How Non-Geniuses Can Become Successful

Today, I was watching a TED Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth called "The Key to Success? Grit."

In her study to determine the x-factor that contributes to success, she discovered that it wasn't IQ. It wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't even good timing.

It was grit.

Across the board, despite industries, ages, genders, occupations and activities, those who saw the finish line and said, "That's where I'm heading." and worked diligently to arrive, were the ones who made it.


Tom, the "math guy"

Many people treat learning as though it is a pass/fail class. You either got it or you don't. As a result, when you teach a young boy algebra in high school and he fails, he instinctively registers that failure as "not good at math." For the rest of his life, even into his adulthood, he believes in his heart that he isn't a "math guy." "Tom. Tom's the math guy. I'm the artist." I hear stuff like this all the time. What they're doing is using their early "failure" in direct comparison with someone who is naturally bent toward the skill to justify their refusal to try even a little bit. I should know - I've done it.

I've taken Latin, Russian, Arabic and Spanish over the years. Latin I passed but quickly forgot. Russian I grew uninterested with and dropped the ball. Arabic I attained conversational fluency and then had no reason to practice and thus forgot. Spanish I worked hard for and still got a B (one of two B's in college). From my perspective, languages suck. Everyone else should learn English! Right?


Over half of the world's population can speak fluently in a second language. A surprisingly large number of those can speak three or more languages! And us? Less than 20% of Americans can speak a second language.

According to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education,

To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.
— Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education

A... B... C... D... Not Yet

Have you heard of a learning curve? What if, instead of believing that a "failure" meant "not good" we took it to mean "not yet?" Rather than label our stint in biology as "F" let's labeled it "Not Quite." Because, sometimes all we need is a little more time and a little more grit to get over the hump. Sometimes, all we need is to push through the rough patches and try again later.

Carol Dweck, the researcher behind the concept known as "Growth Mindset", in her TED talk two months ago, explained,

I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate and if they didn’t pass a course they got the grade, ‘Not Yet.’ And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade you think, ‘I’m nothing, I’m no where’ - but if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.
— Carol Dweck

Let's face it, as human beings we will never achieve perfection. With a sin nature imbued into our existence, we have no hope of attaining that pure state. But it shouldn't stop us from trying. I believe that our success (as defined by Arianna Huffington in her Forbes interview) is often directly proportionate to the vigor with which we endure to be great. Not necessarily world renown, but personally great. What are we pursuing that will make us a better version of ourselves tomorrow? Are we working to overcome any bad habits? Are we endeavoring to learn a new skill? Are we trying to understand life better? We should be.

And to do so, takes grit. To overcome the odds, to outperform the champions, to overthrow the status quo... you can't settle for okay, normal, mediocre, average or decent. You have to shoot for stupendous.

Are you a failure? Good. Join the club. This year, my challenge to you is to set your sights on a failure and overcome it. Grit starts now.

Here are a few ideas: 

  • Read 12 non-school-or-work-required books this year (1/month)
  • Start working on one big idea that you've had that you aren't sure will actually work
  • Get to know a complex piece of machinery or software like the back of your hand
  • Ask someone to tutor you in a subject you didn't do so well in, in school (I don't care if you're out of school now)

Jacob Jolibois is the founder of The Archer's Guild. He has a habit of starting a large number of projects and is oddly enthusiastic about Disney. Ultimately, he's hoping to rid the world of mediocrity, lots of people at a time (one is too slow). Recently, he backpacked across 11 countries with Micah Webber.