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What it Really Takes to be a Successful Student

Jumping over obstacles

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”Colin Powell

As it turns out, Colin Powell was on to something. There may not be a secret to success, but it also is not attributed solely to the obvious factors of natural talent and high IQ. Although strong intellectual abilities are linked to achievement, there has been a recent resurgence in research emphasizing that non-cognitive characteristics are just as important, and potentially more important, in propelling people to high levels of success.

One such characteristic is grit. This term was made popular by psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has studied successful people in diverse contexts—academic settings, private corporations, and national spelling bees—to parse out what differentiated those who were successful from the rest. She and her research team found that the smartest were not necessarily the ones who succeeded; grit was the factor that emerged as the best predictor of success.

What is Grit?
Grit is defined by Duckworth and colleagues as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” To be gritty means to have the energy and determination to stay focused in the pursuit of goals over a period of time, and have the fortitude to persevere despite challenges, adversity, and failure. Those who are gritty not only work hard, but also have the stamina necessary to keep working hard and push through periods of discouragement and disappointment. Gritty folks are not deterred, but rather are focused on enduring obstacles to achieve their goals. As Duckworth puts it, they see their goals as a “marathon as opposed to a sprint”.

In contrast, the less gritty tend to be more easily swayed from their goals when things get tough, or when a novel interest distracts them. As such, even if intelligent and perfectly capable, they may not put in the years of hard work necessary to reach a high level of achievement.

Can Grittiness be Learned?
The short answer is not sure. Research about if and how grittiness can be cultivated in individuals is in its infancy. The long answer is that related research suggests this notion is promising. One area that is particularly relevant is growth mindset, an idea developed by psychologist Carol Dweck.  Mindset focuses on how individuals’ beliefs about intelligence and other qualities play a vital role in their behaviors and potential. Some people have a fixed mindset and think intelligence and abilities are static and unchangeable, whereas others have a growth mindset and believe that intelligence and abilities can be developed through learning and effort. Having a growth mindset is a wonderful thing, because it means believing that individuals have some control over their own traits and can work to modify them in advantageous ways.

The good news is that research suggests mindset is not fixed for life; a growth mindset can be developed. Simply put, this has been achieved when people were informed that the brain is a muscle that strengthens during the learning process, and flourishes when challenged. People have the capacity to develop their intelligence when they flex their brain muscle and tenaciously toil through stimulating learning experiences. Doing so has changed what individuals believe is possible with their own potential, and consequently, resulted in positive changes in motivation, among other traits such as conscientiousness and openness.  Accordingly, if mindset can be cultivated, then why not grit?  Perhaps grit can be fostered in a similar way—approaching it with a growth mindset by believing that grit can be developed and, subsequently, by putting in the effort to develop it.

What Does This Mean for You?
This means that whether you want to achieve your educational or professional goals, or help others achieve theirs, think grit and have confidence in your own capabilities. Moreover, heed the main ideas about success found in Powell’s quote. Prepare your mindset for growth by believing that, through dedication and learning, you have what it takes to accomplish your goals. Work hard, give your very best effort, and be prepared to persevere for the long term. Let failure be a means to continual development as opposed to an end in itself. In a nutshell, use grit as your fuel for success!

How Gritty are You?
Answer the short Grit Scale questionnaire and calculate your grit score. What did you find out about yourself?

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3 thoughts on “What it Really Takes to be a Successful Student”

  1. Interesting and much truth in this article, but it isn’t biologically correct to call the brain a “muscle” though it may be a useful analogy for some.

  2. Pingback: Finding the Motivation to Pursue, and Finish, Your Education

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