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Mar 5th, 2021
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  1. Psychologist Angela Duckworth conducted the most famous study of quitting. She sought to predict which incoming freshmen would drop out of the U.S. Military Academy’s basic-training-cum-orientation, traditionally known as “Beast Barracks.”
  2. Six and a half weeks of physical and emotional rigors are designed to transition young men and women from teenagers on summer break to officers-in-training. Cadets are in formation by 5:30 a.m. to begin running or calisthenics. In the mess hall for breakfast, new cadets, or “plebes,” must sit straight in their chairs and bring food to their mouths, not their faces toward their plates. An upperclassman can pepper them with questions. “How’s the cow?” is shorthand for “How much milk is left?” A plebe will learn to respond, “Sir/Ma’am, she walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk! The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the [nth] degree!” N represents the number of milk cartons left at the table.
  3. The rest of the day is a mix of classroom and physical activities, like the windowless tear gas chamber where plebes have to remove their gas masks and recite facts while their faces are burning. Puking isn’t required, nor is it discouraged. Lights-out at 10 p.m., so it can start all over in the morning. It is a precarious time for the morale of new student-soldiers. To get into the academy, all had to be excellent students, many were outstanding athletes, and most completed an application process that included a nomination from a member of Congress. Slackers do not arrive at Beast. Still, some will be gone before the first month is out.
  4. Duckworth learned that the Whole Candidate Score—an agglomeration of standardized test scores, high school rank, physical fitness tests, and demonstrated leadership—is the single most important factor for admission, but that it is useless for predicting who will drop out before completing Beast. She had been talking to high performers across domains, and decided to study passion and perseverance, a combination she cleverly formulated as “grit.” She designed a self-assessment that captured the two components of grit. One is essentially work ethic and resilience, and the other is “consistency of interests”—direction, knowing exactly what one wants.
  5. In 2004, at the beginning of Beast, Duckworth gave 1,218 plebes in the incoming class the grit survey. They were asked to pick from five ratings how much each of twelve statements applied to them. Some of the statements were plainly about work ethic (“I am a hard worker”; “I am diligent”). Others probed persistence or singular focus (“I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one”; “My interests change from year to year”).
  6. Where the Whole Candidate Score failed to predict Beast dropouts, the Grit Scale was better. Duckworth extended the study to other domains, like the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She found that both verbal IQ tests and grit predicted how far a speller would get in the competition, but that they did so separately. It was best to have a ton of both, but spellers with little grit could make up for it with high verbal IQ scores, and spellers with lower verbal IQ scores could compensate with grit.
  7. Duckworth’s intriguing work spawned a cottage industry, for a very large cottage. Sports teams, Fortune 500 companies, charter school networks, and the U.S. Department of Education began touting grit, attempting to develop grit, even testing for grit. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work, but nonetheless responded thoughtfully to the fervor with an op-ed in the New York Times. “I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment,” she wrote. That is not the only way in which grit research has been extended or exaggerated beyond its evidence.
  8. The fact that cadets are selected based on their Whole Candidate Score leads to what statisticians call a “restriction of range.” That is, because cadets were selected precisely for their Whole Candidate Score, a group of people who are very alike on Whole Candidate Score measures were siphoned from the rest of humanity. When that happens, other variables that were not part of the selection process can suddenly look much more important in comparison. To use a sports analogy, it would be like conducting a study of success in basketball that included only NBA players as subjects; the study might show that height is not an important predictor of success, but determination is. Of course, the NBA had already selected tall men from the wider population, so the range of height in the study was restricted. Thus height appears not to matter as much as it truly does.* Similarly, the relative predictiveness of grit and other traits in West Point cadets and spelling bee competitors may not look quite the same in less restricted populations. If a truly random sample of high school graduates was assessed for Whole Candidate Scores, not just those who were accepted to West Point, physical fitness, grades, and leadership experiences may well predict their Beast persistence, and perhaps more so than grit. Duckworth and her coauthors, to their credit, point out that by studying highly preselected groups, “we have necessarily limited the external validity of our investigation.”
