Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads : “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”
September 21, 2011, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

“What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” makes an interesting follow-up to last week’s article, “The End of Men”; both deal, in their own ways, with the question of character and what makes a successful man (or, in this case, student/person). Paul Tough (great name for someone writing an article about grit) considers, broadly, the idea of educating for character rather than for academic grades and test scores, and more closely what Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School (a prestigious private school in New York) and David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, are doing to work character development into their schools’ curriculums.

What Tough addresses, what Randolph and Levin questioned as they began seeking a way to teach their students character, is how and why so many students succeed academically in high school, but are unable to succeed in college or on the job market. The very idea of an American character, of character traits that bring success and of trying to “train” for those traits, hearkens back to some American ideal of the pioneer, as Randolph acknowledges:

“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.”

What, then, is awarding trophies not just to winning teams or awards to the best students, but giving accolades to all students and athletes – great, mediocre, and poor – doing to students as they prepare to enter the Real World? Is it possible to test for or train for true grit (with a nod to Charles Portis), or does attempting to search for and teach certain character traits among students essentially change the value of those traits? Is intelligence the most valuable trait in a student or person looking for work, or is it some less measurable quality, like how long a person will work at a task that seems at times impossible?

After you read Tough’s article be sure to take the “Grit Scale” test developed by Angela Duckworth (the test Tough discusses at length in his article) to determine your level of grittiness from 1 to 5.* And what do you think is more important to success (let’s say, success in one’s chosen career): raw intelligence, which often seems to be what our schools and society push for, or character traits such as grittiness, trustworthiness and curiosity?

* I score a 4.3, which maybe we could label “pretty definitely gritty,” but since I’m currently “earning” $200 a month and was dumb enough to seek a way to spend a third year in the Balkans, it seems too early to say whether my character (which we could describe as more “too dumb to know when to quit” than “smart”) will help me become a big success.

Read Paul Tough’s “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”


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I’m living in a case study of this.

See…I train and work for Tristar Gym (home of UFC champion Georges St-Pierre). My main job is to triage the worthy prospect from the walking wastes of time. It’s been really easy lately. There’s been two kind of guys. Those who’ve been stepped on all there lives and those who wants to be George. Not be like George, but BE George. They got the clothes, the tattoos, but they don’t want to risk anything.

They don’t want to fight and they sure shit don’t want to admit that George started by being beat up and humiliated for most of his childhood. Of course, the road to success is failure. Famous writers have been rejected countless times. Here’s a Frank Bill post, talking about how CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA came together. He’s pretty much seen as the next big thing in crime fiction , but he got laughed at a lot with his stories before finding the right editors who would work with him.


Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

That’s a nice example, and you raise one of the questions I had after reading this article, which is to what degree you can test for and train for these qualities. I liked the point that in focusing solely on intelligence we’re missing character traits that may have more influence over long-term success, but as you write, there’s something that can’t be taught in character. In your example, it’s years of growing up as the loser, which is one of the things I think the article suggests – that if you grow up not knowing how it feels to fail, you’ll be stymied when you finally do fail or have to face up to a difficult situation.

I’m gonna check out that Frank Bill post later today – thanks for the rec.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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