Raising Quitters

Should you quit or buckle down when things get tough?

Posted May 01, 2010

In the last week, I have read or heard several articles that talk about what it takes to succeed.

  • The NY Times had an article on the role of nature and nurture in genius
  • And another on how willful practice is the critical ingredient that differentiates those with promise and those who excel

Pieces by the Times, NPR and others have all emphasized the same common core of ideas:

  • The major quality that differentiates the good from the excellent is effort
  • Just putting in time isn't enough - you need to practice deliberately and effortfully
  • It takes around 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert – and you probably can’t practice deliberately for more than 4 hours a day.

As my husband's boss used to say about science - it it were easy, everyone would do it.

The bottom line of all of this is that most individual differences in the excellence of performance comes from hard work, not natural talent.  Each of these pieces mentions the truly excellent work by Carol Dweck.  I have discussed Dweck’s work, in How To Raise a Juvenile Delinquent with Materials Easily Available at Home, as have a number of PT Bloggers.  In this context, Dweck’s work makes two critical points:

  • If people believe that performance is due to effort, they work harder when things get difficult.
  • Praising children for effort, not ability, after they experience initial success causes them to work harder when given a difficult task.  Kids praised for their ability quit because failing at the hard task would make them look bad.

No report that I read mentioned what I find to be a fascinating nuance in these findings.  Kids who believe that their performance is due to effort and who believe that ability increases through hard work (like exercising a muscle) actively seek out harder tasks so that their abilities will continue to develop.  They love a challenge, because stretching themselves now means they’ll do better in the future.

As a developmental psychologist, it has long been my hypothesis that doing that over a lifetime would lead to a long-term trajectory of growth.

When I first became a parent my two goals were to raise kids who were (a) nice and (b) believed in hard work and sought out a challenge.

My oldest son is now a graduating senior in college.  And now I’m wondering if I’ve done him a disservice.  He is an intelligent, kind, handsome, and funny young man – great with kids, a bit of a spaceshot, who shows excellent judgment when the going gets tough.  He has also consistently chosen courses that are hard for him.  He’s currently loving a course in computer machine language because he’s learning a whole new way of thinking and working.  It's a struggle, but he is completely immersed in it.

Unfortunately, taking lots of very challenging courses is tough on the GPA. 

I wouldn’t worry about this – I brought him up to focus on what he was learning, not on his grades – except for my own students.  My son is a senior at the same college where I teach.

In the past several weeks I have signed more than a dozen withdrawal forms for my advisees.  None of these students were doing badly in the courses they were dropping.  And they are allowed to drop courses this late in the semester without anything bad going on their transcripts. 

All of these students were dropping the courses because they thought they might get a B- or a C+.  One was even dropping a course that she thought might give her a B.  Either they won’t take the course again because they know ‘they’re not good at it’ (read ‘talented’ and see above) or, if it is a required course, they will take it again but think they will do much better the second time through. 

When I tell them I think this is a bad choice – and that they’re almost done and can easily finish up successfully – they just shake their heads and tell me

  • I won't be able to get into graduate/med school with a B- on my transcript. 
  • My GPA will drop and it won’t look good on my resume when I am applying for jobs. 
  • Working hard on that one class might bring down my As in the others. 
  • My parents will kill me if I don’t pull at least a B in everything.

Are they right?  I don’t know.  What they are saying does not square with my experience sitting on the admission committees of highly competitive graduate schools.  Yes, you need a high GPA and good test scores.  More importantly, you need lots of research experience and work experience and excellent recommendations.  You need someone to vouch for both your intelligence and your character – especially your ability to buckle down when things get tough.  In graduate school, things always get tough.  As things do in life.

I hope my students are wrong, because I could certainly never have gone on to grad school if what they say is true, and my son will not be able to either, should he decide to try.  I have told him – in thought, word, and by example – that when things get hard you need to buckle down and work hard.  That learning things that came hard to you makes you stronger and smarter and more well-rounded.  That if you love something enough and keep working at it you will find great satisfaction in it.  That with enough work you can learn almost anything.

I taught my son not to quit.

I think my advisees are sophisticated, know the system, and will undoubtedly do well.  But I also think they are losing the opportunity to dig deep within themselves and to learn that they can overcome obstacles.  All of us are going to face obstacles in our lives.  We need to know how to handle them.

In my heart of hearts, I think my students are cheating themselves and that they are learning to quit.  This may be a successful strategy in the short run - it may bolster their GPA - but I can’t see it serving them well over a lifetime. 

But as a parent, I also worry that I have been naive and that self-presentation and not personal development is what will be important in determining long-term 'success'.  And then I'm sad for all of us.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved