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Why True Mastery Isn’t About Achievement

Habits & Productivity Psychology
Why True Mastery Isn’t About Achievement


  • The story of a chess prodigy who became a world-champion martial artist—twice
  • Which NFL coach happens to be a leader in the study of excellence
  • What a world-class chef has in common with a master viola player

Angela Duckworth is a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the bestselling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist working closely with sports MVP’s, internationally acclaimed artists, and Fortune 25 CEO’s. He recently hosted Angela on the Finding Mastery podcast to discuss how a gritty mentality will bring you success, and how to walk the path of a master.

Michael: When did you start becoming curious about grit? What was it about your upbringing and your life that led you to dive into this concept?

Angela: I had a father who was obsessed with accomplishment and eminence. Even at the dinner table, we would talk about the greatest contributors to humanity. Einstein or Newton? The Founding Fathers writing the Declaration of Independence? As a little girl, I was led to an interest in achievement.

Later on, I was a young woman teaching math to kids in middle school and high school. As any teacher will tell you, it’s striking to see how differently kids in the same classroom perform. I wanted my kids to do better, so I became a psychologist to study this topic more systematically.

Michael: How did you first come to value grit?

Angela: I can take that back to my first years of graduate school, when I started to read the research literature going back to the nineteenth century, and also to interview people. It seems like a common-sense thing to do, to talk to people who are really great at what they do and to figure out what makes them different. It was from those experiences that the two complementary parts of grit, passion and perseverance, emerged.

If you go back to 1869, that’s the date of the very first scientific study on achievement by Sir Francis Galton in the United Kingdom. He and his half-cousin, Charles Darwin, debated the topic a bit. In that very early work, Galton made the claim that it wasn’t just talent, but also two other things, which he called “zeal” and “the capacity for very hard labor,” [that mattered].

Darwin, for his part, agreed that zeal and hard labor (I would say “passion” and “perseverance”) were obviously important, and that maybe Galton had a novel point in suggesting that talent could have some small role. Which is interesting, because in contemporary times, people use the word “talent” every other sentence.

I absolutely agree with Galton’s observation that a dogged tenacity and a willingness to work hard seem to be signature to super high achievers. Then also another kind of consistency: an abiding love for what you do, a passion that is enduring, a kind of, “I get up in the morning and I think about this, I go to bed at night thinking about this, and I’m not ever bored with it” kind of passion. These two things emerged and that’s what I call “grit.”

Working on a blueprint

Michael: I’ve read that grit is a higher predictor of success than EQ. Does that hold true?

Angela: It depends on what you’re measuring. EQ is very, very important being a salesperson, right? In that domain, I’m not going to say that grit would matter more.

The reason I study grit and not emotional intelligence is because I’m interested in what’s common across all achievers. There are things, like “stamp collector” or “painter,” where you actually don’t have to be hobnobbing or reading other people’s emotions at all. Grit seems to be common to all of them. In that sense it’s ubiquitously important, and that’s what makes grit so interesting to me.

Michael: For me, the path of mastery feels very different from the path of achievement. However, grit seems to slice across both of those.

Angela: I’m curious [regarding] the words that we use, like “talent” or “mastery” or “achievement”… How do you think about mastery?

Michael: Let’s start with achievement first. Achievement, for me, is the demonstration of an advance in performance. It’s also popular in the sense that he or she “achieved” a certain amount of money or fame, or a certain outcome that they were working toward. For me, achievement is tangible, and it’s something that others can recognize.

Mastery is more of a path, and it’s about progression, about the long game toward a deep understanding of both self and craft. I think the difference between the two is the orientation of the requirement for outcome. For people in the path of mastery, outcome happens as a secondary expression, and for those that are oriented toward achievement, outcome is the primary goal.

Angela: I have a very similar definition of achievement. I think of it as the distance traveled between where I started and where I wanted to be. In math or physics class, we learned “Distance = Rate x Time,” and I think you can use that as a metaphor. To achieve something is to go somewhere, from where we were to where we want to be. Then you could use the “Rate x Time” part to understand what gets us there. There’s how fast you’re going, and then there’s how much time you’re willing to put into it.

The way you’re defining mastery, it feels to me like it requires some amount of self-knowledge.

“Mastery is more of a path, and it’s about progression, about the long game toward a deep understanding of both self and craft.”

Michael: Certainly. Mastery for me is not about a “there.” There is no destination other than one that is internal. It’s the knowing and the insight, and the expression of the knowing and the insight. That is mastery.

What’s really funny is in the world that both you and I live in, especially in world-class sport, if we don’t get an achievement and an outcome, we’re asked not to come back. That’s [the case] from the head coach to the star athlete. If they can’t create a sustainable outcome, there’s not a contract waiting for them. It becomes a deep challenge to pivot people towards moving beyond the need for achievement and helping them find the process that has insight, that has meaning, and that is reproducible under any circumstances, whether it’s a calm or hostile environment. Those are the marks of masters.

Angela: That’s interesting. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer [was based on the life of] Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy who, unlike most prodigies, grew up to be a world champion chess player, and then repurposed himself two more times to become world champion in two different martial arts. He considers himself to be an expert learner. I think he would really have a lot to say about mastery.

Michael: Yeah, Josh and I were texting just the other day. He thinks deeply about the mechanics that have preceded the outcomes. It’s the space between notes where mastery is expressed for artists, and it’s the space between movements where mastery is expressed for athletes. He calls it “the transitions,” and I call it “the space between.” Is he featured in your book?

