In a recent eLearningCurve MDM and Data Governance webinar, Dan Power quoted former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination are omnipotent.  The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Although I had heard this excellent quote many times, it perhaps resonated with me more this particular time because I recently finished reading the latest Daniel Pink book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

In one of the many case studies cited in the book, Pink recounts the findings of an academic study performed to determine why some (approximately one in twenty) prospective cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, drop out before completing the mandatory seven weeks of basic training during the summer before what would be their first year at the academy.

The study tried to isolate the personal attributes that made the difference, such as physical strength, athleticism, intelligence, leadership ability, or perhaps a well-balanced combination of these factors traditionally considered to be crucial characteristics.

However, what the research discovered was that although all of the traditional characteristics were important, not one of them was the best predictor of success.  Instead, it was the prospective cadets’ rating on a non-cognitive, non-physical trait known as grit, defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” which truly made all the difference.

In related research examining the most accurate predictor of the academic performance of West Point Cadets, grit was once again found to be the determining factor in success.  As the researchers thoughtfully concluded:

“Whereas the importance of working harder is easily apprehended, the importance of working longer without switching objectives may be less perceptible.

In every field, grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment.”

This conclusion is similar to the “10,000-Hour Rule” explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, where he claims the key to success in any field is largely a matter of practicing its primary task for approximately 10,000 hours.  However, Gladwell also acknowledges that success is far more complicated, and often relies on variables beyond our control.

I have written many times before about the common misperception of experts and their apparently easy success. 

Experts are often misunderstood as being somehow more naturally talented, more intelligent, or better educated than the rest of us.  When in truth, expertise is largely about experience, which as Oscar Wilde wrote “is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

Experts are simply those among us who have made the most mistakes, but persevered and persisted in spite of those failures, because experts see mistakes, as James Joyce wonderfully wrote, as our personal “portals of discovery.”

One of our most difficult challenges in life is the need to acknowledge the favor that our faults do for us.  Although experience is the path that separates knowledge from wisdom, the true wisdom of experience is the wisdom gained from failure.

However, expertise in any discipline is more than an accumulation of mistakes, birthdays, and 10,000 hours.  Expertise is not a static state that once achieved, signifies a comforting conclusion to all that grueling effort, which required so much perseverance.

All of this returns me to the misperceived connection between expertise and success.

Just as talent, intelligence, and education are no guarantee of success, neither are experience, perseverance, and expertise.  As much as we would like to believe that our personal success is dependent solely upon ourselves alone, the harsh reality is more often that not, variables beyond our control, such as luck, timing, and circumstance, will control our destiny as much as we do.

Please don’t misunderstand—I agree with President Coolidge that “persistence and determination are omnipotent” because we do have complete control over the effort we choose to expend. 

However, the most challenging mistake for us to overcome is when we choose entitlement over persistence.

Talent, intelligence, education, experience, and (perhaps paradoxically) expertise can all bring a sense of entitlement.  In other words, we can feel that we possess the necessary attributes and/or have completed the necessary steps required to be successful.

Therefore, we must ultimately accept that there is absolutely nothing that can guarantee our success—but far more important, we must also accept that the only guarantee of our failure would be to abandon our persistence.


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