Monday, September 19, 2011

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

Two stand-alone STOP THE PRESSES emails in one day – that's first!


Below is a lengthy article from this coming Sunday's NYT Magazine about the importance of character and how KIPP and Riverdale (an elite private school in NYC) are working with researchers to figure out how to instill it in students.  I cannot emphasize enough how important this is – I've been pounding the table on this for years – and this article captures this topic beautifully.


It reminds me of one of my favorite KIPP t-shirts: it's a circle with two halves, one of which says "49% academics" and the other "51% character".  This is no cliché – KIPP understands that if the goal is for its students to ultimately lead happy, successful lives (rather than, say, just get high test scores), then there needs to be a strong culture that instills character (this isn't unique to KIPP of course – I've found it to be true of nearly all successful schools I've observed, whether the student body is poor kids, rich kids or anything in between).  (Note that this is NOT about instilling "middle-class values" (whatever that is) – these are UNIVERSAL values.)


Here's an excerpt:

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?

Levin had believed in the importance of character since KIPP's inception. But on the day of his trip to see Seligman, he was feeling a new urgency about the subject. Six years earlier, in 1999, the first group of students to enter KIPP Academy middle school, which Levin founded and ran in the South Bronx, triumphed on the eighth-grade citywide achievement test, graduating with the highest scores in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City. Every morning of middle school they passed a giant sign in the stairwell reminding them of their mission: "Climb the Mountain to College." And as they left KIPP for high school, they seemed poised to do just that: not only did they have outstanding academic results, but most of them also won admission to highly selective private and Catholic schools, often with full scholarships.

But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn't go as planned. "We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City," Levin said. "We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It's all going to be solved. But it wasn't." Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP's stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren't enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP's aim was to instill in its students "middle-class values," as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. "The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach," he told me, "is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment."

Still, neither Levin nor Dominic Randolph had a clear vision of how to turn an 800-page psychology text into a practical program. After that first meeting in Seligman's office, Levin and Randolph kept in touch, calling and e-mailing, swapping articles and Web links, and they soon discovered that they shared a lot of ideas and interests, despite the very different school environments in which they worked. They decided to join forces, to try to tackle the mysteries of character together, and they turned for help to Angela Duckworth, who at the time was a graduate student in Seligman's department (she is now an assistant professor)…

…Duckworth's early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students' grade-point averages than their I.Q.'s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn't as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she 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…


If you want to take the grit test online and see how you compare to others, you first have to register here:, and then take the test (now 22 questions) here: (I just took it and scored in the 85-89th percentile).  Note that there are 18 other tests you can take that measure character strengths, happiness, depression, gratitude, optimism, forgiveness, attachment style, compassionate love, life satisfaction, etc. at :


What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

Published: September 14, 2011

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