Measuring Success One Failure at a Time: The Paradox of True Grit

True Grit

At the end of the semester, when the going gets tough, One Thing after Another’s thoughts turn to persistence. No, this blog is not thinking about academic-ese where “persistence” refers to the frequency with which students complete their course of study in college (as opposed to “retention” which assesses the success of a college in keeping its students). Rather, One Thing after Another is interested in good old-fashioned persistence because the last few of weeks of the semester form quite a contrast with the first couple of weeks. At the beginning of the term, students seem pretty good about devoting a wholehearted effort to their work. Towards the end, many have fallen by the wayside and started going through the motions. The difference has little to do with native intelligence—One Thing after Another has seen many intelligent underachievers in his time. Instead, success has everything to do with doggedness—a willingness to carry on throughout the term in the face of difficulty to master the material. One Thing after Another has referred to this quality as “intellectual stamina” in conversation with colleagues. Apparently, the term “grit” is what leading researchers in the field use.

Until recently, we have had very few ways of studying, measuring, or understanding grit, but only a few years ago, Angela Duckworth, now a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, began making a serious study of this characteristic. The Atlantic has published a short article on her findings that will appear in her forthcoming book entitled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

It is perhaps unfair for One Thing after Another to provide a gloss of this article which is, in turn, a summary of Duckworth’s arguments. However, the article highlights several important points that are worth contemplating, especially at this time of year. And if you are interested in further reading, you should by all means buy Duckworth’s book.

Three major findings emerge from The Atlantic article. First, like the rest of us, high achievers in various fields have often had to deal with “frustration, disappointment, or even boredom.” However, what sets these people apart is their unwillingness to be deflected from their goals by these kinds of feelings. In other words, struggle did not constitute a signal to them that they should give up and try something else.

Second, Americans in a variety of polls claim to admire grit, but in real life, they are actually repulsed by it. When given a choice between a “striver” (somebody who works hard to perfect herself) and a “natural” (that is, somebody for whom a skill seems to come naturally without much effort), they show a decided preference for the latter. Why? Duckworth surmises that “we don’t like strivers because they invite self-comparison.” To put it another way, they make us feel bad because they impress upon us that we could be higher achievers if only we worked harder.

Third (and this is related to the second point), there is a special kind of paradox to grit. As the foregoing suggests, grit will help you achieve your goals but only if you conceal if from everybody else. All the trial and error, the false starts, the difficulties, and the struggle must be swept under the rug for the sake of obtaining success among one’s peers.

After pondering the matter for some minutes, One Thing after Another concluded that these points jibe well with his experiences at Saint Anselm College. But it also led this blog to contemplate the extent to which students ought to change their attitude toward achievement.

In graduate school, One Thing after Another realized that the race did not belong to the most brilliant (who oftentimes did not finish with a Ph.D.) but to those with a modicum of brains who worked extremely hard. One Thing after Another feels the same about undergraduates at Saint Anselm College. There are many intelligent students at the college, but the most successful ones are those who have embraced the habit of working hard, regardless of the obstacles. First, over a long period of time, the habit of working hard has allowed them to hone their skills in reading, writing, and thinking; they are better equipped to tackle all manner of intellectual problems. Second, they are accustomed to confronting difficulty and overcoming it. In other words, they have a high tolerance for struggle.

Unfortunately, that is not how most students often see matters. Many attribute the success of their high-achieving peers simply to intelligence. Invariably, so-and-so is “wicked smart.” The problem is that nobody stops to think about how that intelligence was created. It needed years of work and application to form. And to obtain its full effect in the present, it requires sustained effort now. The mind itself is important, but just as important if not more so are the habits of mind that shaped and guide it.

One Thing after Another wonders if most students feel this way because high achievers hide the degree to which they must apply themselves and struggle. In other words, to what extent are excellent students responsible for convincing everybody else that good grades are merely a reflection of the lottery that distributed good brains?

Duckworth suggests that to change people’s attitudes to success, the successful must take steps to show the many failures that line the road to achievement. Duckworth herself has started to share with her researchers the many rejection letters from peer-reviewed publications that she has received. Her intent is to hold her “failure up to others and say, in effect, this is what success looks like.” Would it be useful if our faculty and high-achieving students shared their records of failure more widely among the rest of the student body? Would that be what it took to understand the value of true grit?


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