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4. How Important is Effort to Your Success?


In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr Duckworth recalls being under pressure from her academic supervisor to develop a theory from all her research. Here is how she describes what such a theory is:

“A theory is an explanation. A theory takes a blizzard of facts and observations and explains, in the most basic terms, what the heck is going on. By necessity, a theory is incomplete. It oversimplifies. But in doing so, it helps us to understand.”


Duckworth says it took her more than a decade to come up with the following formulation of her two-step theory, which we’ve already discussed in previous posts:


Step 1: Effort applied to talent builds skill

Step 2: Effort applied to skill leads to achievement


In other words, her theory is that achievement depends on just two things: Talent and effort. But effort counts twice.


Duckworth then seeks to justify, or illustrate, her theory with the stories of:

  • A potter who applied his effort to his talent to produce more, higher-quality pots, and at the same time he became more accomplished as a potter because of “the same invested effort;”

  • The severely dyslexic author, John Irving, who “with effort became a master, and with effort, his mastery produced stories that have touched millions of people;” and,

  • Actor Will Smith who claims to have never viewed himself as particularly talented, but said that his success is based on his “ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”

To make his point, Smith claims to be quite willing to die on a treadmill to beat a rival. This somewhat random reference leads Duckworth to note a 1940s experiment using actual treadmills to gauge men’s “stamina and strength of will.” An update on that experiment showed a connection between how hard men pushed themselves on a treadmill in their 20s and their success later in adulthood - as measured by career income, social activities, relationship satisfaction and lack of dependence on mood-altering drugs.


Duckworth then connects the idea of staying on the treadmill to Woody Allen’s famous claim that “Eighty percent of success in life is showing-up.” That is to say, according to Duckworth, that achievement is ultimately about persisting, applying yourself consistently over time, getting back on the treadmill each day, and not giving up.


After returning to Will Smith and his view that “Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft,” Duckworth concludes with the following rephrasing of her theory:

“... skill is not the same thing as achievement. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”


Team Analysis


Is it possible to have a theory that is too simple, that states the obvious without really advancing our understanding? Is it possible to have a theory that adds little if anything to the central proposition that grit matters to success?


The answer is ‘yes’, because if a good theory is one that enhances our understanding by uniting seemingly disparate phenomena under one credible explanatory principle, an unnecessary theory is one that articulates connections we knew already. Such a theory doesn’t establish much.


In our opinion, Dr Duckworth’s theory that “effort counts twice” might be even more simply stated as “effort counts.”


Duckworth talks of the effects of effort on skill development and achievement happening “at the same time.” Or as she noted in relation to the story of the potter, it was “the same invested effort” that produced both his increase in skill and ultimate career success.

As such, the theoretical sequencing of these events is open to question.


And even assuming that effort does appear twice in the equation of achievement, that tells us nothing about the overall magnitude of its importance. The first occurrence might be very small, and the second occurrence small as well, resulting in it being a much less important determining factor than talent, even though talent appears only once.


If we assume that effort is what ‘unlocks’ talent, then it is arguably misguided to downplay the relative importance of innate ability, since talent is also a critical ingredient of achievement. To put it another way, talent is a necessary and constitutive condition for success, even if it appears only once in Duckworth’s equations. On this view, Duckworth’s equations simply establish that innate ability is not a sufficient condition for achievement.


It’s also relevant to note the existence of a comprehensive meta-study published in 2014 by a team of leading cognitive scientists looking at the relative importance of deliberate practice, which is a proxy for effort in skill development. Analysing a total of 88 empirical studies covering “all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated,” these scientists found:

“Deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”[1]


These findings suggest to us that Dr Duckworth’s “Effort counts twice” theory risks overstating the actual importance of effort relative to other factors, including talent. Though admittedly, this may be considered limited to just skill development and not to overall achievement which is Dr Duckworth’s ultimate focus.


And perhaps it is a viable argument to say that regardless of someone’s level of skill, a disproportionate dose of effort can dramatically boost their chances of success. That is something else to consider.


The bottom line is that none of this is fatal to Dr Duckworth’s overall discussion of grit, which may suggest that her theory is indeed unnecessary. It might have satisfied her academic supervisor, but it could have problems as an explanatory tool and may even be misleading.


We don’t believe that the stories and examples that Duckworth offers in support of her theory are wasted. They are still very useful, but primarily for their broader contribution to illustrating the importance of grit rather than to support the specific formulation of her theory.


Talent matters. Effort matters. Grit matters. There is good evidence for all of that provided by Duckworth. But we already knew this, or will very quickly pick it up after reading just a few pages of her book, without any need to understand or reference her theory.


Practitioner Perspective


How important has effort been to your overall success as a professional? In this section, I’ll use my own experience to see how easy it is to apply Dr Duckworth’s theory to one individual’s professional career.


As I reflect on my work as a lawyer, there were certainly times when I put in very little effort but succeeded. And there were other times when I really exerted myself and came up empty handed, or even went backwards.


