Do you know what interests me a lot? Determining who will ‘make it’. Being able to working out who, at age eleven, is going to achieve the best academic results at age fifteen; guessing which of the youngsters that pass through my classroom will be successful (as artists or otherwise) in five or ten or twenty years.
This discussion interests me because I have been a teacher for seven years. It also interests me because my own preconceived notions – the ones I formed as a result of my own experiences at high school – were way off the mark – quite remarkably so, and had to be relearned from scratch, following observation of the hundreds of students who partook in my classes.
The thing that seems most certain, and yet, least obvious, is that the attribute defined as ‘raw talent’ or ‘genetic ability’ is a minute part of the equation. It is not insignificant, and is helpful, but it is not anywhere near as important as we are led to believe. It is quite possible, for example, to have a highly able student who fails miserably at a subject. Sometimes, these students can even be sceptical that they even have any skill – or, perhaps worse, fear that any skill they have is not quite enough. Coupled with a few years of lack of effort, this belief soon becomes self-fulfilled.
What matters more than the measure of your skill at any given moment – which is a better way of describing ‘talent’ – is the deep, true, unfaltering belief that, one day, you will succeed; the knowledge that effort is worth it; that this sacrifice will be rewarded. Success is partly due to a love of competition – a fearlessness or joy in demonstrating that one’s skill is momentarily better than others. Success is a breed of self-confidence. It is tied to the faith that, even when failing, will get up and try again.
Ultimately, success manifests itself as a doing – an active practising and seeking of knowledge; a demonstration that we don’t know everything and want to learn.
If you hope to succeed: do one thing – put yourself in a situation where you get better at things. This means that you must experience learning firsthand and make observations about how you could improve next time. Practice.
The attribute I wrote-off with scorn as a teenager – “effort” – rules roost when it comes to achieving term success. Certificates for Effort given out at assembly that were seen by my childhood self as a “nice try, better luck next time” proclamation, should have been seen instead as recognition that this child knows the best secret there is to know.
We are not born being able to play the piano or command a multi-million dollar business. We cannot lift a brush at three years old and paint a realistic picture. It is a fallacy that people are born knowing how to do magnificent things. The truth is, at zero, we cannot even speak. We lie there, and breathe and wriggle and cry. But importantly, we also begin to learn.
Some people learn faster than others. But if a fast learner does not understand that success involves learning in the first place, they can begin to rest on their laurels and wonder why their great talent has failed to continue to deliver.
I have seen many students who showed flair at something in primary or intermediate school, who had lost any such ‘gift’ by Year 11. These are not disadvantaged school children. These are children with highly educated, wealthy parents; surrounded by peers who move forward in leaps and bounds. They are children who, for some reason or other, became disillusioned with the practice of effort; stopped believing that the most crucial component of success is action over time.
I have met many high school students who embrace the notion that they are terrible at something; that no matter how much encouragement or guidance they receive, believe their situation will not change. People see abilities as stagnant: as something they are born with or without. They don’t understand, for example, that New Zealand rugby legend Daniel Carter’s parents installed a full size steel goal post for him on their property when he was eight years old to help him practise; or, if they do, they don’t appreciate the implications this has on their everyday lives.
Which students are successful? Those who know the value of effort. Those who keep on trying – and, in doing so, become better than they were before.
The value of ongoing effort (or ‘grit’, as she calls it) is discussed in this great TED video by Angela Lee Duckworth: