Why Effort Does Not Guarantee Success

The most difficult conversations instructors have with their students normally involve their grades. I clearly remember one technical communication student who came into my office during the week before finals and asked how he could increase his current B into an A for his cumulative GPA. Hunched over my laptop so we could see the screen, we reviewed the grade-book for thirty minutes and eventually calculated that he could not raise his grade unless I waived two penalties that he had previously received for late assignments and scored 100% on his final project. Then the student abruptly changed his argument: instead of asking how he could improve his grade, the student claimed he simply “deserved” an A because of the time and energy he had put into the course. “Well, you won’t let me have an A,” he said, “so I guess my GPA is ruined.” He left my office without another word.

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Students and professionals often believe their success depends only upon their effort. The student who visited my office assumed he could earn an A days before the end of the semester because he could still submit one more project; then he concluded his effort mattered more than his actual performance. Carol Dweck and other theorists have demonstrated how growth mindsets, where people associate their successes and failures with their actions instead of their innate abilities, improve how students learn and apply new skills and content-knowledge, but we cannot neglect the importance of results. Educators and executives can and should reward their students and employees for effort, but effort alone does not produce successful essays, lesson-plans, software, and business plans. Grade inflation and professional complacency have made us confuse effort with success and lowered the bars for satisfactory and exemplary work.

Success arises from three separate factors:

  1. Effort: The time and commitment we devote towards our objectives.
  2. Skill: The natural talents which help us achieve our objectives.
  3. Experience: The relevant practice we can apply for our objectives.

If we define success using the academic and professional outcomes of any project, then success normally requires at least two of these factors. Consider the following example: my professor assigns a ten-page essay about the contemporary reception of The Origin of Species for my history-of-science class. If I barely spend any time on the project, cannot write clearly, and have minimal experience with academic research, then I will most likely fail the assignment. Even spending days on the project, having exceptional writing skills, or knowing the proper structure for historical essays may not fix the problem: the other two factors will outweigh the third. Without the benefit of skill or experience, my essay will improve with increased effort but probably will not receive an A.

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