On Intelligence vs. Motivation

One user on Reddit writes:

I’m a senior in high school this year, and will be graduating come June. I have had all A’s throughout high school except for last year when I got my first B. If it weren’t for that B, I would have been valedictorian.

I like to think that I deserved to be valedictorian; that I am truly the smartest in my class. However, this past year has shown me that I’m really not that intelligent, and that there are many others who are much smarter than I.

Also, I’m kind of an asshole about how smart I am, at least to myself. I’m always telling myself that I was cheated out of an A, but deep down I know I deserved that B. Not only that, but I should have gotten B’s in several other classes as well, but I somehow managed not to get them.

Recently I took the SATs as well, which I got a 1900 on. I figured I was just being lazy, and could have gotten a much better score if I tried. So after taking them a second time, I thought I did much better, but I only got roughly 40 more points than last time.

When I was younger I always believed I could get into MIT, but it has become painfully clear that I stand next to no chance of getting in. I now realize that I am probably going to go a lame local college and stick with my family.

Many people offered their thoughts, but perhaps this response from user Inri147 that was accepted and enrolled to MIT is particularly enlightening:

Term rolled in and I was getting crushed. I wasn’t the greatest student in high school, and whenever I got poor grades I would explain them away by saying I just didn’t care or I was too busy or too unmotivated or (more often than not) just cared about something else. It didn’t help that I had good test performance which fed my ego and let me think I was smarter than everyone else, just relatively unmotivated. I had grossly underestimated MIT, and was left feeling so dumb.

I had the fortune of living next to a bright guy, R. R. was an advanced student, to say the least. He was a sophomore, but was already taking the most advanced graduate math classes. He came into MIT and tested out of calculus, multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, real analysis (notoriously the most difficult math class at MIT), and a slew of other math courses. And to top it all off, he was attractive, engaging, sociable, and generally had no faults that would make him mortal.

I suffered through half a semester of differential equations before my pride let me go to R. for help. And sure enough, he took my textbook for a night to review the material (he couldn’t remember it all from third grade), and then he walked me through my difficulties and coached me. I ended up pulling a B+ at the end of a semester and avoiding that train wreck. The thing is, nothing he taught me involved raw brainpower. The more I learned the more I realized that the bulk of his intelligence and his performance just came from study and practice, and that the had amassed a large artillery of intellectual and mathematical tools that he had learned and trained to call upon. He showed me some of those tools, but what I really ended up learning was how to go about finding, building, and refining my own set of cognitive tools. I admired R., and I looked up to him, and while I doubt I will ever compete with his genius, I recognize that it’s because of a relative lack of my conviction and an excess of his, not some accident of genetics…

From my personal experience studying at Georgia Tech and Caltech, I think one of the most important lessons I had to learn was how to ask for help. And that it was okay to do so. There is nothing humiliating about asking for help if you are truly trying to make an effort to understand the material.

MIT has an almost 97% graduation rate. That means that most of the people who get in, get through. Do you know what separates the 3% that didn’t from the rest that do? I do. I’ve seen it so many times, and it almost happened to me. Very few people get through four years of MIT with such piss-poor performance that they don’t graduate. In fact, I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head. People fail to graduate from MIT because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out. The students that are successful look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation. 

Very worthwhile advice.

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