The One Thing Successful People Have Isn’t Taught in Schools

Success can be defined in many ways and can be seen in people as diverse as Steve Jobs, Jay-Z, Gandhi, or Lance Armstrong. They all have different skills that range from the entrepreneurial to the athletic, but one trait they have in common is the one thing that schools neglect to teach. A certain character of mind and habit.


Grit is the internal character that makes one resilient, and it happens to be the new buzzword in education, business, and self-improvement. It is not something that schools have traditionally focused on, but David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools has been taking notice. He found that although his middle schools performed highly in NYC over ten years ago, only 33% of them graduated from a four-year college. But the KIPP alumni who had exceptional character strengths like persistence, optimism, and social intelligence did graduate, despite their less than stellar grades.

By collaborating with psychologists and like-minded professionals, he implemented a program that focused on these strengths, called performance character. It was so important that every student at KIPP received a character report card on top of an academic one, and it measures seven dimensions of internal character: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. (Read more about performance character in the NYT article, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?)

Performance character is a relatively new concept, although it used to be couched under the more familiar terms of self-control or discipline, qualities that have long been studied and advocated as essential for life success. Yet these terms are somewhat limited, as they only imply restraint — not potential or capacity, concepts that are equally critical to hurdling obstacles.

Regardless, self-regulatory traits have given way to self-expressive ones over the past five decades, as charted by historian James Collier in his excellent book The Rise of Selfishness in America. This cult of individualism gave birth to a child-centered movement and parental overindulgence. The result? A narcissistic generation of what L.A. clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel dubbed “teacups,” psychologically fragile kids insulated from any kind of discomfort or struggle. Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the prestigious Riverdale private school in NY, agrees, asserting that “…in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” And without that ability to overcome adversity, many privileged children turn out unhappy or in need of treatment, as reported by psychologist Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic’s How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.

Because even smart children nowadays struggle to pull themselves out of a crisis, Randolph has also worked with Levin to implement performance character evaluations at his school. He felt that traditional moral character education, though crucial, only dealt with external interpersonal relations (e.g., fairness and tolerance; how one treats someone else). On the other hand, performance character education was more about teaching and evaluating the importance of intrapersonal traits — those that include the ability to bounce back or to see an endeavor through to the end. I.Q. might be the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control are more reliable indicators of report-card grades — and of life success. For example, having a strong performance character might lead a struggling student to finish college, to pull together when she has an emotional meltdown, or even to learn a new language. Self-management through delayed gratification.

How important is performance character to professional success? According to Dr. Paul Stoltz, 96% of top employers believe the right mindset is more important than the right skill. The co-author of Put Your Mindset to Work: The One Asset You Really Need to Win and Keep the Job You Love, felt that the “3G mindset,” one of which is Grit will make you exponentially more desirable to employers. (The other two G‘s are: Good, which means having moral integrity; and Global, which is being open and having a big picture perspective.)

Given the intensifying global competition, the importance of developing inner resilience and tenacity to thrive in adversity is even more urgent. America may have replaced self-regulation with self-expression over the last fifty years, but many cultures have resisted it (even as they are becoming more liberal). China and India, along with other emerging centers Brazil, Turkey, etc., are showing lots of grit, reminiscent of second-place Avis’ advertising campaign in targeting car rental market leader Hertz: We try harder. Cross-cultural research shows that Asian countries in particular have always placed an emphasis on hard work and determination over innate ability, which is less the case in many western countries. Combined with hunger, their ascent seems almost assured.

For parents and teachers, the bottom line lesson: Always promote and illustrate the importance of self-regulation and grit, not natural ability. Through adversity, they will be better prepared for future.

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