A Forward

By Yulia Gitter

As I sat on my back porch late one night chatting with some colleagues from the HYPER Lab, we somehow managed to come up on the topic of failure. This has always been a subject of interest to me because I have failed a lot in my life so far, but have always been able to bounce back quickly and thrive nonetheless. Knowing only a very small part of my colleague’s background, I just blurted out “have you ever failed at anything?” I meant no harm by the question but was genuinely curious as to what his response would be. He had a rather quizzical look on his face and finally after a slight pause, he answered back with another question: “Like in what aspect?” Well then, I really had to think about it. There are so many answers to that and for what I wanted out of him; it did not matter. I honestly just wanted to hear him admit that he has “failed himself.” It is something we all have to face, and it is good to encounter that feeling early in life and not later. The conversation of the night shifted, and we continued on but I thought deeper about the topic over the next few days. I should add before I continue, I use the term “failure” very loosely here. It is an easy one to use for semantics. Failure can be any set back that can cause inconvenience in life, minor or major, that scale is different for every person. While this is catered towards failure in academia, it is something that goes far past that.

The HYPER lab has a “Top Shelf” of community book reads around common themes. To fill the time on a 6 hour drive to see family, I listened to the audio book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-book/ that the lab was considering adding to the Top Shelf. Just like that, all the stars aligned. As described by Angela Duckworth, grit is defined as “passion and perseverance for long term goals.” It means not giving up when things get hard and not giving up when you have setbacks. Grit is one of those traits that is obtained from both nature and through nurture. It is very important to note that grit is not talent, luck, or how intensely you want something at a certain moment in time. Angela Duckworth even developed a test that, when taken honestly, can show what your level of grit is. It is a 10-question test that then adds the point value of each answer and divides it by 10. Then you have your grit score. A 5 means you are very gritty and 1 means not so much. (I urge you to take that test honestly here:  http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/ ) I acknowledge that these tests are not easy to take honestly and they do not account for a lot of things. The goal is not to just take the test, but to begin thinking on a deeper level as to where you stand, assess that, and improve for your own sake. When I took it, I received a 4.3. I have gained a level of credibility by getting through a number of setbacks despite my short years relative to the rest of the people on this planet. I know how to fail, or encounter setbacks that are out of my control, bounce back, and continue on to that top-level goal.

As of right now, my top-level goal is to get to Antarctica and work down there for a year. But to get there, I have to get through a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. I am almost there. No one shows the struggle it takes to get a degree, especially in something as vigorous as engineering. Doing poorly on a test or in a class and having to completely repeat a class has become taboo. NO ONE talks about it. As someone who has done both, it was such a difficult thing to face and I was embarrassed to admit it. It is completely understandable that engineers need to strive for perfection and no less. That bar needs to be set high for a reason. Otherwise, it could quite literally cost people their lives. But my question is still: How did we get to the point where it is bad to show struggles before success? I used to believe I am just not good enough to be in the field that I am in because I seemed to be the only one that struggled. I used to believe I was not even good enough to be in college. I received my fair share of low grades in the lower level prerequisite classes. That should mean I am not ready or will not do well in the higher-level ones. Right?  No. I have thrived in the higher-level classes that are actually in my field of interest. But along the entire way, I questioned everything. I adopted this toxic mindset because I knew no better. It caused my confidence levels to tank and I was sheepish going into my mechanical engineering classes. Despite how difficult of a defeat it was, I learned from it and became better. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching my top-level goal of wanting to go to Antarctica since I was 12 years old. I have grit.

The goal in writing this is to shed some light on an otherwise very poorly lit topic. It is not mentioned at all in a highly rigorous field, academia, or even just in life. We are going to fail and that is okay. Remember that failing is relative and different for each person. It goes far beyond academics. I mentioned the Grit Test for a reason. Grit is all about overcoming obstacles. If you are lucky enough to have avoided those at a young age, or be one of the very few naturally talented, you may not have encountered many obstacles. Or you may have never pushed out of your comfort zone in order to encounter failure. That becomes a detriment later in life because it is harder to learn how to bounce back from failure if you never learned early on (it is always harder to teach an old dog new tricks). The point of including the Grit Test is to access where you stand. Even if you do not take it honestly, it is there to make you think. The fact of the matter is, we are all going to fail at one point or another, so you might as well be prepared to face it head on. Grit manifests itself in its finest form of fight or flight. You can either see the issue and fight to overcome it, or you can flee and give up. We as a society need to work together to fix the stigma that failure is negative and not an option. For some of us, it is the best option and it is how we learn. Do not fear failure, face it head on, learn from it, and embrace it. 

