Get back in the saddle

In the academy all must have prizes, but nothing breeds success like failure. Steven Schwartz argues that students gain more from blind alleys than from victory processions, as failure engenders the ‘true grit’ essential to achievement in the real world

March 29, 2012

“All political lives…end in failure,” said British politician Enoch Powell, a proposition amply corroborated by his own career. Scholars are vulnerable to a similar fate. To paraphrase the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: someday we’ll all be dead and eventually we’ll all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’ tip for a successful career: make sure the first precedes the second.)

Even superstars fail. In a famous Nike advertisement, basketball legend Michael Jordan confesses to missing more than 9,000 shots and losing almost 300 basketball games in his career. “Twenty-six times,” he says. “I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot - and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.” Then, after a pause, he delivers the line that has attracted more than 4 million people to view the ad on YouTube: “And that is why I succeed.”

Jordan’s message is inspiring, but it is also worrying. If failure is essential to success, then what are the prospects for our current crop of graduates? They have grown up in an age when practically no pupil is ever forced to repeat a year; when 98 per cent of secondary students pass their A-level exams (despite receiving marks of 50 per cent or even lower); and when 97 per cent of university students graduate with first- or second-class honours. The overwhelming majority of today’s graduates have never experienced failure. What happens when they move out of the academic environment, where success is the norm, to a world in which failure is ubiquitous? Will they have the capacity to cope?

Tim Harford fears they won’t. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (2011), Harford claims that messing up is central to learning. Students gain more from mistakes, blind alleys and dead ends than from success. Failures give students the opportunity to “pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again”. Such resilience is essential because becoming an expert is a long process - it requires at least 10,000 hours, says Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). It takes this long because the real world has higher standards than schools or universities. It’s not good enough for a concert pianist to be 50 per cent accurate or for computer programs to work only half the time - and we would not be happy if surgeons fluffed half their operations. A 10,000-hour apprenticeship provides plenty of opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes, and everyone knows that practice makes perfect. Failure also provides the chance to cultivate one’s self. The character traits forged by confronting and overcoming failure - persistence, determination and courage - are vital to success in any field.

Courage is particularly important. In her much-praised Harvard University commencement address in 2008, J.K. Rowling told graduates: “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty but failure.” Her audience had no trouble empathising. Fear of failure is endemic. It has spawned its own literature, with titles such as Conquering the Fear of Failure (2002), How to Overcome Your Secret Fear of Failure (2003) and No Fear of Failure (2011). The Harvard Business Review devoted its entire April 2011 issue to failure - “how to recognise it, how to handle it and how to learn from it”. Never ones to miss an opportunity, psychologists and psychiatrists have labelled the fear of failure “atychiphobia”, a condition they are uniquely qualified to treat. According to Wikipedia, the repository of ersatz wisdom, pushy parents who have unreasonable expectations of their children are the main cause of atychiphobia. But Rowling didn’t buy it. “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents,” she said. (Someone should tell Wikipedia.)

Instead of blaming others, the Harry Potter author took responsibility for her situation. She had reached rock bottom, “a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain”. Her fear had come true - she had failed comprehensively. Yet, she felt strangely empowered (“When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” as Bob Dylan put it). So why not write a book?

Rowling has a vivid imagination and Jordan is a superb athlete, but their talent is not the only, or even the main, reason for their achievements. What counts much more is their strength of character.

The idea that character traits forged out of adversity are more valuable than talent in determining success was the thesis of a category-defining book called Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct, published in 1859 by the Scottish author Samuel Smiles. Like its modern descendants, Smiles’ book combined pithy sayings (“a place for everything, and everything in its place”) with a series of anecdotes designed to show that self-discipline is the essential ingredient of success. Smiles didn’t deny that some people were stronger or smarter than others, but he considered these advantages less powerful than traits such as persistence and tenacity, qualities that could be acquired only in the school of hard knocks.

