On August 22 2013, GCSE results day, Matthew Syed wrote a piece in the London Times entitled, 'Dare to fail and train those mental muscles.' He said:
"Yesterday Nick Hurd, a government minister, argued that one of the most important qualities in life is grit. He is right. Grit, or resilience, is a powerful predictor of success in everything from maths to music. It is those who take risks, who keep going even when they mess up from time to time, who ultimately reach their potential. Mr Hurd argued that schools should do more to inculcate this virtue, along with other aspects of good character. He was right about that, too.
But where does grit come from? When you speak to young people, it is striking just how often they blame their innate deficiencies when they are struggling with a subject such as, say, maths. “I don’t have a brain for numbers” is a phrase heard up and down the country.
This may sound trifling, but it has deep effects. After all, if I lack the mental equipment to understand maths, what is the point of persevering? Surely it is as pointless as someone without hands trying to master origami. In effect, the belief destroys the grit that is essential to success.
Now consider children who are taught to think of the brain not as something that is either suited or unsuited to a particular activity, but as more like a muscle that grows with use. If they are struggling with maths, they will no longer see this as a reason to give up, but as a reason to persevere. They will recognise that by striving, they will grow the mental muscle to succeed. In other words, they will demonstrate grit — as dozens of psychological studies have shown.
This is important because the neural architecture of the brain actually changes if people stick at things. Functional MRI scans reveal, for example, that the area of the brain involved in finger movement is far larger in concert pianists than in the rest of us. But crucially they were not born like this: it grew in proportion to years of practice. In other words, it was built through grit.
Failure is damaging to many students (to some, it is devastating) precisely because they regard it as a personal indictment. They think that it shows that they are lacking in some way; that their brains are deficient. That is why they try to avoid failure (they are even paranoid about putting their hand up in class). They become risk-averse.
Students who recognise their potential for growth, on the other hand, do not regard failure as a reason to give up, but as evidence that they are progressing. They recognise that they will learn faster if they are being stretched, and that if they are being stretched they will mess up from time to time. The crucial thing is to get up again. Why? Because they see a connection between striving and ultimately succeeding. And the neuroscience suggests they are right.
Studies have shown that great entrepreneurs fail many times before they build the business that makes their fortune. Henry Ford’s first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, collapsed, as did his involvement with the second, the Henry Ford Company. But these failures taught him valuable lessons about the importance of pricing and high quality products. The Ford Motor Company, his third venture, changed the world.
Great sportspeople demonstrate the same fortitude. Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, missed more than 9,000 shots during his career, lost 300 games and on 26 occasions was trusted to make the game-winning shot, but missed. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life,” he has said. “And that is why I succeed.”
It is not failure that is important but our response to it. The point is not that we all share the same potential, but that none of us will reach our potential unless we persevere.
There will be much debate about grade rigour and school structures when the GCSE results are published today. But unless we create the right psychological foundations, we will not get the results that we desire and that our children deserve. There is something tragic about witnessing young people crippled by the fear of failure, as I did in Yorkshire. It is also awful to see children ashamed of excelling academically because it is perceived as uncool.
It is grit, above all else, that will provide the antidote."