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.

Image result for sisyphus

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.

When students reach college, they wonder why their grades suddenly decline after years of constant success. University professors expect results, and composition courses provide the point-of-entry for many students into the world of complex problems and uncertain solutions. Students who have only written summaries and persuasive essays during high-school are suddenly assigned research projects where they must process hundreds of pages of information and then write their own arguments about its significance. A few students meet these challenges because of the rigor of their high-school classes or their natural ability, but many others wonder why the same amount of effort suddenly yields poorer results. College not only increases the standards for success across every subject but also makes increasingly-frustrated students develop skills for which they have little prior experience. Whereas a professional carpenter can build a table without much effort, the average American can only build the same table with the perfect mixture of effort, talent, and detailed instructions.

Even the way companies hire employees subtly reflects the intersections of effort, skill, and experience. Google reportedly prefers candidates with clear motivation and generally-applicable skills with critical-thinking and communication because it assumes it can help its employees receive the specific experience required for their work later. Other companies carefully review the resumes of their applicants hoping they can find employees whose previous work experience matches their corporate objectives and the responsibilities of their available positions. If we accept common stereotypes about government agencies, many bureaucracies value personnel who have the abilities and expertise required for their jobs and downplay personal investment altogether. We must accept that effort does not guarantee success; it only provides the conditions where success becomes the most probable.

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