At Risk Students: Can Willpower Be Taught? Part B

Summary: A book by the New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg tells the story of one individual and numerous researchers that suggest that willpower can be taught. See also Part A, last week’s post.

As life has it, a book from my reading group, The Power of Habit, by the New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg, provides a related perspective on the growth of willpower from the training annals of the Starbuck’s corporation.

Travis, as he is named in Duhigg’s Chapter 5, grew up the son of functional dope addicts, then to find himself on the threshold of adulthood able to find jobs, but poorly able to manage the stresses of employment, the angry patrons, the food rudely slung at him by customers, the confrontation with employers – all the usual trudges of the workplace that involve self discipline or, from the previous schools discussion, “grit.”

With serendipity, at the suggestion of an acquaintance – Travis seems to have been able to make substantial contact with individual people – he found his way to Starbuck’s which, like many large corporations, has a thorough going training program for its often entry level workers, which in the case of Starbuck’s focuses closely on assuring their customers have a welcoming experience in their stores. Thus is framed the magnitude of the changes Travis would have to make.

Duhigg shifts to a study out of Scotland which involved rehabilitation after hip and knee replacement surgery (a subject with which I am quite familiar, by the way!) for mostly older folks. Patients are ordered up and about almost immediately after surgery, and expected to walk and exercise with regularity in order to optimize their return to normal activity.

Unfortunately, not all do as told; how to ensure greater compliance is a common problem. (In my case, I experienced a veiled threat that the doc would have to stretch my knee under anesthesia if my own efforts did not yield adequate flexibility within a given length of time. I did as told.)

A scientist connected to the hospital where the surgeries occurred asked each who had undergone the procedure to write down in a booklet their post surgical goals for each week, and then stipulate with some detail how they would meet those goals. Lo and behold, those who followed orders, particularly those who complied in highly specific detail, made progress toward normalcy at a rate significantly more elevated than their counterparts whose booklets remained relatively blank. How, the researcher asked herself, could simply the writing down of goals make such a drastic difference?

Note the similarity to the Stanford/Cohen study cited in my last post in which African American students wrote papers which reflected on their core values in the context of stress, an exercise which seemed to bolster their grade point averages by contrast with a control group.

When the Scottish scientist scrutinized her subjects’ booklets more closely, she realized that the more advanced patients had written plans that dealt closely with anticipated moments of pain, and had already concocted a strategy that would see them through the discomfort, “over the hump”, as it were, when they might be otherwise likely to slip back into immobility, which could become chronic and self defeating of the purpose of surgery in the first place.

In other words, the moment of pain was a “point of inflection”, a critical point of decision, a cue to either slip back into accustomed behavior, or to move forward with ultimately more adaptive and healthy activity.

Those who met the point of inflection with sustained activity, however into the midst of discomfort, could be said to have developed willpower around their recovery.

In fact, it is precisely this mechanism that ultimately proved decisive for Travis as his Starbuck’s adventure continued.

In early conversations with his manager, who presumably himself had been trained as a mentor to fledgling baristas, the number one subject of angry customers arose. Tentatively, Travis acknowledged his own detrimental reactions in such a pivotal moment. The manager normalized those feelings as common to most people in similar circumstances, and then went on to work with Travis to develop alternate and more constructive ways of responding from what was in effect a Starbuck’s playbook. The inflection point? The presence of an angry customer.

What did Travis learn? Like the Scottish surgery patients, either by making use of alternate scripts provided by Starbuck’s or his own ingenuity, Travis could be said to have developed some staying power – willpower – in these and other situations of stress that before he had been unable to negotiate without unraveling. As suggested by the studies earlier involving students in schools, the repetition in actual task deepened his lesson, which inculcated the same constellation of skills we earlier termed “grit.”

Travis today is a success story. As recounted by Duhigg, he manages two Starbuck’s stores and oversees forty employees, and he himself is quoted as saying, “Starbuck’s is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. I owe everything to this company.” The gushing is his, and apparently genuine, and apparently an accurate sentiment.

Of course, this is a classic yin/yang observation. Clearly Starbuck’s is not in the business of selfless social uplift, but serves the corporate motive. Yet, it is striking that this corporate training program, like those of other companies, has managed to teach the very same willpower without which too many of our nation’s students flail in their studies, and in the process have enriched the lives of employees like Travis.

It is clear to me from Duhigg’s analysis of Travis that the social science underpinnings of willpower — of “grit” —  and how to teach it already exist, and in fact have been made practical in the corporate world, where the insistence of the profit line doth demand all the best information and the creativity to make use of it.

I am not by profession an adherent of the corporate world, but this story makes me wonder how it is in education we flounder in ways that would lead capital out of existence, and wonder what we in education may yet have to learn from the private sector.

Duhigg becomes even more specific in his social science research primer as it relates to grit. Willpower developed in one area stimulates self discipline in other areas of an individual’s life. Willpower is a finite skill, and will tire if called upon beyond a given individual’s capacity. Distraction from temptation enhances willpower. A sense of control over one’s experience also strengthens willpower.

Finally, willpower can be taught in the right circumstances, particularly in the context of consistent support and adequate motivation, the latter itself a complex topic.

Clearly Travis is a young adult, beyond school age, beyond adolescence, and has been motivated to succeed by the need to survive. The students we serve in public schools who fall below standard in most cases also deep down are motivated to succeed, but that will is too often buried beneath various masks that pose challenges in themselves for schools.

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