Good News on Student Success

The following is from a brief talk I gave to incoming Macalester students during Orientation. The session included messages from many students and staff on normalizing struggle, being proactive, and utilizing the resources available.

I have good news and bad news.

First, the good news.

You are a very smart group of people. Many of you have been told you are smart your whole life. In fact, many of you are so smart that you have been able to be academically successful with minimal effort. Did you know that 65% of students admitted to Macalester were in the top 10% of their class.

Now, the bad news. 90% of you won’t be in the top 10% of your class. Think about it. Help your neighbor.

I have more good news.

Psychological research has taught us that smart is not something you are, it is something you become. Challenges won’t prove whether or not you are smart. Challenges will make you smart. Trying to look smart – will make you dumb.

Psychology researcher Carol Dweck calls this moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static. This leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily in the face of obstacles, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, they plateau early and achieve less than their full potential. All of this confirms a deterministic view of the world.

People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed. This leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see efforts as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result, they reach ever-higher levels of achievement. All this gives them a greater sense of free will.

Many of you have learned to have a fixed mindset because of the praise you have received so far. Switching to a growth mindset will be key to your success going forward.

This experience at Macalester will be full of successes, adversity, and struggle. Celebrate all of those. Adversity and struggle are normal and critical components of the College experience, not a sign of failure.

There is even more good news

As human beings, you are biologically and psychologically wired for struggle and over-coming adversity.

New research has started to identify the strategies that are most effective in creating success academically and fostering overall well-being. Here are 5 of the most powerful success strategies according to research.


1. Strengths. Find out what your strengths are and use them more often. This doesn’t mean only doing what you are good at. That would be a fixed mindset. This means knowing your unique talents and adding effort to do things that you never imagined.


2. Be Grateful. Be grateful for big things and little things. Keep a gratitude journal. Write down 3 happy moments and do your own WWW – What went well? What led to this? What does it mean to me? How can I cultivate more?

3. Meditate. There is an avalanche of research on the numerous benefits of meditation. Meditation makes you smarter, happier, and healthier. By taking 10 minutes each day to meditate, you can literally rewire your brain for success. Scientists call this neuroplasticity.


4. Be Kind. Buy coffee for the person in line behind you. Invite someone sitting alone in Café Mac to join you. Invite someone who looks like they are in a hurry go ahead of you in line. When someone has laundry in the washer you want to use, move it to the dryer and start it.

Social Support5. Social Support. Social networks are key to success. They make the good better and the bad less bad. Many colleges want to impress you with how rigorous they are and scare you into working hard by telling you to look to your left and look to your right, because one of the three of you won’t be here at graduation. We are not that college. We want each and every one of you to succeed. Magnificently. Because social networks are key. Look to your left and look to your right. Smile. Before you leave here today, I invite you to find out those people’s names, phone numbers, and what you can do to help support them. Then do it.

Finally, there will be bumps in the road. Don’t fear them. They may be the least fun part of the journey, but you may find that those bumps are the most valuable parts of the journey.

You’re about to hear about students who experienced those bumps and resources from staff about how you get navigate those bumps. If you do …research shows that you will be a smashing success.


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