The brains have it

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The brains have it.

As I assured my daughter her exams would be fine because she’d prepared well and studied hard … I really wanted to believe it.

Unfortunately the results of a long-running study into intelligence have left me questioning the role hard work and practice play in future success.

The findings of a US study of gifted children over four decades contradict two long-held theories: high performance comes mainly from practice and anyone can get to the top with enough focused effort of the right kind.

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), directed by John Hopkins University and Vanderbilt University, suggests early cognitive intelligence has more effect on success than practice or other factors such as upbringing or socio-economic status.

I found this surprising, having once written about the 10,000 hour rule which suggests practice makes perfect.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, devised the concept that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an ‘outlier’ or a master of a task. Outliers tells the story of modern masters like the Beatles and Bill Gates, pointing to continuous dedication to their craft, resulting in mastery and ultimate success.

While the 10,000 hour rule is not an exact science – some tasks take more or less than 10,000 hours to master – it is nevertheless a useful concept that feels right intuitively. Whether in sports, art or scientific experimentation it makes sense that the more practice and time devoted to a task, the better the results will likely be.

The SMPY survey demonstrated a high correlation between early cognitive ability (intelligence) and adult achievement.  For 45 years, it tracked the careers and accomplishments of 5000 “gifted” individuals, many of whom have gone on to become high-achieving scientists.

The SMPY data was combined with results from 11 other studies into the link between intelligence and achievement.

It found “the kids who test in the top one per cent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires”.

Psychologist David Lubinski, who has been involved in SMPY since 1998 said these gifted students, the “mathletes” of the world, can shape the future.

“When you look at the issues facing society now – whether it’s healthcare, climate change, terrorism, energy – these are the kids who have the most potential to solve these problems. These are the kids we’d do well to bet on.”

The scientists noted that, as the survey subjects are now entering the peak of their careers, it has become clear how much the precociously gifted outweigh the rest of society in their influence. Some notable one-percenters include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Lady Gaga.

The researchers concluded they still have an incomplete picture:  “We don’t know why, even at the high end, some people will do well and others won’t. Intelligence won’t account for all the differences between people; motivation, personality factors, how hard you work and other things are important.”

The study concluded with some tips to encourage both achievement and happiness later in life:

  • expose children to diverse experiences
  • avoid labels (like gifted) that can be an emotional burden
  • support both intellectual and emotional needs
  • encourage kids to take risks and be open to failures and
  • develop a ‘growth mindset’ by praising effort not ability.

Maybe my advice was okay after all; work hard and give it your best and you’ll do just fine.



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