failure, grit, and big thinking

Fri 31 August 2012 | -- (permalink)

Last fall, I read an article in the New York Times called "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?"  It's a pretty long read, but I really enjoyed it.  The article centers around Dominic Randall, headmaster of a New York City private K-12 school, and a few other prominent figures who thought hard about what qualities are most important for students' success in school and how to teach and develop those qualities in their students.

They were figuring out how to predict student success in high school and college, but I have no trouble believing that that the conclusions and findings presented in the article probably extrapolate immediately to graduate school success.  The question was "what kinds of people succeed in academic situations that are extremely challenging, often to the point of discouraging?"

What they came up with as the answer was...inspiring.  Their list of the qualities necessary to really succeed was as follows: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  I call this list "inspiring" mostly because of what it doesn't contain:  competitiveness, supergenius IQ, hardness...the qualities of the uber-smart but really intimidating people I've met and don't ever feel like I can measure up to.  But no -- the big-thinking educators and psychologists mentioned in the article found other qualities more important.  Qualities I've found and really value in people I deeply respect.  Qualities that show "character is at least as important as intellect." Zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity.  The kinds of people that have those qualities are the kinds that succeed.

The most discussed quality on that list (and I believe the one that gave the article its title) was grit, described as:

"a passion for a single mission [combined] with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take."

So grit is mostly developed through failure. It's hypothesized that kids who have never failed, who haven't really faced obstacles, who have always been told "great job!", never develop one of the key elements to success: grit.

But...that means that the most successful academics - the ones with zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, the ones I look up to - developed grit at some point.  They failed at some point.  They FAILED!  This was such an eye-opening realization to me.  Even the best fail.  A lot.  Most successful people I've met don't really advertise their failures, but I think (at some point) they should.  For example: My advisor wrote a whole public blog post on his failures, which I thought was awesome.  When smart, successful people share their setbacks, it teaches students that if you fail at something, it (a) doesn't mean you're not smart enough, (b) doesn't mean you'll never be successful, and (c) doesn't mean you should give up or play it safe.  It just means you have to stay motivated, stay confident, and figure something else out.

Then the question becomes this:  how do people develop those traits?  Are they personality traits?  Should they somehow be taught?  (One of the main topics of the NYT article was how the school should go about developing kids' character).  When you're in your 20s, how do you work on developing your character?  I don't really have answers.  I have some ideas - ideas that I don't implement perfectly, but that I think would help develop zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and/or curiosity:

​(1)  Hang around people who already exhibit those traits.  Get to know them.  If they're your peers, be friends with them.  People with zest and gratitude and optimism and social intelligence are often really fun people to hang out with anyway.

(2).  Read.  Word on the street is that successful people read a ton.  Check out Goodreads to turn reading into social networking (a great way to get recommendations!).

(3).  Work hard, play hard.  Like your work enough to spend a good amount of time on it - enough time to try out crazy ideas (that might fail spectacularly) and to do quality work.  And be social - build relationships, make friends, enjoy your city.

(4).  Be a big thinker.  All my favorite people in our department are what I consider big thinkers: people who have big ideas - ideas that sometimes seem crazy (and sometimes are), people who LOVE what they do, people who aren't afraid to get enthused about statistics or bioinformatics or computer science, people who proudly and loudly geek out, people who set really lofty goals (and often don't meet them, but accomplish significant things while trying!), people who speak up when they have an idea or a question, people who encourage others, people who listen to those who are smarter than them.  Be one of those people.

We'll see how this goes for the rest of grad school (and beyond)!

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