How have you managed your failures, and has failure made you a better person? Everyone fails at something sooner or later. The important thing is how they handle failure. A recent educational fad in America is to teach students “grit” (http://www.npr.org/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead ).
For those who are unclear, here are a couple of definitions of “grit” from the Internet:
– “firmness of mind or spirit : unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger”
– “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. The author is a principal organizer for a Brisbane, Australia, discussion group whose members come from diverse backgrounds, and which deals with an eclectic collection of topics. Where a topic is of broad general interest I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
Is grit worth it? I think so, but that might be more a statement of hope than full conviction. As a teacher for 35 years, no quality in students has been so dismaying as the failure of many to persist and overcome difficulties in a particular area of study. A teacher’s job is to raise individuals to their full potential, so to the teacher a student falling short of potential feels like absolute waste. Sometimes the refusal to persist can seem like a mass psychosis, as when almost any native English speaker off the street, for example, will declare that “I am no good at learning languages. Once I enrolled in a course for a semester, but …”.
Yet the issue is more nuanced than that. A proportion of those individuals in war, or extreme deprivation, or in hostile workplaces, or in setting up a small business against the odds, will show extraordinary persistence and eventually triumph where others fail. On the other hand, there are whole social groups who decide (and tell each other) that “I am no good at school”, or (proudly) “I’m lazy. So what? Just get wasted. I’ll get screwed whatever I try anyway”. Or they will look at the so-called paragons of success and say with honest dislike, “why would I want to be like those dick-heads anyway?” Reflecting on my own life, I have to say there are things I have grimly persisted at, sometimes for years, and emerged empty handed. At other times accolades have come for achievements which seemed barely earned. It is not a fair world.
2. Mass education and the search for a holy grail
“Grit” is a buzz word in American education at the moment. Mass education systems, especially those in the United States, are prone to fads. This tendency is largely political since mass education systems from their inception have so obviously failed to raise children and young adults to the standards of knowledge and competence which the parents of the world hope for from their offspring. The reasons for such educational shortcoming are voluminous, and beyond the scope of these notes. Nevertheless there is no question that the ever increasing complexity of modern life becomes a train wreck for many when functional illiteracy in so-called advanced industrial societies hovers around 50%, and functional innumeracy is probably more like 70%. Contrary to urban myth, student achievement has mostly not declined, but the demands placed on lifetime performance have altered greatly.
A mostly unasked question about the “grit solution” is whether the huge number of present day left-behind-students are guilty of lacking the grit to achieve something hard for them, functional literacy and numeracy, or whether teachers, educational managers and funding bodies have lacked the persistence to bring these slow arrivers over the line, instead of re-routing them into a lifetime of marginal jobs, unemployment, or into the prison system. Maybe there is a responsibility on both sides of this equation.
Blame the teachers? Hmm. I’ve been one of those. What can be done? For a generation it was almost sin to fail students formally since they might be psychologically disturbed by the suffering (and I have lost jobs for failing tertiary students who never tried). The outcome of that tendency was grade inflation. For my own schooling in the 1950s & 1960s, 70% was a pretty decent mark, while 90% was extraordinary. Today’s tender creatures expect a steady reward of high 90s for mediocre achievement. So now comes the reaction. The new cure for ineptitude is that students need to be taught “grit”. Students need to learn how to rise above failure, to learn from failure and progress towards that light on the hill. American educational journals are brimming with this message, and richly supported by obliging psychological studies (which are mostly based on questionnaires).
Grit, persistence in the face of hardship, is an admirable trait up to a point. It is however a complex trait, and may be extremely sensitive to the nature of particular challenges. The dropout in one scenario might be the dogged hero in another movie. Also, above and beyond particular situations, grit is partly sourced in inherent qualities of personality, partly influenced by maturational environment, and deeply affected by the core values and practices of different cultures and subcultures. There are even intriguing hints that grit can be driven by brain physiology (Sample 2013; Cell Press 2013).
