Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth (2016)
Part I. WHAT GRIT IS AND WHY IT MATTERS
Chapter 2. DISTRACTED BY TALENT
Before I was a psychologist, I was a teacher. It was in the classroom—years before I’d even heard of Beast—that I began to see that talent is not all there is to achievement.
I was twenty-seven when I started teaching full-time. The month before, I’d quit my job at McKinsey, a global management consulting firm whose New York City office occupied several floors of a blue-glass skyscraper in midtown. My colleagues were a bit bewildered by my decision. Why leave a company that most of my peers were dying to join—one regularly singled out as one of the world’s smartest and most influential?
Acquaintances assumed I was trading eighty-hour workweeks for a more relaxed lifestyle, but of course, anyone who’s been a teacher knows that there’s no harder job in the world. So why leave? In some ways, it was consulting, not teaching, that was the detour. Throughout college, I’d tutored and mentored kids from the local public schools. After graduation, I started a tuition-free academic enrichment program and ran it for two years. Then I went to Oxford and completed a degree in neuroscience, studying the neural mechanisms of dyslexia. So when I started teaching, I felt like I was back on track.
Even so, the transition was abrupt. In a single week, my salary went from Seriously? I actually get paid this much? to Wow! How the heck do teachers in this city make ends meet? Dinner was now a sandwich eaten hurriedly while grading papers, not sushi ordered in at the client’s expense. I commuted to work on the same subway line but stayed on the train past midtown, getting off six stops farther south: the Lower East Side. Instead of pumps, pearls, and a tailored suit, I wore sensible shoes I could stand in all day and dresses I wouldn’t mind getting covered in chalk.
My students were twelve and thirteen years old. Most lived in the housing projects clustered between Avenues A and D. This was before the neighborhood sprouted hip cafés on every corner. The fall I started teaching there, our school was picked for the set of a movie about a rough-and-tumble school in a distressed urban neighborhood. My job was to help my students learn seventh-grade math: fractions and decimals and the rudimentary building blocks of algebra and geometry.
Even that first week, it was obvious that some of my students picked up mathematical concepts more easily than their classmates. Teaching the most talented students in the class was a joy. They were, quite literally, “quick studies.” Without much prompting, they saw the underlying pattern in a series of math problems that less able students struggled to grasp. They’d watch me do a problem once on the board and say, “I get it!” and then work out the next one correctly on their own.
And yet, at the end of the first marking period, I was surprised to find that some of these very able students weren’t doing as well as I’d expected. Some did very well, of course. But more than a few of my most talented students were earning lackluster grades or worse.
In contrast, several of the students who initially struggled were faring better than I’d expected. These “overachievers” would reliably come to class every day with everything they needed. Instead of playing around and looking out the window, they took notes and asked questions. When they didn’t get something the first time around, they tried again and again, sometimes coming for extra help during their lunch period or during afternoon electives. Their hard work showed in their grades.
Apparently, aptitude did not guarantee achievement. Talent for math was different from excelling in math class.
This came as a surprise. After all, conventional wisdom says that math is a subject in which the more talented students are expected to excel, leaving classmates who are simply “not math people” behind. To be honest, I began the school year with that very assumption. It seemed a sure bet that those for whom things came easily would continue to outpace their classmates. In fact, I expected that the achievement gap separating the naturals from the rest of the class would only widen over time.
I’d been distracted by talent.
Gradually, I began to ask myself hard questions. When I taught a lesson and the concept failed to gel, could it be that the struggling student needed to struggle just a bit longer? Could it be that I needed to find a different way to explain what I was trying to get across? Before jumping to the conclusion that talent was destiny, should I be considering the importance of effort? And, as a teacher, wasn’t it my responsibility to figure out how to sustain effort—both the students’ and my own—just a bit longer?
At the same time, I began to reflect on how smart even my weakest students sounded when they talked about things that genuinely interested them. These were conversations I found almost impossible to follow: discourses on basketball statistics, the lyrics to songs they really liked, and complicated plotlines about who was no longer speaking to whom and why. When I got to know my students better, I discovered that all of them had mastered any number of complicated ideas in their very complicated daily lives. Honestly, was getting x all by itself in an algebraic equation all that much harder?
My students weren’t equally talented. Still, when it came to learning seventh-grade math, could it be that if they and I mustered sufficient effort over time, they’d get to where they needed? Surely, I thought, they were all talented enough.
