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Does success have more to do with grit than genes?

In his Frontal Cortex column this week at Wired, science writer Jonah Lehrer explores an intriguing question: What causes people to be successful at something, whether it’s hitting a golf ball or playing the piano or trading stocks?

You need talent, of course, to be successful, but what, asks Lehrer, is talent?

For a time, scientists looked to genetics for the answer. It was proposed that unless you had the “right” biological makeup, you’d never be really, really good at stock car racing, or chess or, um, writing, no matter how much you practiced.

But, as Lehrer explains, many social psychologists now believe “the intrinsic nature of talent is overrated — our genes don’t confer specific gifts.” These psychologists argue that most success — or talent — can be explained by deliberate practice.

Serious practice. In fact, hours and hours and hours of practice — at least 10,000 hours, according to some research.

In other words, says Lehrer, “Beethoven wasn’t born Beethoven — he had to work damn hard to become Beethoven.”

But, of course, that finding leads to yet another question: Why are some people so much better at putting in those hours of hard work?

To help answer that question, Lehrer refers to a study, “Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee,” published his month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study’s authors reviewed data from 190 participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, all of whom had to spend hours practicing their spelling.

Writes Lehrer:

The first thing [the study’s authors] discovered is that deliberate practice works. Those kids who spent more time in deliberate practice mode — this involved studying and memorizing words while alone, often on note cards — performed much better at the competition than those children who were quizzed by others or engaged in leisure reading. The bad news is that deliberate practice isn’t fun and was consistently rated as the least enjoyable form of self-improvement. Nevertheless, as spellers gain experience, they devote increasing amounts of time to deliberate practice. This suggests that even twelve year olds realize that this is what makes them better, that success isn’t easy.

And why are some kids better at sticking with this unpleasant task? The study’s authors identified a necessary psychological trait among those who were most successful: grit.

“Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance,” concluded the authors.

Lehrer finds two takeaway messages from this study. “The first is that there’s a major contradiction between how we measure talent and the true causes of talent,” he says. Tests to measure ability — how fast someone can run a 40-yard dash or how many words someone can spell without error — doesn’t get at the true cause of that talent.

“[S]uccess in the real world depends on sustained performance,” writes Lehrer, “on being able to work hard at practice, and [using the football analogy] spend the weekend studying the playbook, and reviewing hours of game tape. Those are all versions of deliberate practice, and our ability to engage in such useful exercises largely depends on level of grit. The problem, of course, is that grit can’t be measured in a single afternoon on a single field. … We need a test that measures how likely people are to show up, not just how they perform once there.”

The second takeaway message from the study, says Lehrer,

involves the growing recognition of “non-cognitive” skills like grit and self-control. While such traits have little or nothing to do with intelligence (as measure by IQ scores), they often explain a larger share of individual variation when it comes to life success. It doesn’t matter if one is looking at retention rates at West Point or teacher performance within Teach for America or success in the spelling bee: Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance. Thomas Edison was right: even genius is mostly just perspiration.

You can read Lehrer’s column here.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 03/16/2011 - 10:37 am.

    Didn’t our mothers always tell us “practice makes perfect”?

    And, as I (as a lawyer) have always said: “It takes perseverance more than intelligence to graduate from law school.”

  2. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 03/16/2011 - 11:26 am.

    Probably more true with more established pursuits. In my case I tried amateur (school) wrestling after substantial weight loss. I had superior strength but others had a training advantage.

    On the other hand, where there is adaption of new technologies being first often counts the most. Grit may not not be the key to finding and developing the next “killer ap”.

    When I was a kid I hung out with a working professional baseball player at the gas station he worked at off season “for something to do”. Nowadays, every pro-sports player has practice and conditioning as a full time, year round job.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/16/2011 - 04:11 pm.

    “It takes perseverance more than intelligence.”

    More than intelligence you say?

    I suppose, that could be…but not “plus”; or even “either/or”?

    Maybe therein lies the rub…

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