I predict that all of these caveats will be lost in the political hot-house of American (and Australian) educational fashion. In short, if “teaching grit” becomes significant in curriculums, it will be reduced to tick-box compliance like every claim for salvation before it, and shortly fall by the wayside as a new generation of opportunists arrive to claim their place in the sun. At a tertiary institutional level, where universities and colleges are now dominantly managed as marketing agencies, whatever happens to “grit” in the sales narrative will, in the end, turn on its short term dollar value to these institutions. My comments here are not intended to be cynical, merely a sad observation on how large institutions have always worked, and how average teachers and administrators survive in those institutions.
3. Fake it ‘till you make it
Does success require grit? The answer has to be ambivalent. It depends upon the time, the place and the purpose of an undertaking (educational or any other kind), as well as, critically, the social environment. Grit overdone can be dehumanizing stuff, sometimes the entré to suicide.
When it comes to formal education, if the goal is long term learning rather than diploma manufacture, what we really need is persistence and deep engagement without boredom or bitter tears. That sounds terribly serious, but the best outcomes actually emerge from a kind of addictive playfulness, always open to trial and error, always looking for a better solution. As the futurist, Eric Drexler, pointed out years ago, play is the engine of creation (Drexler 1986). When learning is aversive, curiosity goes out the window and any passion for lifetime self-education becomes unlikely.
When a school is no more than a place to work, then it is no longer a school. It is a low security prison, and so many of them are. Infusing a spirit of enquiry into an institution prioritized around rules, buzzers and grading is a tough challenge. It takes a kind of genius for a teacher to work magic, to elicit determined enthusiasm from students when facing a classroom full of self-convinced losers, day after day, year in and year out. Yet for all the rude remarks I have made about mass education systems, there are some genius teachers out there, a few, who have such a powerful relationship with each student in their classes that they do become true role models, mentors and guides. By wisely moderating those relationships such a teacher can indeed condition students to identify resilience, persistence and many other qualities as highly valued and worth self-cultivating in the individual.
Teachers like that are found not only in classrooms. Some are parents, some are managers or presidents, some have no ascribed role at all. Once, as a recent school leaver, I worked in a large commercial laundry in New Zealand. It was rather hot, boring, discouraging work. Yet the place functioned well. My inexperienced mind needed months to realize that the harmony was no accident. Every decision there, apparently made by a line manager, also in fact passed through the unofficial filter of a quietly spoken old Maori man on the number 3 drier. By some magic of charisma he was the commanding role model for an otherwise diverse and fractious workforce.
In the American ideal the manifest concept of grit is embodied by an outsider. He is the lonely but iron-willed, deep-down-decent cowboy riding into some god-forsaken mid-Western town at sunset. The inhabitants have been cowed by a bunch of hard drinking really bad varmints, but our hero strides through the swing doors of the saloon and orders a double whisky. Silence falls on the muppets. You know the outcome – the challenge and shootout with 0.45 Smith & Wessons at noon, the baddies scatter or die, and although the saloon owner’s beautiful daughter throws herself at the hero, he sighs, mounts his faithful horse, and rides off into the sunset. Well, there are variations – John Wayne in True Grit (Hathaway, 1969), but the theme survives. This is the America which only Hollywood ever knew, but maybe every country must have a mythology.
Since 1947 Australia has been a nation of very diverse immigration, with all of the cultural differences which that implies. In an earlier era there was indeed a strong “grit” ideal in the public discourse. That was partly a factor of very frugal living conditions, and sometimes associated with what came to be called a Protestant/Calvinist/Puritan work ethic. My mother, who is 91, says when she cried as a little girl the most frequent scolding from her own mother was “don’t be a cake!” [meaning don’t be soft]. She recited me a ditty learned in her Tasmanian rural school 85 years ago:
Stick to it lad,
Never look sad,
Whatever you have to do.
