The Fierce Vulnerability of Angela Duckworth, Best-Selling Author of ‘Grit’

Cami Anderson > Articles & News > Forbes Blog > The Fierce Vulnerability of Angela Duckworth, Best-Selling Author of ‘Grit’

By all accounts, Angela Duckworth’s career has been an unmitigated success. She graduated with a neurobiology degree from Harvard and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, “Grit,” became a national best-seller. Her TED Talk on this topic has been viewed by over a million people. She received a so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and remains one of the most coveted speakers in her field.

But her pathway to fame wasn’t linear or easy. Recently, I sat down with Angela for a far-reaching and candid chat about her career and her personal journey—and the tough lessons she’s learned along the way.

“I was desperate to have a calling and I didn’t.”

Angela was all of 32 years old when she had what she describes as an “early mid-life crisis.” While she already had a list of notable achievements on her resume, including starting a nonprofit, working at an elementary school, and excelling at McKinsey, she still felt “a little lost.”

“Nothing was acutely wrong,” she told me when I asked her about her pathway to psychology, which eventually led to her fame. “I felt angst-ridden…like I was desperate to have a calling and I didn’t. I wasn’t unemployed, I wasn’t struggling financially, but I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.” 

Angela, like all of the other leaders I have interviewed for In the Room, described a slow process to finding herself in front of the camera. Her journey included many “tear-filled, soul-searching” conversations with her husband and a careful analysis of what she was best at and enjoyed the most. 

She’d also been working long enough to know what she didn’t want to do. “The recipe to finding one’s calling is one-part self-reflection and nine-parts experience.” Having been a professional for many years in several contexts, she was able to eliminate a lot of things on her list. I bonded with her over our shared belief in the importance of diving in, doing good work, striving to deliver results and using the lessons you learn to inform the next step on your path. Neither of us believe that waiting for some epiphany to occur without any real-life experience to base it on is a particularly successful approach to becoming a game-changing leader.

After much reflection and teeth gnashing, she enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology at University of Pennsylvania.

 “Oh no, the spotlight is on me, is that OK?”

 Angela was immediately enthusiastic about her new field, recognizing the impact that psychology could have on kids. She was keenly aware, though, of how little information actually made it into the hands of parents and practitioners.

She signed on with a well-known advisor who, she believes, made her work of interest to more people. She wrote a paper about grit — perseverance and passion for long-term goals — and started getting calls to comment on various breaking news. “Because Marty was so famous,” she told me, “if you sat still long enough, some reporter would ask you a question.” 

Like the CEO of the American Civil War Museum, Christy Coleman, who I recently interviewed, Angela wasn’t seeking press. “I was doing work in areas of intrinsic interest to me…I was not trying to get media.” Eventually, someone asked her to give a talk at a TEDx event. She agreed and delivered the summary of her work on grit and its implications for education, without ever rehearsing it. The producers of the TED event saw it and invited her to give a talk at the premier annual conference. This time, she was somewhat hesitant.  

“Oh no, the spotlight is on me, is that OK?” she wondered. I told her I’d felt the same way at the press conference when Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie announced my appointment as superintendent of Newark in front of dozens of flashing bulbs and reporters. 

In the end, she said yes, and her talk broke records in online views and shares. She told me that she ultimately felt the opportunity to be heard and to truly have influence helped her overcome her reluctance to “take the mic.” “If you write a paper and nobody reads it, did you write a paper?” she asks. 

“Take the good with the bad and take the bad with as much grace as you can.”

Soon after her book was published, the critics came for her in a very public way. During her book tour, someone released a scathing article summarizing her thesis in a way that was antithetical to her values and beliefs.

She kept reminding herself, “If you give a TED talk, write a book, do an interview—then you have signed a contract to take the good with the bad, and take the bad with as much grace as you can.”

She made a conscious choice that she would “not whine, except in private, about how it feels to be misinterpreted or be used out of context to make a point.” We bonded about how hard it is for women to respond to public criticism. If you don’t respond, you are considered weak. If you do respond, you are considered defensive or unable to take the heat. I asked her if she thinks the calculus is the same for men who are public figures. She replied, “No.” 

