How Children Succeed – Grit, Curiosity, and the hidden power of Character

Paul Tough‘s conclusions can be summed up very briefly:
- the biggest obstacle to academic & life success is a home & a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage stress;
- non-cognitive skills, like conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism are more important than cognitive skills for young people to succeed in life;
- character matters; as the author points out, conservatives are right about this. But character is molded by the environment and as a society we can do a lot to influence its development in children; as the author points out, liberals are right about this. “We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college.” (p. 196).
To get to those conclusions the author takes the reader on a very interesting journey, and that is what makes the book superb. It is well written and a treasure throve of scientific insights and cutting edge research, with moving stories about students, teachers and schools that make the science alive. Mr. Tough introduces the reader to innovative interventions for children and adolescents while painting insightful portraits of the people at the forefront in the quest to develop (or at least not squander) the human capital of this nation.
I felt the author’s position was very balanced. While looking for successes in his reporting, he does not shy away from highlighting the difficulties and the unknown: e.g., he puts the early successful KIPP’s results into perspective, with the good, the bad and what can be done differently; you got a sense this topic is still a work in progress; he makes it very clear that “No one [author’s emphasis] has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantaged children, in fact.”(p. 193).
But overall there is a sense that, in the end, we will figure it out. A sense of possibility.
For passion and for work I read a lot of books about psychology, neuroscience & leadership / personal development. I always learn a lot.
But this book is different. Not only did I learn a lot. I was also moved.
I was totally absorbed and emotionally involved in the stories of the kids the author features in his narrative.
Mr Tough says that when he spent time with these young people he felt “a sense of anger for what they’ve already missed.”
I felt the same way – and that goes to his credit. I almost feel as if I personally know little James Black  or Kewauna. I did get mad on their behalf.
Mr. Tough also says he had a second reaction: “a feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny.”  (p. 197).
That is what I felt as well – again, to Mr. Tough’s credit.
I am already doing some volunteer work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
But you get sucked in the local situation and your horizons get narrower.
Reading this book widened my perspective and made me fully appreciate the depth of the problem but also the promise of better days to come if we embrace a new way to tackle it.
So I made the resolution to get more involved next year.
Here is my recommendation: read the book.
You will learn a lot – about neuroscience, about parenting, about teaching and about what makes people successful.
You will meet some young people who deserve all of our respect and admiration.
Hopefully, you will be moved as well to do something, even a little tiny bit, to make a difference.

Note: this book review was originally posted on Amazon, here –>


Below my latest amazon review on the book “Succeed – How We Can Reach Our Goals” by Heidi Grant Halvorson

Succeed” is a wonderful book for anyone interested in goal-setting and goal pursuit, which is to say pretty much every one.

It is science-based yet not dry.

The author puts a lot of effort trying to be engaging and she largely succeeds (pun intended).

Being based on science, this book does not offer the simple, clean-cut, one-size-fits-all solutions of many delusion-based self-help books, so most of the time the answer to a practical question raised in the book is “it depends” – immediately followed by a clear explanation of the key variables at play, which should make it very easy to any readers to plot their own course.

Here is a break-down of the chapters, I hope this is useful:

Chapter 1 – do you know where you are going?

About choosing an appropriate formulation for your goal ( “well formed”): being specific, making it hard,  why vs. what frame, value vs. feasibility, chances of success vs. the road to get there, mental contrasting as a decision making tool for goal setting.

Chapter 2 – do you know where your goals are coming from?

About beliefs (fixed vs. growth mindset; see Carol Dweck’s work) and about environmental triggers for goal pursuit

Chapter 3 – the goals that keep you moving forward.

An excellent explanation of be good (achievement, performance) vs. get better (progress, mastery) goals.

Chapter 4 – goals for optimists and goals for pessimists.

Promotion-focused (maximizing gains) vs. prevention-focused (avoiding loss) goals. A very important and extremely useful distinction, further articulated in terms of when to choose one or the other, how the distinction is linked to optimism / pessimism, motivation, feedback, risk-taking and inner needs. I think the book is worth buying for this chapter alone.

Chapter 5 – goals can make you happy.

How some goals are better than others because they nourish our essential needs of Relatedness, Competence and Autonomy (see Self-Determination theory). How internal goals are different from external goals and the important role played by intrinsic motivation in goal pursuits.

Chapter 6 – the right goals for you.

In this chapter the author recaps the ground covered so far but from the perspective of the user. In the previous chapters the author presented psychological research results and how they are relevant to goal setting. In this chapter the author starts from a specific need / situation (e.g. “when you can’t seem to get going”; “when you need speed”; “when you want to be creative”…) and then matches the situation with the appropriate goal frame (e.g. in the 3 examples above, why & prevention goals, promotion goals, promotion & autonomous goals respectively).

Chapter 7 – the right goals for them.

The author shift gears, and this chapter is about assigning goals to others (vs. to oneself, the topic of the previous 6 chapters). The tips given center around leaving a sense of personal control, using the right triggers, using the right frame, making the goal contagious.

Chapter 8 – conquer the goal saboteurs.

This chapter is about seizing opportunities, knowing what to do, increasing monitoring and shielding your goal pursuit from distractions or competing goals.

Chapter 9 – make a simple plan.

This chapter is all about the virtues of the magical formulation “if… then…”, i.e. “if I am in this situation, then I will take this action”. Making such plans is the most effective strategy for goal pursuit. According to the author, if you take nothing else from the book, take at least this.

Chapter 10 -build the self-control muscle.

This chapter explains the concept of self-control as a muscle and useful strategy for goal pursuit based on this insight – namely, like any other muscle, strengthen it, rest it and compensate when tired. I am personally very critical of some formations of this analogy (e.g. the glucose explanation, see Kurzban) and I think a better treatment of the topic is given in the book : “The Willpower Instinct”. However it is true that this is not the main focus of Grant Halvorson’s book.

Chapter 11 – keep it real.

This chapter further elaborates on the role of optimism in goal pursuit. Given the good press optimism gets in self-help books, the distinction made by the author in this chapter between realistic vs. unrealistic optimism is pure gold.

Chapter 12 – know when to hang on.

This chapter is about another key ingredient of goal pursuit: grit. That old-fashioned virtue of commitment to long term goals and persistence in the face of adversity. And no, long term does not mean tomorrow and adversity does not mean “twitter is down, OMG!” or “I do not have the latest iPhone”.

Chapter 13 – give the right feedback.

Frankly the least interesting chapter of the book, at least for me. The good part though was the author presenting the “5 rules of positive feedback” by Henderlong and Lepper. It is research-based and it is a useful checklist for anyone tasked with giving feedback to others.

Overall a great book, an essential reference for anyone (coaches, executives, consultants)  involved in developing leaders, and a useful treasure throve of good tips for anyone engaged in goal pursuit.