Don’t be afraid
Sweet little maid,
You can do it too.
The grit story plays differently in some other latitudes. For a cross-cultural perspective, consider China and South Korea, where I taught young adults for 12 years. I was told early and often in both places that for a student to fail meant that the teacher had failed. Teachers (not hopelessly ignorant foreigners like me) are regularly given gifts to ensure that students don’t fail. This doesn’t sound promising for the Western conception of grit.
These are ‘face’ cultures, where appearances are morally more important than what Westerners pompously (in the Asian view) consider to be the truth. As a consequence, conspiracies for ‘success’ between students, teachers and administrations are common. For example, one of my mischievous 19 year old students confided that she had been called to a Chinese medical professor’s office, where he chatted then left the room, “accidentally” leaving upcoming exam papers on his desk. The unspoken expectation was that she would get busy with her phone camera, and deliver the bounty to her classmates. All followed according to plan. Cheating in this environment is endemic (not solely in East Asia of course), and only shameful if someone is exposed by others not in the game (see Thor May, 2008). I am hugely amused when South Korea, for example, is regularly held up as a model for educational virtue by Australian poohbahs.
The preceding description might suggest that East Asians lack grit, don’t work hard and are incapable of real achievement. Those propositions are utterly wrong. There are of course individuals who are total slobs, but on the whole the hours put into relentless, grinding memorization would put an average Australian student to shame. This kind of grit comes at a price. South Korea has the world’s highest suicide rate. Family honour is at stake, but also in my experience the level of external social control in both China and South Korea is intense, and the main engine behind individual persistence. When that external social control fails in these cultures, a loss of self-control often soon follows. Nevertheless, for a part of this East Asian cohort, high academic achievement is a genuine outcome. Confucius himself understood risks and the dilemma: “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.” (Legge, 1893, The Confucian Analects translated).
At an extreme distance from the intimate involvement of many Asian parents in the education of their children, my own formal education from the earliest years until graduation with a PhD (far too late to be vocationally useful) was internally driven, almost entirely without encouragement from family, acquaintances or, I’m sorry to say, from teaching staff who were rarely prepared to discuss ideas. I’m not trying to be precious about this – a part of the failure to attract and engage other minds was clearly my own, especially after maturity. Was a personality shaped in this way isolated way somehow superior? In truth, in the human world grit wasn’t enough. My self-reliance and independence of mind has often been a handicap amidst the collectivist and hierarchical requirements of employment environments. In the end most people want to be acceptable employees, colleagues, friends and lovers, not a prophet on a mountain top.
Somewhere there should be a happy medium amidst the self-indulgent easy ways of coffee shop gossips, the fragile dependencies of mummy-driven high achievers, and the borderline bleak autonomy of the autodidact. Our admiration of hard won achievement must be a little nuanced if we wish to predict future success. We need to evaluate not only the self-discipline of individuals, but also the collective social pressure and assistance (if any) under which they were able to succeed.
4. The public science and politics of the grit cure
While psychological literature, not to mention religions and ideologies, contain many studies of persistence, resilience (physical and mental), as well as behaviours associated with success or failure, none of them have really altered the way large numbers of people actually behave in the game of life (as distinct from the fine words they utter). This is unlikely to change. Because of the cascading variables involved, studies of human behaviour always depend upon either collected opinions (questionnaires), or highly artificial simulations which can only unreliably model the variety of human experience (the same caveats apply to most medical experimentation). As a result real-life interventions based on such studies frequently have unpredictable outcomes, or outcomes which are massaged to satisfy this political agenda or that. “Teaching grit” in institutional school environments will draw on such studies to lend a patina of respectability.
