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Penn Psychology professor Angela Duckworth

Penn Psychology professor Angela Duckworth gave students advice on how to find success and fulfillment at college on Monday night.

Duckworth, a developmental psychologist who received a MacArthur “Genius Grant" in 2013, introduced the term "grit" in reference to character traits such as self-control and perseverance that help people find success. At the event, which was organized by Benjamin Franklin Scholars and held at Hill College House, she gave what she called a “highlight reel” of her best-selling book “Grit" to more than 40 students.

Duckworth reassured students that it is normal to have emotional ups and downs during college and to not be sure which path to take. She gave examples from her own life, saying that she was "very unhappy" as an undergraduate at Harvard University and that she did not know which career to choose until she was 32.

Taking questions from the audience, Duckworth encouraged students to try out different career options because "interest is not discovered, it is developed." She added that to develop interest, students should self-reflect, discuss options with close friends and family, and gain experience observing different fields.

“You will learn more in an afternoon shadowing a gynecologist than you will in a year journaling about whether you should go to [medical] school," Duckworth said.

Duckworth also cited research she did on people at the top of their fields and the traits that led to their success. She said the individuals she studied, such as actor Will Smith, all loved what they did. This led them to work constantly to improve themselves using two types of perseverance: "uppercase P" perseverance in the face of hardship, and "lowercase P" perseverance to improve on a day-to-day level. Duckworth argued that successful people improve their performance by practicing a task ritually at a certain time and place, ideally with feedback.

Duckworth also talked about the new course she is teaching next semester, called “Grit Lab,” in which students will learn developmental psychology concepts and then go on to teach local high school students. While she said the class will be demanding and "not for everyone," she encouraged students to look out for more information.

At the end of the talk, Duckworth highlighted the importance of maintaining quality relationships and investing time in friendships, saying that her biggest regret about college was that she filled her time with courses and extracurriculars rather than making more lasting friendships. 

Event co-organizer Peter Struck, a Classics professor who directs the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, said Duckworth's speech is part of a series of events focused on giving students the skills they need to explore opportunities at Penn and decide which careers they want to pursue. The next events in the series will take place in mid-October and on Nov. 12. 

Attendees said they found the talk affirming and thought-provoking.

“There is a sense of nuance to [the talk], and it makes it especially more insightful than anything I ever heard before,” College freshman Adam Goudjil said.  

“I found it incredibly reaffirming to what I already believe, especially because a lot of what she talked about — about working on yourself and your relationships — are things that I am working on going into college," Wharton freshman Derek Nhieu said. "Hearing someone who is so accomplished, who does the research, who basically practices what she preaches, was so reaffirming and so cool to me."