Self-Help was a best-seller, but its influence didn’t last long: it was soon eclipsed by the views of the social Darwinists. They agreed that ambition, hard work and zeal are necessary to achieve any goal, but believed that these traits were not learned from bitter experience, but inherited in the same way as size, eye colour and strength. Those with the most successful character traits survive while others gradually die off. In this way, “natural selection” ensures the continuous improvement of the human race.

Because human intervention only gets in the way, the social Darwinists believed that advanced schooling should be reserved for those born with the genetic endowment to benefit from it. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, devoted considerable effort to developing tests that could be used to identify the elite individuals who were worth educating.

His tests were crude, but intelligence assessment has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. Today’s intelligence tests are reasonably proficient predictors of performance on academic exams, but are not so good at identifying which students will complete their university studies and which will excel in their careers. Smiles would not have been surprised. Intelligence is valuable, but when it comes to reaching a goal, tenacity, resilience and persistence are much more important.

Angela Lee Duckworth, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently rediscovered the power of these character traits in her work on “grit”. She lifted the word from True Grit (1968), the novel by Charles Portis (recently adapted for the cinema by the Coen Brothers).

In the story, 14-year-old Mattie Ross sets out to avenge her father’s murder, and along the way also redeems the alcoholic lawman Rooster Cogburn. Mattie’s tenacity, her refusal to be deflected from her goal no matter what hardship she meets, represents precisely what Duckworth means by grit. To measure this trait, Duckworth developed a 12-item “Grit Scale” that requires respondents to estimate how closely they resemble certain statements: “I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but lost interest”; “Setbacks don’t discourage me”; “I finish what I begin”.

Duckworth administered the Grit Scale to cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. In their first summer, cadets undergo a rigorous basic training known colloquially as “Beast Barracks”, a tough initiation that many of them fail to complete. For years, West Point has tried to predict which cadets will survive Beast Barracks. Researchers combined marks on entrance exams, grades in high school, measures of fitness and leadership potential into a single score. Despite its comprehensiveness, this score turned out to be a poor predictor of which cadets would survive Beast Barracks, nowhere near as accurate as the Grit Scale. The evidence was striking: sticking things out in a demanding environment is not just a matter of strength or intelligence - it takes grit. Duckworth went on to administer her scale to diverse populations (novice teachers, competitors in spelling bees), repeatedly confirming that, when the going gets tough, the gritty get going.

Duckworth’s research has important implications for university admissions. At present, selection for competitive courses is determined by a combination of exam scores, school marks, letters of recommendation, portfolios of work, auditions and other performance indicators. Yet students who look like good bets on these criteria often do poorly and many drop out before completing their studies. Duckworth’s work suggests that the list of indicators is incomplete. To select those who will succeed, tutors need to know which applicants will respond to a failing mark by studying twice as hard for the next exam, which will choose to stay in at night and prepare for an exam rather than go out with friends, and which will stick with a task until they master it. In other words, admissions tutors need to know which applicants have true grit.

Grit can be estimated from interviews and personal statements, but the best evidence comes from life experience. Studies have found that comprehensive-school pupils do better at university than their private-school peers with similar A-level results. One study by the Sutton Trust found that a student from a comprehensive with three Bs at A level did as well at university as a private-school pupil with two As and a B. Research from other countries has produced similar findings. None explicitly measured grit, but it is reasonable to suspect that students from comprehensives will have faced more obstacles along the way to A levels than students from independent or grammar schools. They will have had more opportunities to fail and start again - and the result is more grit.

Writing in The New York Times last year, the aptly named Paul Tough described how teachers (particularly those who work in private schools) have become accustomed to parental requests, sometimes demands, for assignment deadline extensions, second marking of exams and various forms of “special consideration”. This behaviour is becoming increasingly familiar to university lecturers as well.