  9. The vast majority of plebes complete Beast, no matter their grit scores. In the first year Duckworth studied them, 71 out of 1,218 dropped out. In 2016, 32 of 1,308 plebes dropped out. The deeper question is whether dropping out might actually be a good decision. Alums told me that cadets drop out for varied reasons, during Beast and beyond it. “I think for the kids that are more cerebral and less physical, the short length makes it easy to just fight through to get to the academic year. For the more physical kids, Beast will be one of the best experiences they have,” Ashley Nicolas, an ’09 alum who worked as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, told me. Some of those cadets make it through Beast only to realize that the academy was not the right place for their abilities or interests. “I remember a lot more leaving during first semester when they realized they could not hang academically. The ones who left earlier were either very homesick or just realized they were not a good fit. Most of the latter seemed to be kids who were pressured into coming to West Point without any real desire themselves.” In other words, of the small number of cadets who left during Beast, rather than a failing of persistence, some of them were simply responding to match quality information—they weren’t a good fit.
  10. Similarly, some people might start memorizing root words for the National Spelling Bee and then realize it is not how they want to spend their learning time. That could be a problem of grit, or it could be a decision made in response to match quality information that could not have been gleaned without giving it a try.
  11. Carnegie Mellon economics and statistics professor Robert A. Miller modeled career matching—and a decision to attend a military academy is a major career choice—as a “multi-armed bandit process.” “One-armed bandit” is slang for a slot machine. A multi-armed bandit process refers to a hypothetical scenario: a single gambler is sitting in front of an entire row of slot machines; each machine has its own unique probability of reward with each pull; the gambler’s challenge is to test the different machines and try to figure out the best way to allocate their lever pulls to maximize rewards. Miller showed that the process for match quality is the same. An individual starts with no knowledge, tests various possible paths in a manner that provides information as quickly as possible, and increasingly refines decisions about where to allocate energy. The expression “young and foolish,” he wrote, describes the tendency of young adults to gravitate to risky jobs, but it is not foolish at all. It is ideal. They have less experience than older workers, and so the first avenues they should try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value. Attempting to be a professional athlete or actor or to found a lucrative start-up is unlikely to succeed, but the potential reward is extremely high. Thanks to constant feedback and an unforgiving weed-out process, those who try will learn quickly if they might be a match, at least compared to jobs with less constant feedback. If they aren’t, they go test something else, and continue to gain information about their options and themselves.
  12. Seth Godin, author of some of the most popular career writing in the world, wrote a book disparaging the idea that “quitters never win.” Godin argued that “winners”—he generally meant individuals who reach the apex of their domain—quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and do not feel bad about it. “We fail,” he wrote, when we stick with “tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.” Godin clearly did not advocate quitting simply because a pursuit is difficult. Persevering through difficulty is a competitive advantage for any traveler of a long road, but he suggested that knowing when to quit is such a big strategic advantage that every single person, before undertaking an endeavor, should enumerate conditions under which they should quit. The important trick, he said, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.
  13. Beast Barracks is perfect for a multi-armed bandit approach to quitting. A group of high achievers, not one of whom has an iota of military experience, pulls the West Point “lever,” so to speak. That is, they begin a high-risk, high-reward program and from week one get a massive information signal about whether military discipline is for them. The overwhelming majority stick it out, but it would be unrealistic to expect every single member of a large group of young adults to have understood exactly what they were getting into. Should those few who left have finished instead? Perhaps, if they quit in a moment of simple panic, rather than as a reassessment of the future they wanted in light of this new information about military life. But perhaps more should drop out early too.
  14. • • •In return for a five-year active-duty service commitment, every West Point cadet gets a taxpayer-funded scholarship valued at around a half million dollars. That’s why it is particularly vexing to the Army that since the mid-1990s, about half of West Point graduates leave active military service after five years, which is as soon as they are allowed. It takes about five years just to offset the development costs for a trained officer. Three-quarters are gone before the twenty-year mark, which would bring them to their early forties having earned a lifetime pension.
  15. A 2010 monograph published by the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute warned that prospects for the Army officer corps “have been darkened by an ever-diminishing return on this investment, as evidenced by plummeting company-grade officer retention rates.”
