Constructs of Emergence

Charting your course beyond the horizon. Photo ©2011 Jill Thayer.

In an endless trek to define a clear path of success and its revelations for an artist that is, I encounter extraordinary individuals who shed light to the journey, unpacking characteristics inherent to the human condition. I came across the work of Positive Psychologist Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., known for her original, widely heralded research on grit and self-control, as she was featured speaker in an interview by Ben Dean, Ph.D., Mentor Coach during a recent teleconference.

Dr. Duckworth is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies non-IQ competencies, including grit and self-control, that predict success both academically and professionally. Angela’s research populations have included West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee finalists, novice teachers, salespeople, and students. Angela received a BA in Neurobiology from Harvard (1992), and, as a Marshall Scholar, a Masters in Neuroscience from Oxford. She founded a non-profit summer school for low-income children that won the Better Government Award for the state of Massachusetts and was profiled as a Harvard Kennedy School case study. Angela has been a McKinsey management consultant and, a math teacher in the public schools of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York City. She completed her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and, as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked with eminent psychologist and educator Martin E.P. Seligman.

Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D. researches true grit

As an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she continues to study competencies (other than general intelligence) that predict academic and professional achievement. Her research centers on self-control (the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and feelings in the service of valued goals) and grit (perseverance and sustained interest in long-term goals). Angela says, “I am particularly interested in the subjective experience of exerting self-control and grit – and conscious strategies which facilitate adaptive behavior in the face of temptation, frustration, and distraction.”

Measuring Tenacity (aka. “Grit”)

Angela developed a series of Grit questionnaires, including a 12-Item Grit Scale, an 8-item Grit Scale, and an Ambition Scale with ranking statements and indicator responses. The results add up to better understand an individual’s approach in life’s challenges.


12-Item Grit Scale 

• I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.

• New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

• I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.

• I finish whatever I begin.

• I have achieved a goal that took years of work.

Ambition Scale

• I am ambitious.

• Achieving something of lasting importance is the highest goal in life.

• I think achievement is overrated.

• I am driven to succeed.

(Response ranking below each statement)

 Very much like me  Mostly like me  Somewhat like me  Not much like me  Not like me at all

[12-Item Grit Scale, 8-Item Grit Scale, and Ambition Scale; Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.]

Developing Grit

In her interview, Angela presented valuable points on the issue of practice and talent, and ultimately, grit defining characteristics of human nature. She notes that high achievers who are prestigiously talented are also extremely hard-working. Angela cites three things from a decade of observation to develop Grit and achieve success.

1. Outsource to a coach or mentor. When faced with frustration or boredom, or you want to just give up on a goal or long-term project, seek the support of a mentor or personal coach (i.e. executive coach, life coach, etc.). Someone apart from the situation who is not acutely feeling those emotions––who has some objectivity and can bring new insight to the situation and remind you, “This is temporary. This too shall pass.”

[In my experience, this might include a colleague or peer who understands the context, knows the ropes, reminds you of your strengths, and supports your impending goal.]

2. Feelings of frustration and boredom are not unusual. In fact, they are definitive of learning experiences. When children feel these emotions, they take that as a cue to stop what they’re doing and do something easier or more fun. Understand that these feelings of frustration, failure, and boredom are actually mixed signals which may indicate that this [situation] is not for me, but very often, it’s just part and parcel of learning. If you are confused and bored, stop and acknowledge that you are doing deliberate practice. Learn to “love the burn” and recognize that these feelings are normal and they are a good signal not a bad signal of progress.

[In other words, we learn from our mistakes. The following quotes underscore this point.]

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”                 Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”                                                               Auguste Rodin

“Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.”                                                                                                                                      Leonardo da Vinci

“Doing easily what others find difficult is talent; doing what is impossible for talent is genius.”            Henri-Frederic Amiel

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”                                     C.S. Lewis

“The three qualities necessary for training: Great faith. Great doubt. Great effort.”                                   Zen Proverb

“He that has patience may compass anything.”                                                                                    François Duc De La Rochefoucauld

3. There is a timing issue with failure and emotion. If you time your decisions about what you should do with your career so as not to coincide with bad days, you’ll be able to make those decisions in a much calmer, more reflective space. For example, if you’re deciding to stay in a profession, it’s probably not a good idea to decide this on a day you get a journal rejection. Desynchronizing bad days from decision days is an important strategy. Schedule angst-filled existential crises on days when you have time to ponder and reflect, such as over coffee without distractions.