Getting Grit Going in the Classroom

Reading Yulia’s story above comes as a surprise to me, as I had just had her in my demanding ME 301 Thermodynamics course and she received one of the highest grades. She didn’t start that way. I remember an early recitation time before the first exam when Yulia said aloud, “I’m totally going to fail this [exam].” One of my long-standing challenges is to figure out why a gritty person like Yulia figures out how to excel in Thermodynamics, yet many of the most ‘talented’ and awarded students, that did not have me for thermodynamics, shut down when I ask them to analyze a basic problem in a laboratory setting. There are several themes explored in the book “Grit” that carry over into my teaching strategy that I want to expand on:

  1. Rigid standards: Everyone seems to be terrified of me during the first month or two of class. It doesn’t matter much what I say or how many jokes I tell the students on the first day, it’s all talk. They see the rigid course structure: hard topic with only two governing laws, traditional lecture style, assignments due every week worth 50% of total credit, no credit for late assignments, only one or two lowest assignment scores waved, no office hours, no emotions, no solutions to be found online, both quantitative and qualitative assignments, and three hard exams with only a scientific calculator. This goes against everything you’ve read about flipped and interactive classrooms. It’s even been called ‘bad’ teaching by a Nobel Laureate. Some, that don’t engage with me, quietly wash out in the first month. But rigid standards are well established to build grit, provided those standards are well formed and paired with all the support and nurture needed to achieve them.
  2. Support to achieve those standards: I say it on the first day and I mean it — we need as many people understanding and applying thermodynamics (the study of energy and it’s conversion) in our society as possible. My goal is literally to get as many of them through with A’s as possible, but they have to meet the standards that demonstrate they understand the tools and framework. Yes, 50% of their final grade is from homework — and I want them working together to do their homework to build supportive peer cohorts. As Grit establishes, it’s easiest to build grit when exposed to peers who are gritty and it’s an expectation of the culture. I teach them how to help each other so that they can all hand in their own work, “You’re not going to learn anything searching a code for where you’ve accidentally placed an O instead of a 0.” I schedule a recitation period where they can work with their friends to solve that homework within 24 hours of when it is due. I show up to the last hour of recitation to resolve any remaining challenges. Rather than answer their questions, I connect them with other peers who have the answers, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” If nobody knows the answer, I post it to a forum about the assignment, so I only get asked, and answer any question once. Yes I don’t have office hours, which gets gasps from fellow colleagues. The students know they can setup a meeting or call my cellphone anytime. But they also know I’m going to expect them to get help from or to help their friends first. This extends to qualitative discussion assignments given on a weekly basis that the students post to public discussion forums. Not only do they see what their peers are learning, they see it in many ways, which means the likelihood of hearing it the way they need to hear it increases. I will not take away a confidence building teaching moment from a student who needs that confidence more than I do.
  3. Focus on process: Enter the definition of a heuristic: enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves. I don’t teach them what to think or the answers. I teach them a process, that when rigorously followed, will get them to a solution, regardless of what they are faced with. The steps: 1) Define the system, 2) State system assumptions, 3) Balance the system (mass, energy, entropy, exergy, etc), 4) Apply a property model, 5) Solve the problem. I follow this process EVERY class, EVERY time, and don’t cut corners. I know this process so well that I can teach class half asleep, just turn the crank. I need to follow a process like this because I’m not smart enough to carry on a conversation with the class while deriving a thermodynamic system without one. 90% of the exam points are awarded for correctly demonstrating this process, and it takes time. Which is why I don’t need proctoring services for my exams — folks outside of my class don’t know my process, folks inside the class know that I’ll change a subtle few numbers and keep 2-3 exam versions circulating at any given moment, so the final answers don’t matter, and there isn’t time for anything else. It takes about 1.5-2 months for the students to become comfortable with this process, really it sets in for about 80% of class within a week or so of the second exam. But once they’re confident with the process, I can get creative and come up with some really funky stuff, and it doesn’t matter provided they strictly follow the process. And that success in the face of totally new and weird builds even more confidence and grit — it won’t matter what I throw at them, they’ll be fine.
  4. Make it real: I work hard on assignments and solutions, and promote students coming up with their own, to make everything as real as possible. I draw inspiration for these problems from those faced by students in the lab, or myself working at home. I also try to get the students to setup their own problem scenarios as I’ve found they’ll become accustomed to how I set up problems, without realizing the nuances in setting up those problems for themselves. But once they can not only solve problems, but create their own, well that’s the best I can do.
  5. Sincerely, Thank you: Let’s go back to my three rules for engineering communication: Relevancy, Credibility, and Efficiency. I make problems as relevant as possible. Have rigid standards and processes that are as credible as I can make them. I work to make these assignments as efficient, requiring a minimum amount of time and reps, to solve as possible. By spending less time on required work, and with confidence in the methods, it is my hope that they’ll apply those methods to helping out real people with real problems in the community. That’s professionalism and I have to demonstrate it for them. I am sincere when they ask questions, “Thank you for asking me a question!” I am also sincere when they thank me long after class with a letter from the workplace.

