John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Zero Dark Thirty: Reflections on Persistence

John N. Gardner

This blog posting is inspired most immediately by a movie my wife and I just saw while on vacation out in Phoenix, Zero Dark Thirty. The film inspires many thoughts including about the current politicized controversy regarding the effects of extreme interrogation methods. But my comments here are triggered by my reactions to the portrayal of the film’s central protagonist, who is one of the most focused characters I have ever observed in fictionalized form—or in own my real life experiences. I refer to a twelve year, female, CIA agent, who relentlessly focuses on one thing only for a decade (at least according to the filmmaker) and that is the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.  The adjectives “focused”, “determined”, “resolute”, “single-minded”, “laser-focused”, “persistent”–none of them quite seem to do her justice. After seeing this riveting and highly engaging entertainment, I found myself thinking about persistence, and especially of college students. Of course, that’s not new for me. I think about that all the time. That has been my own resolute, laser-like focus for over four decades.

In truth, my thinking and work has been about evenly divided between a focus on individual student persistence, and on institutional focus on student “retention.” But to realize the latter, we have to engender the former. This movie characterization perhaps will get some of our students to think about their own individual traits of persistence. I hope so. I hope both my readers and our students see this film, and that individual persistence is one of the things they will reflect on.

One of the characters in this drama was/is the Central Intelligence Agency, sometimes referred to from the inside as “the Company”. In one scene in the film, in a solitary interview between this female agent and the Director of the CIA, the latter played wonderfully by James Gandolfino of The Sopranos’ fame, the Director asks her how long she has worked for the Agency—years and “what have you done?” Her reply: in “Nothing.” But the whole point of the film was that “nothing” was incorrect. Everything she had been doing had led to lead the successful analysis, tracking, and discovery of the whereabouts of Bin Laden, and hence the occasion to persuade the CIA Director to lend his credibility to a request to the President to launch the raid that would kill Bin Laden. Similarly, for your students, everything they do in our context leads them to the point where someday they can do something, albeit highly unlikely to be as consequential as tracking down the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Persistence is sticking to something. In the former college student best seller book, In Search of Excellence, the authors Peters and Waterman, argue that the most excellent organizations and individuals “stick to the knitting.” How can we teach our students that ability in their world of multi-tasking and attention deficit disorder?

My father used to say to me: “Son, find a good company (not the CIA) and stick with it.” How I wish I could give that advice today to my students. I can’t. The mid- twentieth century social contract between corporations and loyal employees has been displaced by new cultures based on other values. My inspirational example of persistence was clearly that of my father who spent 43 years working for the same company, which greatly rewarded him. He loved his company. So what did I do? I stuck with the same company (employer), the University of South Carolina, for three plus decades. I loved my company (still do). Then I took early retirement to start my own “company”, the non-profit, public charity kind of legally incorporated entity.

I look forward each year to the awarding of the Nobel Prizes. The New York Times publishes a biography of each Nobel Laureate. They are all different, of course, but they are all the same. They had found something by their twenties and they stuck with it; they persisted; and then in their sixties, usually, they were recognized, often for something they did, created, and discovered, some years before. Perhaps these biographies could inspire some of your students to reflect on their persistence.

Persistence often means something that you are good at, you enjoy, you get better and better at, and is needed by society. My own career and the work on the first-year is a case in point. I have a person who reminds me, when I need it, of the need to stick with something.  I refer to my accountant, Marty. Like many educators I suspect, while we are an intelligent lot, that doesn’t necessarily mean we know much about good financial planning and decision making. I am one of the few white men you’ll ever meet who asks for directions and then actually takes them. So before I make any major financial decisions I ask Marty for his counsel. A couple of years ago I got this wild hair idea about an investment. I live in a small town of about 6000. It does not have a full-service car wash. I thought it needed one. So I talked to Marty about investing in one. His advice to me: “John, stick with what you know.” I took the advice. My town still does not have a full-service car wash.

Sticking with what you know. Ideally, I would want that for many of my students. But first they have to come to know something, or to develop further knowledge and skills with something they came to college already knowing, or wanting to know more about. This is where we come in. We need to be models of persistence worthy of their emulation.  The challenges of student retention have to be met with one student at a time, persisting.

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