“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Thomas Alva Edison
“I know of no genius, but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner
What does the Romantic artist of turbulent seas share with the American inventor of the lightbulb? A common appreciation of why and how they succeeded. Widely acclaimed in their lifetimes as “pure genius,” the two trailblazers begged to differ: their most inspired creations, they insisted, were not attributable to boundless talent, but to relentless effort, hard work, and willingness to return to the drawing board.
In the case of English painter J.M.W. Turner, “back to the drawing board” was a way of life. A prodigy by age 10, he left behind more than 30,000 drawings and sketches for his over 550 oils and 2,000 watercolor paintings. By contrast Thomas Edison was a late-bloomer, whose childhood bout with scarlet fever impaired his hearing from an early age and who struggled in school. But “the Wizard of Menlo Park” is credited with more than a thousand patented inventions (among them the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera) and founding fourteen companies. Edison (like Turner) attributed his successes to his eighteen-hour days and the fact that he did not resent dead-ends. “I have not failed seven hundred times,” he insisted with his work on the lightbulb. “I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work… I will find the way that will work.” And he did.
Until recently we might have considered Turner’s and Edison’s shared insight just personal opinion. Weren’t talent and aptitude the real key? But University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has provided empirical evidence for the truth of their claims. Her work on “grit” shows that effort (perseverance) and attitude (passion) trump talent and socio-economic background as a predictor of success. When she was growing up, Duckworth’s father often commented: “You know, you’re no genius.” After she won the MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called “the genius grant,” for her work on character development and human flourishing, he didn’t eat his words.
Why? Because Duckworth’s work showed that success and accomplishment derive from effort, attitude, and driving passion more than brilliance and privilege. Key to attitude, Duckworth found, was the understanding that failure is a step on the path to knowledge, and helps us learn. That understanding allows students to persevere. Duckworth’s work also showed that “gritty” qualities could be acquired and enhanced. Check out her fascinating work at angeladuckworth.com and see her TED talk there too.
In October, as students hunker down to serious study, some may grow discouraged that they are not (oh darn….) geniuses, and that academic success does not come easily. For every child who quickly cracks the language code and reads at age six, there are dozens more who struggle to make sense of squiggles on the page. For every student who aces timed math drills and lives for the spelling bee, there are countless others, who panic and blank. Our job as teachers is not just to introduce children to new content and skills, but to help strengthen their spirit and ensure that kids do not lose heart.
This month we’ve showcased many books that celebrate the efforts of those who’ve faced great obstacles, and pushed themselves hard to overcome each one. Patricia Polacco’s picture book account of her own battle with dyslexia (Thank You, Mr. Falker), Dawn Fitzgerald’s account of Lincoln’s sculptress Vinnie Ream, and Marty Kaminsky’s anthology of “Uncommon Champions: Fifteen Athletes Who Battled Back” are three such inspirational works. They remind us that human beings can reach deep within, keep-a-going, and that the old saying “practice makes perfect” is not just a hackneyed phrase, but an empirical reality.