December 2, 2019

Why money alone can’t keep star talent from jumping ship: A lesson from West Point

By David Epstein

Psychologist Angela Duckworth conducted the most famous study of quitting. She sought to predict which incoming freshmen would drop out of the U.S. Military Academy’s basic‑training‑cum‑orientation, traditionally known as “Beast Barracks.”

Six and a half weeks of physical and emotional rigors are designed to transition young men and women from teenagers on summer break to officers‑in‑training. Cadets are in formation by 5:30 a.m. to begin running or calisthenics. In the mess hall for breakfast, new cadets, or “plebes,” must sit straight in their chairs and bring food to their mouths, not their faces toward their plates. An upperclassman can pepper them with questions. “How is the cow?” is shorthand for “How much milk is left?” A plebe will learn to respond, “Sir/Ma’am, she walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk! The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the [nth] degree!” N represents the number of milk cartons left at the table.

The rest of the day is a mix of classroom and physical activities, like the windowless tear gas chamber where plebes have to remove their gas masks and recite facts while their faces are burning. Puking isn’t required, nor is it discouraged. Lights‑out at 10 p.m., so it can start all over in the morning. It is a precarious time for the morale of new student‑soldiers. To get into the academy, all had to be excellent students, many were outstanding athletes, and most completed an application process that included a nomination from a member of Congress. Slackers do not arrive at Beast. Still, some will be gone before the first month is out.