Toward the end of the school year, my fiancé became my husband. For the sake of his own post-McKinsey career, we packed up and moved from New York to San Francisco. I found a new job teaching math at Lowell High School.
Compared to my Lower East Side classroom, Lowell was an alternate universe.
Tucked away in a perpetually foggy basin near the Pacific Ocean, Lowell is the only public high school in San Francisco that admits students on the basis of academic merit. The largest feeder to the University of California system, Lowell sends many of its graduates to the country’s most selective universities.
If, like me, you were raised on the East Coast, you can think of Lowell as the Stuyvesant of San Francisco. Such imagery might bring to mind whiz kids who are leaps and bounds smarter than those who lack the top-notch test scores and grades to get in.
What I discovered was that Lowell students were distinguished more by their work ethic than by their intelligence. I once asked students in my homeroom how much they studied. The typical answer? Hours and hours. Not in a week, but in a single day.
Still, like at any other school, there was tremendous variation in how hard students worked and how well they performed.
Just as I’d found in New York, some of the students I expected to excel, because math came so easy to them, did worse than their classmates. On the other hand, some of my hardest workers were consistently my highest performers on tests and quizzes.
One of these very hard workers was David Luong.
David was in my freshman algebra class. There were two kinds of algebra classes at Lowell: the accelerated track led to Advanced Placement Calculus by senior year, and the regular track, which I was teaching, didn’t. The students in my class hadn’t scored high enough on Lowell’s math placement exam to get into the accelerated track.
David didn’t stand out at first. He was quiet and sat toward the back of the room. He didn’t raise his hand a lot; he rarely volunteered to come to the board to solve problems.
But I soon noticed that every time I graded an assignment, David had turned in perfect work. He aced my quizzes and tests. When I marked one of his answers as incorrect, it was more often my error than his. And, wow, he was just so hungry to learn. In class, his attention was rapt. After class, he’d stay and ask, politely, for harder assignments.
I began to wonder what the heck this kid was doing in my class.
Once I understood how ridiculous the situation was, I marched David into the office of my department chair. It didn’t take long to explain what was going on. Fortunately, the chair was a wise and wonderful teacher who placed a higher value on kids than on bureaucratic rules. She immediately started the paperwork to switch David out of my class and into the accelerated track.
My loss was the next teacher’s gain. Of course, there were ups and downs, and not all of David’s math grades were A’s. “After I left your class, and switched into the more advanced one, I was a little behind,” David later told me. “And the next year, math—it was geometry—continued to be hard. I didn’t get an A. I got a B.” In the next class, his first math test came back with a D.
“How did you deal with that?” I asked.
“I did feel bad—I did—but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.”
By senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses. That spring, he earned a perfect 5 out of 5 on the Advanced Placement exam.
After Lowell, David attended Swarthmore College, graduating with dual degrees in engineering and economics. I sat with his parents at his graduation, remembering the quiet student in the back of my classroom who ended up proving that aptitude tests can get a lot of things wrong.
Two years ago, David earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from UCLA. His dissertation was on optimal performance algorithms for the thermodynamic processes in truck engines. In English: David used math to help make engines more efficient. Today, he is an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation. Quite literally, the boy who was deemed “not ready” for harder, faster math classes is now a “rocket scientist.”
During the next several years of teaching, I grew less and less convinced that talent was destiny and more and more intrigued by the returns generated by effort. Intent on plumbing the depths of that mystery, I eventually left teaching to become a psychologist.
When I got to graduate school, I learned that psychologists have long wondered why some people succeed and others fail. Among the earliest was Francis Galton, who debated the topic with his half cousin, Charles Darwin.
By all accounts, Galton was a child prodigy. By four, he could read and write. By six, he knew Latin and long division and could recite passages from Shakespeare by heart. Learning came easy.
In 1869, Galton published his first scientific study on the origins of high achievement. After assembling lists of well-known figures in science, athletics, music, poetry, and law—among other domains—he gathered whatever biographical information he could. Outliers, Galton concluded, are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual “ability” in combination with exceptional “zeal” and “the capacity for hard labor.”
After reading the first fifty pages of Galton’s book, Darwin wrote a letter to his cousin, expressing surprise that talent made the short list of essential qualities. “You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense,” wrote Darwin. “For I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.”
