What does your research focus on?
I study individual differences that predict achievement. In particular, I’m interested in self-control, defined as the regulation of emotion, attention, and behavior in the service of valued goals and standards, and grit, defined as sustained perseverance and passion for especially challenging goals. The questions that keep me up at night (and get me up early in the morning) include: What metacognitive strategies facilitate self-control and grit, what are the developmental antecedents and real-world consequences of these competencies, and how are they related to well-studied predictors of achievement such as general intelligence and socioeconomic status?
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
Before I was a research psychologist, I was a middle school math and science teacher. Altogether, including two years running an enrichment program for low-income elementary school children, I spent seven years working with kids. I left K-12 education only because I began to see that the root cause of underachievement in children was typically not a lack of intellectual ability. Rather, I saw children fail repeatedly for lack of — and, conversely, thrive because of — concerted, sustained, goal-directed effort. How do we get kids to work harder and, hence, learn and achieve more? Answering this question is the ultimate aim of my research program.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune of working alongside some of the greatest minds in social science. My doctoral advisor was Marty Seligman, who showed by example the importance of working on research questions that were at once tractable, interesting, and consequential. I have also benefited — immensely — from collaborating with Walter Mischel, Anders Ericsson, Gabriele Oettingen, Don Lynam, Chris Peterson, Rob Kurzban, Roy Baumeister, Mike Matthews, and Brent Roberts, all brilliant, generous, and generative psychologists. Most recently, I’ve been learning from Nobel laureate economist Jim Heckman. With the support of the National Institute on Aging, we are working on an economic model of self-control and its development.
To what do you attribute your success?
In addition to fabulous mentors, I’ve had the most wonderful students and research assistants; they make coming to work every day a true joy. My department has been terrifically encouraging. And, perhaps most important of all, I am blessed with an incredibly supportive family — they put up with my long hours, inconvenient travel schedule, and occasional bouts of post-journal-rejection crankiness.
What’s your future research agenda?
With Stephanie Carlson and Ethan Kross, I’m planning a series of short-term intervention studies to test the self-control strategy of psychological distancing across waiting, working, and emotion-regulation situations. Also, Gabriele Oettingen and I hope to study the benefits of mental contrasting with implementation intentions, a self-control strategy she and Peter Gollwitzer developed, among low-income high-school seniors preparing for college. And, with Anders Ericsson, I’m exploring the in-the-moment and after-the-moment subjective experience of practice and learning; we want to know if Aristotle was right about the roots of education being “bitter” and its fruits “sweet.”
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
I try to abide by two rules when deciding where to allocate my professional energies. First, I work with collaborators I admire, respect, and enjoy. Second, I work on questions which are meaningful to me at the deepest personal level.
What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
I am especially proud of my first publication.
Duckworth, A.L., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944
That study took me “into the field,” working closely with public-school teachers, students, and their parents — and I’ve stayed out in the field ever since!