The smartest students aren’t always the best students. And the best students aren’t always the ones who are hired, promoted, and become millionaires at 30. In fact, a study of valedictorians found that most of them lacked the knowledge to develop and manage a career. Most ended up taking “safe jobs” while high school dropouts went on to create Virgin Records, Tumblr and hold key positions in Facebook. (And while we’re on the topic, how many of your richest friends got A’s in school?)
Matt Fields, a CEO of a Canadian digital agency, pays top dollar for Filipino talent. All of his employees are Filipino, and his headhunters used to give him graduates of exclusive schools. “All smart, all speak impeccable English, but all of them disappointed me,” he says, adding that he found greater success from graduates of unknown schools who were “hungry to prove something to me and to themselves.” He eventually told his headhunter: “I don’t need book smarts. I need street smarts.”
His biggest gripe against academic achievers is that they have no tolerance for ambiguity or frustration. “They can’t work with imperfect situations and find solutions. They’re unwilling to go the extra mile, because they think they can get an easier and higher-paying job because they were told they were the best and hard work is beneath them. They are ‘hurt’ when I do not like their work. They’ll drop the ball because they have a family reunion or the flu.”
Academic pedigree gives a false sense of superiority.
His sentiments are echoed by many managers from different fields. Ask any person you know who works with millennial interns and new hires and you will get eyerolls, deep sighs, and a recurring phrase: self-entitlement. Academic performers got ahead by memorizing and following rules. They were motivated by consistent and constant rewards.
But real life has no instruction manual, and bosses don’t always give rewards. (Unlike parents, they don’t think saying “You’re awesome!” is part of their job.) The question is: are you preparing your child to do well in school, or to do well in life?
Angela Lee Duckworth is a pioneer in the study of grit. She left a management consulting job to teach in a public high school, and saw that some of the smartest kids got grades far below what was expected from their IQ level. Parents hear this all the time: “Your child is intelligent, but he is an underachiever…”
Duckworth left teaching to become a psychologist and researcher and studied people in various crisis situations – students in Westpoint, new teachers assigned to tough neighborhoods, sales people chasing high targets – to see who would succeed. “In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ. It was grit.”
Grit is not a grade on a report card. Grit is not the number of medals or certificates your child gets every year. A child who grows dependent on rewards can cry when she gets a low score or win second-place. She lives for that “A” and the big smile on Mama’s face. This is not grit; this is addiction to praise.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint,” says Duckworth.
In other words, grit is being able to deal with bad stuff – for a very, very long time – because you can stick to a bigger goal. And you will take failure and criticism in stride, because Life is not All About You.
Grit may be the biggest factor behind success.
Duckworth is honest: there’s not a lot of studies on grit, and both researchers and parents need to have grit to figure out how to develop grit in our kids. However, there is one point we can all start on. “So far, the best idea I've heard about building grit in kids is something called "growth mindset." This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
Growth mindset sees everything is an opportunity. Skills aren’t inborn. Failure is not a death sentence. And it’s based on real science: brain plasticity shows that neurons change with experience. Practice, habits, rituals, perseverance can literally turn a weakness into a strength. You try and fail. You try again and again, and try not to take it personally. Eventually, you become just as good (and even better) as someone who was “born” with a gift.
Ironically, when kids succeed early in life, they have no emotional skills to deal with failure later on. Multiple intelligence can even be used as an excuse. “I’m good at Art, but not Math. That’s just the way my brain works.” Parents take this in the name of unconditional love. Ten years later kids tell their boss, “Oh, that’s not what I was hired to do. That’s not my core competence.” Their attitude dooms them; not their skills, but their approach to developing them.
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Successful kids believe failure is not a permanent condition.
Growth mindset reveals how the brain works: you’re born with an aptitude, but you’re also born with the ability to learn. Will you fail? Certainly, especially at the beginning. But the most successful kids befriend failure, because Mom was behind their backs saying, “Try again. Try again. Try again.”
Nobody likes failure. Children are particularly allergic to it, especially if moms over-emphasize success. You do not want to raise a Success Junkie. You need to raise a Failure Jedi.
Don’t praise perfection; praise hard work and process. “Your drawing is perfect! You’re my little artist!” gushes Mom, at whatever painting your child presents. Instead say, “Wow, you put a lot of thought into those colors. They’re so bright! Can you tell me more about it?”
Stop comparing and start supporting. “Your sister’s good at Art. You’re good at Math.” You think you’re affirming differences, but you’re also giving them an excuse to stop trying at something they’re weak at. Affirm their personalities not their skills; affirm you love them unconditionally, and hug them whether or not they come home with a high grade. But give them support where they need it – Math tutors, art classes, extra homework time – so they know that they can do everything and anything, with a little help.
Deal with failure in a positive way. Your child comes home with a low test score. Give yourself 10 minutes to lecture and nag, but afterwards sit down and tackle the problem in concrete, proactive ways. “What don’t you understand? Can you solve the homework for me now, so I know where you get stuck?” If you’re calm, supportive and helpful—and no, nagging to do better isn’t helpful—they’ll see that failure is a diagnostic tool. It signals where you need help, and they will get help.
Chill, mom. Kids see how you manage your own stress levels. If you freak out over small things, they will too. It is absolutely okay to not be a perfect mom, and forget a few things or take shortcuts so you have time for the more important things. Kids pay more attention to how you deal with your tasks, rather than judge you on how well you meet them.
Talk about emotions. Failure isn’t comfortable. You can feel bad, sad, frustrated, angry, tired – and you need to vent and give a name to these, so you don’t wallow for the rest of the day/week/month. It’s a hard lesson for adults and even more so for kids. Give your child an emotional language: “What are you feeling now?” Give an opportunity to vent without sneaking in a lecture. Moms like to jump in and make kids happy. Teach them that happy is not the only valid and accepted emotion. It is absolutely normal to feel fifty shades of horrible, and they’ll get through it each time.
Channel… yourself. You’re a gritty woman. You have survived things you’d never post on Facebook, and you have a thousand things on your mind that sometimes overwhelms you but you always deal with one way or another. You are an awesome role model. Now instead of overprotecting your child, or trying to meet the standards of some impossible social media influencer, translate some of who you are into the way you raise your child. Strong moms raise strong kids, and everything in your life now that you think makes you a “bad” mom is actually what will make you a real mom, with real lessons your kids need to handle life – just the way you are now. You got this.