Of course, Darwin himself was the sort of high achiever Galton was trying to understand. Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential scientists in history, Darwin was the first to explain diversity in plant and animal species as a consequence of natural selection. Relatedly, Darwin was an astute observer, not only of flora and fauna, but also of people. In a sense, his vocation was to observe slight differences that lead, ultimately, to survival.
So it’s worth pausing to consider Darwin’s opinion on the determinants of achievement—that is, his belief that zeal and hard work are ultimately more important than intellectual ability.
On the whole, Darwin’s biographers don’t claim he possessed supernatural intelligence. He was certainly intelligent, but insights didn’t come to him in lightning flashes. He was, in a sense, a plodder. Darwin’s own autobiography corroborates this view: “I have no great quickness of apprehension [that] is so remarkable in some clever men,” he admits. “My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.” He would not have made a very good mathematician, he thinks, nor a philosopher, and his memory was subpar, too: “So poor in one sense is my memory that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.”
Perhaps Darwin was too humble. But he had no problem praising his power of observation and the assiduousness with which he applied it to understanding the laws of nature: “I think I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.”
One biographer describes Darwin as someone who kept thinking about the same questions long after others would move on to different—and no doubt easier—problems:
The normal response to being puzzled about something is to say,“I’ll think about this later,” and then, in effect, forget about it. With Darwin, one feels that he deliberately did not engage in this kind of semi-willful forgetting. He kept all the questions alive at the back of his mind, ready to be retrieved when a relevant bit of data presented itself.
Forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a Harvard psychologist named William James took up the question of how people differ in their pursuit of goals. Toward the end of his long and distinguished career, James wrote an essay on the topic for Science (then and now the premier academic journal, not just for psychology but for all of the natural and social sciences). It was titled “The Energies of Men.”
Reflecting on the achievements and failures of close friends and colleagues, and how the quality of his own efforts varied on his good and bad days, James observed:
Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.
There is a gap, James declared, between potential and its actualization. Without denying that our talents vary—one might be more musical than athletic or more entrepreneurial than artistic—James asserted that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum.”
“Of course there are limits,” James acknowledged. “The trees don’t grow into the sky.” But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us: “The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.”
These words, written in 1907, are as true today as ever. So, why do we place such emphasis on talent? And why fixate on the extreme limits of what we might do when, in fact, most of us are at the very beginning of our journey, so far, far away from those outer bounds? And why do we assume that it is our talent, rather than our effort, that will decide where we end up in the very long run?
For years, several national surveys have asked: Which is more important to success—talent or effort? Americans are about twice as likely to single out effort. The same is true when you ask Americans about athletic ability. And when asked, “If you were hiring a new employee, which of the following qualities would you think is most important?” Americans endorse “being hardworking” nearly five times as often as they endorse “intelligence.”
The results of these surveys are consistent with questionnaires that psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay has given to musical experts, who, when asked, reliably endorse effortful training as more important than natural talent. But when Chia probes attitudes more indirectly, she exposes a bias that tips in exactly the opposite direction: we love naturals.
In Chia’s experiments, professional musicians learn about two pianists whose biographies are identical in terms of prior achievements. The subjects listen to a short clip of these individuals playing piano; unbeknownst to the listeners, a single pianist is, in fact, playing different parts of the same piece. What varies is that one pianist is described as a “natural” with early evidence of innate talent. The other is described as a “striver” with early evidence of high motivation and perseverance. In direct contradiction to their stated beliefs about the importance of effort versus talent, musicians judge the natural to be more likely to succeed and more hirable.
As a follow-up study, Chia tested whether this same inconsistency would be evident in a very different domain where hard work and striving are celebrated: entrepreneurship. She recruited hundreds of adults with varying levels of experience in business and randomly divided them into two groups. Half of her research subjects read the profile of a “striver” entrepreneur, described as having achieved success through hard work, effort, and experience. The other half read the profile of a “natural” entrepreneur, described as having achieved success through innate ability. All participants listened to the same audio recording of a business proposal and were told the recording was made by the specific entrepreneur they’d read about.
As in her study of musicians, Chia found that naturals were rated higher for likelihood of success and being hirable, and that their business proposals were judged superior in quality. In a related study, Chia found that when people were forced to choose between backing one of two entrepreneurs—one identified as a striver, the other a natural—they tended to favor the natural. In fact, the point of indifference between a striver and a natural was only reached when the striver had four more years of leadership experience and $40,000 more in start-up capital.
