Want to Train Yourself to Succeed? Science Says These 3 Things Matter Most

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Henry Ford once famously said: “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”

It’s a pithy quote (Ford was a quote machine) but now, just over 70 years after his death, a new research project funded by the National Science Foundation points to a wealth of evidence that backs him up.

The research focused on college students, specifically studying factors that made them more likely to good grades, stay in school, and graduate. There were three findings, which I’m gong to go ahead and call the Henry Ford Rule: Learning to believe in yourself and your abilities, empirical research suggests, makes you more likely to succeed in and of itself.

Here’s the research project, the takeaways, and how you can use them to improve your life–whether you’re still a student or have long since left the classroom.

Not just a study: a study of studies

The NSF-funded project involved 12 psychologists and other Ph.Ds from universities and think tanks around the country, who reviewed reports on a total 61 other experimental studies on college students and success.

Across the board, the report found, there were there were three main factors that foretold greater achievement, across disciplines and regardless of factors like the students’ test scores or socioeconomic status. The factors included:

1. Developing a sense of belonging.
This first factor has to do with the degree to which students believe that they “belong in college, fit in well and are socially integrated,” according to a summary that quoted one of the study’s co-authors, Fred Oswald, a professor of psychology at Rice University. Of the 61 studies involved, more than 50 found that simply feeling like they belonged in school had a positive impact on students’ grades.

2. Enabling a “growth mindset.”
Regular readers of this column will know that we’re all about the growth mindset. Embracing a firm belief that intelligence is not a fixed attribute–and that it can be strengthened through use, like a muscle–had a firm impact on students’ success. Of the 61 studies, 75 percent found that embracing a growth mindset improved students’ GPAs.

3. Having articulable personal goals and values.
Finally, 83 percent of the studies–by my math, that makes either 50 or 51–found that students who embraced “personal goals and values that [they] perceive[d] to be directly linked to the achievement of a future, desired end” were more likely to succeed. Again, this was measured mostly by comparing the students’ GPAs.

Improving each factor, when they seem like common sense

These three factors do sound a little bit commonsensical when laid out like this–but that doesn’t make them any less valid. And, just because they make sense to us doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re good at developing them.

So how can anyone make that happen? The key is to truly come to believe these three factors–and it turns out one way may be to write them down.

According to Oswald, the studies in the NSF project often included practical exercises that students could use to improve their sense of belonging, their embrace of a growth mindset, and their adherence to core values. One “remarkable finding” according to the study, was the degree to which “brief writing exercises [improved] these intra- and interpersonal competencies.”

For example, students who were required to “write about the relevance of course topics to their own life or to the life of a family member or close friend” saw positive development. Another remedy involved what sounds like a bit of benevolent manipulation–making students feel more at home on campus by having them write stories and reflections that “fram[ed] social adversity as common and transient.”

Simply put, having them write in a way that emphasized that everyone feels out-of-place sometimes, and that most of us manage to get over it. And that suggests that making a conscious effort to examine these beliefs, perhaps by journaling or other written exercises, might help internalize them.

As the writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”