d read her book about grit and I was curious to learn more. I was hoping I would learn the skills, strategy, and mindset to become a grittier person.”
Adjusting for the pandemic
At the start of the first Grit Lab semester, few in the United States had heard of COVID-19 and no one knew the world was about to experience a global pandemic. As Duckworth had envisioned it, the class would begin with the idea of passion, helping students to home in on something that could become what she dubbed a passion project.
“One of the major sources of apprehension and angst for Penn students is what they are going to do after Penn,” she says. “We decided to focus on the exploration of their interests, values, social problems they think are important.” The first five weeks, students would learn about what it meant to be passionate and select their project, which they’d commit to developing the remaining eight weeks, during the perseverance half of the course.
Then came March 2020 and the pandemic that closed most of campus. Like other large classes, Grit Lab—dependent on in-person small-group interactions—went virtual. With just a few weeks left in the semester, students were able to finish their passion projects and complete a short accompanying video or presentation. But for the second iteration, the semester happening now, Duckworth and Terni had to adjust.
They did away with the passion project and flipped the sequence of topics. They put students into teams and figured out how, using the video technology available, the groups could still meet during part of each week’s class, shortened from three hours to two. “Those smaller group interactions make everyone feel like they can participate, like we’re really part of the class,” Walters says. “It’s very interactive.”
Importantly, that interactivity carried through to conversations with the guest speakers—even when that person was president of the university they attend.
Guest speakers and relatable role models
Certain aspects of Gutmann’s story are well-known, like the fact that she was the first in her family to go to college. But when she joined Grit Lab the day after Election Day, she answered thoughtful student questions about grit and character strength with a mix of her traditional sage advice and some warm personal anecdotes.
In talking about how she applies an avid dedication to education—what she considers her greatest strength—to her work, she discussed Penn’s decision to go need-blind, all-grant just before the Great Recession, Penn First Plus, and even creation of the SNF Paideia program itself.
“When you’re avid about learning, when you’re avid about creative problem-solving, you bring together the most dedicated and diverse university team because that’s how you accomplish the most,” Gutmann says. “Together we just work tirelessly to drive Penn’s success. So, I guess the moral of that story is, bake your strengths into your work.”
“I also like to bake,” she adds, laughing. “That’s one of my passions in my spare time. I made a souffle last night, figuring I had to uplift myself and my husband because I thought it would be a very long night.”
She relates her love of all kinds of puzzles and that a college Spanish class changed her trajectory. When she speaks about improving access to education, she becomes impassioned. “It’s incredibly important that we not only increase access at Penn, but I like to use my voice and my networks to advocate and do everything I can to increase access more broadly. Let’s start at Penn because you have to tend your home garden, then branch out.”
“I don’t see myself ever ceasing on this,” she adds. “It’s a passion. I never get tired of working on it.”
Beyond Gutmann, other guests this semester include chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku group; professional beach volleyball player and three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings; former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez; and many others.
When the class was in person, the conversations resembled fireside chats rather than straight interviews, with a subset of students getting more one-on-one time outside class. The speakers were also mostly Penn alumni who had themselves graduated in the past decade or two. “They weren’t commencement speakers in their seventh decade of life,” Duckworth says. “They were younger alumni who could share their stories.”
“We wanted the students to have role models they could relate to,” adds Terni. “We wanted to bring in younger people who were successful and whose work benefits the community.”
The pandemic afforded Duckworth and Terni the opportunity to invite guests who might not have been able to come in person, though they do offer a different world view than recent graduates. Duckworth, ever the fine-tuner, may change the process again next semester, perhaps asking the students to curate the guest list.
Seeking student input
That’s because she loves hearing her students’ voices, both metaphorically and literally. During her remote lectures, she often asks for input—even at the detriment of finishing everything she’d hoped to discuss that day—and at the end of each session, asks for feedback on what could have been better.
“This class is an inspiration,” says Walters. “I love how we talk about failure and that the journey to success is not a straight line.” Duckworth herself is a product of one such winding road, thinking at one point that she might become a doctor. She started her career as a public-school math and science teacher.
She ends that class in early November with an admission. “I was wrong,” she says. “I did not end up becoming a medical school professor or a nonprofit leader or a magazine writer.” Her point is that the future her students predict for themselves right now will likely differ from the life they end up living. And that’s just fine. But she hopes with the skills they learn in Grit Lab, that road can be slightly less bumpy.
Grit Lab will run again during the Spring 2021 semester, on Fridays from noon to 2:50 p.m. Alumni from the course will be eligible to apply for a junior teaching assistant position. For information on how to do so, email the Grit Lab team.
Angela Duckworth is the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She co-leads the University’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative and Wharton People Analytics and founded and runs the nonprofit Character Lab.
Paolo Terni earned his graduate degree in Philosophy from the State University of Milan (Università degli Studi di Milano), Italy, and a master’s degree from the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the senior research scientist in the Duckworth Lab.
Surayya Walters is a junior in the Wharton School majoring in Management. Connor Gibson is a junior in the Wharton School who has not yet decided on a major.
Homepage image: Duckworth’s teaching style includes hearing and listening to many student voices, even at the detriment of finishing everything she’d hoped to discuss. At the end of each session, she asks for feedback on what could have been better that day. (Pre-pandemic photo)