The tension in the room is palpable as your professor passes back the exams. It was a notoriously difficult midterm, and you pored over your notes for days in hopes of getting an A. “I didn’t study,” the girl next to you confesses. “I’m just hoping for a C.” When the professor hands your neighbor her exam, you cannot help but peek. Despite her professions of self-doubt, a red A is circled at the top of her paper.
We all know people who excel in school without seeming to try. They refute teachers’ claims that success requires hard work and make you question those inspirational middle school posters that insisted on the importance of trying your best. A quote by Thomas Edison often printed on these posters stands out in particular: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
But how did your classmate, who did not study for the exam, earn an A? Given some people’s seemingly innate abilities to accomplish their goals, how much does success depend on talent rather than hard work?
When it comes to getting your foot in the door, talent may be more important than achievement through hard work. Three studies found that applicants who appear to have natural talent are more likely to be hired than those who, through effort, achieved more than the naturally talented applicants.
Even though the hiring managers in the studies claimed that they valued hard work over talent, in practice, they favored talent over hard work. Perhaps talent seems more impressive than success achieved through persistent effort — anyone can work hard, but people with talent have greater potential from the start.
However, the ability to work hard is a talent, to some degree. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, about half of the traits that determine people’s motivation, or willingness to put effort into achieving their goals, are part of their personalities. These characteristics, such as conscientiousness, do not change much over the course of their lives, so levels of motivation tend to be somewhat consistent. So how hard you work may be, to some degree, due to your personality.
If it really is the case that “perspiration” does not seem to have a sizeable effect on motivation or initial success, then why try at all?
Psychologist Angela Duckworth, whose research popularized the concept of grit, sees it differently. Grit consists of perseverance through challenges and failures and single-minded passion to achieve long-term goals.
Duckworth found that grit is as important as, if not more important than, talent or intelligence quotient; she also found that people can grow their grittiness. For example, learning how to practice something in a way that improves upon your weaknesses and feels achievable helps to develop grit. You may have taken such a measure by, for example, making flashcards instead of merely studying your notes.
What sets grit apart from talent is that it enables people to sustain their commitment to goals over a long period of time. Talented people may not have the stamina to continue to pursue their goal, even if they are naturally skilled at what they do. Grit gives people the self-motivation to follow through with long-term endeavors, such as earning a college degree.
Not everyone agrees that grit can be learned, however. A group of researchers from the U.S. National Library of Medicine believe that personality traits such as conscientiousness, rather than a learned mindset or methods of practice, determine a proclivity for grit.
Furthermore, while hard work does increase skill, a study in The New York Times found that among people who have practiced piano for the same amount of time, those with natural ability outperform those without it; in other words, “perspiration” can only get you so far. Yet while such a difference in performance may matter in a college class, success is not always measured on a curve.
You can be successful in your career and on assignments that are not curved even if others perform better than you.
Talent is not a prerequisite for achieving lofty goals. The researchers from The New York Times’ study acknowledged that people with average IQs still do earn advanced degrees, although they are significantly less likely to do so than their peers with higher IQs.
For some, like your classmate who earns As without studying, natural ability rather than “perspiration” and grit may lead to success. But while talent can improve performance, the effectiveness of hard work and motivation, whether based in personality or achieved through practice, cannot be discounted. The willingness and drive to get 99 percent of the way to a long-term goal contributes to success in a way that talent cannot.
Vera Mastrorilli is a junior in the College. This is the fifth installment of TESTING TRUISMS.