How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

toughbookWhat makes children, or even adults, succeed? It’s commonly believed that cognitive skills, also known as intelligence, are a primary factor. Smart people are the successful ones, right? Tests like the SAT measure this stuff, skills like pattern recognition, reading comprehension, and math problems.

But in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, the author discovers a lot of evidence that doesn’t support that theory. Instead, non-cognitive “character” skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control may be even more important.

Tough weaves together various research studies and experiments to make this argument. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • GED vs. High-school graduates. Passing the GED test means you are proficient in the same academic areas as an actual high-school graduate. Yet people with GEDs are consistently less likely to graduate college, have lower incomes, and are more likely to be in jail. Why? Perhaps beings a high-school graduate requires additional traits – the inclination to persist at a often-boring task, the willingness to delay gratification for a long-term goal, or the ability to adapt to different social environments.
  • KIPP charter schools. KIPP schools are charter middle and high schools that take in lower-income students by lottery (no test screening) and use intensive educational efforts with the ultimate goal of a 4-year college degree. The first few KIPP classes improved their standardized test scores in middle and high school significantly. Yet the actual college graduation rates were disappointing, with a curious pattern:

    The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.

Further good news is that character skills appear to relatively malleable; you can learn to improve your level of grit and self-control. KIPP schools now provide their students with a “character report card” as well as traditional academic grades.

This book is a great read for parents and educators, but I would say that the conclusions extend to adults and even personal finance. We all need these skills to be good citizens. Being financially secure is simple on paper – spend less than you earn, invest the difference for the future, and keep it up every year. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like self-control, delayed gratification (and perhaps optimism 🙂 ), and persistence.

I would argue that these character skills are more important than what you could learn in any book about Roth IRAs or modern portfolio theory. The question is how do we teach adults these traits, or is it too late?


  1. I agree with the author that character traits such as will power are more important to success than intelligence, assuming that the person has at least an average level of intelligence. Just keep in mind that nobody “graduates college”, they “graduate from college”.

  2. People always underestimate what an “average” level of intelligence is. Since intelligence is a right-skewed distribution, the mean or “average” is very high. Even a median level of intelligence, by definition, disqualifies half of all people right off the bat. I think that people with below-average intelligence that possess these character skills like optimism, grit, and self-control in spades can do better than people like Bill might think.

  3. Joe Shapiro says:

    Read this book last year and it was an eye-opener. I have since embarked on a plan to teach our child chess!! She already has the grit and now wants to learn improved focus and openness to being coachable under stress. Thank you Jonathan!

  4. Hammad Sheikh says:

    I am one of the people who is involved in the research on non-cognitive skills. Just want to clarify a few things: cognitive skills by far outweigh the benefits of non-cognitive skills for pretty much any kind of measure of success. Also, cognitive and non-cognitive skills often go together, further increasing the prospects of intelligent people. However, the power of non-cognitive skills comes from their malleability: they can be taught. Intelligence on the other hand is quite fixed (and normally distributed, not right-skewed as suggested by Naveen). So, while you cannot change much when it comes to your or your child’s intelligence, you can improve self-control and persistence. For any given level of intelligence, additional non-cognitive skills will increase you prospects: you will do better than someone with comparable intelligence but less non-cognitive skills.

  5. It’s NEVER too late.

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