The start of each new year often comes with a pledge to accomplish those things we have struggled to conquer in the past. The tradition of New Year resolutions requires us to reflect on our weaknesses and focus on how we can overcome them. Typically, we recycle our pledges each year, hoping to get the better of those foibles we seem unable to conquer. How often have we professed on New Year’s Day that we will exercise more regularly, stop eating chocolate, lose that ten pounds, drink less coffee, or finally read War and Peace?
Studies show that these yearly commitments to improvement are typically abandoned by about 90% of us within the first month of the year. Our focus gets lost amidst the stresses of our daily lives and we abandon our resolve.
In the 1960’s, in a well-known experiment often cited as evidence of the importance of self-control, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel presented a child with a treat (marshmallows were just one option) and told him that he could either eat the one treat immediately or wait alone in the room for fifteen minutes until he returned, at which point he could have two treats. The promised treats were always visible and the child knew that all he had to do to stop the agonizing wait was to call the experimenter back—although in that case, he wouldn’t get the second treat. The longer a child delayed gratification, Mischel found—that is, the longer he was able to wait—the better he would fare later in life at numerous measures of what we now call executive function. He would perform better academically, earn more money, and be healthier and happier. He would also be more likely to avoid a number of negative outcomes, including jail time, obesity, and drug use.
The virtues of perseverance, self-discipline, and effort – ‘grit’ in the current parlance – have long been seen as a crucial element of achievement. In the recent work of another Stanford educator, Carol S. Dweck, the presence of a “growth mindset” is also a necessary ingredient of success. That is, the understanding that learning is incremental; that success is earned over time.
“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success
What our students need the most to grow is a resolution to persevere and learn despite facing obstacles; what we need to encourage are mindsets that see challenges as things that they can take on, not just with a once a year pledge, but tasks they will overcome over time with effort, new strategies, learning, help from others, and patience. When we emphasize the potential to change and grow, we prepare our boys to face life’s challenges resiliently.
Now, that sounds like a worthwhile New Year resolution for us all!