Why do we tend to downplay effort and perseverance and instead place intelligence of various forms on a pedestal?

The terms ‘geek’, ‘nerd’ and ‘mugpot’ typically evoke caricatures of a thin, grim, bespectacled boy who has his nose dug deep into books or a studious girl with neatly combed hair who does nothing but study. Apart from stereotyping students who do well on tests, these terms, with their negative connotations, also denigrate effort. In contrast to the ‘mugpot’ who pores over her books diligently every evening, the student who aces a few tests with an apparent lack of effort is deemed to be “more intelligent.” In other words, the more you have to study in order to do well, the less intelligent you are. If you are gifted or naturally good at something, you don’t really have to try very hard. Thus, according to lay perception, ‘talent’ and ‘effort’ are inversely related. So while we may place intelligence of various forms on a pedestal, we tend to downplay effort — the hidden hours of toil and practise that underlie almost every feat in any domain.

The idea that talents are inherited is evident in comments like, “Ramya is a born dancer” and “Chess runs in Sahar’s genes.” In fact, when a person excels at a skill, we attribute her achievement to her innate genius. Likewise, when we are confronted with a task that we find challenging, we are tempted to give up by convincing ourselves that we simply do not have a talent for it. How many of us have stopped attending tennis, music or dance classes because we felt that we do not have an aptitude for the sport or art form? Further, when our peers hit backhands or master new ragas with an enviable ease, we immediately conclude that they are more gifted than us. Often, we do not know how much the others are practicing or what kinds of experiences they may have had that helps them acquire these skills with greater facility. Psychology professor, Daniel Willingham, says, “At the college level, my low-performing students frequently protest their low grades by telling me, “But I studied for three to four hours for this test!” I know that the high-scoring students study about twenty hours.”

Of course, we are not denying the role of genes in giving some people more of an edge in certain skills, but we have to exercise caution when we automatically conclude that we are less skilled in a domain because of our genetic inheritance. Writer David Shenk argues that we cannot assume “that mediocrity is built into most of us” unless and until “we’ve applied enormous resources and invested vast amounts of time.” But most of us usually give up before we’ve laboured hard enough.

Thus, no one, not even the “born athlete” or the “natural artist” can boast of creditable achievements unless they put in effort. An expert on expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson, has studied individuals across diverse domains in order to distil the characteristics of expert performance. Whether it is chess or typing or solving physics problems, a person has to invest at least 10,000 hours before he or she can boast of expertise in that domain. So, the number of hours of work required to gain mastery in a domain involves a minimum of ten years of toil, and sometimes even more. However, simply labouring over mathematical equations or repeatedly throwing a ball into a basket is not going to make us outstanding mathematicians or basketball players. The kind of practice we engage in is elemental to success.

When we first start learning a skill, be it typing, driving or playing the guitar, most of us make reasonable progress initially. From being a novice, we progress to a moderate level of proficiency that most of us are content with. However, in order to reach expert levels, we have to continue to devote concerted effort. Merely performing the activity in a mindless, repetitive manner is not sufficient. Experts, Ericsson argues, engage in “deliberate practice,” where they work on achieving preset, specific goals in a sequential manner and change their ways based on feedback from a coach or mentor. Further, we have to accept that progress is bound to be gradual even for the expert. So the next time, we feel frustrated when we cannot master a skill despite putting in hours and hours of practice, perhaps, it is time to examine the quality of our practice as well.

So how does practice actually change us? Shenk writes that practice brings about physical changes in the form of increased muscle strength, more powerful lungs or faster reaction times. Further, the changes that take place are extremely specific to the particular skill we are acquiring. Solving enigmatic crosswords is unlikely to improve our mental math abilities. All changes involve alterations to our neurochemistry. Finally, we have to remember that skills progress at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect a sudden metamorphosis of our ability levels by simply sweating it out for a week. But sustained application over prolonged periods is likely to pay rich dividends.

Collectively as a culture, we need to acknowledge and appreciate the role of effort in any endeavour. As individuals, we should curb our tendency to give up without persevering. Perhaps, we should pay heed to Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

The writer is director, Prayatna.

Email: arunasankara@gmail.com