Paul Tough of The New York Times Magazine profiled private-school headmaster Dominic Randolph and his focus on instilling character into his students, in addition to the typical focus on academics and extracurriculars. Central to his efforts is a belief that students need to overcome setbacks - to try and fail at things - to develop character. Tough writes:
When I asked Randolph to explain just what he thought Riverdale students were missing out on, he told me the story of his own scholastic career. He did well in boarding school and was admitted to Harvard, but when he got to college, he felt lost, out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s. After two years at Harvard, Randolph left for a year to work in a low-paying manual job, as a carpenter’s helper, trying to find himself. After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has were not built in his years at Harvard or at the boarding schools he attended; they came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net. And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.
“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”
And one of the scholars who have influenced Randolph's thinking, Penn's Angela Duckworth, emphasizes that struggle is essential to success:
“The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
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."
The idea of "grit" as a character trait vital to success is related to Carol Dweck's research showing the value of a learning versus a fixed mindset. To Dweck, successful learners see a failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, not a referendum on one's innate ability.
Some learn grit later in life. Others learn it early (Randolph is trying to teach it to his students). But in any event, if you don't learn it sooner or later, it's hard to be truly successful.
For more on grit, here's a TED Talk from Angela Duckworth: