Who wins – the gifted or the hard-working?

Who wins – the gifted or the hard-working?

March 8, 2020 0 By Rick

We tend to look up to people who succeed in life, often without really paying attention to how they achieved their success. In many cases, we call them “gifted” or “talented,” as if they were born with a special set of skills that sets them apart from the rest of us mortals. We seem to worship these superhumans, whether they be in sports, the arts, the military or business. They are – in our eyes – larger than life and were always destined to achieve stardom. Or were they? What if they simply worked harder than the rest of us? What if they put in countless hours of practice that we haven’t seen to reach the pinnacle of their professions? It all seems to start with our peculiar educational system (at least in the US but I suspect in other countries, too) that sets out to identify “gifted” children as early as possible. How will this affect our children? Could looking back on my own education could give us a clue?

Cream of the crop
I can remember taking IQ tests in grade school and wondering why. What were the educators going to do with this information? As I got older, it became apparent – the “gifted” children were getting special attention, encouragement and support. But what about the rest of us? Well, our teachers continued to work with us, of course, but I felt they thought we were destined to be “average,” not that that’s a bad thing to be, of course. But we certainly didn’t feel like the cream of the crop. I did my best in school – that might be a modification of the truth – I thought I was doing my best is perhaps more accurate. I plodded on and the gifted received most of the attention and support. Does anyone recognize this pattern or was it just me? Did any of my teachers believe I was “teachable?” Did any of them think I could do much better? That’s hard to say after all these years. Luckily, new research is proving that excessive focusing on giftedness may not be the best approach. Emphasizing the role of growth and teachability might determine future success instead.

Focusing on teachability
A new attitude is taking shape now. Instead of relentlessly seeking to identify the small group of students with innate talent and encouraging them to rise to the top, educators are beginning to examine the merits of focusing on students who demonstrate a new characteristic – teachability. Teachability can be defined as the ability to learn and grow through hard work instead of talent. In the fight between talent and hard work, hard work usually wins. And that brings us to one of today’s buzzwords – mindset. Unless you’ve been living in a cave or on a remote island somewhere, you’ve probably heard about the importance of mindset and rightly so. It’s where everything begins. Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford who was among the pioneers to study mindset, says there are two mindsets: fixed versus growth.

Talent or hard work
Dweck and others argue that people with a fixed mindset believe that what you are born with can’t be improved upon (much, at any rate). They view talent as the luck of the draw. You are either born with it or not. Obviously, with this type of view, the gifted and talented do seem very special and simply better than the rest of us “ordinary” folks. A growth mindset, on the other hand, recognizes that there’s some degree of innate talent in all of us, but it’s what we do with that that matters. In other words, hard work is the crucial factor. An individual without talent who works hard will outperform a gifted person who coasts along relying on his or her talents and never truly pushes himself or herself. If you don’t believe me, allow me to give you an example from my own life – Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training (BUD/S).

Who’s gonna make it?
When I first arrived at BUD/S, I was scared shitless (pardon my French). I looked around at my fellow trainees and began to speculate on who would graduate from this grueling course and who would quit at the first opportunity. I was unlucky enough (or so I first thought) to be in a group dominated by near-superhumans! There were loads of magnificent physical specimens from nearly every sport known to man: college football players, marathon runners, top-level swimmers, wrestlers and “Rambos,” although the movie hero didn’t exist yet. How in the world was I going to compete with these studs? 

“Average Joes”
Naturally, I was drawn to the type of trainee that was most like me – ordinary in statue and mind, the average “Joes.” I wanted nothing to do with the intimidating superhumans who got up at 03.00 to take ice-cold showers before training in a winter class. Yet many of these gifted athletes quit within the first two weeks. And most of the few who remained as we entered Hell Week, quit during those 5 ½ days of intense mental and physical harassment. Who was left? Just about all the ordinary people that I thought would never make it. Why did the supermen quit? They had never really had to push themselves to the extent this training required. Let me repeat: In the battle between talent and hard work, hard work usually triumphs, especially if you have a growth mindset.

Dweck also states that people with fixed mindsets want to appear to be as smart as possible and therefore avoid challenges. After all, why would you want to undertake a challenge where failure is a possibility? If you believe your talent is fixed, you don’t want to look stupid by failing. But people with growth mindsets are keen to seek out new challenges because they are opportunities for growth even if it’s through failure. Dweck believes that growth mindsets can be taught, in other words, we can change! In one study, middle-school students undertook a growth-mindset program that taught them the neuroscience behind the brain’s ability to adapt and strategies for strengthening the brain as they would a muscle. After evaluating the results, the researchers found that “control groups tended to do worse over time, but the intervention group didn’t just perform better than the control, they actually performed better and better over time.” 

Back to the question
So, who wins – the gifted or the hard-working? The findings indicate that talent is not as important as teachability and hard work. The individuals we consider to be super talented may not be gifted from birth. They may simply be hard workers who have been willing to learn and continue to learn throughout their lives and in doing so, may appear to have been gifted from the start. And that means our schools should spend more time looking for students that are teachable – not gifted or talented.