I hate it when people tell me that I’m smart. It frequently happens when complete strangers discover that I am currently in medical school. “Wow, medical school, huh? You must be a genius!” It always strikes me as odd that they come to this conclusion without knowing anything about my performance as a medical student. That they require no further proof of my intelligence. You don’t have to be smart to go to medical school; that’s only required if you want to actually graduate, something I have yet to do.
That isn’t what really bothers me about the intended compliment. No, what really gets me is the assumption, sometimes subtly implied and other times articulated more directly, that I am where I am because of a so called “gift,” that if any other person were lucky enough in the genetic lottery to simply be born “smart,” they too would be in medical school, or its equivalent in any number of other fields. Whether consciously or not, this minimizes the important fact that I have worked my ass off to get to where I am today.
I have long been a believer in hard work. To me, it is the great equalizer. Of course, we all start with different capabilities and opportunities in life. To deny this fact would be naïve. I am convinced, however, that hard work truly levels the playing field.
This is the thesis of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. In it, she explains that while talent counts, effort counts twice. Personal stories and rigorous research studies are provided in equal measure in support of this claim.
One of the most compelling of these studies was authored by Daniel Chambliss. Titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” the paper is the result of six years that Chambliss spent studying competitive swimmers. What he found was that behind every Olympic swimmer who makes world class swimming appear easy are thousands of hours of training, early mornings, meticulous diets and a whole host of other extraordinary sacrifices. While these events are far from flashy and rarely televised, they are directly responsible for the seemingly effortless performances we see in international competition.
In Chambliss’ own words: “Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.”
Another seminal study in the science of success is K. Anders Ericsson’s “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” This study, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller Outliers, evaluated violinists at a prestigious music academy in Berlin and compared professional pianists with amateurs. The study found that the only difference between the truly elite musicians and their less stellar peers was time spent practicing.
Gladwell writes, “The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues 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.” In short, those who worked long and hard — 10,000 hours of dedicated practice was the famous threshold calculated by Ericsson — succeeded regardless of their varied backgrounds. Those who worked less hard fell short.
Quoting Gladwell again, “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. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”
Duckworth comes to the same conclusion, citing Will Smith as yet another corroborating example. When asked about his meteoric rise to become one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, Smith credits his work ethic above all else:
“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”
The inconvenient truth is that there is no shortcut to greatness. Miracle diet plans or pills, so called ‘smart drugs,’ get rich quick schemes and the like all propagate a dangerous myth that blood, sweat and tears can somehow be bypassed, that we can reap without ever sowing. The reality, however, is that anything worth achieving is hard. Really hard. Nonetheless, it is also the reality that there is nothing in life that is un-achievable, no challenge that will not yield to purposeful, sustained effort.
The next time you meet a medical student, then, or an investment banker or a small business owner or a single parent or a great professor or anyone else who impresses you, think back to Angela Duckworth, K. Anders Ericsson and Will Smith and try complimenting their hard work rather than their intelligence. According to the research cited thus far, your compliment will be more accurate. Furthermore, if my own feelings are at all predictive of their responses, your compliment will also be far more appreciated.