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Key Takeaways from Angela Duckworth's "Grit" and Fostering Passion

6 minute read

We’ve all likely heard the advice “follow your passion” at some point or another, whether that’s from a parent, mentor, or just someone we saw on Youtube. In fact, we’ve written a blog post about why passion is so important for success. Yet, what’s curious is how such simple advice can actually become very complicated when you actually try to implement it yourself. Follow my passion? How do I even know what that is yet if I’m still in high school? How do I get started? This is a very common feeling for students, and it can make the advice to “follow your passion” seem very unclear. The great news is that the world’s leading researchers are also interested in this dilemma, and many scientists have studied how we develop passions and interests.

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Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her New York Times bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance discusses her research interviewing grit paragons, successful people from all fields who’ve demonstrated incredible persistence and passion. In Polygence’s 2022 white paper on student mental health, we referenced Grit and explained how positive storytelling can empower students to build resilience. But in this article we want to focus on our takeaways from a different section of Grit, dedicated to understanding how grit paragons developed their lifelong passions. It turns out that there are specific principles grounded in research that you or anyone else can follow to develop your passions.

The Myth of the Epiphany

When Angela Duckworth began interviewing grit paragons, she assumed that they’d all have a singular moment of epiphany when they realized what their lifelong passion would be. But after Duckworth’s interviews, “most grit paragons told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.” While we imagine that one day it will just click for us that we’re really excited by chemistry, poetry, swimming, or some other topic, it often takes time to realize how much we enjoy something. Psychology Barry Schwartz, also quoted in Grit, supports this idea: “there are a lot of things where the subtleties and exhilarations come with sticking with it for a while, getting elbow-deep into something. A lot of things seem uninteresting and superficial until you start doing them and, after a while, you realize that there are so many facets you didn’t know at the start.” 

This was actually the exact way I felt when I first started doing blog writing. I knew I was somewhat decent at writing and I also heard from someone that having a blog is a good way to build your resume and demonstrate what you know. I really didn’t think much of it when I published my first blog post. However, as I started writing more and more, I began to see how I could get more and more creative with my blog content. I started including my own graphics and charts to explain concepts, I began to learn how to interview people for blog content, and at the same time I was learning how to be more concise with my writing while also developing my own style. I began to really enjoy these subtleties, and I never would’ve come across them had I not written my first few blog posts and tested the waters. When you start out with something new, it’s easy to dismiss it as boring or basic, but as you spend more time with it, you find that it’s much more complicated and nuanced, and in those nuances you can find enjoyment.

So what does this mean for you practically? If you’re trying out something new, like an extracurricular or a class in school, give it some time before dismissing it completely. It’s 100% important to know what you absolutely don’t like so that you can really focus on what you’re passionate about, but keep in mind that even the most successful people in the world were lukewarm about their lifelong passions at the very beginning.

Don’t Forget to Develop Your Passion

Duckworth describes passion for your work as, “a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.” What students get confused about when it comes to passion is that they believe that it’s only the discovery part that matters. When they’ve found that topic that they’re excited about, they believe that the hard work has already been done.

In reality, research has shown that passion and interests are supported by development over time. Development is simply just activities or interactions with the outside world where your attention is drawn again to that particular passion that you initially discovered. Going back to my blog writing example, after writing my first blog post I continued to develop that interest by writing more blog posts, while also simultaneously reading more of other people’s blogs to see how they structured their posts and subscribing to more blog newsletters. As this process continued over time I became more and more invested in my own writing. Additionally, an example that Duckworth uses in Grit is the story of NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, who watched space shuttle launches on tv that initially inspired his interest in space travel. It wasn’t just one launch but several over a period of years that led him to start digging for more information.

This is why Duckworth favors the phrase “foster your passion” rather than “follow your passion.” “Follow your passion” makes it sound like once you’ve discovered a topic of interest, there’s a set path for you to go along, when in reality it’s entirely up to you to find ways to interact with that passion and do activities to you move that interest along. Think you might be interested in data science? Maybe consider entering a data science competition. Have an interest in writing? See if there are local essay contests around that you can participate in. Enjoy watching tennis on tv? Go to the courts and hit around for a few weeks and see what happens. And for any topic that you might be interested in, you can always get started with your own research project. Passion requires development. 

The Importance of External Support

Fostering your passion doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor. According to Duckworth, “interests thrive when there is a crew of encouraging supporters, including parents, teachers, coaches and peers…provide ongoing stimulation that is essential to actually liking something more and more.” A great example of this mentioned by Duckworth is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, whose mother observed him disassembling his crib as a young child, and then as Bezos grew up she consistently went to Radio Shack to help him build his mechanical contraptions. Jeff Bezos received great support and encouragement from his mother and this helped him foster his passion for building things. 

As you begin to explore different things that interest you, take a moment to think about if you know anyone who could help you with that interest. Maybe there’s a teacher at your school who teaches a subject related to what you’re interested in - see if they can connect you with the right learning resources or what activities they suggest to deepen your interest. With the support and help of others, you might be able to find that the potential interest you found a bit tedious is actually a lot more manageable. For myself, an interest where I really benefited from a team of great supporters and coaches was tennis. Over my years of training I’ve had some amazing coaches who believed in me and pushed me to be better. In times when I was even beginning to lose interest in the sport, they lifted me up and helped me to see my potential, and that motivated me to train harder and continue developing my passion for the sport. At Polygence, we also really believe in mentorship and that’s why every student doing a research project is paired with an expert research program mentor

Some Questions to Get You Started

If you find yourself stuck and unsure of what interests to develop and where to discover new interests, start with a few of Duckworth’s suggested questions: What do I like to think about? Where does my mind wander? What do I really care about? What matters most to me? How do I enjoy spending my time? Once you have even the faintest of an idea, go out into the world and start exploring!