It helps greatly if a new school of thought such as the grit cure has an attractive and articulate academic spokesperson, and in fact in this case they have found one in the person of Angela Duckworth (e.g. see her TED video, referenced below) who seems to be a kind of academic analogue of Amy Chua with her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Chua 2011). Duckworth delivers a clear and unambiguous message that academic failure is overwhelmingly related to what she calls a lack of grit. The obvious solution is therefore to instil grit in students. This theme has strong political attraction, and has already drawn significant financial support. It fits well with the “tiger mother” mythology which has become popular in the West to account for apparently superior Asian academic success. Hopefully my account of actual East Asian educational environments will suggest some caution in idealizing either tiger mothers or the grit solution. In reality though, public enchantment with this new Chinoiserie will have its season.
5. So is grit really teachable?
We all know people who seem unable or unwilling to focus on long term goals, let alone persist in pursuing them. We probably all know capable people who somehow dissipate their potential by pursuing too many interests (I am a strong candidate here). We might even know relentlessly driven people who hack their way to the top of a chosen field, only to ruin their mental and physical health, or chuck the lot to live under a palm tree on a tropical island. And we all know people who muddle through year after year, never really good at anything, but good enough to keep their jobs, have a family and do the things that “normal people” do. Too often we meet people who, regardless of certified intelligence, seem to lack any sense of proportion or good judgement at all (e.g. see Cao Yin 2013). Very likely you are one of the types above yourself. You might or might not want to change speed, or regret that you didn’t adopt a different pattern earlier in life.
If the self-improvement sections of bookshops are any indication, the idea of changing speed offers a rich seam of fantasy for many dreamers, and perhaps guidance for a trickle of individuals who do move from one norm to another. Luckily it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around.
In the spirit of empowering self-improvement, it might well be useful for some teachers (the innovative kind, not the 9 to 5 clock watchers) to help their students explore and discuss the idea of “grit”, and how to enhance it in themselves. It would probably be even more useful for a class to investigate the many different meanings of success and failure. However it would be naïve to expect this kind of classroom activity in an average class to strike deep into the soul of each student and transform them forthwith. Young minds are more slippery than that. As for socializing students into the tougher grading regime I grew up with, as a kind of boot camp for living with adversity … well that would be like cutting wages for factory workers . I am not at all sure that administrations would be ready to take the heat of outrage.
6. Personal success and failure
Neither success nor failure are inherently related to some quality of grit. If we reflect on our own lives, some failures may have been deserved while others could best be described as sheer bad luck. Of course, our response to failure itself could be seen as a kind of character test. Hillary Clinton, with her politician’s knack of making luck, has put failure in its place as well as anybody: “I think that if you live long enough, you realize that so much of what happens in life is out of your control, but how you respond to it is in your control. That’s what I try to remember.” (Clinton, n.d)
It may be that in certain environments, for certain purposes, and by certain institutional definitions of success and failure, grit shows a strong correlation with academic outcomes (as Angela Duckworth claims). The problem with this paradigm is that I have yet to teach a class where every student, deep down, shared a consensus about what institutional success or failure meant to them. Moreover, it was only ever for some of those students that institutional success or failure meant the same as personal success or failure.
It is an unfortunate but nearly universal fact of life that the rich or privileged enjoy far greater formal success in most undertakings than the poor or underprivileged. If you want to live in a preferred country you can buy a passport (Australia’s passports are for sale to the rich) or a visa. You don’t need troublesome language or professional diplomas. If you do want the said diplomas you can buy those too (also in Australia, though more cheaply elsewhere). In China, and many other countries, attractive jobs are unabashedly for sale (while in Australia buying the favour might be more circuitous). If you want a trophy wife, well those are for sale too. For that matter, the sock puppets in democratic governments also essentially pimp their own prostitution (overwhelmingly in America, somewhat less so in Australia. National democracy is apparently about buying the media propaganda – at millions or billions of dollars – which will induce the uninformed sheeple to vote for their own execution).
