True grit

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? asks Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. Both Dominic Randolph, principal of the elite Riverdale Country School in New York City, and David Levin, superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, are trying to teach character, the “essential traits of mind and habit” that lead to success in life. It’s more of a challenge for Randolph because private school parent don’t see the need.

 “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Both men met in 2005 with Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism, which helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman showed them his new book (with Michigan Psychology Professor Christopher  Peterson), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a “manual of the sanities.”

Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

These strengths represent a reliable path to “a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling,” they wrote.

Eventually, Randolph and Levin developed a shorter list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

One of Seligman’s graduate students, Angela Duckworth, a former teacher who’s now a psychology professor, focused on two key traits: self-control, which is essential to achieve basic success, and grit, which is needed to excel.

Levin had seen the first KIPP grads go off to private and parochial high schools; most went on to college. But those who persisted in college were not necessarily the top students academically.

. . . they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

KIPP’s New York City schools now integrate discussions of character traits into lessons and issue a character report card that’s used for parent-teacher-child discussions.

But Riverdale’s character education remains focused on being nice to others. Randolph worries that his students think success is guaranteed.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

If you read my book, Our School, (which you should), you’ll encounter the Spanish version of grit, ganas. Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, recruits underachievers from low-income and working-class Mexican immigrant families. They need a lot of ganas to make it to college and even more to make it through. Many in the first graduating class struggled academically in college, counselor Vicky Evans told me. But they weren’t discouraged.  “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered. They can handle failure. They’ve done it and survived.”

Magdalena Villalvazo gave the commencement speech for the first graduating class, recounting all the challenges they’d faced. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Most of us have the notion that academic smarts are largely inborn. Social intelligence, grit, persistence, optimism: how many of those other desirable traits are also inborn? I’d argue that social intelligence and optimism, at least, are definitely inborn personality traits.

    Downtown College Prep ends up losing a lot of its students along the way. Does it develop ganas/grit, or just select for it?

    • Very few DCP students start with ganas. I’ve seen slackers develop ganas at DCP after a few months or even a full year of failure. They “hit bottom” and decide to change. (It’s almost like watching an alcoholic sober up.) But there also are kids who transfer because they’re not willing to work hard enough.

      • Cardinal Fang says:

        What would you say is the difference between the students who end up staying, and those who don’t end up staying?

    • “Grit,” the ability to bounce back from defeats, to overcome frustration, is not inborn. I it is something you get from having been knocked down and gotten up again. Now, there are two ways you can fail to develop grit: 1, you come from a background and operate in a situation with such high risk and so little support that when you get knocked down, you never get back up. 2, you are so thoroughly coddled and shielded from risk that you never have the chance to fall down. I wrote about this extensively in my post on this same article:

  2. Self-control and perseverance can be taught (mostly by modeling them and by encouraging/rewarding them when the child is young). Same with fairness and integrity, to some extent. But zest? humor? There is not enough time in a school day to be thinking about how to teach those, if they are even teachable.

  3. Self-control, diligence and perserverence used to be explicitly taught in schools, both private and public. The basic concepts of the Protestant work ethic (whether so-identified or not) enabled many generations of kids, including new immigrants, to succeed in school and at work. Recent pretense that all cultures are equal has proven toxic, particularly to those at the lowest SES levels who experience little but dysfunctional behaviors outside of school. As BB says, teaching those important behaviors needs to start young; by middle school, it’s much harder and there’s far more academic work to make up. Only the most motivated are likely to succeed.

  4. Wonderful story! Thanks for spreading it.

  5. Tom Linehan says:

    What struck me about looking at successful schools and just about every other organizations and individuals that are successful is the achievement orientation. They just do not go through the motions. Procedures are tools to achieve as are all other inputs. They set clear and achievable goals and take satisfaction in achieving them. I remember years ago reading a book by David C. McClelland, I believe on achievement orientation. Recently I read a book on Teach for America’s best teachers. They set goals and got their students to set goals as well. From where I sit, great schools are qualitatively different from the rest in this respect. Great schools have a totally different culture at every level, from student and teacher to administration. Ganas are a just another way of saying achievement orientation and perseverance.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    What do we mean by “you can teach grit”?

    When we say, “You can teach people how to read,” we mean that no one is born knowing how to read, and in the absence of print, no one will learn to read, but when we send kids to school almost all of them end up reading.

    But let’s look at grit in the same way. Downtown College Prep tries to teach ganas, grit, to its students. But it loses half of its students. If we can teach grit, how come only half of the students learn it? Maybe you want to count slightly differently, maybe you say that some students didn’t graduate from DCP because of reasons unrelated to grit. But still, a lot of DCP students who are supposedly taught grit don’t learn it.

  7. “Grit” is perseverance in the face of unpleansantness. It can be taught, but 5th or 6th grade is pretty late to be hoping to teach it. It’s best taught in small increments, from an early age, through typical daily experiences, and by watching older people. I don’t doubt that the parents of the Downtown College Prep students have grit — you would have to, to leave your homeland and move somewhere where you don’t know the language — but there is the possibility that grit is to some extent context-dependent. Grit in the context of school may be different enough from grit in the context of home life, that the transfer is not easy.