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Want to Build Grit? Find Your Passion

Leading researcher describes the challenge of finding a life purpose.

zjk/Adobe Stock
Source: zjk/Adobe Stock

Is life success based on the luck of the draw? Or does it come from hard work and consistent effort?

Research over the past few years has shown that we overestimate the effect of more luck-based characteristics like IQ and underestimate the importance of dedication and perseverance—or as it's often referred to, grit.

Grit has two components: passion, which is based on a sense of purpose, and perseverance, which means sticking with one's mission even when the going is tough. We often focus on the perseverance part of grit, as though being gritty means never changing course. However, it's just as crucial that we find a passion that inspires us—one that's worth our consistent investment of time and energy.

I recently interviewed Dr. Angela Duckworth, psychologist and author of the number one New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which was recently released in paperback. Here's what she had to say about finding our passion:

Seth J. Gillihan: Most people tend to focus on the perseverance part of grit. Do you think enough attention is given to the passion dimension?

Angela Duckworth: It would seem on the face of things that perseverance would be the harder part of grit to master, but my recent experience and conversations with millennials as well as younger generations and middle-aged professionals is that figuring out something that you love is harder. A lot of people are like, "I know how to work hard—I'm actually one of the hardest working people in my peer group, ... I just don't know what I want to do with my life."

Finding our passion takes times—and that's OK.

Because of the difficulty in finding our passion, we shouldn't be surprised if it takes a while. Dr. Duckworth described her own experience in this regard:

It took me ten years between college and knowing what I wanted to do with my life and starting graduate school. ... I wish I could have accelerated that. My advice is to have some patience with yourself. ... It can take years to really develop a passion. For me, I started off with an interest in psychology when I was 16, but I couldn't really figure it out until I was 32. So I think we should have patience, but not too much.... You should go out and try things.

We find our passion through action, and trial and error.

On a related note, Dr. Duckworth offered guidance on what's required to identify our passion:

AD: The fastest way to develop an interest and fan that little spark into a passion is to actually do something. You can't sit in your room and think about it or just write in your journal. If you think you might want to be a doctor, start volunteering in a hospital. If you think you might want to be a writer, start writing.

SJG: So you're not just saying find something and stick to it, you're saying ... when you find something you're passionate about, then go with that.

AD: Yes, and you have to sample. ... Sampling is better than specialization, especially early on. ... I mean, it's like dating. Many of us are happy with dating but we eventually want to marry (at least some of us), and I think you can think of it the same way when you're thinking of your passion.

Finding our passion is a messy process.

Part of what makes finding our passion difficult is that few other tasks are like it, so we probably won't have a simple model to follow:

AD: For kids—especially good students—all they've learned to do is study things, and write about them, and so they kind of apply the homework mindset or the studying mindset when it comes to figuring out their careers, and that doesn't work. Nobody's going to tell you what to do, and you have to go and try stuff, and it's going to be messy and inefficient, and you're going to feel impatient, and that's the way it is.

Passion and perseverance are correlated with happiness.

Thankfully happiness and grit seem to go hand in hand, such that success and well-being are not opposing forces:

SJG: So does being grittier make people happier?

AD: I don't know if it makes people happier, but when I look at happiness and scores on the Grit scale, I find a really strong linear positive relationship, meaning that the happier people are in my sample, the grittier they are and vice versa. Which way does the causal arrow point there? Is being gritty something that leads to happiness? Is being happy something that leads to grit? Or is it just that there's something else about people that makes them both gritty and happy? I can't say from that snapshot of data, but I will say that just the fact that there is this really strong positive relationship means that you don't have to say, "I'm going to be gritty, but because of that I'm not going to be happy," and vice versa. In fact, I can just look at myself—I'm really hard working, and I absolutely love what I do, as I know you love what you do. And I would say that even though our lives aren't necessarily easy, because we've chosen to be challenged, I would say that there's a satisfaction there, and I'm very happy.

We need to take our own interests seriously when finding our passion.

Nobody else can tell us what we should be passionate about, no matter how worthy the cause. Maybe someone tells you you'd be a great lawyer and could do a lot of meaningful work, but you have zero interest in pursuing law (or medicine, or social work, or anything else). I asked Dr. Duckworth about her own driving passion—using psychological science to help kids thrive:

AD: The part of the top-level goal about helping kids thrive, that's the part about purpose and meaning. The part about the psychological science is just about my own curiosity and my own selfish interest. I think that is a recipe for anybody to think, "What morally or meaningfully do I want to accomplish?"—that's one part—but also you have to think a little selfishly about what you enjoy. I mean, I could have tried to help kids thrive through some other means, like through economic policy, which I find deathly boring.

SJG: Right, same here.

AD: So we'll leave that to other people.

The full interview is available here.


Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.