In other words the status of successful citizen, as recognized by governments and respectable society, is for sale in most jurisdictions. The successful people, by this public criterion, generally seem convinced of their worthiness for assisted success, and will fight to the death to defend the privilege. Some may be individuals of great energy, but grit need not necessarily be part of the equation. Some may have very poor personal qualities, but those weaknesses themselves will buttress the attachment to assisted success.
From an early age the poor and underprivileged are faced with a dilemma about pursuing some notion of success. If they opt for same values and prize the same baubles as the rich and privileged then they face a major struggle. If they are gifted with high intelligence and great energy they may seize the challenge and eventually ride to much savoured public success. In that case, grit will probably be a major weapon in their armoury. If they are very ordinary people they may assess the odds against them at “the big end of town” to be insurmountable. They will look for other ways to fashion a life which seems tolerable and achievable. That may simply mean living from day to day, even in a slum, and seeking simple pleasures or ‘vices’ within reach. It may mean putting energy into other interests, from their children, to hobbies to sport or music or to a life of crime. Success or failure will for them be measured by these alternative metrics.
In a relatively well-off country like Australia, most of us are locally neither very rich nor very poor, neither especially privileged nor especially handicapped, although we may not always be secure about the future. Most of us live in some large fuzzy middle ground, vaguely called the middle class. According to our personalities, family expectations, and pure luck we will ricochet between pitching for a respectable career, with all the risks of public success or failure which that implies, or going fishing and to hell with the rat race …
So as a teacher, my classroom may include the smugly privileged who are sure of assisted success, the rebelliously underprivileged doubting whether they should be there at all, and a bunch of unfocused middle class kids who haven’t really decided if school education is a huge opportunity or a huge confidence trick. Which constituency should I pitch to, and will grit, whatever it is, help them to get where they finally decide to go?
7. Climate, Geography, Culture and the Grit Factor
Are populations located in less hospitable climates more likely to be show persistence and determination in pursuing goals? The proposition is too extravagant to deal with in depth here. It could be a good topic for a monograph by a cultural anthropologist. My comments will be more superficial and local.
The idea exerts some casual attraction, but probably needs very cautious interpretation. It is not hard to show that all kinds of personalities exist in all kinds of locales. Nor does moving from a lazy tropical holiday resort to the urban career pressures of a big, frigid city necessarily turn a slob into a human dynamo, or vice versa. On the other hand, there may be a grain of truth in the idea that populations existing under trying conditions, perhaps climatic conditions, do develop a certain resilience as a matter of physical survival. Such toughness might not always include the kind of resilience needed to survive the intense competition and complexity of modern societies. Turning the idea on its head, we might also wonder what part the modern miracle of air conditioning has played in transforming a one-time sleepy entrepôt like Singapore into a glittering city state.
Australia, which is of continental size, is an interesting case study in variable work and study ethics across a span of latitudes. In Australia, by contrast with long settled countries, families move often, and frequently interstate. Perhaps as a result of mobility, regional dialect variations are negligible. In this linguistic sense the native English speaking population of the country is almost homogeneous. On the other hand, at first glance there seem to be rather clear differences in the general work ethic, in legal compliance, and in educational drop out rates as one moves from the temperate climates of Melbourne and Sydney in the south to the tropical climates of Townsville, Cairns or Darwin in the far north.
For example, in 2014 10.6% of Year 1 Victorian university students dropped out, while the rate for NSW, a 1000 km further north was 11.6% and Queensland, into the tropics, 15.1% overall (the highest in the nation), with 27% in northern Queensland (Calligeros 2014). When it comes to university freshmen, grit rather than intelligence is probably a better predictor of survival. However, the climatic gradation in the Australian case probably has no kind of direct causative correlation.
What is likely to have happened is that parts of the Australian population have opted for the less pressured lifestyles of smaller regional centres. Over several generations the more laid-back attitude of the original settlers in small centres will have hardened into a self-reinforcing local cultural pattern.
