A Takeaway From “Grit” That Could Transform Higher Education

Prestigious Failure

I can let you know, from experience, that an “E” on your academic report does not in fact mean, excellent, but rather the opposite: failure.

There is something to be said about the drop in your stomach that you get when you “fail.” The shame that you can’t face – the justification you create.

Except for a few people close to me, no one knows the fact that I failed a four-credit hour class this past semester, that my standardized test scores coming into one of the most prestigious schools in the state of Florida, were what some would say, below average.

No one knows that the girl who has always done well in school battles with the insecurity she has with her “intelligence.” She hides it. She plays it off with sarcasm – with self-deprecating humor to hide the fact that at her very core she finds it hard to believe that she is “smart.”

I could blame the educational system for putting a number on “intelligence” for creating and pushing an emphasis on a grading scale to measure success. I could blame the system that tells me I am “below average” that because of my grades I will struggle in the “real world” that because of how I performed in a general education class, “I know nothing about what it takes.”

Yeah, I can blame our educational system.

But, I won’t.  

I won’t blame the educational system for putting a number on “intelligence,” or for lacking the skills to encourage passion and perseverance. But, rather encourage the system to pursue teaching these qualities of persistence. After reading Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, I realized that that’s why we have students with bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees that can’t last a day in the real world. Cause while we can teach and potentially get an A in macroeconomics, there is something to be said about the power of failing it – about learning how to persist until we succeed. About having Grit.  

Putting a Number on Intelligence

We have IQ tests, SAT, ACT, “perfectly” aligned algorithms to predict “success” in higher education. In no way am I doubting that these are accurate when it comes to predicting your GPA coming into University. I lived it. My GPA accurately reflected my standardized test score   from high school. What I do question, are my peers who have also not performed “exceptionally” in certain classes and are now changing their major because it’s “too difficult.”

I did not even finish my first year of college without an academic advisor confirming my grade insecurity with the question of “would you like to change your major?” – giving me every opportunity to quit and switch gears.

Yet we wonder why employers don’t consider most students “work ready,” all while still putting a degree at the top of the list in terms of requirements.  The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” has somehow shifted to “when the going gets tough, you better be going with it.”

The problem I see, is that the system is putting an emphasis on grades as an indicator of success. It provides its students with ways to switch gears and adjust to meet these standards, but we aren’t teaching students to persist. We aren’t being hard on students when it comes to pushing past failure. We are told to “do what you love,” but when you don’t succeed in the classes, we are advised to maybe think about if we truly enjoy what we are studying.

Fostering Grit

The most enriching classes I have taken have been the ones not focused on a subjective number, but on the idea of learning and bettering myself. The ones where students are given the opportunity to grow themselves intellectually and learn how to persist when the going gets tough.

I believe that the higher education system can begin to create students who are “work ready” by:

  • Putting an emphasis on passion: Passion comes from the Latin word “pati” which means to suffer for. Having educators become mentors who can teach what it means to fall and get back again. People sharing stories – experiences – to give a glimpse of what the “real world” is like and how a student can succeed and shine.
  • Instilling a “self-improvement” attitude in students: Teaching that it is one thing to run a mile on a treadmill, but it’s another thing to get on a treadmill every day and commit to running. Grit is deliberate practice to keep doing the things you cannot help but do because that’s who you are, despite the setbacks.

I am fully aware that there is no class that can teach this. That there will be students who could really care less – that are completely fine with mediocrity. I am also fully aware of the power of vulnerability and sharing one’s story so that one can learn. That’s all I ask from the higher-education system. That we would teach that it’s not as simple as a grade. That you’re going to experience setbacks and you need to develop the grit to persevere through it.

I want vulnerability on my campus. I want it to be known that just because I “failed” in the eyes of the grading scale, I do not need to feel stupid or inferior, but that there is a way to persist until I succeed. Even on the smallest scale, if we can impact one student’s outlook on success – we have changed the lives of so many. I can only be the change I want to see, and I hope I can inspire you to do the same.

Adair Lyden