Your book Grit is so impactful that some students in the United States are graded on it. Tell us about the book and the attribute itself.
Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance over long time periods. It’s staying committed to what you do over stretches of time. For young people, that stretch of time might be a month; for adults, it might mean multiple years.
My book Grit summarized everything I learned as a scientist who studies high achievers, as somebody who’s trying to help others grow, and as a former teacher and as a mom who’s trying to raise two girls to be happy and healthy. I tried to make the science accessible. Before I began writing, I read through a big stack of science non-fiction bestsellers. A lot of them were written by men in a very polished, journalistic style—good writing, but it just wasn’t me. I like reading memoirs, so I tried to write a book in my voice.
Our topic ‘character development’ is the focus of your work. That phrase might bring to mind a writing workshop or method acting class, but what do you take it to mean? What motivated you to found University of Pennsylvania’s Character Lab?
‘Character’ is a word that means different things to different people. I use it in the way that Aristotle used character. To have character is to be somebody who does well for themselves, but importantly, does well by other people too. When we say we admire someone’s character, we begin think of things like honesty and integrity, kindness and generosity. We also might say we admire their work ethic, their grit, or their optimism.
“Unlike in Aristotle’s time, now, science can help to improve our character”
I think of character as a plural noun. Many things comprise our character. The reason I am so passionate about our work at the Character Lab is because, unlike in Aristotle’s time, now, science can help to improve our character. There are research studies on grit, on gratitude, on curiosity. Scientific insight into how these attributes help and how they develop are big advances. I started the Character Lab to translate those insights into advice that parents, teachers, and leaders who don’t have PhDs in psychology can use.
You’ve recommended five books that can be put to use. The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control is the Engine of Success is your first.
Sigmund Freud said that the chief developmental challenge of childhood is to be able to delay the gratification of certain impulses and to negate certain impulses altogether. That’s what allows you to achieve maturity as an adult. Nobody had figured out how to test that until Walter Mischel.
The marshmallow test is one of psychology’s greatest experiments, conducted by one of the twentieth century’s greatest psychologists, Walter Mischel. He created a test where children were given the choice: Do you want to eat one treat, or several? All the kids in the experiment—and I really mean all of them—chose the bigger pile.
Walter would then say: You can have the bigger pile, but you have to just wait until I do something in the other room and come back. Then, he would ask, ‘Do you want to wait?’ And again, all the children say, ‘Oh, I can wait!’ Walter would leave the room and observe what would happen next. Many children gobbled a marshmallow as soon as he stepped out. Some children were able to wait two minutes, seven minutes, even fifteen minutes. Then Walter followed these kids through life.
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The ability to wait predicted a wide range of life outcomes, just like Freud and Walter hypothesized. How long you sat—the ability to delay gratification—predicted the quality of your friendships, your physical health, and whether you would go on to commit a crime, along with a whole host of other positive outcomes in later life.
It’s not just about the marshmallow test—it’s autobiographical, too. He talks about his struggles with self-control and how he developed his experiments. It’s fascinating. But the best reason to read this book, and I think the reason why his books remain perennially popular, is because Walter packed his whole life’s work between two covers. It integrates all his studies, all his wisdom. It’s a wonderful thing that we still have the book, because we lost Walter.
Next, you chose A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer.
I read A Curious Mind in one sitting. I sank into a chair and fell into the story of this person, who did not start with material advantages but ended up doing great creative work as a Hollywood producer, creating award-winning, wildly-popular work like Apollo 13 and Arrested Development. The list of things Brian Grazer did is long and it’s all because of his curious mind.
“Curiosity makes you smarter: when you are curious about something, you learn and remember it better than if it bores you”
He calls curiosity ‘a superpower.’ When we read this book, filled with his personal story, we get how curiosity made his life extraordinary. The book has lots of stories about curiosity conversations with people that are famous for different reasons and in different fields. I read it cover to cover in part because it’s so fun and it’s so fueled by curiosity and creativity.
What does research reveal about curiosity?
Curiosity is increasingly grabbing the attention of top neuroscientists and psychologists. One of the things that’s been discovered by a scientist named Matthias Gruber is that curiosity makes you smarter: when you are curious about something, you learn and remember it better than if it bores you. I’m really excited about the coming research on curiosity.
Mindset by Carol Dweck is next. Tell us about the science that led to a conflagration of character development school assemblies in the last decade.
A recent study showed that the majority of teachers in the US know this phrase: growth mindset. Why? I think partly because it’s so intuitive. Growth mindset is the belief that people can grow with effort and opportunity. But Dweck said recently that there is a lot of ‘false growth mindset.’ I’ve seen that happen in schools, where whenever kids struggle they are told ‘you need a growth mindset.’ Of course, many other factors matter and must be address. But you also really need to understand that ‘growth mindset’ is not just a slogan.
