Talent is Overrated

The Real Secret to Learning Hard Topics (like math)

We all know individuals who do well in school, especially in “tough” subjects like math. Those who do exceptionally well with math topics are often put on a pedestal. As they should be. However, they ought not be hoisted onto the “uber-smart-guy” pedestal. While good students are often intelligent, it’s not the proper pedestal. This implies that bad students are victims of a genetic lottery. There is something else that differentiates these top-achieving individuals from the would-be dynamos.

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There are no naturals.

Although it’s easy to dismiss academic success as the result of being born under a lucky start, 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 calculus 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 the drop-out? The real secret is hours and hours of unseen practice. As the parent of “Top 10” students, I can testify to the countless hours that my daughters have spent outside the classroom acquiring their skills. I’m not saying that it isn’t easier for someone with a higher level of intelligence, but research indicates that time on task is the chief predictor of success. There are no prodigies.

In his Book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell transforms the way we think of success. He relates a study of 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. And thus, the 10,000 Hour Rule was born.

The studies did not find virtuoso violinists who had managed to hack the 10,000 Hour Rule. This means the path to success is doing the work and putting in the hours.

Learning is like fitness. There are no hacks to getting physically fit. There’s no way a gym newbie — in a matter of a few weeks or months — is going to be as muscular and powerful as someone who has been training steadily for years. (This is why men are stronger than boys, and strength sports are dominated by the middle-aged.)

There are no grinds.

The research goes on to indicate that their are no grinds. That is, they did not find any individual 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 mathematics? I have never seen a students work hard consistently and keep failing. The only way to fail is to give up.

Back to the fitness analogy, there are no gym grinds either. Anyone who exercises on a regular basis for an extended period of time is going to build muscle. Like intelligence in the classroom, there are individuals who build muscle faster than others. But everyone will build muscle to some degree as long as they stick with it.

Final analysis

The research shows that there is a cumulative effect of deliberate practice. If one student continues with deliberate practice while another laments their perceived deficiency of luck, the former will always outdistance the latter.

Admitting this — that talent is overrated — is a hard pill to swallow for an adult, much less the adolescent student. We live in a microwave, fast-food, instant-fix society. Delayed gratification? What’s that?! Admitting that talent is overrated means doing some soul-searching. Laziness is ugly, so 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 the shawl of victimhood feels so reassuring in our times of distress. To acknowledge that talent is overrated 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. This is why cheaters never win, and winners never cheat. But that’s the topic of another post…

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