How to Build and Improve Your Resilience

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) recipient Angela Lee Duckworth was a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. who quit at age 27 to teach seventh-grade math, earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and began teaching there, focusing on grit and self-control, “which predict success both academically and professionally.” In math teacher terms, Duckworth + business/teaching acumen + Ph.D. = grit theory. In short, grit (aka perseverance) trumps IQ. You can’t dramatically elevate IQ, but you can boost your grit quotient. It all adds up to this: You can learn how to build and improve your resilience and succeed in your career.

Cue ‘High Hopes’

“High Hopes” is an upbeat song first done by Frank Sinatra in 1959 and covered by the likes of Henry Mancini and Doris Day. It features a persistent ant that singlehandedly moves a rubber tree plant – despite popular opinion that “an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant.”


Now cue Duckworth’s TED Talks presentation, titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” In it, she explains that as a seventh-grade math teacher she was surprised that the smartest kids weren’t always the ones who excelled. What drove success in her classroom? That question led to her research as a psychologist. Her discovery, in a word, “grit.” Perseverance can push a smart but not brilliant seventh-grader to the top of the class or a smart businessperson to the forefront of their profession.


So, what is grit? In her TED talk, Duckworth says:

  • “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”
  • “Grit is having stamina.”
  • “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”
  • “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”


Duckworth did her TED Talks presentation in 2013. In 2016, in an article published by The Week, she shared “5 Research-Backed Ways to Increase Grit.” Here they are:

A male employee practicing resilience by smiling through a difficult situation.

5. Use Your Head to Follow Your Heart

The Week puts it this way: “Pursue what interests you: It’s hard to stick with something over the long haul if you don’t care.” So:

  • Find your passion. Look to your past for clues, and look to your skill sets, too. Use academics, internships, jobs, and networking to advance the hunt.
  • Once you find your passion, follow the path it sets for you, and find a mentor to guide you. A good mentor or role model can save you time and help you build resilience needed to achieve excellence, Duckworth says.


4. Once You Know What You Want, Practice It Deliberately

Duckworth says excelling at your passion requires “deliberate practice,” a label coined by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a specialist in expert human performance in a variety of pursuits. It’s about goals, how you set and reach them through years of intelligent practice. It’s also about “working in a very diligent way on your weaknesses,” Duckworth says.


The key to advancing is experiential, she says. Changing how you experience something can heighten your understanding, advance your skill sets, and improve resilience.


The Week cites James Waters, a former Navy SEAL who says the focus in his military training was analysis of events. SEALs examine what went right in training, but the lion’s share of time is spent dissecting what went wrong and figuring out how to improve.


Waters concurred with Duckworth on the benefits of shifting perspectives. He said he approached the hard-core training as a game. He told The Week, “You’ve got to have fun with it and you’ve got to keep your eye on the bigger picture.”


Take that mindset into your career and you’ll be the essence of work resilience.


3. Use Hope to Sustain a Mindset of Success

Hope is an important part of the journey from discovery of your passion to mastery. You’ve got to believe it will happen to make it happen, Duckworth says.


Duckworth had a book published in 2016 that bears her TED Talks title, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” The Week shared this excerpt: This kind of hope “rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. ‘I have a feeling tomorrow will be better’ is different from ‘I resolve to make tomorrow better.’ The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.”


That applies if you’re a seventh-grader trying to conquer mathematics or a project manager trying to overcome professional obstacles. At day’s end, it’s about resolving to learn, grow, and improve.


2. Have a Purpose Beyond Money and Prestige

After years of research involving thousands of people, Duckworth concluded that people with true grit “are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.”


That means they know the benefits of what they do and who benefits, and it becomes their purpose, or, per this excerpt from the book version of “Grit,” their calling:


“Three bricklayers are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says, ‘I am building a church.’ The third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.”


1. Get Your Grit on Through Osmosis

Yes, this is about unconsciously absorbing grittiness through exposure to gritty folk. It’s Duckworth’s pro tip on amplifying perseverance with minimal effort.


Choose to work and play with gritty people, and your grit quotient will increase. This tip alone won’t bring the mastery you crave, but it could as part of Duckworth’s overall approach to harnessing the power of passion and resilience.

A female employee practicing resilience as she completes a tough task on her laptop.

USF Can Help You Get Gritty

All five of Duckworth’s grit factors are at play in academic settings.

  • You can explore a variety of fields in search of your passion or in confirming that something is your passion.
  • Academic rigors are practice at its best, from textbook to internship to guidance from teachers and advisors, including research and internship opportunities.
  • The educational process includes exploration of the beneficial other-centered purposes of professions and skill sets.
  • And there’s no shortage of gritty academic social circles on USF’s three campuses.
  • As for hope, academic degrees and certification programs are all about “the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future.”


For the nitty gritty, consider professional development options offered through the USF Office of Career Training and Professional Education.


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