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Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as The Four C’s Of Academic Success

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The Four C’s of Academic Success

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“Although some students show up at school as ‘intentional learners’—people who are already interested in doing whatever they need to do to learn academic subjects—they are the exception rather than the rule. Even if they are disposed to study, they probably need to learn how. But more fundamental than knowing how is developing a sense of oneself as a learner that makes it socially acceptable to engage in academic work.”

— From Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching, by Magdalene Lampert

Sometimes we can best understand what we don’t yet grasp by examining what we do. Studying failure is self-defeating in many cases; we want to know what works, not what doesn’t. Researchers are focusing more on who succeeds and why. They are realizing, as Freeman A. Hrabowski, Kenneth I. Maton, and Geoffrey L. Greif note in their books on African-American academic success, that much of the previous literature has concentrated on “deficiencies and weaknesses … instead of strengths.” As these researchers say, “much can be gained by focusing on what produces success.”

The Four C’s—commitment, content, competencies, and capacity—offer some clues to academic success.

To understand my own academic experience, and to illustrate what I have come to call the “Four C’s,” it seems appropriate then to study my most obvious and sustained success as a teenager: tennis. The Four C’s explain why I won, kept improving—and eventually traded my rackets for cameras, books, and, ultimately, the pen. The C’s also shed some light on why I was doing almost none of my schoolwork.

How to explain my success in tennis in a way that accounts for my academic failure in school? The Four C’s—commitment, content, competencies, and capacity—offer some clues.

Commitment, the first C, is essential; without it, the others don’t matter. I committed myself to mastering tennis because I showed some talent, which allowed me to enjoy immediate satisfaction and subsequent rewards as a result of my efforts. Economists call such commitment “economic behaviorism,” and use it to explain people’s decisions in the marketplace. In other words, they find that we make decisions based on what rewards us, what pays off. So long as it pays off, we keep making the same decisions. We therefore make decisions about what to do—we commit ourselves—to the extent that we believe we will succeed, that the investment will make a difference. The basketball great and former U.S. senator Bill Bradley, in his book Values of the Game, calls this the “virtuous circle”: “The harder you work,” he writes, “the sooner your skills improve. Then the virtuous circle takes over. As your skills grow, you get a rush of self-confidence, which spurs you to continue working, and your skills increase all the faster.”

Writing on the same “virtuous circle” applied to parents, Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif conclude: “What we do know is that the more attention we, as parents, give our [children], the higher our expectations of them, the more consistency in our approach to parenting, the greater our determination to work steadily with them, the greater the variety of educational and cultural experience we provide, the more likely they are to succeed.”

Not everyone accepts the premise that effort matters. As the University of Pittsburgh researcher Lauren Resnick observes, “Americans mostly assume that aptitude largely determines what people can learn in school, although they allow that hard work can compensate for lower doses of innate intelligence.” Resnick continues: “[W]hat people believe about the nature of talent and intelligence—about what accounts for success and failure—is closely related to the amount and kind of effort they put forth in situations of learning or problem-solving. While some believe that intelligence is fixed, predetermined, and thus unchangeable, others view ability as a repertoire of skills that is continuously expandable through one’s efforts. Intelligence is incremental. People get smart. When people think this way, they tend to invest energy to learn something new or to increase their understanding and mastery.”

This effectively sums up my experience in school and life, beginning with tennis in high school.

My investment of time and energy led to success, which inspired me to persist and keep at it, so long as the efforts got results. This meant I was willing to do things—lift weights, run, jump rope—that I would not otherwise do in a million years. I did them because they delivered the success I sought. Hitting 500 topspin backhands down the line until I could repeatedly knock over tennis-ball cans proved effective, as measured by my performance in matches and tournaments. Running a couple miles every day gave me the stamina and strength others lacked, which meant more wins and deeper commitment.

By the time I arrived at high school, I was ranked among the top tennis players in California and experienced myself as a successful, competent person. School seemed only to offer humiliation and failure, or at least struggle, and a feeling of disorientation. So I ignored school, committed myself to the domain in which I excelled, thus reinforcing my identity as a successful person. It never occurred to me that the same commitment I made to tennis would translate into academic success if I applied the same principles of discipline, humility, and faith in my own ability to learn what was difficult and at times seemed impossible.

It never occurred to me that the same commitment I made to tennis would translate into academic success if I applied the same principles of discipline, humility, and faith in my own ability to learn.

Out of this athletic commitment grew the other C’s: content, competencies, and capacity. I developed my content knowledge by reading everything I could get my hands on about tennis, the masters of the game, even the tournaments, such as Wimbledon. It all fed my commitment, like so much coal into an engine. If a match was on television, I didn’t just watch it: I studied it. I read all the magazines. I gleaned “content” (knowledge about the game and how to play it) from anyone, anywhere; it all linked itself to the commitment and identity I was developing as a successful tennis player.

I acquired and improved my competencies through daily, focused practice under the guidance of my coaches, to whom I gave complete permission to shape me into the athlete I wanted so badly to be. I developed my competencies through systematic practice against a range of carefully chosen opponents, and a series of regimens that resulted in the honing of specific shots that I could execute at will in competitive matches around the state.

Capacity resulted from my disciplined workout routine: running, lifting, jumping rope. Such rituals, along with frequent competition against better players, developed both my mental and physical stamina, speed, and fluency. Out there under the 110-degree Sacramento sun, on courts 10 degrees hotter, I persevered, working with passion toward mastery of a game that eventually lost its magic as my commitment began to wane in the face of an obvious reality: I was good, but would never be great.


Commitment is, in its rawest form, energy. Looking back on those years, I see a 17-year-old boy who ignored school but began to wonder who and what he was, if he was not to be a tennis player. Photography arrived at just that moment, a random course selection perhaps inspired by my father’s love of it, and provided me an outlet for all that energy. An early award in a local contest gave me the same sense of pride that ripping a winning cross-court backhand once had. Meanwhile, however, I was bombing in Mr. Thorne’s econ class, failing Mr. Kitchener’s English class, and making Mrs. Leach, my biology teacher, laugh just enough to ensure she would pass me.

On the rare occasions when I did study hard, I lacked any sense of commitment, due, as I remember it, to the feeling that it wouldn’t make any difference. I enrolled in an SAT-prep class, but only because my two best friends and some cute girls did. Instead of learning word roots and analogies, I spent the time cracking jokes and distracting the group, whose members, my friends included, came from college-educated parents who had instilled in them the importance of school and education to their future. I had little sense of commitment to either the class or the test, as the experience lacked any context for me; I didn’t understand what it led to.

So I celebrated my lack of content and competencies in ways that tested my friends’ capacity for patience and friendship. They were committed. They understood that this test had nothing to do with analogies and everything to do with choices. I had yet to learn that my life was, in fact, something I could create.

Months later, I watched those same friends drive away to the colleges that had accepted them, while I began the slow process of awakening, developing in myself the sense of purpose, the budding commitment to something I could not yet name. Later, when I stepped on to the campus at American River Junior College in Sacramento, I did so with a commitment to the only thing I understood at that point: the desire for a good life, one better than the men and women I worked with at a local printing shop had. I yearned for a life made through choices that spawned in me—or would—a sense of deeper commitment and, eventually, an identity as someone who could “do school,” could learn, could become what I had never been: a successful student.

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Pages 37-39

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