So if good grades and lots of homework aren’t future predictors of success, what are the factors that do lead to success? In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough looks at characteristics they found in students from an underprivileged school where they measured success as graduating from college.
When KIPP started looking at their students who did finish college, they found that instead of being those that were the best scholars while they were at KIPP, “They were the students who were able to recover from the bad grades and resolve to do better, bounce back from [personal conflicts]; could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; could resist the urge [to have fun] and stay home and study.” – How Children Succeed, p 52
Obviously resisting “the urge [to have fun] and stay home and study” relates to self-discipline, but remember that while grades are a measure of self-discipline, good grades alone were not a good predictor of which students from KIPP would go on to graduate from college.
Characteristics that lead to Success
1. The ability to persuade people to give you what you need
One of the things that stood out to me in that list of successful student characteristics was their ability to persuade professors to give them extra help. This relates to what Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers calls “social intelligence.” It’s an intelligence that’s not related to your IQ. Instead, it’s the ability to talk people into giving you what you need. (This is also something that showed up in both of the biographies I’ve read about Steve Jobs, as one of his traits.)
2. The ability to set and approach goals with mental contrasting
Which is to say that when they set goals they need to not approach them as an optimist or a pessimist, but with a combination called mental contrasting studied by NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and Angela Duckworth. Mental contrasting is simultaneously thinking about the wanted outcome, the obstacles, and how to overcome them.
3. “Grit,” a passionate commitment.
“Grit” is a trait Angela Duckworth defines as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” In other words, an obsession like Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers. A passion and single-mindedness that shows up in Steve Jobs biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.
In a quest for success, high school students are often fully- (or over-) scheduled with homework, AP classes, and structured extracurricular activities. When are they going to have time to be obsessed by anything that isn’t put in front of them by someone else as a task to be completed? When will they have time to explore and experiment, to make mistakes and discard activities as ones they don’t really enjoy? (Is this bringing to mind any lectures you may have given your child on commitment?)
Where will they find the time to find their passion, where they really excel and enjoy themselves while they’re doing it?
4. The ability to take on challenges and face failures
This is probably something you’ve heard before. (As I’ll cover in my next post, it’s often given as a reason for taking AP classes.[link later]) Unfortunately, I didn’t find any good answers in How Children Succeed for teaching how to manage failure – recover from bad grades and bounce back from personal conflicts. A large part of the book was spent trying to illustrate that successful chess players are usually the ones who learn how to take responsibility for their mistakes, learn from them but separate them from themselves as a person and not dwell on them. But the quarter of the book devoted to teaching chess didn’t convince me that it was a good way to teach taking chances and resilience. In fact, one of the main chess players featured in the book, who’s a mentor to disadvantaged chess students, has difficulties with stress.
It would have been nice to find some answers, because looking at this, it’s an area where I could use some improvement. As a high-achieving student, I tend to dwell on my failures, judge my worth from my failures, and dismiss my success. This was easier on my self-worth when I was doing well in school. It’s a personal problem and not one I should necessarily ascribe to my children. But since I was a very high achieving student, it makes me wonder if the education system encourages this view. That’s something I want to be aware of as my own kids go through school.
In my next post, I’ll consider how high schools view AP classes, and other types of college level courses, as a means to challenge students.
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