Archived Sections, Imagine That

True grit

IQ and perseverance

Mike Mann

The 1998 National Football League (NFL) draft was an exciting one. Two young quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, emerged at the top of the heap. Whoever got the number one pick had a tough choice between these two; both were certain to go down in history among the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks. The Indianapolis Colts, after much deliberation, chose Manning. The San Diego Chargers, who had the number two pick, snapped up Leaf.
Fast-forward 14 years. Most of us have heard of Peyton Manning, who ranks among the greatest quarterbacks ever.
But what about Ryan Leaf? If you’re not a football fan, you may have never heard his name. Leaf began his rookie season by missing practices. While other quarterbacks were studying plays, he was out on the golf links. In spite of his prodigious talent, Leaf played poorly. The Chargers, frustrated with their “certain” pick not living up to expectations, let him go. After sustaining a wrist injury, Leaf was dropped from the NFL after just four seasons. He is now considered the biggest NFL draft bust in history.

With smart kids, it’s easy to get swept up in pride over their good grades, and overlook the fact that they don’t have to study to succeed.

Ryan Leaf had all the talent in the world, but he still flopped. Most of us know people with extremely high IQ’s who never quite live up to their potential. The difference between these folks, and others who find great success, is what University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.” It is a more complicated concept than we may think, but research shows that grit is what separates true genius from mere potential.

Sweating the big stuff

Albert Einstein said it best when he quipped that genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Duckworth and her fellow researchers examined the “perspiration” part, and found that grit amounts to character traits that make a person want — even need — to engage in deliberate practice of their craft. Duckworth studied kids who participated in Scripps National Spelling Bee, and found that the kids who engaged in deliberate practice — in this case, spending time alone going over note cards and memorizing words — fared much better than other kids who had the same high IQ, but spent their time being quizzed by others, or engaging in leisure reading.
The researchers found that the character traits that encompass grit include self-discipline, a desire to work through difficulties to attain a goal, and the realization that goals aren’t achieved easily. For kids with high IQ levels, grit isn’t an easy thing. School comes easy for many of these kids; they don’t have to put in a lot of effort to get the same results as the average child. In that sense, grit develops easier, and earlier, for kids with lower IQ’s who have to work harder to get good grades. Deliberate practice isn’t fun, and when you’re a smart kid who doesn’t need to do it to get good grades, it’s much easier to eschew strenuous studies.
So how do we get kids to engage in deliberate practice early, and keep up with it? With smart kids, it’s easy to get swept up in pride over their good grades, and overlook the fact that they don’t have to study to succeed. A smart kid can write a bang-up homework assignment on the bus ride home, effectively negating the need to spend time at home on studies.
Schools don’t have the resources to deal with smart kids who need more challenges. If the homework is done and the grades are good, schools (and many parents) often ignore the fact that kids need to learn how to study.
One thing that can help kids — and develop good study habits in kids who don’t need to study — is having your child tutor other children. Talk to your child’s teacher, and fellow parents, about setting up student-led study groups, and help your child learn how to teach other students about the topic. This will develop leadership skills in your child, priming them for success later in life.
Imagine that!
Mike Mann is a speaker, trainer, and award-winning storyteller. He is co-founder of the Center for Imagination ( His daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!,” recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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