Improving Academic Performance

Keys to Success: Beyond Hard Work and Intelligence

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Jan 11, 2016 @ 11:00 AM

3-steps-to-performing-well-on-standardized-tests.pngIf you ask a random collection of people what is needed to be successful in school, you’ll probably receive quite a few responses along the lines of “hard work” or “a high IQ.”

I would never suggest that one shouldn’t work hard, or shouldn’t always try to continually build their intelligence. But I think there’s mounting research and evidence that hard work and intelligence really aren’t the fundamental drivers of academic, professional, interpersonal/social, athletic, or artistic success.

Before introducing four more fundamental keys to success, let’s briefly discuss why hard work and intelligence don’t really lead to success, and might even lead to failure.

What’s wrong with “intelligence?”

A few points to make here.

Over the past thirty years or so, psychologists, educators, neuroscientists, and other researchers have been learning more and more about the brain, cognition, and how skills are developed. As this learning has accelerated, the very definition of intelligence is getting so complex that I’d argue the concept of “intelligence” may be losing its meaning.

If you wanted to know how powerful or “intelligent” a computer was, you’d need to think about both its hardware and its software. An extremely powerful computer, with lots of memory and super-fast processing, isn’t actually very useful or productive without the right software programs loaded onto it. Human intelligence works a little bit like that.

If you think of each of us as having hardware and software, like a computer, you can then understand the notion of “pure” intelligence as being concerned with the processing power of your brain, the strength of its short and long term memory, etc. Pure intelligence is what most people mean when the say “IQ,” and that’s supposed to be measuring your brain’s “hardware.” The software, then, is all of the knowledge you acquire as you grow up and go through school and life (i.e., math, science, philosophy, how to interact with people, athletic skills, musical ability etc.).

And this can thus get very complex. Some research shows that pure IQ can actually increase over time with higher levels of sustained education. Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT and LSAT clearly correlate with IQ, but at the same time can absolutely be prepared and practiced for. Some of us are geniuses when it comes to chess and art, but really struggle with most other academic subjects.

Most importantly, when you observe and evaluate other people to assess how “smart” or “intelligent” they are, you can’t see what their “pure” intelligence is, so you have to estimate it based on what they seem to know and how interact with you. But, that’s a function of how much education they’ve acquired, how serious and focused they were during their education, as well as their social skills, passion and curiosity, and ability to communicate.

So, the problem is that people that appear to be or are intelligent (by whatever definition you want to use) generally got that way by working hard, being curious, being passionate, paying attention in school, etc. Intelligence is something you build over time and which helps you do things. It doesn’t explain why you are able to do or accomplish things that others haven’t or can’t.

Or, from another angle, I think we’ve probably all been in classes or jobs with people who seem incredibly intelligent, but just aren’t that effective or successful. They may have poor communication skills, or spend too much time thinking about theory without taking action. In so many walks of life, intelligence is helpful, but only one of many factors that lead to success.

What’s wrong with “hard work?”

Hard work is problematic because it can be applied in the wrong ways. And, when this happens, it can even backfire, lead to failure, and decrease motivation.

Imagine that you are studying for a math test, and you spend hours and hours reading over the chapters of the math text book. You genuinely put in many hours, and work very hard to pay attention to and digest what you are reading. You really are still very unlikely to do well on a math test, because math skills are best built by doing actual problems, failing, learning, and then practicing again. Also, teachers tend to have their own personal test question writing style, so looking at previous homework assignments, in-class exercises, or quizzes is probably critical as you prepare for a math test. Reading the book seems like a good idea, but isn’t probably all that effective. If you put in a lot of time preparing for your math test by reading the text book, and then you don’t perform well, you may lose faith and motivation.

Hard work doesn’t always lead to positive results and success in school. You need to think strategically about where, how, why, and when you are putting in that hard work.


What does recent research suggest leads to success?

I’ll expand upon these points in a future article, but here are four critical concepts that are fundamental drivers of academic performance and success in business, music, athletics, and life in general. I’ve included links to other blog articles I’ve written on each of these important topics.

  1. Adopt a growth mindset – people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is built up over time, much like a muscle. They focus on getting better at things, not at worrying about being good. This leads them towards difficult tasks with an open mind focused on learning and growth. People with a fixed mindset are more focused on evaluating themselves, and see their intelligence more like a fixed trait than a skill to be developed. They end up shying away from tasks at which they aren’t currently good, which then inhibits their ability to learn and grow.
  2. Use strategiessuccessful people use strategies in all aspects of their lives. This means they set goals, do research to figure out alternatives ways to reach those goals, make plans, monitor progress, and try to learn from mistakes. This allows them to put in the hard work in the right places. Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote a best-selling book called 9 Things Successful People Do Differently which is all about this topic.
  3. Have grit – this is a simple one. Research shows that grit – meaning you see tasks through to completion and persevere in the face of obstacles – does a better job of explaining success in high school and college than IQ or standardized tests scores. Imagine how important grit is when it comes to tasks that aren’t cognitive in nature. I am writing a summary of a book called How Children Succeed which focused on the importance of grit in academic success.
  4. Practice deliberately – the best way to build skill and become an expert is to work hard in a specific sort of way that some researchers call “deliberate practice.” It involves repetition, pushing yourself to your limits, immediate feedback, and yes, lots of hard work as well. Several of the books featured on MyGuru’s virtual bookshelf are about deliberate practice.

If you want to be successful, you should of course place significant value on hard work and intelligence. However, be sure to focus first on understanding and incorporating into your life concepts like the four mentioned above.