Chia’s research pulls back the curtain on our ambivalence toward talent and effort. What we say we care about may not correspond with what—deep down—we actually believe to be more valuable. It’s a little like saying we don’t care at all about physical attractiveness in a romantic partner and then, when it comes to actually choosing whom to date, picking the cute guy over the nice one.
The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.
Chia’s own life is an interesting example of the natural versus striver phenomenon. Now a professor at University College London, she publishes her scholarly work in the most prestigious of academic journals. As a child, she attended classes at Juilliard, whose pre-college program invites students “who exhibit the talent, potential, and accomplishment to pursue a career in music” to experience “an atmosphere where artistic gifts and technical skills can flourish.”
Chia holds several degrees from Harvard. Her first was a bachelor’s degree in psychology; she graduated magna cum laude with highest honors. She also has two master’s degrees: one in the history of science and the other in social psychology. And, finally, while completing her PhD in organizational behavior and psychology at Harvard, she also picked up a secondary PhD in music.
Impressed? If not, let me add that Chia also has degrees from the Peabody Conservatory in piano performance and pedagogy—and yes, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall, not to mention Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and at the palace recital commemorating the presidency of the European Union.
If you only saw her credentials, you might leap to the conclusion that Chia was born more gifted than anyone you know: “My god! What an extraordinarily talented young woman!” And, if Chia’s research is right, that explanation would embellish her accomplishments with more luster, more mystery, and more awe than the alternative: “My god! What an extraordinarily dedicated, hardworking young woman!”
And then what would happen? There’s a vast amount of research on what happens when we believe a student is especially talented. We begin to lavish extra attention on them and hold them to higher expectations. We expect them to excel, and that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve asked Chia what she makes of her own musical accomplishments. “Well, I guess I may have some talent,” Chia said. “But I think, more than that, I loved music so much I practiced four to six hours a day all throughout childhood.” And in college, despite a punishing schedule of classes and activities, she made time to practice almost as much. So, yes, she has some talent—but she’s a striver, too.
Why did Chia practice so much? I wondered. Was it forced on her? Did she have any choice in the matter?
“Oh, it was me. It was what I wanted. I wanted to get better and better and better. When I practiced piano, I pictured myself onstage in front of a crowded audience. I imagined them clapping.”
The year I left McKinsey for teaching, three of the firm’s partners published a report called “The War for Talent.” The report was widely read and eventually became a best-selling book. The basic argument was that companies in the modern economy rise and fall depending on their ability to attract and retain “A players.”
“What do we mean by talent?” the McKinsey authors ask in the book’s opening pages. Answering their own question: “In the most general sense, talent is the sum of a person’s abilities—his or her intrinsic gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgment, attitude, character, and drive. It also includes his or her ability to learn and grow.” That’s a long list, and it reveals the struggle most of us have when we try to define talent with any precision. But it doesn’t surprise me that “intrinsic gifts” are mentioned first.
When Fortune magazine put McKinsey on its cover, the lead article began: “When in the presence of a young McKinsey partner, one gets the distinct impression that if plied with a cocktail or two, he might well lean across the table and suggest something awkward, like comparing SAT scores.” It’s almost impossible, the journalist observed, to overestimate “the premium placed within the McKinsey culture on analytic ability, or as its denizens say, on being ‘bright.’ ”
McKinsey is famous for recruiting and rewarding smart men and women—some with MBAs from places like Harvard and Stanford, and the rest, like me, who possess some other credential that suggests we must have very big brains.
My interviews with McKinsey unfolded as most do, with a series of brainteasers designed to test my analytic mettle. One interviewer sat me down and introduced himself, then asked: “How many tennis balls are manufactured in the United States per year?”
“I guess there are two ways to approach that question,” I responded. “The first way is to find the right person, or maybe trade organization, to tell you.” My interviewer nodded, but gave me a look that said he wanted the other kind of answer.
“Or you could take some basic assumptions and do some multiplying to figure it out.”
My interviewer smiled broadly. So I gave him what he wanted.
“Okay, assume there are about two hundred fifty million people in the United States. Let’s say the most active tennis players are between the age of ten and thirty. That’s got to be, roughly speaking, one-fourth of the population. I guess that gives you a little over sixty million potential tennis players.”
