Matrix fans know Neo took the red pill. We all know individuals who do well in school, especially in “tough” subjects like math. Those who do exceptionally well with tough subjects are often though to be lucky or smart. But that’s the blue pill deception. The red pill truth is that good students work harder than bad students.
Attributing good grades solely to intelligence implies that students with bad grades are victims of some genetic IQ lottery. Not only that, this belief is dismissive of the hard work of successful students.
Truth #1: There are no naturals.
Although it’s easy to dismiss academic success as the result of being born under a lucky star, there are no naturals. Well, there was that Good Will Hunting guy… But that’s focusing on extremely low probability, high impact scenarios.
After teaching high school and college math for nearly 20 years, I can tell you with 99.9996% certainty that no one — no matter his or her level of intelligence — is born knowing how to do algebra or solve math problems. And the research bears this out.
What makes the difference?
So what separates the cream of the crop from and a middle of the pack kid, or the middle of the pack kid from a drop-out risk? The real secret is the number of unseen hours of practice. As the parent of four top-notch students — NHS, Top Tens, and even a Val — I can testify to the countless hours that my four daughters have spent outside the classroom acquiring their skills.
Is it easier for someone with a higher level of intelligence? Sure, just like basketball may be easier for taller individuals. But we can all learn to dribble a ball. The research indicates that the number of hours of deliberate practice is the chief predictor of success. There are no prodigies.The number of hours of deliberate practice is the chief predictor of success. Click To Tweet
In his Book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell transforms the way we think of success. He relates a study on violinists. In the study, a pattern emerged. The merely competent violinists had practiced about 4000 hours. Really good violinists had practiced around 8000 hours. And the truly masterful violinists had practiced at least 10,000 hours. The 10,000 Hour Rule was coined.
The studies confirm that there are no virtuosos. That is no one became a master without 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This means the path to success is doing the work and putting in the hours.
A Fitness Analogy
Learning is like fitness. There are no hacks to getting physically fit. That is, there are no gym newbies who in a matter of a few weeks are going to be as muscular and powerful as someone who has been training steadily for years. No one trains for an athletic contest, say a marathon, by running a few wind sprints the night before. Top athletes have done their homework, kinda like top students do their practice.
Truth #2: There are no grinders.
The research also goes on to say that there are no grinders. That is, there are no people who put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and do not achieve mastery. The researchers found no individuals that did the work and put in the hours, yet still performed poorly.
Isn’t that how it is with school work? Especially an acquired skill like math? I have never seen a student work hard consistently and keep failing. The only way to fail is to give up before approaching 10,000 hours.
Back to the Fitness Analogy
There are no gym grinders either. Anyone who exercises on a regular basis for an extended period of time is going to build muscle and get fit. Like intelligence in the classroom, there are individuals in the gym who build muscle faster than others. But every individual will build muscle as long as he or she sticks with it.
The research shows that there is a cumulative effect of deliberate practice. If one student continues with deliberate practice while another laments over their perceived deficiency of luck, the former will always outdistance the latter.
Admitting this — that talent is over-rated — makes the red pill harder to swallow adults, much less the adolescent student. We live in a microwave, fast-food, instant-fix society. Delayed gratification means working hard now for something yet to come… like investing for retirement.
Admitting that talent is over-rated means doing some soul-searching. Laziness can be ugly, and looking in the mirror at it can be tough. Acknowledging that we may not be where we want to be is the result of our own decisions — not our lack of intelligence — is the beginning. Simple. Not easy.
Why are so few willing to do the work and put in the hours? Because that shawl of victimhood feels so reassuring in times of stress. To acknowledge that talent is over-rated means shedding this victim mentality. Only by accepting responsibility for our choices can we touch the cloak of excellence. In this manner, we see achievers continue to thrive while the slackers continue to merely survive.
Bottom line? Do you want to thrive, or merely survive? Learning is one of the few things that we cannot get someone else to do for us. The good news is that if you take the red pill, learning is an all-you-can eat smorgasbord. And I’m not just talking about formal education. You can learn as much as you like to achieve any goal you set your mind to.