This regional patterning is sometimes evident in attitudes to legal compliance. The relevance here is that free compliance with the law implies a certain kind of self-discipline (all other things being equal, which often of course they are not). For example, food industry minimum wage compliance by employers was found in one crackdown to be 94% on the Gold Coast – one of the fastest growing urban centres in the nation – but only 56% in Townsville – a small, torpid coastal city in Central Queensland (Calligeros 2014). On the other hand, similar raids found only 57% compliance in Adelaide – a southern state capital, but also a national backwater.
8. Can we really aim for a quick grit fix to embedded cultural patterns?
No. It is almost a cliché that different cultures and countries have different work ethics (e.g. see the comments in Roberts 2013), differing success rates in formal education, different attitudes to legal compliance, and so on. The extent to which outcomes like this are related to personal and ethnic adherence to some ideal of “grit” is an easy candidate for prejudice. The realities however are likely to be complex, interwoven with a myriad of competing influences, and probably not susceptible to any quick easy fix such as putting “teach grit” into a school curriculum. On the other hand, having grit on the public social agenda for discussion might be a useful idea. Societies and individuals do change, often slowly, over time.
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** The following is probably only marginally relevant to the topic, but I couldn’t resist including it :). My response to Pereira on managers, above, was posted as a comment on his site:
Well, Mr Pereira, your post on the 10% of perfect managers was written a year ago. What have you changed in yourself and your organization in the last twelve months? Are you one of the 10%? Yes, perhaps it is a silly question.
Like you, from life experience I have no reason to doubt that only 10% of managers are effective. From life experience I also suspect that only 10% of medical doctors, motor mechanics, journalists, teachers and mothers are really much good at what they do. So, as Vladmir Lenin is supposed to have said, “what is to be done”? A company has the easy option of firing the other 90%, but when it’s down to tin tacks, how often is the guy who is doing the firing one of the magical 10%? A what are the odds against being able to replace those imperfect minds from the national pool of sludges?
When it comes to the overpopulated planet, a dictator’s choice may be 90% depopulation. Gas chambers? We know about dictators and their ideas of perfection. Which brings us back to perfect managers with their driven inspiration. I’ve seen them at work in educational institutions, since I happen to be an educator. I’ve seen their lucid determination to impose a false paradigm and destroy the subtle skill of brilliant teachers (the 10%) who can bring the less gifted to their best personal potentials.
What we have in life, and yes in business too, in any place where there are collections of people, are competing ideas of productivity. So is the teacher’s productivity (to maximize the lifetime learning of her student) more critical than the administrator’s productivity expressed in a spreadsheet? You might think so, but it rarely works that way. The choices might seem to be less dire in a pickle factory out to make a profit, yet even pickle factories are made of human beings with complex lives and competing metrics of personal productivity.
I concluded long ago that regardless of IQ (whatever that may be) there are probably limits to human educability, or at least rapidly diminishing returns beyond a certain point on attempts to impart skills and declarative knowledge to each individual. In one way or another, the 90% will always be with us wherever we happen to be.
I’m merely a humble teacher, yet is seems to me that the best in management has something in common with my trade: the mix of psychological insight, empathy and practical energy which will bring each member of that wayward collection of humans in our orbit to their best personal potentials. An enterprise, a class or a pickle factory may be a band of brothers or a team of rivals, but they will do their best for you, the teacher, the manager, the leader, if each one feels that with you, he or she has a shared mutual respect. At bottom true respect is accepting an unforced exchange, a two-way, ever evolving process of learning and experience which brings us together on a common journey, even if it is making the best pickles at the lowest price. A manager’s challenge to sustain that exchange with the 90%, because they are not going away.
The source of this document:
meetup group: Gentle Thinkers http://www.meetup.com/Gentle-Thinkers/
discussion topics blog (for the list of proposed topics): http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/
topics already discussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm
comments: Thor May – email@example.com;
Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).
Is learning “grit” is the best way to succeed? © Thor May 2014