Demonstrating persistence

“A college degree shows you can finish something.” I’ve heard this forever, but I don’t believe it. Of course a college degree shows that someone finished one thing, namely a college degree. But I don’t think that’s the best predictor of whether someone will finish something else.

College provides a great deal of support: accountability, frequent feedback, a community of peers, etc. Succeeding in this environment is an accomplishment, but it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that someone can succeed in a less supportive environment. It also doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone can focus on a project that takes more than a semester to finish.

Here are a few things that might be better indicators of initiative and persistence.

  • Learning a foreign language as an adult
  • Losing 50 pounds
  • Learning to play the oboe
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reading Churchill’s history of WWII
  • Starting a business
  • Running a marathon
  • Writing a book

Employers that use college degrees as their only filter on applicants are missing out. An ideal candidate would have a college degree and some proof of independent achievement. But given a choice between someone with only academic credentials and someone with only independent accomplishments, the latter may be a better hire.

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Picking classes

22 thoughts on “Demonstrating persistence

  1. I’d say that depends on the college. A 5-year college degree from a public university with an 85% dropout rate is not the same as a 4-year degree from a private university with a 15% dropout rate. However I see your point and appreciate the idea.

  2. I do love this blog, which I’ve been reading avidly even since I stumbled across it a few months back.

    Anyway, I totally agree with you and I have often thought that I would respond very favourably to interviewees who currently practice martial arts (NOT, of course, those who got to black belt and then quit).

    Not only is this good evidence of perseverance but the skills you learn in a dojo- being self critical, showing respect to high grades and leadership to low grades but within a totally flat hierarchy, and so on, are all very useful in real life. I’m sure there are other activities like this that I’m not aware of because I don’t follow them myself. Playing in an orchestra, perhaps.

    And I agree about the marathon thing, although having run three marathons myself with various degrees of preparedness I would add one slightly pedantic caveat- it’s the training, not the getting round, that takes perseverance. Anyone can drag themselves round 26 miles at a half trot after inadequately training, and I have, due to a combination of youthful over-confidence and injury problems. The real test is the training, running 18, 19, 20 miles with no-one to cheer you on and no real incentive to keep going other than the sheer desire to be better.

  3. On college (or any formal education, in general) I’m always a bit skeptical. Too many students succeed merely because they are “good at playing school” not because they know how to learn or think. When recruiting engineers, I’ve often picked B students over A students because the 4.0’s often can’t explain what they learned. Eagle Scouts, musicians and varsity athletes get a brownie point in my book. They’ve done something that means something and can tell me why it was important.

  4. One time I interviewed someone with a masters degree in computer science. I picked one course that she’d listed on her resume and said “Please tell me one thing you learned from this course.” Dead silence. I didn’t hire her, but I did hire a college dropout who taught himself to program by reading computer books while working as a security guard.

    I don’t want to come down too hard on academic credentials. I’ve seen a prejudice in the opposite direction, assuming less of someone because of their degrees, and that’s just jealousy. I do think academic success is positively correlated with work success, but my estimation of that correlation has gone down over time.

  5. First time I heard that I was a month after I’d separated from the Marines. I’d driven over an hour to interview for a job with a department store’s IT shop. [1]

    The hiring manager was out of office, his boss was out sick. The CIO came out and we had a good long chat.

    He allowed that “A college degree shows you can finish something.” but he was more than willing to take ‘eight years in the Marines in data processing’ in lieu of a degree. I like to think my charming manner, can-do spirit, and broad knowledge of IT helped.

    He did call back the next week to tell me I would have had the job but the company had just gone Chapter 11 so .. sorry about that.

    [1] Roses, in North Carolina. They were in the process of being pummeled by Wal-Mart but the future still looked bright.

  6. Motivation might be another consideration, though. A person probably has deeply personal reasons for wanting to learn an instrument or quit smoking, and that motivation might not translate to completing a task assigned by an employer.

    Also, most of the projects that you listed are solo challenges. A person’s motivation and persistence in a social environment, such as the workplace, might be very different. (For better or worse!)

  7. I think that what @Bret is saying is that college is a *conformity* test. Can you do boring tasks that are assigned to you, day after day for years.

    Meanwhile, the tasks you suggest have little to do with conformity. Quite the opposite: if you accomplish them you will stand out. (Well, except maybe “quit smoking”.)

    College is not about standing out… it is about fitting into some wide elite class.

    So, what is really interesting is what type of employee you are looking for… someone who will stand out… or someone who will “fit in”? You can’t easily have both. You can’t hire Feynman or Einstein and expect that they will happily fulfill your boring assignments.

  8. I wondered if proving your own mathematical result could be on the list, or if that is too academic. My first proof as a PhD student took months of effort, but I’m not sure if it’s something I can put forward as an achievement to potential employers without seeming even more impractical.

