“Talent or persistence. Which would you choose for your child?”
I often ask this question at my parenting seminars and the responses are fascinating. Parents naturally want both. Sorry, but that’s not an option.
When pushed most parents choose talent over persistence, which in many ways reflects the current thinking around achievement. Intelligence, sporting prowess and ability in whatever it is we value will only get a child or young person so far. Talent is purely potential. They need more than this to achieve sustained excellence in anything they do. It is the character traits of hard work combined with their ability to stick at a task and see it through that makes all the difference.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, described twenty-something American student Renee, who took 22 minutes to work out a complicated math question. The average student gives up after THREE minutes, preferring to ask for help than work through a problem.
Renee is unusual as she persisted for 22 minutes until she got the solution. The funny thing is that she doesn’t describe herself as a good math student. But she is highly successful at Math. Grit rather than pure math talent is her forte.
Cognitive skills by themselves aren’t enough for children to succeed over the long journey. Many recent studies (most notably the work of US-based Angela Duckworth) have found that character not cognitive ability is the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life will turn out. These traits include the inclination to persist at a boring task (grit); the ability to delay gratification (self-control) and the tendency to follow through with a plan (conscientiousness), which are invaluable traits at school, in the workplace and in life in general.
Character works as an indicator of success when it’s seen as a set of strengths and personality traits rather than personal values such as loyalty, tolerance or forgiveness.
Character is forged under difficulty
The key character traits of grit, self-control and conscientiousness are forged under hardship and duress. This makes our current propensity to over protect and over indulge kids problematic – something I wrote about in my book Spoonfed Generation. When kids continually experience easy success we set them up for failure because when they finally face up to difficult situations many lack the capacity to push through the tough times.
Encouraging kids to step out of their comfort zones and take learning and social risks is one of the great challenges for modern parents. It’s critical that we challenge children and young people to attempt activities where failure is a significant option. Overcoming setbacks and pushing through difficulties are how character is formed.
Character is malleable
The good news is that character, like intelligence, is malleable. It’s not fixed. It’s important to establish in your own mind as a parent and also in children’s minds that character traits such as grit, self-control and conscientiousness can be developed.
To this end it’s important then that parents steer clear of using absolute language to label behaviour and views traits and abilities as fixed. Comments such as “You’re no good at math” become a rule that young people learn to live by, and become default thinking that’s hard to budge.
Make grit part of a family’s brand
In my book Thriving! I wrote how every family has it’s own distinctive brand, which is a reflection of the strengths and traits that all members share.
For instance, if high work ethic is a common trait then it’s a fair bet that hard work is something parents focus on in their family.
Parents can actively promote grit and persistence in kids by making character part of their family’s brand. They can focus on character in conversations. They can share experiences where character paid off for them in their lives. They can discuss how character contributes to excellence and success in every day live including at work, at school and in the sporting field. Character and its many components can become part of the family narrative regardless on the age of children.
Build proprietary language around character
Families develop their own language around what’s important to them and that needs to include character if the parents want to foster excellence. Continuous messaging of terms and phrases such as ‘hang tough’ and ‘hard yakka’ help weave character traits into the family DNA.
Parents should reflect on the language and terms they already use and build key phrases and terms around the following key character strengths: grit, self-control, conscientiousness, enthusiasm, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity
Character becomes the default mechanism
Habit and character go hand in hand. Conscientious young people don’t go around consciously deciding that they’ve got to delay the fun stuff until they’ve done their work. They’ve just made it their default mechanism to stick at their task, or delay gratification, or jump into a task with enthusiasm.
Conscientiousness doesn’t always serve a young person well. They can sometimes place full focus on menial or unimportant tasks when a smarter option may be to cruise and save energy for the important times such as exams. That’s where parental guidance plays a part. However in the long run conscientiousness serves a young person well when it’s their default because when the stakes are high they will automatically make the right choice. In fact, it will be the only option when excellence really matters.