[Excellent advice, but as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”]

He who fails to plan, plans to fail

As a graduate student, Angela heard a talk by Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., a leading authority on goal attainment and motivation. When people make plans, they are more successful than those who don’t. Determine when and where we are going to do a specific action towards that goal, not simply a general stating of the goal. Peter’s research shows that this if-then structure was extremely effective––beyond just making a plan. For example, Angela states, “If it is 6 o’clock on Wednesday, I will do [task towards goal].” Not just, “I will do [task towards goal],” with no commitment set or afterthought (i.e. “I guess, Wednesday would work.”). This commitment serves as a trigger so when Wednesday at 6 o’clock rolls around, it’s an automatic and effortless way that cues you to do the rest of your script.

Implementation Intention is a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an if-then-plan (“If situation X arises, I will perform Y”) that can lead to better goal attainment.

Peter’s work was leader complimented by his wife Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D. (both are at NYU), who is interested in how we come to our goals in the first place and what are the steps that lead to a good if-then-plan. She found that there is a gap between wishful thinking and making a successful plan, and found the following points valuable.

1. Think very carefully and indulge in why it is that you want to achieve that goal. This will strengthen your goal commitment. What good thing will happen if this goal is realized? Dwelling upon very good outcomes that are personally important that will happen if these goals are realized. This leads naturally into the formation of the if-then-plans that are effective.

2. There needs to be some serious consideration of the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving that goal. Identifying in particular, the obstacles over which we have some control.

So putting it all together, you set goals, you think about the outcome, you think about the obstacles, then you use that thinking to prepare your plans. Angela notes that in her work this has proven to be effective in raising children’s grade point averages, improving their attendance records, and improving their self-regulated studying, etc. Goals that we have been perennially working on may have a psychological base or a deep-seeded anxiety or fear that needs to be overcome. If this is the case, find a support person and develop a specific if-then-plan.

Research is key

To broaden the base, look at research in your area of interest such as an annual review article. The annual review journal series identifies and invites leading luminaries in a given field to present state-of-the-art research. [See: Google Scholar; PsychInfo; or PsycInfo through American Psychological Association; or gain access from a university data base.] Many topics have annual review articles. Search for recent articles and variations of the topic, and refine your search terms. Skim articles for terminology to gain a basic awareness of literature in the field which will reveal key vocabulary, figures, search terms, and authors. Gain an informed understanding of the work, not just a cursory view.

Dr. Peter Gollwitzer has written hundreds of articles in the area of social psychlogy, cognition and perception, neuropsychology, and industrial and organizational psychology. His research entails how goals and plans affect cognition and behavior. Four different theoretical concepts stimulate this research which include: 1. Mindsets, 2. Implementation Intentions, 3. Self-defining Goals, and 4. Nonconscious Goal Pursuits. For more on the research of Dr. Gollwitzer and Dr. Oettinger see: <; and <;.

Check out Angela Duckworth’s presentation: YouTube for TEDxBlue, Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania; “True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught?” 10/18/09. on: Mentor Coach <;

Artists on Success

Selected topics in this blog emanate from my dissertation, Artist Emergence in Contemporary Culture: A Dialectic in Social+Material Conditions of Southern California Artists, Claremont Graduate University 2011, (Proquest/UMI). I gratefully acknowledge those contributors who have paved the way in my continuing inquiry and enlightenment. Selected artists in my research share their personal struggles and successes, which are both informing and inspiring, and serve as a touchstone in this discussion. ~jt

Why are some artists more successful than others in getting shows, critical reviews, acquisitions, and representation of their work? Is it talent, education, ambition, or something else?

David Koeth, Artist and Educator, notes that it takes a set of skills to build a career … talent, networking, education, and luck. The ability to communicate and relate to people and persistence all factor. He adds that not everyone has the skill set, but some skills can be developed.

Andy Moses, Artist, reflects on the notions of trying to be an artist, what gallery, what collector, how would the art contextually work? It has to be profound. He tells me, “It’s the quality of the work that people are paying attention to. Are they ready? To function in the art market effectively, artists must consistently produce work, and understand gallery protocols and the responsibilities of producing art––what you need to do and push into the world. Obligations.”

Kevin Appel, Artist, and Professor of Studio Art, Painting, and Graduate Studies at University of California, Irvine, states, “I think the work comes first. I think the quality in the work. You know, if your head is down and you’re committed, you have an interesting idea and you know how to produce things well, eventually, you’ll get something. But the other stuff is important too––who you need, who you know is very valuable.”

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Public Artist, and Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Graphic Design at Yale, notes, “I’ve seen lots of things. Ambition has to be there. You have to want it. It doesn’t generally just come to you. And when it comes to you without you wanting it, often it will go away because you’re not interested. And, it goes away even if you are interested. So, I think that there are trends in art and the people who write about art play a role in it, but they are definitely trends. And sometimes, you don’t get well-known or it’s even seen or admired until [one is] very, very old. Some people have it young and don’t have it again. Some people have long, sustained careers.”

Roni Feldman, Artist, and Lecturer at Otis College of Art and Design, says, “It’s ambitious networking. I have also found that almost every show I do can lead to other shows if I am proactive about it.”

