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Inspiration and persperation

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We stand in awe of masters. We admire the skill involved when Kobe Bryant effortlessly drains a contested fadeaway. We sit enraptured by Anthony Hopkins’s nuanced portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, listen transfixed to Jimmi Hendrix’s famous guitar. We hear about the theories of great astrophysicists or the complicated procedures performed by brain surgeons and admire the sheer amount of mastery involved. We both appreciate expert performances in the moment and dream about someday replicating them ourselves.

Yet, as much as I would like to experience the thrill of being Kobe Bryant, I have an innate sense that it would be an extremely unlikely turn of events for my life to take. Between myself and Kobe Bryant, there are undeniable genetic advantages that make him more inclined to succeed in the game of basketball. This idea of genetic supremacy extends to other fields where the physical barriers to entry might not be so high — we read about the greatest entrepreneurs, business magnates, scientists, actors and musicians and simply assume that they have an uncanny natural ability. They must have expert DNA. Only then can we rationalize that kind of ability to excel in a craft. Their inspiration must be biologically hardwired.

This is not true. As Jonah Lehrer writes in his Wired Magazine blog, “Frontal Cortex,” researchers over the past twenty years have found that most important factor that predicts success is deliberate practice. This is inspiring news for all of us mortals who had long assumed that we didn’t have the raw capacity to succeed in various fields. However, before we rejoice too much, we must consider what exactly “deliberate practice” entails.

Deliberate practice is not easy, nor fun. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has elegantly highlighted the difference between deliberate and typical practice through her work on spelling bees. She found that the most successful candidates in spelling bees painstakingly memorized words alone rather than doing leisure reading or studying with others. Obviously, this form of practice was rated the least enjoyable of all types. Thus, the ability to consistently engage in deliberate practice such as this has been given the name “grit.”

But wait. What if it is all genetic, after all? What if some people are much more predisposed towards “grit” than others? I suspect that this is certainly true to an extent. We all know people who can simply push themselves much harder than we can, no matter how singular our focus. However, for the most part, this should be heartening news to all of us. While it might be difficult for some of us to consistently engage in deliberate practice, it is not absolutely impossible. So instead of being simply genetically inferior, it appears quite possible for us to attain mastery through long periods of deliberate practice. Not impossible, but difficult.

The most fascinating questions that arise from this body of research relates to our society’s ability to nurture grit. Is deliberate, focused practice over a long period of time feasible in a world where the refresh button on Twitter or Facebook is one click away? My answer would be yes, although it is more difficult than it used to be. Many studies have shown, or attempted to show, the loss of sustained attention among today’s youth due to modern technologies. But, these technologies add enormous advantages at the same time. Take the spelling bee studying example — a speller will certainly save massive amounts of time by googling words rather than sifting through a dictionary for each.

Another provocative question involves how we evaluate people for admission and employment. Lehrer relates fascinating evidence about the NFL combine: Studies show that there is no relationship between combine performance and success in a professional career. He theorizes that this is because combines measure raw physical ability, rather than sustained habits. These findings should be carefully studied by college and graduate school admissions officers. We all know how important those infamous tests are — SATs, ACTs, MCATs, LSATs, GMATs. If universities truly want future leaders, there need to be better mechanisms to both measure and nurture grit. GPA is certainly an improvement in this type of measurement, as it relates performance over a much longer time period than the four hours to complete a standardized test. However, it still does not provide an accurate indication of one’s ability to remain focused on one goal for an extended period of time and do the painful work required to gain mastery.

As a society, we should do what we can to foster grit. One thing is certain — grit requires humility. It requires an ability to put one’s head down. It requires the knowledge that success is attainable through incredibly hard work and sustained attention. Feelings of self-entitlement, a desire to game the system, to get rich quick, to give in to every miniscule pleasure, do not mix well with grit. We in America have work to do to return to this sort of humility. In the 1950s, 12 percent of Americans thought they were “very important people.” In the late 1980s, 80 percent did. Other fascinating studies show that American parents praise their children’s performances on tests, while Asian parents routinely praise hard work. Psychologists have found that when presented with very difficult tests and tasks, children who have had their hard work praised are much more likely to persevere and outperform.

These trends are by no means unfixable. I imagine the belt-tightening that will undoubtedly occur over the next decades as we adjust to a new fiscal situation may inspire a new national humility. I certainly hope this result does indeed occur. Gordon Gekko famously summed up the ugly underbelly of American psychology when he said “Greed is Good.” We should hope as a society to replace greed with grit.

Edward Larkin is a senior majoring in biological sciences and classical civilization. He can be reached at elarkin1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.