Forget Genius: Why Success is Largely Down To Passion and Persistence

I went to school with a guy whose IQ was off the charts. He was so smart, our teacher used to give him the dictionary to read, because he’d finish the work in half the time that the rest of us did.

We all used to joke that Grant was bound to end up as the Prime Minister or the boss of some big conglomerate.

Turns out, we should have focused our attention and predictions of greatness on Ratty Rex, this little dude who, as our teacher would quip, was always “falling down seven times and getting up eight.” Rex might have been average in ability, but this kid had grit, determination, and perseverance like you’ve never seen – whether it was tackling on the rugby field, shearing a sheep on “try a new thing day” or anything else he happened to turn his attention to.

The willingness to put in the hard yards, a quality that Ratty Rex had in spades, is a higher predictor of success than pure smarts, according to research.

It’s not so much how brilliant you are, but rather how much fortitude and discipline you show that will be the indicator of how likely you are to accomplish something great…or not.

I’m not suggesting that raw talent isn’t important. Author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, defines talent as “the rate in which a person learns with effort.” She says that while talent counts, “a focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort.”

Passion and perseverance is what determines the most successful organisations, teams, and individuals.

I’ve seen this phenomenon firsthand and from the front row seat.

But don’t take my word for it.

One recent study found that perseverance is the most important factor in predicting long-term achievement in people across a wide range of ages. Dean Keith Simonton PhD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UC, Davis, and long-time scholar of genius, asserts that the number one predictor of impact is productivity.

As we all know – the big hits usually emerge after many, many attempts.

Elbow grease and persistence may not be as sexy as pure talent, and with society’s current fixation on instant results, it’s easy to see why everyone oohs and ahs at the shiny, flashy-ness of raw ability. But just ask Michael Jordan about that little combo of elbow grease, passion and practise. It may have been unvarnished talent that got him noticed in the first place, but it sure as hell was application and repetition that led to him being classed as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. When Phil Jackson, former coach of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, describes this star player’s work ethic, he speaks with admiration of Jordan’s drive, and his desire to improve every day in practise. Jackson says that Michael would simply exercise with greater concentration than anyone else, that he would work himself “into a lather” with his intensity, and that he would push himself ever harder whenever things got more difficult. Even when he had become the premier player in the game, he rarely took a day off from his demanding practise routine.

“The concept of genius and talent is far too easily cloaked in layers of magic, as if great achievement erupts spontaneously, with no hard work,” says Duckworth.

Well. We all know that if “spontaneous eruptions of great achievement” happened without the hard yards, we’d all be millionaires, elite athletes and look like those models that are splashed across our Instagram pages.

So, if you’re hiring?

Look for the Rex factor far more than the Grant factor.

And if you’re feeling a tad insecure about that super-duper, clever young whippersnapper that’s just rocked up in the office next to yours, take a big breath and roll your sleeves up.

Invest a little more effort and dig a little deeper.

Keep on keeping on.

After all, that’s what Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and even Albert Einstein did.

And I’m betting that’s what Rex, somewhere out there, is still doing – falling down seven times and getting up eight – and winning because of it.

I betcha Rex is still enjoying the ride as much as he used to, showing us all how it’s really done, just as he did at the ripe old age of 11.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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