Regardless of the injustice of a double standard for female leaders, the broader point she was making struck me as very important. Being relevant, having influence, and pushing new ideas almost always involves challenging entrenched interests and causing discomfort. Angela and I both believe that being a change agent in the public eye requires a thick skin – and that it is also privilege. My exceptionally wise chief of staff used to remind me frequently to “walk with grace” because being in a position to influence others is a gift, even if it is hard.

“Women are much more conditioned to think: ‘I didn’t do well.’” 

I asked Angela if she’s seen gender difference play out among her colleagues in higher education. “Oh yes,” she responded immediately.

She shared that, as a researcher, for every article you submit for publication in an academic journal only one out of 10 actually gets accepted – including pieces you could have worked on for years. “Typically, you get pages and pages of notes about why your article stinks and isn’t worthy of publication.”  

She says that among her years of experience and hundreds of colleagues, the majority of men react with anger when their work is rejected, and the majority of women feel guilt. 

Ever the psychologist, she explained to me, “Anger comes from the response that ‘my rights have been violated…Guilt comes from the feeling that you did something wrong. In my experience, women are much more conditioned to think: ‘I didn’t do well on the article’ versus ‘they didn’t do their job when reviewing it.’”

She is quick to point out there are merits of both reactions. “I love that women can be empathetic and feel an obligation to take feedback but I also think it’s important to be able to take feedback less personally than we sometimes do.”

“We both grew up a lot.” 

Angela graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with her Bachelor’s degree. “On the day of my graduation, my Mom puts her hands on my shoulders and says ‘I’m so proud of you because now you’re ready to be a wife’…To this day, my Mom plays soft music when [her] husband comes home. Her job was to be my father’s wife: insulate him from additional pressure, be beautiful…that’s how she was raised.”

While Angela’s idea for her life differed from her mom’s expectations, she says she feels like she is still a “work in progress” and her daughters are pushing her to grow.  She shares that she sometimes will think out loud and says things like, “I need to be a boy about it and blow them off.” Her daughters push back. “Mom, why is swagger and the confidence not to need to please everyone a boy trait?” She feels like her daughters aren’t struggling to overcome the same barriers she was, in a good way.  

She believes her nuclear family is living proof of generational change. “There’s been a lot of learning on everyone’s part…Society is changing, but we are also changing as individuals.” She pauses and continues, “I am still the daughter whose mother said that to her when she was 22. It was hard to go from that mental model about what success looks like, to now.”  

She reveals that never would have imagined, when she first married her husband, that hers would be the career requiring sacrifices from him.  She reflects, “in our marriage, we both grew up a lot.” 

“It is OK to tell people when you are not OK.”

I am struck throughout our talk with Angela’s fierce vulnerability and willingness to share. I asked her if this has always come naturally to her. “Coming from Asian culture, I used to see sharing as shame.” 

She is glad cultural norms are changing—and that admitting challenges and publicly owning struggles is seen more and more as a sign of strength. “I make a point to tell undergraduates that I go to therapy, was lonely, cried a river,” she laughs. 

 She ends by saying “We are not invincible people…we are human beings, and it is OK to tell people when you are not OK.” 

“Most women want to help other women succeed.”

 I ask Angela how other female mentors, colleagues, and friends have helped her. She gives me two great examples. 

A group of Angela’s female faculty friends started something called the “No Club.” The mission: to support one another in saying no to unreasonable or unwieldy requests. Here’s how it works. If anyone in the club receives a request to do something outside of their job description (generally it is to assume an unpaid administrative task on top of lecturing and researching—undesirable in many academic circles), they can request a consultation. Members of the group review the request and draft a gracious but pointed “no, thank you” for the asking member to use. (I joked that I was glad she didn’t contact the No Club when I asked for this interview.)

She recently contacted another famous female psychologist for some career advice. “Sorry to bother you….” Angela told me she kept saying until she realized there was no need to apologize. “She genuinely wanted to help me, most women want to help other women succeed.” 

 She says she is increasingly conscious of how hard it is for women to ask her for help, but remarks, “Nine times out of 10 it is a wonderful thing to be asked for help.” Her advice to other women: “Work up the courage to do it.”

We talk about how both of us feel called to pay forward the advice, mentoring, and help we’ve gotten from our female mentors in particular—even while deeply appreciating our male ones.  She asked me to “remind people that women leaders want to help…We are here [for the next generation].” 

Sage advice from a trailblazer.

I write about being “in the room” where big decisions are made and change happens.

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