How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

One of the most pervasive of American cultural narratives is of the smart, ambitious young scrapper who comes from nothing and moves to greatness through the process of “pulling himself up by the bootstraps.” It’s a powerful story because many of us have seen it play out.

One of the problems with this story, of course, is that it enables the affluent to look down upon or dismiss the needs of those living in poverty as not trying hard enough. It allows Christians to look upon those who are struggling as outside the fold of God, lacking virtue and grace. Another problem is the simple fact that the myth of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is rooted in a very different American culture and economy. College educations are needed to make a living wage, but the cost of college has risen exponentially; housing costs are calculated, in formulas for assessing poverty levels, at one-third of income… but for most Americans, they are closer to half. Those poverty formulas do not even include the costs of health care that eat away at income. No matter how hard most people work, the American Dream of some measure of economic security is simply, mathematically, unattainable. 

No one really wants to believe that, though. It’s depressing. 

Into this morass comes a hope-filled book from veteran journalist Paul Tough: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough spends the first section of his work describing just how intractable the problems of systemic poverty really are: how poor children do not simply attend less resourced schools, but how their communities are rife with crime, violence, drugs, and a chronic lack of opportunity. He details a number of failed interventions that seek to “provide opportunity,” or pour money into “failing schools,” or fire recalcitrant teachers.  

Stress, lack of consistent care and affection, not to mention nutrition or housing, the presence of violence or threat of abuse, and the generalized anxiety which characterize the lives of many poor children actually shape the ways in which human brains function. These variables contribute, from our earliest days, to how individuals respond to stress, to adversity, to suffering; violence begets violence, neglect begets neglect.  

Scores on standardized achievement and IQ tests, which have been used to assess student achievement and intelligence since the post–World War II era, are increasingly being used to place and track students in schools and interventions from the time they are in pre-school. But the story Tough tells demonstrates that success is far more complex than those tests suggest. Trying to “teach to the test,” a key strategy in many recent education “reforms,” appears to do little to increase educational attainment or other measures of success. 

After spending a lengthy chapter explaining “how to fail,” Tough turns to research that demonstrates how a host of “non-cognitive” skills can make a vital difference in the lives of children rich, poor, and in-between. One of the great successes of this book is Tough’s ability to discuss those “non-cognitive” skills in terms of “building character,” in ways that are neither political nor moralistic. Grit, zest, curiosity, resourcefulness, resilience, and self-control: these are “skills” which help lead to success, and perhaps more importantly, mitigate the negative effects of growing up without a social safety net.  

It is true that achievement and IQ tests measure some things, but their greatest predictive power lies in measuring how well individuals take a given test, followed closely by measuring the effectiveness of the education the individual has received. One of Tough’s interview subjects is Jeff Nelson, himself the recipient of an incredible public education and now head of OneGoal, a Chicago educational not-for-profit aiming to help severely disadvantaged students attend and graduate from college. Nelson told Tough, “I think the ACT is a very good measure of how effective your education has been. But I don’t think it’s a good measure of intelligence…. What I do believe is that ninety percent of the population is receiving a better education than our children have received.” Still, “noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college. And they help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system” (168). 

Nelson’s analysis is both promising and soul-crushing: savage inequalities (in Jonathan Kozol’s words) exist, and are pervasive; but their effects can be mitigated. People can change. People can be helped. People are the way they are for a host of complex reasons.  

The church ought to be interested in this conversation, as it reminds us that the ways we live do, in fact, make a difference for us, our children, and our communities. Pastors often struggle to discuss success and the non-cognitive skills we’ve tended to call “virtues,” to know how to avoid congratulating the well-born for their good luck, or critiquing those born without resources or role-models for their lack of morals. Tough’s argument is a good example of how to navigate that discussion. 

Reading theologically, we are reminded that our tradition is staked on a belief that the lost can be found, that people will respond to grace extended in love, that new life is always possible.  

Tough concludes, “It is not enough to applaud [the efforts of kids overcoming obstacles] and hope that someday, more young people follow their lead. They did not get onto that ladder alone. They are there only because someone helped them take the first step” (197). 

