Paul Tough’s new book could be an interesting change of pace from your usual reading list. While none of what Tough is saying will be material for instant application in the lives of every manager, entrepreneur, or salesperson (unless they happen also to be parents of young children), his book provides a unique perspective on how successful people are formed. After all, every notable figure in the world of business was once a child.
Tough’s argument throughout How Children Succeed is essentially this: success in adulthood is determined less by cognitive development and more by the development of certain key character traits. These traits are what help adults deal successfully with the nuances of life in both private and professional realms. In his own words, from the introduction:
We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills.
If we want to improve the odds for children in general, and for poor children in particular, we need to approach childhood anew, to start over with some fundamental questions about how parents affect their children; how human skills develop; how character is formed.
This is, as he acknowledges, a total change of focus from the days of old (and even from the fairly recent). The leading example that launches this argument is a study done by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman on the General Educational Development (GED) program. Heckman’s study revealed that although the GED provided a substitute for High School in cognitive measurement, GED holders consistently lacked the traits that allowed them to apply their apparent cognitive strengths into real-life successes.
To me (i.e. as a parent of a 3-year-old) this feeling is instinctual. My child is a person, not a receptacle for information or cognitive stimulus. But How Children Succeed cites a series of examples that indicate that my instinct is not necessarily the norm. The book provides adults (parents or not) some food for reflection upon their own development, and it provides a powerful reminder to parents and educators that development is more than simply reading, writing and arithmetic.