The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly they seek it while conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come. C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time”

Tenacity Trumps Talent?

Recently academics at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Angela Duckworth, embarked on an ambitious research project.  Their goal was to determine the most important variable in long-term success in learning and life.  They considered IQ, social intelligence, physical appearance, socio-economic background, and a host of other factors that have been linked to achievement.  One characteristic came out on top – and it wasn’t any of those listed above.  It was “grit” – the ability to stick with something over a long period and in the face of challenges, to get up when we have been knocked down, to never give up.

Intellectual Tenacity

“Grit” is one of Rosslyn’s seven Intellectual Virtues – although we have given it the name “intellectual tenacity”.  Someone who is intellectually tenacious is someone who earnestly wants to know Truth; and so they are not willing to give up when they find an assignment difficult or boring.  They are determined to fight through difficulty in order to gain a deeper understanding of the material.

The Story of Suzie and Jackie

To get a glimpse of how important intellectual tenacity is to learning, consider this hypothetical story.  Good friends Suzie and Jackie are both assigned War and Peace in European Literature class. About ten pages in, Suzie decides she is bored with the book and makes the choice to stop reading it. As a consequence of her decision, she does get to spend more time watching reruns of Friends, but it also means that she misses a chance to understand a key period in Russian history and a chance to grow personally. For some of us, this trade-off doesn’t sound too bad. However, thanks to this choice, she also comes to the next novel lacking the analytical skills needed to succeed in understanding it fully—not to mention entering her college European history class with almost no foundation for understanding modern European politics and culture. When she travels to Europe, all she has the capacity to “see” are old buildings and the occasional McDonald’s—the one thing she does understand.

Jackie also finds the first pages boring. She too is faced with a subtle fork in the road of her life. But, instead of turning on the TV, she decides to press on. Things don’t instantaneously improve for Jackie. In fact, it is not until page five hundred, after fighting to stay interested, that she begins to understand and appreciate the novel. But when she does finally finish the novel, Jackie’s world has changed. Because she stuck with it, she has wrestled with some deep moral and spiritual questions and come to a rich understanding of them that inspires her to act differently. In addition, she approaches the next novel she reads with honed analytical abilities and a multilayered foundation of knowledge that allow her to approach the new novel at a deeper and more fulfilling level. When she reads the Economist, she understands the current dilemmas in Russia far better than Suzie does, not because she is smarter but because she understands the historical foundations of the culture. The chances are good that, when the grades come out, Jackie’s mark will reflect hard her work, but even if her tenacity does not reap immediate rewards, she has begun to develop the thinking habits and knowledge base that will profoundly and positively alter the course of her life.

There is one last important outcome of Jackie’s choice to battle through the initial drudgery of War and Peace—the deep sense of accomplishment that results when we have overcome a challenge. Learning can be hard work sometimes.  In fact, quite often, the more valuable the goal that harder it is to come by.  As Thomas Paine famously wrote at the lowest point of the American Revolution, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. . . . Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods.”

There are few characteristics we want to see develop in our students more than intellectual tenacity.

Portions of, “Intellectual Virtue #1” were taken from Virtuous Minds by Philip E. Dow. Copyright (c) 2013 by Philip E. Dow. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.