In her forum address on Tuesday, Angela Duckworth argued that to flourish, we must reconcile the apparent paradox that we are both controlled by our circumstances and able to control our circumstances.
“As a scientist who studies success,” she said, “I have come to believe that the only way to live a full and happy life is to hold these seemingly contradictory truths in your mind at once: First, your situation is as powerful as gravity. Second, you can reimagine, and then reshape, your situation.”
A psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit Character Lab, Duckworth is best known for her research on how grit enables world-class achievement. But her remarks at BYU took a slightly more personal focus.
Duckworth told the story of Theresa — not Mother Theresa, but of her own mother, Theresa — who took her English name when she immigrated to the United States from Taiwan as a young adult. “Today, you’ll hear the story of my mom,” Duckworth told the audience. “I think it says a lot about grit. It also says a lot about what you need in addition to grit to lead a full and happy life.”
Duckworth related how, growing up in Taiwan, her mother was a talented, passionate painter, who eventually studied art at a Philadelphia university. Duckworth’s mother dreamed of being an artist, but after her marriage, she started a wholesale needlepoint business to earn money for her family in the U.S. and back in Taiwan. The business absorbed her time, and with no support from her husband or children to pursue her love of art, for four decades she rarely painted.
“I thought my mom was making choices that reflected what she needed, but inside she was passionate. I had no idea how frustrated she was,” said Duckworth.
Her mother’s story took a turn, however, when she sold her business upon retirement and began painting again, often working for hours on portraits of her grandchildren in between caring for her aging husband. Last year, Duckworth’s mother requested that the nursing home she now lives in rent her a second room in which to paint.
“After surviving two wars and hardship, after leaving her parents and brothers and sister an ocean away, after making so many sacrifices to pursue her dream of becoming an artist and after struggling unsuccessfully to hold onto that dream for so many years, my 87-year-old mother finally got a room of her own. Next month, Mom turns 88. And she’s still painting. Now that’s what I call grit.”
Duckworth suggested that there are two ways to look at this tale. On the one hand, the story is about how circumstances beyond her mother’s control frustrated her choices, which can teach us to have more empathy for the limitations in our own lives and others’.
“Psychologists have done a lot of research on the power of the situation to shape behavior, and how easy it is to overlook, or misunderstand another person’s situation,” Duckworth said, noting that she herself had misjudged her mother. “It is easy to underestimate the role circumstances play in the choices a person makes.”
But the story can also be interpreted differently. “My mother has not resigned herself to circumstance. My mom is still fighting to make her dreams come true,” Duckworth said.
“You could argue that the moral of my mom’s story is this: You can choose to change your circumstances.”
Duckworth added that research shows how “focusing your attention on what you can change is a tremendously positive asset. In fact, believing that you can influence at least some of your circumstances is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People with this positive attitude are more likely to seize opportunity, to persevere, and to accomplish their goals.”
Duckworth ultimately concluded that both interpretations of her mother's story are correct. We should be generous when considering the unseen battles others around us are fighting while striving to change our circumstances for the better whenever we can.
Based on this principle, Duckworth gave students several pieces of advice, including making the most of the circumstances of being at BYU with its unique mission and choosing friends and a spouse wisely.
She concluded with the original Serenity Prayer from Protestant theologian and pastor Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”