Is GRIT the secret formula at PTK?

A group of graduating students in caps and gowns talking with professors

Feeling a little blah lately? I’ve got the perfect antidote. Go to a Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) gathering! Trust me. It will cure what ails you, and probably boost both your faith in humanity and your outlook for the future, along the way. But it comes with a warning label: Attendance may result in a suspiciously obvious, if not obnoxiously exuberant boost of optimism.

I recently had the soul-fortifying privilege of being a keynote speaker for the annual PTK NerdNation conference in Washington, DC, and I gotta tell ya, I’ve had an extra bounce in my step ever since.

Phi Theta Kappa is the 99-year-old global honors society, purely for students enrolled in community college. PTK’s more than three-million members earn an impressive 3.8 average GPA and 92% graduation rate. Compare that to the more disturbing 15% graduation rate in some of the largest community college systems in America.

Why the chasm between the two? Here’s what I learned from my highly unscientific ethnographic research, a.k.a. casual conversations with dozens of attendees: Phi Theta Kappa members show up, dig deep, and do whatever it takes to get across the finish line, usually with their arms, eyes, and ambitions raised high. In short, PTK members prove one’s past need not dictate one’s future.

I opened my remarks with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rousing song from his Broadway blockbuster, Hamilton, “My Shot,” the story of a destitute but determined orphan who had grown up on the streets without any advantages but his brains and his drive to make the most of the opportunity a new country offers:GRIT

I’m not throwin’ away my shot.

I’m not throwin’ away my shot.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country,

I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,

and I’m not throwin’ away my shot.

I can’t believe you picked that song!” exclaimed a bright eyed young leader as she ran up to me afterwards. “I mean, that’s my life story! I’ve listened to that song, like, 500 times in the past two weeks! I’m not kidding! I don’t know how well you know PTK, but that whole room is full of those stories. I swear, that should be the PTK theme song!”

So true. In direct contrast to some leadership events I’ve attended at elite colleges, where some of the most impressive resumes belong to students who have had more resources to rely on, every, and I do mean every PTK attendee I talked to had a story of struggle, hardship, sacrifice, if not suffering. One after another. Each their own. Each told with genuine humility, spine-straight strength, and quiet pride. To be clear, even when given the chance, not one complained, or wore it on his or her sleeve. But, when asked, they shared their narratives, most in a tone that said, “It’s not that big of deal but….” You’d never know, but beneath the smiles, laughter, song, and ebullience, resided every imaginable story of some combination of violent crime, loss of loved ones, single parenthood, health issues, poverty, trauma, disabilities, abuse, and so much more formed the palpable, high-octane cocktail of resilience, GRIT, and confidence that percolated in their corpuscles, and pervaded the crowd.

Well, suffice it to say, that was the night Dr. GRIT got schooled. Thanks PTK. You reminded me that GRIT is not a matter of personal circumstance, wealth, or privilege. Rather it is a core trait in all of us that some people can harness and grow to achieve their dreams and to rise to new levels of success and accomplishment. The world is looking brighter because of what you bring.


If you would like to learn more about GRIT, read some of Dr. Stoltz’s previous posts.

If you would like to learn more about how GRIT and related models can be used to support college and career readiness, download our new white paper, On Track: Redefining Readiness in Education and the Workplace authored by Dr. Stoltz, David T. Conley, PhD and Matthew N. Gaertner, PhD.


About the Author
Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., is considered the world’s foremost authority on the science and method of measuring and strengthening GRIT. His methods and teachings are used at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and by top organizations in 63 countries.  Selected as “One of the Top Ten Most Influential Global Thinkers” by HR Magazine, “One of the Top 100 Thinkers of Our Time”, by Executive Excellence. He is founding director of the GRIT Institute, and the Global Resilience Institute, conducting research in 29 countries, as well as Founder and CEO of PEAK Learning, Inc., the global research and consulting firm, since 1987. Featured in the world’s top media—Fortune, Forbes, Success, Business Week, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Asia 21, Fox, ABC Nightly News, NBC, CBS, The Today Show, and multiple appearances on The Oprah Show—Dr. Stoltz’s top priority is applying his vast experience and research within higher education, specifically to students in their first year of college. Developing effective strategies toward college completion – and sustainable employment – has never been timelier.