What I’ve found from all of this is that the students tend to do very well with thermodynamics long after having the class. As demonstrated by their performance on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam (20% above the national average). My course evaluations for thermodynamics now average over 4.8/5. Evidently students really do appreciate and want grit as much as Yulia and I do.

A Gritty Lab

The former Cryogenics lab at MIT was fabled in the community. Ran by National Academy Member Joseph Smith, the lab, in the basement of one of the oldest buildings, looked like a junk yard of old projects. New graduate students would be told they would have to find the parts and tools necessary for their projects from cannibalizing older systems. This literal approach to grit, and a fail-forward mantra, is not compatible with cryogenic hydrogen systems. So how to build a lab community with grit? This is, of course, a continuous improvement ‘Kaizen’ process. Here are our core tenets:

  1. Professional Practice: A Compendium for the HYPER community“: We introduce folks to the lab through our ‘Professional Practice’ compendium. The Compendium establishes mutual expectations for the lab director and members, provides frequent common laboratory ‘memes’ of core values, and helps streamline the on-boarding process. This repeated emphasis on core lab values and mantras around the topic of Professional Practice, directly promotes grit.
  2. Leading from the front: I lead and work directly with the CORE team of the lab — new freshman and sophomores tasked with working on problems that affect the lab community. This direct work allows me to learn their interests and passions to help setup projects for them later on, and teaches a community focused mindset from day 1. This focus on the front end of the lab allows the graduate student leaders to truly lead the projects on the back end — giving them ownership and preparing them for leadership once they are out of the lab, more grit.
  3. A developmental growth mindset: How to reliably recruit the brilliant students? Make them. Need more? How to reliably get brilliant teams? Make them. Enter many core lab mantras, “Don’t grade it, fix it. Fix it so that it never happens again.” Kaizen. Kaizen. Kaizen. If it will have to be repeated by someone else, 6S it. Nobody has ever been fired from the lab, at the worst the needs and interests of individuals diverged from those of the lab.
  4. Relentless Communication: Even in a pandemic, we hardly skipped a beat. Our MS Teams communication interface, along with this wordpress site, is a big part of how we’re able to manage the lab from near or far.
  5. Finish: As espoused by our lab mentor P.K. Northcutt II:
    “The simplest form of professionalism is to finish.

    …without regard to your tools.
    …without regard to your colleagues.
    …without regard to your leadership.
    …without regard to your audience.
    …without regard to your critics.”

    In short, professionalism is about finishing your key long-term goals, in another word: grit.

Getting Gritty Faculty

Everything said above also applies to faculty. Although faculty are the key to getting grit going in the community, we are probably the least amenable to a forced workshop on ‘grit’. Many of the trainings we experience tip-toe around the topic of grit but few address it directly. After the gambit of intellectual minefields we’ve navigated to get this far, it’s ironic that we still need to be working on our grittiness.

For us faculty who manage research portfolios, grit is synonymous with funding resilience: regardless of what happens you’re able to keep funding coming in the door to further your core research goal(s). The more activity you keep going, the more statistical activity you’ll generate in the forms of papers, patents, and proposals. That’s easy to say and their are no shortage of successful stories and opinions on how to do it. If you want mine read this. If you want the short version — be ready to work with many people in many ways, a.k.a. a diversified funding portfolio. New industry contact needing an experiment? Get a BIPA in place to show you can do the experiment. Then standardize it as a service center for recurring tests. Get activity going with non-profits by reaching out. Use the activities generated to leverage support from federal funding managers to get the big grants. Don’t let your research die on the workbench! Talk to colleagues openly. Pivot if you have to. Your students and community are relying on you.

Always remember — no matter how successful you are there will be people who, to rightly justify themselves, will honestly think you are terrible. That you’re doing it wrong. That it’s the wrong time. That it doesn’t add up. More on this at my “Despite the Statistical Evidence” post. Know your core mission, values, and mantras. Just keep happy. Just keep helping. Everything else is noise.

The big takeaway

The key takeaway from Angela Duckworth’s book is that grit/resilience/professionalism can be cultivated and developed; at any point in your life. This key character trait holds nothing less than the key to your success and it can’t be forced. By exposing all of us to gritty cultures and making it a cultural expectation we can rapidly increase the grit of those around us. That’s something we could all use a lot more of these days.