We would like to think that ability is translated to performance, but this is rarely the case. Some people blame luck or destiny, others focus on motivation and “softer” skills. For more reading, I selected the articles
here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The curse of child genius
Being a child genius is not always good. We do not really understand all the reasons, so I outline a couple of anecdotes. Lists of child prodigies are quite popular. Some of these gifted children end up as gifted adults, like Pablo Picasso. There are extremely few such examples. Probably, the majority of gifted children live a very ordinary life, like the Indian math professor Shakuntala Devi. These people do not capture our imagination. Our imagination is captured by perfect geniuses like Mozart who died young, or the legendary chess champion Bobby Fisher who retired into some cult at the peak of his power. And then there are almost tragical stories. William James Sidis was the smartest person ever, with IQ above 250. He did not reach any greatness, and after the childhood of fame held numerous obscure blue-color jobs. What is the statistics for gifted children?
At the beginning of the 20th century, a scientist named Lewis Terman conducted a long experiment tracking the lives of children whom he tested to be extremely talented. To his disappointment, these children grew up to live ordinary overall very successful lives. I quote from Wikipedia
Genetic Studies of Genius revealed that gifted and genius children were in at least as good as average health and had normal personalities. Few of them demonstrated the previously-held negative stereotypes of gifted children. He found that gifted children did not fit the existing stereotypes often associated with them: they were not weak and sickly social misfits, but in fact were generally taller, in better health, better developed physically, and better adapted socially than other children. The children included in his studies were colloquially referred to as “Termites”. The gifted children thrived both socially and academically. In relationships, they were less likely to divorce. Additionally, those in the gifted group were generally successful in their careers: Many received awards recognizing their achievements. Though many of the children reached exceptional heights in adulthood, not all did. Terman explored the causes of obvious talent not being realized, exploring personal obstacles, education, and lack of opportunity as causes. Terman found that high childhood IQ was correlated with many great adult achievements. Participants in his Genetic Studies of Genius had adult socioeconomic and educational outcomes that were greater than what would be expected based solely on their childhood socioeconomic status.
While the talent itself generates overall pleasant positive lives, something else drives people to extreme achievements. Certain individuals are willing to risk a lot for a small chance to get significantly more. This sort of gamble is typically called ambition. Those who want to get significantly more than life offers, need to take calculated risks. Some of these risks end well, others do not end so well. Nicolas Tesla could have lived a positive overall successful life and could avoid confronting Edison. Then he would die an old an rich man. Antoni Gaudi could chase professional recognition instead of his artistic vision. Then he would not be hit by a tram or considered a beggar when found dead. Yet the same ambition that drove these men to greatness, also made them take too many risks for their own good. One could argue, that due to the risks the genius take, they become truly famous. Unfortunately, most of the great geniuses probably die in poverty and infamy without ever getting famous.
The same rules on a smaller scale apply to everybody. A soldier risks his life hoping to become a general, but for each general, there are thousands of corpses. An engineer leaves a great job to found a company, but less than one percent of companies are successful. A mathematician tries to prove something nobody could prove before, but most likely he will simply spend several years of his life in vain. Ambition drives risks, but only very few people get lucky. Thousands of people try to win the reality show “survival”. Each season about twenty people end up in the show, and only one wins the grand prize. Ambition does not pay off very often, yet every great winner is ambitious.
The quality that separates the overall successful and overall underachieving is usually perseverance. We need to do some dirty work, fail more than once, and be bored or tired nearly the breaking point before we get successful. There are many kinds of perseverance. Some people choose to chase their dream and their vision, even facing great obstacles, and eventually became successful. Others choose to keep good jobs and build great families, even when they are bored by their jobs and offended by their peers. One of my mentors used to say: “I do no distribute my eggs in many baskets. I put all of my eggs just in one basket, but I watch this basket with extreme vigilance”. For me, this utmost focus and attention to the selected strategy is the epitome of perseverance. Unfortunately, I never was sufficiently focused to succeed with this strategy, and when I tried I felt miserable and failed miserably. My personal version of perseverance is just the opposite: I distribute my skills and efforts in several directions, even though most people would get tired and quit all but one. If Bobby Fisher or William Sidis would persevere, I guess they would be more successful and happier. Usually we do not learn to persevere when we achieve easily everything we want, but instead, we learn by nearly failing and struggling for a while, before becoming successful.