  16. West Point cadets have been making it through Beast and a challenging curriculum, and then leaving, at around the highest rates of all officer training programs—more than officers who came through ROTC (officer training while enrolled at a nonmilitary college), or Officer Candidate School (OCS), which trains college-graduate civilians or enlisted soldiers to become officers. Investment in officer training has recently played out exactly backward: OCS trainees stay the longest, followed by ROTC trainees who did not receive any college scholarship, followed by ROTC trainees who received two-year scholarships, followed by ROTC trainees with three-year scholarships, followed finally by West Point graduates and full-scholarship ROTC trainees. The more likely the Army is to identify someone as a successful future officer and spend money on them, the more likely they are to leave as soon as possible. The Army’s goal is developing career senior officers, not simply Beast survivors. From the military’s perspective, this is all a major backfire.
  17. The pattern reached such proportions that a high-ranking officer decided that West Point was actually creating quitters and declared that the military should reduce investment in an “institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.”
  18. Obviously, neither the academy nor ROTC are teaching cadets to leave. Did cadets suddenly lose the grit that had gotten them through Beast? It’s not that either. The authors of the monograph—a major, a retired lieutenant colonel, and a colonel, all current or former West Point professors—pinpointed the problem as a match quality conundrum. The more skilled the Army thought a prospective officer could become, the more likely it was to offer a scholarship. And as those hardworking and talented scholarship recipients blossomed into young professionals, they tended to realize that they had a lot of career options outside the military. Eventually, they decided to go try something else. In other words, they learned things about themselves in their twenties and responded by making match quality decisions.
  19. The academy’s leaky officer pipeline began springing holes en masse in the 1980s, during the national transition to a knowledge economy. By the millennium, the leaks formed a torrent. The Army began offering retention bonuses—just cash payments to junior officers if they agreed to serve a few more years. It cost taxpayers $500 million, and was a massive waste. Officers who had planned to stay anyway took it, and those who already planned to leave did not. The Army learned a hard lesson: the problem was not a financial one; it was a matching one.
  20. In the industrial era, or the “company man” era, as the monograph authors called it, “firms were highly specialized,” with employees generally tackling the same suite of challenges repeatedly. Both the culture of the time—pensions were pervasive and job switching might be viewed as disloyal—and specialization were barriers to worker mobility outside of the company. Plus, there was little incentive for companies to recruit from outside when employees regularly faced kind learning environments, the type where repetitive experience alone leads to improvement. By the 1980s, corporate culture was changing. The knowledge economy created “overwhelming demand for . . . employees with talents for conceptualization and knowledge creation.” Broad conceptual skills now helped in an array of jobs, and suddenly control over career trajectory shifted from the employer, who looked inward at a ladder of opportunity, to the employee, who peered out at a vast web of possibility. In the private sector, an efficient talent market rapidly emerged as workers shuffled around in pursuit of match quality. While the world changed, the Army stuck with the industrial-era ladder.
  21. The West Point professors explained that the Army, like many bureaucratic organizations, missed out on match quality markets. “There is no talent matching market mechanism,” they wrote. When a junior officer changed direction and left the Army, it did not signal a loss of drive. It signaled that a strong drive for personal development had changed the officer’s goals entirely. “I’ve yet to meet a classmate who left the Army and regretted it,” said Ashley Nicolas, the former intelligence officer. She went on to become a math teacher and then a lawyer. She added that all were grateful for the experience, even though it didn’t become a lifelong career.
  22. While the private sector adjusted to the burgeoning need for high match quality, the Army just threw money at people. It has, though, begun to subtly change. That most hierarchical of entities has found success embracing match flexibility. The Officer Career Satisfaction Program was designed so that scholarship-ROTC and West Point graduates can take more control of their own career progression. In return for three additional years of active service, the program increased the number of officers who can choose a branch (infantry, intelligence, engineering, dental, finance, veterinary, communication technology, and many more), or a geographic post. Where dangling money for junior officers failed miserably, facilitating match quality succeeded. In the first four years of the program, four thousand cadets agreed to extend their service commitments in exchange for choice.*It is just a small step. When Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited West Point in 2016 for student meetings, he was flooded with concerns from very gritty cadets about rigid career paths that did not allow them to adjust to their own development. Carter had pledged to drastically reshape the Army’s “industrial era” personnel management from the strict “up-or-out” model to one that allows officers a shot to improve their own match quality as they grow.
  23. When they were high school graduates, with few skills and little exposure to a world of career options, West Point cadets might easily have answered “Not like me at all” to the Grit Scale statement “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” A few years later, with more knowledge of their skills and preferences, choosing to pursue a different goal was no longer the gritless route; it was the smart one.
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