Slow and Steady Still Wins the Race

Originally written as a letter to parents on February 2, 2012.

Aesop tells the tale of two dissimilar creatures: a lightning fast hare and a slow, steady tortoise.   When challenged to a race, the overconfident hare decides to take a long nap in the middle of it, only to be beaten by the perseverant tortoise.  Every child knows the take-away moral: Slow and steady wins the race.

Perseverance is an underrated virtue.  As a child, I would rather have been the hare – look at that natural athletic talent!  Who wants to be lumped in with the “slow” tortoise?  But age and experience have confirmed what modern-day research (and ancient storytellers) tell us: the ability to stick with a task, to persevere in the face of difficulties and set-backs, is a much greater predictor of success than so-called innate skill.

A few months ago, the New York Times published an article entitled, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” I highly encourage you to read the entire essay, which draws upon the research of Dr. Angela Duckworth. Duckworth achieved early notoriety from her research that showed a student’s level of self-control was a more accurate predictor of school success than his/her measured IQ.  Since then, she has taken her work further:

People who accomplished great things, [Duckworth] noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.”

She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

In advisory and class meetings this month, we will talk to our middle school students about perseverance and the very real benefits that come from showing determination in the face of difficulty. So many of humanity’s greatest achievements came from those who saw possibility in the ashes of defeat, who kept dreaming when others gave up.

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