From my experience, the top achievers in their field are highly motivated to succeed. They do not need to force themselves to do something, but they really enjoy doing their job. A person in the state of “flow” loves his job and the challenges presented by the job to the extent, that he may forget to eat or drink or go home. The utmost level of motivation is a gift in itself. The thrill of a worthy challenge may be significantly more effective than any disciplinary step or award.
When people need to learn new things they often describe not why the things they need to learn to inspire them or satisfy their curiosity, but in terms of how acquiring certain qualification will allow them to land a better job. This is a sufficient motivation to persevere, but hardly the best motivation for acquiring new knowledge. Ideally, when learning new things or trying to solve a puzzle we should be guided by curiosity, associated with extreme focus and dopamine. However, when trying to apply the same skills in real life, we should be highly motivated to improve the positioning or some other “score” the happy with every achievement we get. Maybe this is the reason that people who are the best learners typically stay in the academy and are not the top achievers otherwise…
The connection between social adaptation and the ability to learn or apply the skills learned is complex. The smartest people are often bored by their peers or shy when young, but they are also more likely to acquire highly effective psychological tools at later age. The street-smart and the book-smart often get about the same level of social skill and awareness, whether acquired through direct experience, or through classroom simulations.
Social support is required for transforming abilities into performance, simply because we cannot achieve much without the help of others. We need mentors to learn from, peers to cooperate with, protegee to do the heavy lifting, experts for specific information and so on. If we cannot enlist the support of others, we are limited to our own abilities and this is a huge limitation.
Personally, I did not see many people limited by their knowledge or lack of understanding. Some people learn faster, others slower, and some simply rely on others for guidance. While quick learners get a competitive edge and easier life, it is just a matter of time until their peers catch up. In some jobs, time is money. Managing multiple activities, knowledge of each activity is a definite advantage. Experts need a lot of knowledge. People who know are more likely to get paid or promoted. Yet, most jobs are based on personal reputation, “soft” skills, and acquired “intuitive” experience rather than specific knowledge or deep understanding of the subjects involved.
Organization and planning
Personal productivity often relies on planning. We organize our workplace and ensure that all the relevant tools are available, allocate our time to invest maximal effort, enlist the stakeholders for social support, organize our knowledge to have all the relevant information to do the tasks, arrange the personal life to have the energy and focus to do the tasks. The better we are organizing everything, the more return we will get on our investment. Most productivity courses deal with organizing everything into a net plan with SMART milestones.
Creativity and luck
Finally, some performance aspects are unpredictable. When everything else fails we can get lucky or find a creative solution. We cannot really rely on our creativity, perfect timing, unexpected opportunities or good fortune, yet people who are highly skilled with noticing opportunities and threats tend to be highly successful. Optimistic people are highly skilled in noticing opportunities. Pessimistic people are very good at noticing threats. Typically we need a combination of both qualities, with a strong advantage to optimism. Optimistic people are usually fun to be around and are strongly motivated. Lucky people often have a great judgment of the situation and will not accept a challenge unless the chances are strongly in their favor.
Usually, we have a portfolio of skills, which is quite versatile. Perseverance, motivation, social skills, knowledge, planning, and creativity are valid parts of this portfolio. Our specific ability passes through the filter of our other skills, encounters the real challenges and is transformed into measurable performance. Being talented or average is just a starting point. Versatile people are more lucky in transforming their abilities into measurable results. Less versatile people need to rely more on the help of their team members. Fortunately, we can acquire knowledge, planning tools, social skills, and certain creative approaches. As long as we are motivated and willing to work hard, there is almost nothing we cannot achieve.