Now my interviewer was really excited. I continued the logic game, multiplying and dividing by numbers according to my completely uninformed estimates of how many people actually play tennis, and how often they play on average, and how many balls they would use in a game, and then how often they would need to replace dead or lost ones.
I got to some number, which was probably wildly off, because at every step I was making another uninformed assumption that was, to some degree or another, incorrect. Finally, I said: “The math here isn’t that hard for me. I’m tutoring a little girl who is practicing her fractions right now, and we do a lot of mental math together. But if you want to know what I’d really do if I needed to know the answer to that question, I’ll tell you: I’d just call someone who actually knows.”
More smiling, and then an assurance that he’d learned all he needed to from our interaction. And also from my application—including my SAT scores, which McKinsey heavily relies on to do their early sorting of candidates. In other words, if the advice to corporate America is to create a culture that values talent above all else, McKinsey practices what it preaches.
Once I accepted the offer to join the New York City office, I was told that my first month would be spent in a fancy hotel in Clearwater, Florida. There I joined about three dozen other new hires who, like me, lacked any training in business. Instead, each of us had earned some other academic badge of honor. I sat next to a guy with a PhD in physics, for example. On my other side was a surgeon, and behind me were two lawyers.
None of us knew much about management in general, or about any industry in particular. But that was about to change: in a single month, we would complete a crash course called the “mini-MBA.” Since we were all vetted to be superfast learners, there was no question that we would successfully master a massive amount of information in a very short amount of time.
Newly equipped with a casual acquaintance with cash flow, the difference between revenue and profit, and some other rudimentary facts about what I now knew to call “the private sector,” we were shipped off to our designated offices around the world, where we would join teams of other consultants and be matched up with corporate clients to solve whatever problems they threw our way.
I soon learned that McKinsey’s basic business proposition is straightforward. For a very large sum of money per month, companies can hire a McKinsey team to solve problems too thorny to be solved by the folks who are already working on them. At the end of this “engagement,” as it was called in the firm, we were supposed to produce a report that was dramatically more insightful than anything they could have generated in-house.
It occurred to me, as I was putting together slides summarizing bold, sweeping recommendations for a multibillion-dollar medical products conglomerate, that, really, I had no idea what I was talking about. There were senior consultants on the team who may have known more, but there were also more junior consultants who, having just graduated from college, surely knew even less.
Why hire us, then, at such an exorbitant cost? Well, for one thing, we had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective untainted by insider politics. We also had a method for solving business problems that was hypothesis and data driven. There were probably lots of good reasons CEOs brought in McKinsey. But among them, I think, was that we were supposed to be sharper than the people who were already on-site. Hiring McKinsey meant hiring the very “best and brightest”—as if being the brightest also made us the best.
According to The War for Talent, the companies that excel are those that aggressively promote the most talented employees while just as aggressively culling the least talented. In such companies, huge disparities in salary are not only justified but desirable. Why? Because a competitive, winner-take-all environment encourages the most talented to stick around and the least talented to find alternative employment.
Duff McDonald, the journalist who’s done the most in-depth research on McKinsey to date, has suggested that this particular business philosophy would be more aptly titled The War on Common Sense. McDonald points out that the companies highlighted in the original McKinsey report as exemplars of their endorsed strategy didn’t do so well in the years after that report was published.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has also critiqued the The War for Talent. Enron, he points out, epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management advocated by McKinsey. As we all know, the Enron story doesn’t have a happy ending. Once one of the largest energy trading companies in the world, Enron was named America’s Most Innovative Company by Fortune magazine six years in a row. Yet, by the end of 2001, when the business filed for bankruptcy, it had become clear that the company’s extraordinary profits were attributable to massive and systematic accounting fraud. When Enron collapsed, thousands of its employees, who had no hand at all in the wrongdoing, lost their jobs, health insurance, and retirement savings. At the time, it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history.
You can’t blame the Enron debacle on a surfeit of IQ points. You can’t blame it on a lack of grit, either. But Gladwell argues convincingly that demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.
The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank.” Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.
Is talent a bad thing? Are we all equally talented? No and no. The ability to quickly climb the learning curve of any skill is obviously a very good thing, and, like it or not, some of us are better at it than others.
