Grit and the Genius Myth

Originally written as a letter to parents on October 15, 2010

When I was in seventh grade, I found myself struggling with a particular math unit — logic problems if I remember right. One evening, I gave up on my homework in frustration and complained to my father that it was “too hard,” and that it “wasn’t fair” that I had to spend more time on homework than some of my friends. His response? “You’re right. You will have to work hard to understand this, and there are no shortcuts. Now get to work.” It wasn’t exactly the sympathy I had hoped for, but the lesson stuck.

Too often we subscribe to the misconception that successful people are somehow “born that way.”  Many people believe that — in terms of intellect, athleticism, artistry, or musicality — you either “have it or you don’t.”   However, research on how people acquire expert knowledge does not support this notion.  More and more attention is being paid to a rather old-fashioned word: grit.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers, goes so far as to describe the concept of genius as a myth.  He argues that such descriptors devalue the extraordinary time and effort that experts have devoted to their craft.  And by using a word such as “genius,” we may underestimate our own ability to achieve great heights in our chosen fields.  While he acknowledges that there is such a thing as “innate talent,” he notes that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

Gladwell uses the phrase “The 10,000-Hour Rule,” drawing upon research that hours on task is a greater indicator of success than innate ability.   Here’s an example of the 10,000-Hour Rule: Researchers asked professors at a prestigious music academy to divide the school’s violinists into three groups: the stars (those with the potential to become world-class soloists), the good (those who could play professionally), and the rest (those more unlikely to play professionally). Researchers then asked the students one simple question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

While the students practiced roughly the same amount as young children, by middle school, clear differences began to emerge.  By age twenty, the stars had practiced an average of 10,000 hours each. The good students had practiced an average of 8,000 hours each, and the rest had averaged just over 4,000 hours each.  Gladwell writes:

The striking thing about [this] study is that [they] couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.  Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.

At Trinity Valley Middle School, we help children develop the habit of perseverance – the grit to set a goal and see it through to its completion, despite the challenges that may arise.  Giving up may seem easier, but it will rarely bring the lasting satisfaction that comes from pushing on.   In addition, we help students explore their interests and nurture their curiosity.   Because hard work isn’t an end – it is a means for pursuing goals and passions that are life-sustaining.

If students leave TVS middle school with the grit necessary to pursue their dreams, we will have given them an amazing gift!

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