  9. One of the benefits (or detriments depending on your view) of a College education is the prejudices you acquire while doing it. In my case one of the most helpful prejudices has been an abiding believe in the scientific method.

    When trying out the scientific method on recruiting, one would expect any hypotheses about what signifies a good employee at hiring time to be tested by how well the employee performs after hiring. After a few years of this hiring managers would figure out what works (though they probably would not measure the performance of candidates they did not hire).

    I would have thought that 10 or so years of seeing how one’s hiring decisions turn out in practice would give more insight than exchanging theories of what should work. In the absence of that experience, I would have though reading some hiring studies with decent methodologies would have been the way to go.

  10. Lucy: Unless you’re interviewing with someone who would appreciate it, it might be best not to talk about theorems. But if you call it a problem that you solved and avoid the word theorem, it might help, especially if you describe the effort you put into solving it rather than the result itself.

  11. In the 1990’s I got a college degree.
    In the 2000’s I trained for and finished three ironman triathlons.
    In the 2010’s I have managed to lose 50 pounds (actually 48.5 and counting).

    Despite these, one of the items that constantly come up in my performance reviews at work is my lack of persistence with the boring, repetitive, maintenance tasks that end up making a big chunk of most any work.

    I know I’m a single data point, but methinks persistence in things you enjoy is not a very good predictor of persistence in things you don’t!

  12. Along the lines of what @Bret was saying, I think motivation largely comes in two varieties: The first is where the individual really wants something and perseveres to obtain it. The second is where the individual wants to avoid a situation and works to achieve an alternate outcome. The list you offer as better indicators seems to better match the first variety, whereas obtaining a college degree (and avoid being called a dropout) seems to match the second.

  13. This all brings up the question: “Why go to collage?” As far as I can tell it is a combination of:

    1. In the 4 years or so of collage, young people will mature and have to “live on their own”. For many this will be the first time in their lives that they get away from home. Old friends, family, etc., and build their “own” support group.

    2. Learning a “trade”. Be it a PhD, writing the next “Great American Novel”, becoming the next Nobel prize winner in Economics, etc. All of these “trades” require serious learning.

    3. Finding a mate for life, or at least the next few years.

    4. Building an “Old Boy Network”.

    All of these items prepare one for life. The rest comes internally from the individual. Some do better than others and only with working someone over a period of time, will anyone ever really know.

    I believe that the answer lies somewhere in a combination of all of these. Any alternate ideas?

    Peter Williams asked “what happens to those that didn’t get hired?” Does anyone have any results of someone that they gave a “pass” on that someone else in the same company hired? If so how did they do compared to those that you hired?

  14. Nice post and discussion. John, I notice that on your list you have reading books and writing books. The latter, I think, is a far better measure of persistence and is something I would value highly when hiring someone. This is because the author must be persistently creative. I also think there are different aspects of college and grad school that you could weigh. It is one thing to sit through a bunch of courses, listening to lectures and regurgitating. It’s another to write a thesis, publish a paper, write creatively, or to do original lab research.

  15. Persistence in achieving something in that imposes no constraints on the expression of your preferences is less difficult than persistence in achieving something that does. I’m passionate about running, so I ran a marathon (today, actually). I’m passionate about learning, too, but learning != school. I think getting a degree is a bigger accomplishment.

  16. I think Jaime and ?? are on to something. Persistence is of course much easier if you enjoy the activity.

    For the other side, consider the grueling years spent as a resident in the education of a physician. I’ve seen many opinion pieces written that the practice should be stopped, since terribly sleep-deprived people don’t make good care providers, especially if they are inexperienced. But there is apparently tremendous opposition to any change in the practice. One reason offered is that the physicians in charge have all gone through the ordeal, and don’t want to let the newbies off the hook. Another is that medical practices need the cheap labor that residents provide, or at least would rather pay much less for many more hours.

    Perhaps though it is effective at screening out those who lack the persistence to complete the grueling years, and perhaps that is beneficial to the profession. If so, perhaps there is another way that persistence could be required without endangering patients.

    Using the posession of academic credentials as a surrogate for other tests of persistence is easy for employers, since many people voluntarily submit themselves to it, often in hope of obtaining employment.

    But it is interesting to consider how many professions have alternate or additional tests of persistence in unpleasant activity. In addtion to the above, the military is a good example, especially in the case of special forces. Motorcycle gangs come to mind, with their system of subjecting prospects to years of slavery and abuse. One of the tasks required by apprentice blacksmiths was to condition new anvils by pounding them with hammers for days.

    For an interesting discussion of this kind of persistence among other aspects of ‘character’, and success in life, see this article.

  17. Years after reading Churchill’s history of WWII in the seventies, I was somewhat miffed to learn about the Enigma machine. Had the existence of the Allies hack of the Enigma machine been disclosed, the six volume set could easily have been reduced to two, if not a single volume.

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