The later Nobel laureate James Buchanan used to advise his graduate students: "keep your ass in the chair". Woody Allen claimed that "80% of success is showing up." And Gary Player used to say: "The harder you work, the luckier you get." Some recent experiments show they are right.
Leonie Gerhards and Christina Gravert got subjects to solve anagrams, paying them for each one they got right. Subjects could pay to skip a hard anagram or to switch to easier less well-paid ones. They found that subjects that did not skip or switch earned much more than those who did - even controlling for ability, as measured by the number of anagrams they had solved earlier. "Grit trumps talent", they conclude.
This finding, I suspect, has external validity. Among people with high IQs, there is little correlation between intellectual ability and career success. Beyond a certain point - attained by most readers of this blog - what matters is not so much intellect as personality traits such as stickability. This chimes with my personal experience. The most materially successful of my university contemporaries aren't generally the most intellectually gifted ones, but ones who had perseverance - in large part, perhaps, because they found careers they enjoyed.
There, a worn-out brick wall still stands testament to the innate footballing mind, maturity and drive present even in an 8 year old Dennis. He spent countless hours practising, kicking the ball against it, experimenting with different ways of how to control it, seeing how it bounced and how many times, how that affected how it came back … things that still don’t occur to most professional footballers. It was here that his technique was refined to such precision that he would aim for a corner of a particular brick, each time with different pace, power and spin to see how the ball’s trajectory changed.
Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.
Now, I don't say all this to suggest that talent is irrelevant: one reason why people practice football or music for long periods is that they feel they might be good at it - although this feeling isn't sufficient for success.
Instead, I say it to reinforce something I said recently. I suspect that most jobs - maybe not all but most - are like Gerhards and Gravert's anagram task; they require grit at least as much as talent. And, therefore, perhaps intellect is over-rated.
* I find Matthew Syed's account of this more persuasive than Malcolm Gladwell's.