“Talent is overrated; mental strength is critical.” This is the opening quote to an interesting article by James Clear, a noted Author of the New York Times best seller Atomic Habits. Many view top performers in the workplace, in athletics, and in life, as gifted or talented. While talent may have something to do with success, it is likely not the universal key ingredient. According to scientific research, one’s talent and intelligence do not play nearly as big a role in business and life success as one might think. In fact, many studies have found that intelligence only accounts for 30% of a person’s achievement.
So, if it is not talent or intelligence, what is it? It turns out, according to James Clear and the research he follows, the simple secret is mental toughness. What is even more interesting is that mental toughness can be developed and improved. Your talent, and certainly your intelligence, are difficult to work on and driven more by genetics, thus largely out of your control, but mental toughness can be learned and improved throughout one’s entire life.
Clear uses an example of mental toughness in the military. The study was conducted with cadets at West Point. Researchers developed a series of questions to score performance on what they termed “Grit Scale”. It turned out that scoring just one standard deviation higher on the “Grit Scale” resulted in cadets being 60% more likely to finish the toughest mental and physical tests West Point could dish out. The Grit Scale effectively measured mental toughness.
Angela Duckworth, the researcher and study’s author at the University of Pennsylvania used her Grit Scale to measure mental toughness in several other areas and came up with the following findings:
- Undergraduates at an ivy league university who had more Grit, achieved higher GPAs than their peers even though they may have entered with lower SAT scores;
- Comparing the score on the Grit Scale of two different individuals of the same age (but not the same intelligence), the higher score on the Grit Scale will predict which person will be higher educated;
- National spelling bee competitors who scored higher on the Grit Scale outperformed because of their mental toughness and more consistent practice than those who were considered more “intelligent.”
“Our hypothesis is that Grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited Grit (or a close synonym) as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others, but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.” (Angela Duckworth – Researcher)
The bottom line of this research indicates that talent is overrated. This makes sense in that we observe that the smartest people do not always rise to the top of their fields, perform best, or find success in life pursuits. Instead, in almost every area of one’s life, from health, to education to work performance, it turns out that mental toughness and perseverance are the highest predictors of success that researchers could find.
The good news is that you can develop mental toughness, unlike the gifts you were born with. This means you can choose to become more consistent and you can develop successful habits.
James Clear summarizes his research findings and conclusions by stating, “When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on the schedule…. toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people.”
For more self-improvement tips based on this research, visit JamesClear.com.
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