Angela: I started talking to him after the ink was dry, unfortunately, so no. [But] he wrote a fantastic book about the process of learning. Chess is an intellectual pursuit, but he then transitioned to martial arts, which is physical as well as mental, to see what was common across those. That’s what I am trying to do in my work, to study people who are world-class in, for example, playing the viola, and asking a question like, “What does that person have in common with a world-class chef?”

Just last weekend I was spending time with Roberto Díaz, one of the great violists in the world, and also the head of Curtis, the most selective music school in the country. Díaz was giving a music lesson, and he was explaining how it’s these transitions, the shape of the transition between notes, which is similar to when a chef talks about flavor and bringing shape to a dish. When you look at excellence across fields, there’s so much in common even though there are superficial differences.

Michael: If grit is doing things over the long-haul, how do we know when we need to stop?

Angela Duckworth Grit

Angela: It’s a terrific question, and one I’ve asked myself, because I’ve known people who didn’t quit early enough. What do you say about, for example, sunk cost fallacy? This is the well-studied cognitive bias that gets you into trouble when you persist in investing good money after bad, or trying to make a certain solution fit when it won’t solve the problem. I think that’s an obvious question to ask about grit, and whether it could get you into a fix, if you will.

First, I’ll say that it is possible to persist too long in a given direction. But I think more often, people give up too early. They have a couple of bad days, bad games, bad coaches, and they count themselves out. Or they see somebody who’s doing better than them, and they [quit]. I see that all the time, and I think it’s more common to give up too early.

The second thing I’ll say is that the trick about grit is to identify a goal at the right level about which to be so stubborn. Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll would say, “What’s your life philosophy? Tell me in twenty-five words or less.” When I read that, I thought, “What is mine?” It’s hard to get it down to fewer than twenty-five words, but I got it down to, “Use psychological science to help kids thrive.”

At that level of abstraction, [that] goal guides every other goal that I have. If I’m talking about a low-level, specific, to-do list kind of goal, like, “Make sure that I get that one particular journal article into that one particular journal,” and I’m mulishly stubborn about that low-level goal, then that can get me into trouble.

Michael: Beautiful. If we take a look at the words “passion” and “perseverance,” which do you think is harder?

Angela: I think passion’s harder. I think people might imagine that perseverance would be harder, because that’s the part about effort, and so forth. [But] when I look at scores on the “grit” scale, people reliably score higher on perseverance than they do on passion.

It’s not that resilience or staying at things when you have setbacks is easy. But I think it’s at least as hard to stay interested in the same things, right? To have passion the way that I mean it means to not get bored, to develop an ever-deepening curiosity about the same thing, as opposed to clicking into some other link that is a completely different page, metaphorically. For a lot of us, staying focused on a goal, as opposed to giving it up and doing something else, can be really hard.

Michael: Perseverance, doing the difficult and boring thing for an extended period of time, is mechanical. People on the world-stage know how to put their head down and do it. It’s the passion that is challenging.

Do you think that people are passionate about the thing that they do, or the way they feel when they do [those] things? Is it the inner experience that comes from said craft, like guitar or parenting or teaching, or is it the act, the craft itself, that stimulates the passion?

Angela: I think performers are chasing moments of flow, feeling so completely engaged in something that your very sense of time is distorted. For some people, when they’re in flow, time seems to crawl by, and for other people it seems to fly. In either case, there’s a complete lack of self-consciousness because you’re so into what you’re doing, you’re no longer thinking of yourself. You’re just doing. [You have] complete control and a sense that the challenges are high, but you can manage them, just barely. According to some people, it is more euphoric than anything else that they could experience.

[But] I don’t think that’s the complete picture, because for some people, it is the purpose, the significance, of what they do. They feel like they have a calling. They feel like their work matters to somebody other than themselves, and that they’re doing something that’s greater than themselves. That’s less about the experience in the moment.

That’s in part why I say that it’s incomplete to just talk about the on-line experience itself.

Michael: “On-line” meaning the experience of being immersed and fully present?

Angela: Yeah. In the moment.

Michael: Is there a phrase that guides your life? One phrase, or even one word?

Silhouette of Rock Climber at Sunset

Angela: If you ask me to slice down [my professional goal] to one word, I guess I would say “character.” Character defines what I’m trying to achieve personally, and also what I study as a scientist. It’s what I tried to teach my kids when I was a classroom teacher. [But] “character” is really plural. Things like grit and self-control are relevant to achievement of different kinds, but I think there are two other aspects of character.

The second aspect of character is, what about other people? Some call this “moral character” or “interpersonal character.” This is like kindness and honesty, generosity, empathy. I think every athlete knows that they’re not just performing for themselves. They’re performing for their team, for their coach, for their family, for the sport. These other-oriented aspects of character are really important.

Then the third is about the mind. Being imaginative, being creative, being open to new ideas. Being somebody who just enjoys learning.

[So] I think of character as having three parts. There’s achievement, but there’s also how you treat other people, and then there’s having a fertile life of the mind. I sometimes call them “strengths of will,” “strengths of heart,” and “strengths of mind.”

Ask yourself, “What do I want my kids to grow up to be like?” Or, “What do I want the kids on my team to be like?” Or, “What do I want to be like?” [This three-part view of character] is a pretty effective checklist, right? “I want to be effective at reaching my goals, so I need self-control.” “I want to be a good person to other people, [so] that’s empathy, emotional intelligence, honesty, and generosity.” “I want to be the kind of person who’s free in the most evolved human sense, which is that I have a life of the mind that is free and fertile, and that’s creativity and curiosity.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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