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Grit championed as defining characteristic in individuals

Julia Pilkington, Contributing Writer
December 10, 2013 • 1,578 views

Life is a continual learning process: We learn something new every day. Educational institutions provide information and tools for the rigors of later life lessons and, through an experiential curriculum, teach students skills that will be useful in the “school of life.”

But just what skills are we teaching students to value in their journeys to success? Two highly valued traits are talent and IQ. While both are important, can they genuinely encompass an individual and their success?

Let’s begin with IQ. IQ, or “intelligence quotient,” is highly regarded in scholarly settings, yet it only captures a specific facet of an individual. This lack of breadth is emphasized by the usage of IQ-oriented standardized tests in collegiate admissions processes. The notorious SAT and ACT draw the ire of many a frustrated student; you could have saved the world by creating a cure for a terminal disease, yet the SAT would still give you a low score if you misinterpreted a multiple choice section and thereby disqualify you from college acceptance.

But how well does IQ represent an individual? It can guarantee neither compassion nor creativity, nor can it rule out delinquency. It also cannot guarantee a good work ethic. It is just a number – a number that tries to measure natural intelligence and project one’s ability to learn.

So what about talent? If one has a gift, then they should use it and automatically be successful, right? Not really. The girl’s varsity basketball coach at my high school was famous for saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Being talented at a specific sport or subject area can actually hamper personal success, as it can lull the individual into a lazy attitude towards their craft. If they need not work so hard to reach the same results as those who put forth a more concentrated effort, then why try?

So if intelligence and talent can fall short, what’s missing?

We are missing the spirit of connecting goals to reality and the will to struggle for prolonged amounts of time to learn something new: grit. Grit, perseverance, determination, passion, chutzpah – call it what you like, it is that fiery drive to keep going, even when nothing seems to go your way.

It’s the extra hours spent alone in the ballet studio, perfecting barre work and more advanced combinations. It’s meticulously recalculating that problematic calculus equation to see where you went wrong, even if you won’t get any points back for your efforts.

Perseverance is what will sustain you through times when talent and IQ simply are not enough. It’s also an effective motivator, preventing perseverance from falling into the same trap that talent can. Having to work harder for the results makes you care more than if it comes naturally. Then, the skill becoming easier is its own reward and inspires your efforts. On every torturous run for a new cross country runner, beginning hurts. But once you burst past “the wall,” you can sustain your pace and feel like you can run forever.

Passion proves that the ability to learn is never fixed; it can rise to a challenge. Simply because something is difficult does not make it impossible.

Hence, we champion “the underdog.” An underdog is one who enters a conflict when the odds are not in their favor. Statistically, they should lose. But sometimes they don’t.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” expounds on this idea of the underdog in his book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

Gladwell writes, “Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty … Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities. It can educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

Sound familiar?

Now, none of this is to discredit the importance of talent and intelligence. They certainly have their place and value. Rather, this is to expand the focus into an emphasis on the missing element that could tie everything together.

Julia Pilkington ’17 (pilkingt@stolaf.edu) is from Santa Barbara, Calif.  She majors in English and theater.


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