It’s entirely understandable; parents want their children to succeed. Unfortunately, they may be ensuring just the opposite. As Tough notes, protecting students from experiencing failure also prevents them from gaining the self-confidence that comes from overcoming it. There are no safe routes to success. If we want to prepare our students for life’s inevitable slings and arrows, then, for their own sake, we must let them fail.

A loser, baby? No, it’s just a figure of speech

In more than 15 years spent teaching at a major US university, I have never failed even one student. Not that some didn’t deserve it, but academics at my institution do not have the option to assign the dreaded “F” grade at the end of a course. Instead, our lowest mark is “R” for “repeat”. By wide if unspoken agreement, the word “failure” simply does not apply to students at prestigious institutions.

And yet the idea that we no longer allow young people to fail is nonsense. Such a generalisation overlooks the students who do not expect and are not expected to succeed in the first place. While arguing over where the fault lies - in themselves or in their family, community, culture or class - we often forget that, even more than opportunity, ambition itself is a privilege.

We reserve the euphemism “repeat” for a different class altogether, for whom ambition is a given and success a probability. Likewise, we urge “the lessons of failure” only on youth who have little chance of actually ending up as losers. Anecdotes about famous people overcoming failure (J.K. Rowling, say, or Abraham Lincoln) are “lessons” only because they ultimately succeeded in unique and epic ways. No parent or teacher wishes that more young people would emulate Alec Douglas-Home. Take away the implicit triumphalism in the call to embrace failure, and the only obvious lesson is to avoid it.

I spent more than a decade failing to complete my book about failure - at the risk of my job, my relationships, my sanity and my self-esteem. Let it be known that you are writing a history of the idea and friends and strangers will confide all manner of troubling secrets to you. I wanted desperately to succeed and lost my love of being a historian and a writer.

What saved me was being a teacher. By trying to explain to my students what my book was about, I figured it out and finally finished it. The challenges of facing my own failures, of tracing the histories of myriad forgotten Americans, and of sharing this with students, taught me three things. Before we can destigmatise and really learn from failure, we have to stop denying it. That is, we have to acknowledge that some people - even ambitious people, smart people, talented people, tenacious people, good people - experience failures that turn out to be more than mere bumps on the road to success. Almost every family has at least one member (think of your brother-in-law) for whom failure is a crushing reality, not an inspiring lesson. What is obvious up close disappears when we consider society as a whole. “Let us be thankful for the fools,” Mark Twain observed in 1897. “But for them the rest of us could not succeed.” Admitting that not all who fail are fools challenges our faith in, or our desire for, meritocracy.

Before we can own failure as an educational opportunity, we have to disown it as an individual identity. Why is it so easy to recognise that nobody succeeds alone on her own strengths, yet so hard to accept that nobody fails alone on his own weaknesses? In 18th-century English, the usage “he is a failure” or “I feel like a failure” was unknown; people spoke of going into business and “making a failure of it”. The striver was still responsible for paying for (and learning from) his own mistakes - but the shop or the counting house was the failure, not the person. Not until 19th-century individualism taught us to take risks, take stock and take credit for our achievements did taking “a loss” come to mean being “a loser”. This is the language of business applied to the soul: we have forgotten that it is a figure of speech. Adults use it so casually, and the young wield it so lethally, that to risk failure is to risk annihilation.

And before students will accept an invitation to fail, parents and educators must exempt them from the obligation to succeed, at least in the narrowest and most common meanings of the word.

This is easier to do in times like these - hard times - than at any time since I started teaching in 1992. For a long time, the idea of education as self-discovery has been seen as at best quaint and at worst unaffordable. You go to college to learn which thing you do well (or well enough) to make you the most money. Then, suddenly, there were no jobs and there was no security anywhere. For the first time in many students’ lives, it no longer felt irresponsible to study something they loved, whether or not they could be the best at it or make the most money. How strange: when the pursuit of property is impossible, the pursuit of happiness becomes acceptable. Failure as a choice not to “succeed” has become an option - for now.

Scott A. Sandage is associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005).

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