April Street, Artist, asserts, “Why are some people movie stars and others actors? It is so many factors, but I think timing of the work produced and location can be key.”

Peter Plagens, Artist and Critic, adds, “All of those–the quality of the work aside–intelligence and ambition mostly.”

In describing the mechanisms that support artist emergence,

Gianna Vargas, Artist, lists financial independence, network, and community support. Mel Smothers, artist cites personal dedication and passion, adding, “Whatever it takes to make a personal commitment to a creative life.” Patrick Killoran, artist and educator states, “I think personal commitment at the end of the day. If there’s no personal commitment, it’ll never happen. I think that the economic reality is, it’s very difficult to navigate around them if they’re not there. More money won’t make you a better artist. But no money will keep you from being an artist. So there’s a middle ground.”

Chris Christion, Artist and Gallery Director at Claremont Graduate University Art, states, “Networking has been the most critical part of any manner of success that I have had in my field. How you treat and interact with people can be the difference between getting your shot and getting blackballed.” He aligns networking with following the golden rule learned as a child, “Treat people like you would want to be treated.”

Roni Feldman sums it up, “In this order: personal commitment, networking, education, economic support, gallery support, community support.”

What constitutes legitimacy in Art? I asked Kevin Appel his thoughts on financial success versus critical legitimacy as an artist. He replied, “There are many different avenues to consider, as there are many different art worlds. What might make somebody legitimate in a certain gallery circuit is not going to play well in another gallery context or magazine context. The audience that reads ARTnews is not the audience that reads October.” He adds, “It’s like any other field, once you’ve established what your peer group is then it’s basically getting recognition from that peer group that will constitute a kind of legitimacy regardless of whether or not you’re selling anything.”

Amidst the throngs of online advise found to inform an artist’s career, I stumbled across a list entitled, “5 Common Traits of Successful Artists,” posted by Lori McNee, an artist, art advisor, and blogger for The Huffington Post. She writes:

1. Art is the core of their lives. These artists wake up and go to sleep thinking about art. They carve out time in their day making art or marketing it. (In fact, for these artists, there seems to be no clear distinction between the creativity of making and marketing.) If they have a full-time job, it is secondary in their minds to art and mostly a means to and end. Their real job is being an artist.

2. Successful artists understand how business works in the art world. Successful artists understand the entrepreneurial aspects of making a living as an artist. When they encounter something new or unusual on the business side, they investigate and learn to do it or delegate the task. They know the value of relationships and network in person and through social media.

3. Successful artists have a strong work ethic. They manage themselves, their creative energy and resources. They balance the time to produce art and to market it. Whatever rhythm of working they choose, they stick to it. Whether these artists enjoy the business tasks or not, they know they must be done and they do them without complaint or resentment.

4. Successful artists are resilient. They know that success does not happen overnight – it requires hard work. These artists understand that things don’t always work out the way they expect. When they make mistakes, they focus on solutions, not on regrets. They learn from experience and experiment to improve on any success they have.

5. Successful artists spend time only with people who are 100% supportive of their art career. They limit their time and emotional involvement with people who are negative especially about art as a career choice. If people close to them have the skills and inclination to be more directly involved in their art career, the artist can produce more and better. Successful artists do not allow unsupportive people to be an obstacle to their plans for success.

Conditions of Success

In an essay by Eric Moody from Understanding International Art Markets and Management, the author references what Alan Bowness (1989:11), former director of the Tate Gallery, London illustrates, “The Conditions of Success” as follows:

Four successive (essentially national) circles of recognition through which the exceptional artist passes on his path of fame, I will call them peer recognition, critical recognition, patronage by dealers and collectors, and finally public acclaim. ‘The Conditions of Success’ for the contemporary artist, is illustrated by a circle target with the innermost circle as ‘personal’ and the outermost circle being ‘International.’ (The radial sections are labeled from inside outward as: Personal, Peers, Curatorial, Market, Public, International.)

A final note. . . .

As I see it, education and experience are foundational in this trek, as with transdisciplinary endeavors, one informs the other. Nurture your personal and professional support systems; develop a professional acumen; hone your craft; be aware of cultural, economic, and socio-political influences; network; align yourself with others who share the same tenacious spirit; and remain true to self. These constructs, when merged with motivation, talent, and passion will render a path to success.

4 thoughts on “Constructs of Emergence

  1. Excellent discussion, though I think you and your accomplishments speak more eloquently to the effectiveness of positive psychology than anything Dr. Angela Duckworth has to say. You are your own best evidence.

  2. True Grit, the movie, influenced me as a teenager. I still remember John Wayne as that spirited coyboy who can do no wrong. Grit is a four letter word that means perserverence and stick-to-it-tive-ness, even in difficult circumstances.

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