So why, then, is it such a bad thing to favor “naturals” over “strivers”? What’s the downside of television shows like America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, and Child Genius? Why shouldn’t we separate children as young as seven or eight into two groups: those few children who are “gifted and talented” and the many, many more who aren’t? What harm is there, really, in a talent show being named a “talent show”?
In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.
Consider, for example, the story of Scott Barry Kaufman. Scott’s office is just two doors down from mine, and he’s a lot like the other academic psychologists I know: He spends most of his waking hours reading, thinking, collecting data, doing statistics, and writing. He publishes his research in scientific journals. He knows a lot of polysyllabic words. He has degrees from Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge University, and Yale. He plays the cello for fun.
But as a child, Scott was considered a slow learner—which was true. “Basically, I got a lot of ear infections as a kid,” Scott explains. “And that led to this problem with processing information from sound in real time. I was always a step or two behind the other kids in my class.” So halting was his academic progress, in fact, that he was placed in special education classes. He repeated third grade. Around the same time, he met with a school psychologist to take an IQ test. In an anxiety-ridden test session he describes as “harrowing,” Scott performed so poorly that he was sent to a special school for children with learning disabilities.
It was not until age fourteen that an observant special education teacher took Scott aside and asked why he wasn’t in more challenging classes. Until then, Scott had never questioned his intellectual status. Instead, he’d assumed that his lack of talent would put a very low ceiling on what he might do with his life.
Meeting a teacher who believed in his potential was a critical turning point: a pivot from This is all you can do to Who knows what you can do? At that moment, Scott started wondering, for the very first time: Who am I? Am I a learning disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?
And then, to find out, Scott signed up for just about every challenge his school had to offer. Latin class. The school musical. Choir. He didn’t necessarily excel in everything, but he learned in all. What Scott learned is that he wasn’t hopeless.
Something that Scott found he did learn fairly easily was the cello. His grandfather had been a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly fifty years, and Scott had the idea that his grandfather could give him lessons. He did, and the summer that Scott first picked up the cello, he began practicing eight or nine hours a day. He was fiercely determined to improve, and not only because he enjoyed the cello: “I was so driven to just show someone, anyone, that I was intellectually capable of anything. At this point I didn’t even care what it was.”
Improve he did, and by the fall, he earned a seat in his high school orchestra. If the story ended there and then, it might not be about grit. But here’s what happened next. Scott kept up—and even increased—his practicing. He skipped lunch to practice. Sometimes he skipped classes to practice. By senior year, he was second chair—he was the second-best cellist in the orchestra—and he was in the choir, too, and winning all kinds of awards from the music department.
He also started doing well in his classes, many of which were now honors classes. Almost all of his friends were in the gifted and talented program, and Scott wanted to join them. He wanted to talk about Plato and do mental puzzles and learn more than he was already learning. Of course, with his IQ scores from childhood, there was no such possibility. He remembers the school psychologist drawing a bell-shaped curve on the back of a napkin and pointing to its peak—“This is average”—then moving to the right—“This is where you’d have to be for gifted and talented classes”—and then moving to the left—“And this is where you are.”
“At what point,” Scott asked, “does achievement trump potential?”
The school psychologist shook his head and showed Scott the door.
That fall, Scott decided he wanted to study this thing called “intelligence” and come to his own conclusions. He applied to the cognitive science program at Carnegie Mellon University. And he was rejected. The rejection letter did not specify why, of course, but given his stellar grades and extracurricular accomplishments, Scott could only conclude that the impediment was his low SAT scores.
“I had this grit,” Scott recalls. “I said, ‘I’m going to do it. I don’t care. I’m going to find a way to study what I want to study.’ ” And then Scott auditioned for Carnegie Mellon’s opera program. Why? Because the opera program didn’t look very hard at SAT scores, focusing instead on musical aptitude and expression. In his first year, Scott took a psychology course as an elective. Soon after, he added psychology as a minor. Next, he transferred his major from opera to psychology. And then he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Like Scott, I took an IQ test early in my schooling and was deemed insufficiently bright to benefit from gifted and talented classes. For whatever reason—maybe a teacher asked that I be retested—I was evaluated again the following year, and I made the cut. I guess you could say I was borderline gifted.
One way to interpret these stories is that talent is great, but tests of talent stink. There’s certainly an argument to be made that tests of talent—and tests of anything else psychologists study, including grit—are highly imperfect.
But another conclusion is that the focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort. In the next chapter, I’ll argue that, as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.