The Value of Grit for Kids and Artists

"Sisyphus" by Franz von Stuck

“Sisyphus” by Franz von Stuck

A debate is underway in the U.S. about education, with ramifications extending to social policy for alleviating poverty, or at least for improving the ability of the next generation to escape from poverty. In some respects it is a variation on the nature vs. nurture debate.

Since at least the early 1990s the prevailing view was that poor children fell behind early on because of insufficient cognitive skills. Their 3R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic – were inferior. Therefore, so this theory goes, strengthening math and reading skills would level the playing field, giving those disadvantaged kids a fighting chance. This view is known as the “cognitive hypothesis.”

It has been challenged in recent years by a competing view that a very different set of attributes – such as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence – have greater influence on how a person turns out, as measured by positive outcomes such as education, career and marriage; and negative outcomes like adult financial difficulties, criminal behavior, single parenthood and substance abuse. Economists term this set of traits “noncognitive skills,” psychologists call them personality traits, and laymen often just think of them as character. One complication of this view is that noncognitive skills are harder to measure and less clear how to teach. Teaching a child the multiplication table is easier than imbuing a kid with, say, curiosity.

This debate is the subject of Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough does a thorough job of reporting this issue and while he eventually attaches more importance to the noncognitive skills (while also nudging me in that direction), he puts the matter in historical context and gives fair treatment to all sides.

Two aspects of the book particularly struck me as a writer. For 15 years I have been writing plays – that is, trying to be an artist – with at best a modest degree of success. Despite little external validation, I continue to write and otherwise work on my plays every day. From the many biographies and autobiographies of artists that I have read, I know the persistence I apply daily is essential for success to be achieved. In fact, there may be no attribute more valuable than that one. Some writers call it the “butt in chair” principle. Persistence also happens to be one of those “noncognitive skills” that educators have come to attach more importance to.

Tough reported a recent discovery that intelligence may be more malleable than previously thought. The question of the malleability of intelligence is being hotly debated just now by psychologists and neuroscientists. However this debate plays out, Tough reports a fascinating side discovery: “Regardless of the facts on the malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable.” That is, if you remove determinism from the theory of intelligence, intelligence actually becomes less deterministic for students.

The reason this resonates with me is that I can easily modify that debate by supplanting “intelligence” with “artistic talent.” Being an artist who has yet to “break through,” one possible reason is that I lack sufficient talent. I’m certainly aware of that possibility and in fact the notion often bounces to the surface in whatever cortex such troubling notions reside (particularly when the writing is a struggle). Even if talent is less malleable than I like to think, my belief that talent is subject to the 10,000-hour rule and is somewhat malleable, helps fortify my persistence and improves the odds that I will eventually write that breakthrough play.

Another finding Tough reports on is relevant to an artist’s plight: failure isn’t all bad. Recent research has discovered that we do our children no favors by insulating them from failure. Adult life is full of adversity and disappointment and by trying to deny that reality of the human condition to our children, we inadequately prepare them for adult life and actually undermine their academic and career success. When confronted with adversity they will be less equipped to face it and, yes, less likely to persist. I have over 200 rejection letters in my file cabinet, each one a small lash of failure. Yet I continue to write every day.

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