So you don’t need to be a genius but you do need grit.
Absolutely. And I think that’s true in the workplace too. You need a certain amount of intelligence to survive in any workplace. But we all know people who are really smart but don’t have a good work ethic, or just can’t organize their thoughts, or have terrible social intelligence, and so don’t do well. We also know people who aren’t necessarily going to score high on IQ tests but have all of these other skills – and they’re not just window dressing, they’re important in getting tasks done.
For the kids we’ve been talking about, the same persistence and character strength that get them through college are going to help them in whatever else they do. Among my peers, graduating from college didn’t mean that much. Everyone expected you to and you expected yourself to and you could still graduate and have no idea who you were or where you were supposed to go. But for these kids, what they have to overcome to get to college gives them this huge confidence and drive. It’s not empty self-esteem, they’ve really proved to themselves that they are able to do something that everyone else thought was impossible.
Let’s talk about your own education for a minute. At the end of your book, we learn that you actually dropped out of university – twice. You never graduated.
So you could say you were a classic example of character failure – you just couldn’t stick with it – except that those experiences also gave you chances to succeed in unexpected ways.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about that period until I started working on this book. And then I started thinking about it a lot. Interestingly enough, the work I was doing gave me two different ways to look at it: one that was harder on me and one that was more positive.
The harder point of view came from sitting in that classroom on the South Side of Chicago with Kewauna and her classmates. They were all applying to colleges and were so focused, so thoughtful about what they wanted to get out of it, and so determined to persist – so much more so than I had been at that stage. I just felt bad about myself. There’s all this research about how kids drop out of college because of a lack of non-cognitive skills, and I have to admit I think that that was a big factor for me. I did not have a lot of persistence and grit at that time.
But then, as I thought about it more, I was also influenced by the thinking of Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale Country School, a private school in New York. He talks about how character is built through failure, especially for kids who are real successes as adolescents in the narrow realm of academics. If they don’t have an opportunity to really push themselves and struggle and overcome failure, they’re going to go through life lost.
I think what happened to me in college, both times, is that I felt, in a way that I wasn’t quite able to articulate then, that I was missing that opportunity to really challenge myself. I think if I had had other character strengths, I might have been able to find a way to do that at college. I don’t think it was inevitable and necessary for me to drop out. But I do think that what I did instead was, you know, this crazy idea of bicycling alone as an 18-year-old from Atlanta to Halifax …
Right, to prove something.
At the time it sort of seemed like, “Oh, this will be fun.” But looking back, I really think I was trying to give myself a challenge. This is the time of life when people join the army, go away to war. ... My life wasn’t at risk, but it was hard: I didn’t know what I was doing and I had to figure things out for myself at every turn.
It didn’t change my life and make everything clear thereafter, but I do think it shook me up in an important way and helped push me to make some better decisions about what I wanted to do.
I had the same feeling as those kids from the South Side of Chicago when they graduate from college – that feeling of confidence that comes from really challenging themselves and succeeding.
You got to Halifax.
I got to Halifax. Shangri-la.
This interview has been edited and condensed.