How smart do you think you are? Are you the smartest person that you know? The smartest one in your workplace? Even if you are, it may not really matter, according to Angela Duckworth, former McKinsey-consultant-turned-math-teacher, bestselling author and TED speaker, and founder of Character Lab, which provides tools for teachers to help their students develop character and grit. Because, as Duckworth explains in her TED talk which has been viewed more than 10 million times, passion and perseverance, or "grit," is much more important to success than raw intelligence.

"I got into this business in part because my Dad told me when I was growing up, 'You know, you're no genius,'" she explained during a keynote speech at last month's Qualtrics Insight Summit.

But as a seventh-grade math teacher in a New York City public school, she observed that the effort that students put in, and their willingness to keep trying in the face of failure, was a much better predictor of whether they'd do well at math than their IQs. Duckworth spent the past several years studying this relationship between grit and achievement as a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor. "Talent x effort = skill. Skill x effort = achievement," said one of the slides in her presentation.

Or, to put it another way, she quoted Will Smith who once explained that the only difference between himself and any other aspiring actor or rapper was his willingness to die on a treadmill. "I will not be out-worked, period," he said. "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 that simple."

In a delicious irony, Duckworth's work led to her receiving a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly known as the "Genius Grant." (So there, Dad!) "If genius is having inborn talent, then my Dad is right," she said. But if genius is having the focus and grit to work on your own weaknesses and overcome them, "then I would say, 'Dad, you are a genius, and so am I, and so can everyone be if they choose to be.'"

Want to unleash your own inner genius? Make sure you never stop improving, Duckworth advised. The "10,000 hour rule," which says that if you do something for 10,000 hours you'll get very good at it can be useful, she notes, "but you will meet countless people who have done something for 10,000 hours and are still mediocre. Most people start out knowing nothing and they learn, but at some point they come in to work and do the same thing on Wednesday that they did on Tuesday. You won't get fired for that in most places but the great tragedy is that these people stopped learning."

If you want to keep learning and keep getting better at something, Duckworth recommends deliberate practice. "This is how practice in general differs from world-class practice," she says. Deliberate practice has four elements:

1. Set a stretch goal.

You won't keep learning and improving if you only give yourself tasks you know you can easily accomplish. So come up with a goal that's outside your comfort zone, one that you know you'll have to raise your abilities to reach.

2. Give it your all.

Bring 100 percent focus to pursuing your goal. Work on improving your skills to get there.

3. Get feedback.

This may come in the form of data (for example, you made 300 pitches and only five people responded with interest), or it may be feedback from colleagues, customers, or your boss. Chances are some of this data or feedback will be negative. After all, your objective was to get out of your comfort zone and try something you're not accomplished at yet.

4. Reflect and refine.

Review the data or feedback and figure out (or ask) how you could have done better, and make adjustments accordingly. Then go back to Step 1 and begin again. And again, and again. "A colleague calls this the mundanity of excellence," Duckworth said.

Yes, doing the work that will lead to great accomplishment can be very mundstane. But it will give you the best odds of getting there.

Published on: Apr 10, 2017
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