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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Congratulations on your new credential!

Many children today are being raised to play to win (hence the title of this blog). What does this mean? Kids are taught, from a young age, skills that will help them compete and achieve in their adult lives.

These (largely upper-middle class and middle class American) children are molded, both inside and outside the classroom, to perform well at all of the credentials bottlenecks through which they must pass-- like succeeding in high school, navigating the college admissions process, applying to graduate schools, etc.  The particular skills that make up what I call competitive kid capital (or the "competitive habitus" in my academic writing) include: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and being able to perform under the gaze of evaluators.

Last weekend I had the honor of helping to select the new Gates Cambridge Scholars from the United States.  I myself was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2002-3.  It was one of the best years of my life as I met some of my dearest friends (including my husband), traveled, and generally expanded my view of the world and what is possible within it.  This was my fifth year to be involved with the selection process and over time I have been struck by the connections between the primary school-age children I study and these highly accomplished students pursuing graduate degrees.

1) Passion- One of the characteristics that unifies Gates scholars across varied research subjects is passion.  The students interviewed have found a project that is worthy of graduate study, but what often elevates those who are selected is, what psychologists call, intrinsic motivation.  I have thought deeply about differences between children who are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated (for great research on this subject see, for example, Mark Lepper or Carol Dweck).  Children who are only motivated extrinsically by the lure of a large trophy will likely not succeed in the long term.  Sure, a trophy can be a way to get a child hooked, but those who go on to pursue an interest for many years and succeed at a high level are not driven by the lure of a prize (or a line on their résumés).  Passion is a proxy for this important intrinsic motivation.

2) Perseverance (or, as I prefer, stick-to-it-tiveness)- Things don't always work out the first time around in life, and Gates Scholars seem to have learned how to stick to tasks that they have that passion for and pursue those interests.  On a basic level, panels have interviewed applicants more than once and some of these applicants ultimately have been successful in being awarded a Gates the second time around.  On a deeper level you can see in their application materials the willingness to try, and sometimes fail, at hard tasks (whether it be a course, a research project, or organizing a public service event to promote a specific change in the world).  Gates Scholars, like the elementary school-age children I study, have stick-to-it-tiveness in myriad situations.

3) Grace under pressure-  Over the years Gates applicants have had to perform under sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances.  Weather immediatelly springs to mind.  When I interviewed in February 2002 I took an all night train from Boston to Baltimore after my flight was canceled due to a blizzard; I simply was not going to miss my chace to interview in person (yes, I even figured out a way to make sure my hair was curled and styled!).  Last year's applicants braved "Snowmageddon" to interview, and this year was also no easy trip for many.  In addition to weather snafus we have interviewed applicants with disabilities and unexpected injuries.  Finding the poise to perform under pressure is difficult, but it helps when one has been placed in high pressure situations from a young age (like the children I studied), so there is a reservoir of experience to draw upon.

4) Authenticity- Here I rely upon the somewhat-clichéd ancient Greek aphorism, "Know thyself." While being judged it is crucial to be authentic and tell your story. This is deceptively simple.  Knowing what you know, and knowing what you don't know, and creating your own authentic self and specialty are crucial not just for the Gates credentialiing process, but for the credentialing process of life.

I don't know if any of the children I studied will end up facing a fellowships selection panel someday-- though I suspect they will, as in many ways being groomed for that kind of success.  You don't have to be groomed from a young age to be a Gates (or a Truman, or a Marshall, or a Rhodes, for that matter), as I certainly wasn't.  But it helps if you, or someone close to you, knows about these skills and lessons when you are still young in chronological or intellectual years. And, if no one does, well, this is partially at the root of cultural and social inequality.  Which Gates Scholar will address this inequality in the future?

In any event, a hearty congratulations to all new scholars, but especially those I interviewed with the always wonderful Arts panel-- Bianca, Margaret, Kevin, Nicholas, Jennifer, David, and Michael!

[Note: These are my own personal observations, not endorsed by the Trust or other members of my interview panel. On some practical level they could be read as advice in any fellowships selection process.]


  1. #
    Maryellen Reagan Ackroyd As a former classroom teacher, Hilary, I too saw the characteristics you point out in your blog. Those were the children who were going places. You could just tell from such a young age, who would make it in the world and who was going to "survive". And this was in an urban school district, not even middle or upper-middle class families.
    about an hour ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman Maryellen- You are definitely right that you don't have to be middle- or upper-middle class to have these skills. For some people, they are innate. But for families with more resources they can inculcate these skills in their kids in a programmatic and systematic way. And that's where inequality becomes an issue, especially as more institutionalized programs that cost money have developed. Thanks for reading!

  2. Very interesting! I contemplated the interview process quite a bit when my college roommates were interviewing at medical schools. Both came from well-groomed backgrounds, and I have no doubt they came across as poised, confident, and intelligent. It made me curious about the inequality inherent in the process- how can those without any grooming compete successfully?

  3. Hi, I am just a pass-by. I wonder when you wrote the post. Thu Feb 10, 08:19:00 AM PST? You live in the east, right? So 4 am in the morning?

  4. @Val- I think the key is to look at what successful people did. For example, take Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. One of the essential elements here is having mentors and intervention exposure to leadership and grooming opportunities outside the home. So, for Clinton, for example, his participation in high school in a national leadership conference set him on a new path. Now, how he was invited is another story, but you can imagine these sorts of things.

    @Anon- Thanks for passing by! No, I wrote it this morning. If you know how to change the time to Eastern, please let me know. It was bothering me last week, but I couldn't figure out how to change the time zone...

  5. I think I know, go into settings, then general. I think you are using wordpress that is how I changed mine.