This isn’t true just of poor kids in lousy Chicago schools. This is true of all of us; we don’t do anything on our own. The first step forward is always a hand outstretched in care, love, and concern. 

Bromleigh McCleneghan is co-author, with the Rev. Lee Hull Moses, ofHopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People.  



Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption 
Laura Hillenbrand 
Random House, 2010

As the title suggests, this is a story of the incredible capacity of some human beings to endure suffering, brutality, pain, and hunger. To survive—and recover—and be transformed. 

Louis Zamperini was born on January 26, 1917. He became a rambunctious and rebellious young man with a bad temper who frequently got into trouble. Fortunately, he had a caring older brother who inspired him to take up running. In the 1930s, he set a high school record for running the mile. He competed in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany and then continued his running feats at the University of Southern California. 

With the onset of World War II, Louie joined the Army Air Forces and became the bombardier in a B-24 named Superman. He had hair-raising experiences in combat with Japanese fighter planes and on one occasionSuperman barely made it home. His airport at Funafuti was also devastated by Japanese bombers. 

His next bomber, the Green Hornet, crashed into the ocean. He and two others survived with two life rafts and minimal provisions. For the next 47 days they drifted 2,000 miles west across the Pacific ocean and they experienced acute hunger and thirst. They were strafed by a Japanese bomber that almost destroyed their rafts, but they were able to repair the rafts while beating off attacking sharks. They found ingenious ways to catch birds and fish, but sadly, one of them died at sea. 

Miraculously, the two survived until they were captured by the Japanese near the Marshall Islands. They were taken to a POW camp and interrogated, which began a seemingly endless experience of beatings, starvation, and slave labor. Through it all, these two prisoners supported one another and engaged in subtle acts of defiance in order to sustain their hope. 

The agony of the prisoners, especially Louie, escalated with the arrival of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, or “The Bird,” who found sexual pleasure in sadistically beating and humiliating the prisoners. On one occasion, Louie was punched in the face 220 times. As it became increasingly apparent that America was winning the war, the ferocity of “The Bird” escalated, culminating in the threat that all the prisoners were to be killed on August 22, 1945. 

The threat was interrupted when the atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, followed by a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th. Suddenly the war was over, the prisoners were free, and B-29s were dropping an abundance of food into the prison camps. 

This brief account does not begin to capture the prolonged agony that Louis Zamperini underwent. When asked about his journey he replied; “If I knew I had to go through those experiences again I would kill myself.” 

Louie returned home—outwardly, a conquering hero but within, a tortured soul: “As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread and enduring. Nearly 40 years after the war, nearly 85% of the former Pacific POWs suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized in part by flashbacks, anxiety and nightmares” (346-347). A significant number committed suicide. 

Once home, Louie met a beautiful woman named Cynthia Applewhite and they were married on May 25, 1946. Their relationship was stormy because of Louie’s emotional instability and heavy drinking, but in 1948, Cynthia gave birth to a child. Louie was overjoyed, but his continuing instability compelled Cynthia to leave with the baby, raising the prospect of divorce. “No one could reach Louie because he had never really come home” (365). 

After a time, Cynthia and Louie decided to consider reconciliation and Cynthia returned. Louie experienced a transformation at a Billy Graham rally—as he listened to Graham, he recalls the time when he was stranded out in the Pacific and he said to God, “If you save me I will serve you forever.” 

At that moment, Louie experienced a conversion. When he got home that night, he threw away all of his alcohol, and over time his marriage became beautiful and he became a Christian speaker. He even forgave “The Bird.” He began working in the senior center of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. He even returned to Japan to carry the torch in the summer Olympics of 1984. He is still alive. 

Living through Louis Zamperini’s tortuous journey has helped me to understand why in today’s wars, more of our soldiers are dying from suicide than are dying in combat. We talk about supporting our troops, but we don’t prepare them for the emotional impact of killing, of seeing buddies die, and of enduring torture. And when they come home we don’t address their deep emotional and spiritual wounds. When will we ever learn?  

Edward A. White is an Alban consultant. 




Congregations, 2013-03-22
2013 Issue 1, Number 1