“I’ve never met a CEO who didn’t have Mindset on their bookshelf”
Understanding the research that Carol Dweck has done and unpacking is invaluable. Why do some have fixed mindsets? Where do they come from? What goes on in kids’ heads when they fail? How do mindsets determine what we do? Plus, Carol Dweck is not only a great psychologist, she is an outstanding writer. It’s a beautifully written book.
Without exaggeration, I’ve never met a CEO who didn’t have Mindset on their bookshelf. It resonates with people who have become successful—CEOs, coaches and other leaders—because the belief that your abilities can grow is foundational to their achievements.
How is the science of character development advancing to ensure that psychological interventions, like school ‘mindset’ programs, realize substantial benefits in offices and classrooms?
We are the first generation to use the science of experimental psychology to help people become happier and healthier. When Carol Dweck does research on mindset, or I do research on self-control, or Matthias Gruber does research on curiosity, we don’t want people to take away the wrong lesson. Take the importance of practice: studies show that not all practice is effective, but concentrated practice focused on precise skills, with deliberate goals and immediate feedback, can lead to large improvements in performance.
We did a very short experiment where we taught kids that information and found that, compared to placebo controls, they actually improved their grades. You could say the lesson of all this research and the lesson of your character lab is that it only takes 25 minutes to change a child. But I don’t think that’s the lesson. For example, in the experiment that I just told you about, performance improvements disappeared or got diluted over longer periods of time, so that by the second marking period following the intervention, they were no longer detectable.
“Studies show that not all practice is effective, but concentrated practice focused on precise skills can lead to large improvements in performance”
The real lesson is if you—as a parent, coach, teacher or boss—help someone to understand the nature of practice, it will help them deal with the effort and the frustration that is necessary to achieve better. That needs to be reinforced in continually and in every possible way. So, we are working on providing the scientific insights that you can use to make your managing, parenting, and teaching better. But applying those insights is not as simple as relaying them.
Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World is next up.
Mitch Prinstein is a fabulous psychologist who studies social intelligence. I only chose books that I think are great science, but also really well-written. Prinstein wrote a wonderful book, very warm and relatable. There are a lot of great stories, and it’s a terrific summary of more or less everything that’s known on the topic of popularity.
Popularity is an inescapable part of life—especially for adolescents and teenagers and the people who love them, but for everybody in many facets of life. His work (and this book) shows that there are ways to go about the popularity game that are bad for you and for others.
A chicken-or-egg question: With attributes like popularity and growth mindset, how do we distinguish whether those attributes lead to success, or whether success leads to those attributes?
The thing about the chicken-and-egg question is that for almost everything that I study—grit, popularity, productivity—the relationship between the attribute and achievement is truly reciprocal. In other words, there is no real good answer to your question, because they follow each other. For example, kids who are more socially adept and have more friends do better in school, which probably helps them have more friends. Both my intuition and the science show that most things feed into each other.
That’s why we can get into virtuous cycles. Kids who are happy are healthy and tend to do well in school, which makes them happy and healthy. It also means that there are vicious cycles—people who start to get depressed and become socially isolated and stop sleeping well. Performance slips, causing a continued downward spiral. What we want are upward spirals.
Path to Purpose, by William Damon, is your last recommendation.
Bill Damon pioneered the science on purpose. He would say that purpose is doing something that is beyond the self, but also rewarding to self. That’s what’s so magical about it. Personally, my top level goal is to help people thrive. But I also find the process very gratifying and pleasurable. There is nothing I want to do more passionately than reading a new psychology article.
In the book, Bill Damon talks about his own research as well as that of others. His research shows that only a minority of young people feel a sense of purpose. He studies both those who have a sense of purpose and those who don’t. His research focuses on where purpose comes from and how to share it. It’s a beautifully written book, and pretty short. When you read it, you feel like you are sitting across from someone who is not only a great scientist, but a wise soul. Path to Purpose radiates his warmth, his empathy and his wisdom on how to lead a good life. For that reason, it has had a big impact.
Purpose seems like a calling, rather than a cultivable character attribute. When cultivation of any one characteristic is proposed, it leads to questions of ‘nature versus nurture’. How is character development shaped by genes and environment?
All of the books that I recommended concern genetically-influenced attributes. At the same time, all these things are environmentally shaped. The practical take-home answer is yes, we’re born with different genes, but our role models—how we are raised, the quality of our educational experiences and whether we have access to sports and music— also influence how we turn out. So it’s not nature or nurture: it’s nature and nurture.
Is there science on how to deter the development of negative characteristics?
Science teaches us that we disproportionately focus on things that are going wrong and we tend to slight what’s right. And studies also show that, in general, reinforcing the positive, and highlighting strengths, is more effective in remediating negative behavior then dwelling on what’s wrong. So, in general, positive reinforcement is the best way to deter negative behavior.
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