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  • James Burnham

Part 1 How to Develop Grit: Redefining Success and Failure

Updated: May 29, 2019

“Failure is success in progress.” Albert Einstein


Have you ever wondered why some people succeed and others don’t? How did that socially odd, semi-literate kid in your high school graduating class become such a well-rounded, confident adult? How did your college valedictorian become a bitter, recluse working in a job he hates? Is there something behind these random twists of fate, or is it all just by chance? I’ve asked myself these questions for years because, in some ways, echos of these themes play out in my own life and in the lives of my friends, relatives, and people that I coach. I have come to believe that a good portion of why our lives turn out the way they do, comes from how we view ourselves when we weigh our successes and failures. Our own perspective on life has a significant impact on our level of grit.


For example, I have an Aunt who struggled so much in high school that her principal told her parents, “Don’t be concerned with her education. She’s not college material.” Fortunately, her parents decided to enroll her in another school far from home. Sad to be away from home, but determined to succeed, she completed high school and eventually graduated from college. What an achievement! However, my Aunt wasn’t finished. This young, insignificant girl, from a tiny little village in Canada, became a very successful school teacher, published 18 books, earned a Master’s degree, and became a leader in her community, speaking and inspiring people all over the world. To this day as she approaches her 90th year, people seek her out for her opinion. I cannot visit her without someone calling to get a moment of her time. She remains kind, humble, and positive. She is always reading, writing and sharing new ideas about what she is learning. For me, it is a profound story of perseverance, success, and grit. As a young girl struggling in school, she could not have imagined where her life would take her.


So why didn’t my Aunt end up working at McDonald's, with a high school diploma, unknown by anyone other than her close family and friends? First, she did not put a limit on her potential. For a person like her, who struggled to learn, a college degree easily could have been enough. However, she had vision. Her concept of success was not defined by one specific achievement, or event, it was a lifelong practice of grit combined with continual attempts to progress.


We often see people achieve something grand only to slip into oblivion after they have reached their goal. According to data gathered by the NFL, only 56% of first round draft picks actually live up to their performance expectations. At this point in a player’s life, it has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with mindset. Perhaps that young athlete feels he has finally arrived when he is selected. He gets paid, the life he has imagined is handed to him and he finally relaxes. But stepping into the professional arena requires more improvement, if a player wants to continue to succeed. When an athlete is not ready to continue to work just as hard as he did to get into the professional league, he will soon become inconsequential. The belief that success can be obtained in one moment of achievement contributes to a person’s failure to develop real grit.


Perhaps this is one of the reasons that many people fall into obscurity after they achieve something significant. All the talent in the world will not help you once you stop trying to improve. Don’t let one success or failure become your stumbling block. Keep learning and you will go farther than your innate talent will ever take you.


Failure is a much more obvious stumbling block. According to the College Atlas, only 53% of all students complete their college degree within 6 years. If you consider all the effort these programs take to select the most qualified students, that is an astoundingly low completion rate. Perhaps, some students are like some of those NFL athletes--complacently satisfied with being drafted. However, like those complacent athletes, many students will face real failure for their first time and may be unable to cope with it.


I saw an example of a student resting on his past achievements when I was working on my Master’s in English Literature. I taught a few writing classes that brought me into contact with many bright-eyed, untried students who thought they were the smartest kids in their class. I would assign my class an essay within the first week to get a feel for their writing capabilities. Then I would grade their papers and meet with each of them individually to provide them with helpful feedback. As you can imagine, the range of their writing abilities was great. I often had a few students who spoke English as a second language and they generally needed a lot of extra help. To keep myself from being biased, I had them keep their names off their papers so I could focus solely on the writing.


One time I graded a paper that was clearly written by a foreign student because the grammar was so poor. The ideas were sound, but the presentation was going to take a lot of work. To my surprise, the student that showed up to go over the paper with me, was, in fact, an American. I went through the paper showing him all the problems he had with conjugation, incomplete sentences, etc. When I was done he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t understand, I got straight A’s in high school and no one ever told me I had bad grammar before.” I tried to reassure him. I set him up with the school writing lab that was always a great help to my foreign students. Unfortunately, when he turned in his final draft of his paper, it was obvious he had not been to the writing lab or attempted to do any revisions. I gave him a C and he dropped my class. I don’t know what happened to him beyond this but he had clearly been overwhelmed with my feedback. He felt like a failure and he gave up.


This student lacked a personal vision of who he was. He was relying on his past successes as a high-school student. He was proud of the fact that he’d been accepted into a competitive school and that he had earned a 4.0 GPA in high school. However, he lacked the grit to move beyond his initial success because he had not imagined that he would have to work so hard. Also, I was a young teacher and I was not yet experienced enough nurture his potential in a more compassionate manner. He didn’t get the support he needed from me and he didn’t have the internal strength to move past his initial failure without my approval. He allowed my inexperience to inhibit his growth. He let the grade on his paper define his sense of self-worth.


Ironically, in that same class, I had an international student whose first paper also had numerous grammatical errors. When I gave her similar feedback, she went to the writing lab, incorporated my suggestions and I didn't even recognize her paper when she handed in her final draft--it was so well written. I was astonished to see what she had accomplished. She never was able to write a perfect paper off the cuff, but using the revision process, she always delivered an excellent final draft. She finished the class with an A.


The difference between these students was in their expectations of how difficult college would be and how they allowed my feedback to influence their own feelings of self-worth. My American student felt ashamed, stupid, and defeated. He had never had to work this hard to get an A before. He gave up. My international student understood that she was in the process of learning something new. She had no expectation of getting an A. In fact, I think she would have been delighted with a C. She was an engineering major and had no aspirations of being a writer in any language. However, she was there to learn and do her best and her final result was incredible.


When we fall short of our expectations it is always difficult to deal with our new reality. Let us not feel defeated, frustrated or angry. When we begin to view ourselves as failures, our mistakes, missteps, and challenges become insurmountable. We fail to overcome our obstacles because we believe the problem resides within us. On the other hand, people who don’t let a setback define who they are discover ways to regroup and try again. Failure is only a by-product of what they have done, not evidence of who they are. They are able to look clearly at where they need to improve because the problems that they face reside outside of themselves. They don’t internalize mistakes. Nor do they believe they are fundamentally flawed. They believe they can get better with practice. They know their value no matter what anyone says.This is the essence of grit.


Unfortunately, too many of us either stop trying after we make a mistake or we achieve a specific goal. We give up because we believe we aren’t talented, we’re too stupid, or we fail to see the need for continued improvement. Don’t let your successes or failures define you. Hold on to your own vision of who you are. Keep searching for your next adventure and meet your challenges head-on. It is never easy. It takes real grit to rise and rise again. But, if you can do it, then you will find joy in your life and accomplish more than you ever thought was possible.