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Grit and Perseverance in Our Youth

I've been thinking about an article I shared recently about a research study done with cadets at the United States Military Academy (USMA) that found that a single trait separates those who are successful from those who are not. I suggest you read it if you haven't already. You can find the article by clicking on the image below.

When I was on the faculty, teaching leadership at the United States Military Academy, I had the opportunity to serve on a cross-faculty task group to examine why attrition of incoming classes was so high. In the years I was on this task group, from 1991-1993, a typical class at West Point would be 1,500 women and men who jumped through all sorts of hoops to get nominated and admitted to the Academy. Presumably, everyone involved in the admissions and nomination process worked hard to make sure only highly qualified and exemplary new cadets were admitted. Yet, often four years later, the number of graduates would be well below 1,000 with only 929 cadets graduating in the Class of 1992.  As you might imagine, this was a very costly endeavor to have over one third of a class leave before they graduated.

Our task group’s efforts were to dig into the backgrounds and demographics to determine which factors were able to best predict a cadet starting and finishing his West Point experience.  We looked at as many demographic variables that we could: SAT/ACT scores; number of AP classes taken; grade point averages, elected presidents of classes and clubs; selected as captains of athletic teams; number of varsity letters awarded; family of origin to include the extent of past military experience; ethnicity, and host of other specific achievements of a high school student. Despite doing extensive analysis to determine any specific element that could predict graduation success, we could only find one unique characteristic that predicted graduation-the achievement of Eagle Scout. And the prediction rate was extremely high.

We were quite surprised that this was the only variable we could find and yet, while we could not find something similar for female cadets (and we felt terrible about that bias), we realized that for a young man to complete all the requirements of Eagle Scout he had to complete an extensive community project that often ran into the hundreds of hours. The young man had to demonstrate grit and determination to get his project done despite all of the distractions of being a high school junior and senior. While our Task Group did not feel like we gave the Academy’s leadership anything significant to influence in terms of significantly improving graduation rates, we were onto something when we realized that being an Eagle Scout really meant something. So if you didn’t have this as an achievement, were there other elements from your high school experience that showed great determination, perseverance, and mental toughness to overcome hard things and to see big things brought to successful conclusions and outcomes? We certainly believed the answer to this was a strong affirmation and to this day I delight in telling parents of prospective Academy hopefuls, that if they can get their sons to stay the course on Eagle Scout, great things could happen to them.

It does make me wonder if there are other, similar opportunities we can present to our youth (of all genders) that can instill these same skills of grit and perseverance? I know there are great opportunities like the Youth Conservation Corps and Outward Bound that provide challenging, experiential learning for youth of all background but I am not sure how accessible these programs are and wish I knew more about other similar programs that will support the development of deeper resilience and mental toughness.

Me, receiving my diploma from Ronald Reagan at my graduation from West Point in 1981


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