At law school I can admit now that I took things too easily. Law was an undergraduate degree for me. There was also very little competition to gain entry into the law program of the only university in my home state of Tasmania. And I wasn’t that ambitious. Having dropped out of high school to work in a bank, I ended up applying to university when I was 20 years old with a less than stellar academic record.


I eventually graduated with a law degree and an economics degree, which I found much easier to complete. Still, I rarely read all the cases listed for my law school subjects, and my examination preparation was pretty much non-existent. It was my aural memory that saved me on many occasions as I could often recall almost verbatim the words spoken by my professors on key topics during lectures.


Then I neglected to apply for law firm jobs as early in my law school studies as I should have, and ended up being excluded from entering that market with my cohort. However, I then landed on my feet after being one of only seven graduates accepted to join the national competition authority immediately after graduation. That was largely because I had worked with the authority's local office as a student on a study of unconscionable conduct in the farming industry.


On my first day at work with the competition authority, I was immediately thrown into my first merger review case, and the rest is history, as they say. Without any planning, I had serendipitously found my niche. To me this work was fascinating, challenging and rewarding. I had lucked out and was on my way to working in an area of law for which I had an undeniable natural affinity.


I worked hard and was quickly promoted to a level above which it would be difficult to rise any further until I had spent a lot more time as a public servant. So I left my government position and was warmly embraced by a top-tier competition law practice in one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms, owing largely to my high-quality regulatory experience.


Fast forward more than a decade and I was preparing to return to academia to get my PhD. I ended up leveraging my legal experience into becoming a cognitive scientist. And I leveraged that even further when I went on to build the world’s first science-based expertise rating service for lawyers.


So how much effort versus talent was involved in all of that?


I'd need to be very generous to myself to claim that I was equally talented across what has been a very broad range of necessary skills. There was the skill of succeeding in job interviews, working with a wide range of colleagues in the public and private sectors, dealing with large corporate clients, in many different industries, learning how to apply the law of course, becoming a world class researcher in an entirely new area of empirical science, completing my doctorate, writing my first book, getting up to speed with the economics of a start-up business, mastering the technology which required the help of software developers from all over the world, motivating a small team of colleagues, marketing the business and all the rest.


If I was forced to give a considered view, I’d say that effort, although critical, was perhaps responsible for less than one third of whatever successes I've experienced. Arguably more important were the circumstances or luck I enjoyed, my basic level of general or fluid intelligence, and my innate talent at doing specific activities for which I can claim no responsibility. So how does my single anecdotal data point align with Duckworth’s equation that effort counts twice?


My story - as yours will - brings into focus another important aspect of her theory. How can we test empirically whether or not she is right, even when in just one person's working life (mine) it is practically impossible to divide up causal factors in any meaningful way?

It is nevertheless still good advice to work hard and remain persistent at what you’re doing. It is also not unreasonable to expect that by working hard, the prospects for achieving your goals can be improved.


SELF-REFLECTION


Factual Question

1. Why did Dr Duckworth want to develop a theory from all her research?

A. It seemed like the logical thing to do

B. It was something her students asked for

C. Her academic supervisor pressured her

D. She had always been working towards that goal

E. She needed it for her book

Short Answers

2. Can you describe a time (or many times) in your career where you now look back and regret not putting more effort into your work or studies?

3. Dr Duckworth does not talk much about how luck and favourable circumstances contribute to career success. How important have these other factors been in your career?

A. Not very important

B. Quite important

C. Moderately important

D. Very important

E. Extremely important

4. If asked to speak on this topic at a graduation ceremony, how would you explain to your audience the relative importance of effort and talent for their future career success? State your message in three sentences.


Going Deeper

Dr Duckworth's theory is that effort counts twice as much as talent in the achievement of success. That’s the essence of her formulation that “Effort counts twice”:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill x Effort = Achievement

In the philosophy of science, there are 3 key characteristics that a scientific theory should possess. How well do you think Dr Duckworth’s theory measures up against these required characteristics?

REQUIREMENT 1. The theory should be simple, yet not simplistic. In other words, it should not be gratuitously complex nor should it overlook salient factors. Describe how well you think Dr Duckworth’s “Effort counts twice” theory meets this requirement.

REQUIREMENT 2. The theory should possess consilience - which is when evidence from independent, unrelated sources “converge” on strong conclusions - as it should unite seemingly disparate phenomena under a common explanatory principle. Describe how well you think Dr Duckworth’s “Effort counts twice” theory meets this requirement.

REQUIREMENT 3. The theory should be conservative in that it should not unsettle beliefs about the world that are well-confirmed. Describe how well you think Dr Duckworth’s “Effort counts twice” theory meets this requirement.


TAKE THE NEXT STEP



To get on the list for our next small-group Grit Seminar in Melbourne or another city, email me at pjm@pmaca.com.au.


And, of course, feel free to pick up a copy of our omnibus Grit-Series Seminar Book, though you will get one for free when you attend one of our seminars.


Our next post will be, You Can Measure Your Grit. But Why?


Until then, feel free to email me your queries and comments.


Stay Gritty!



About the Author


Dr Peter Macmillan began his legal career in 1992 and ultimately became Head of Competition Law at an international law firm in Hong Kong. Today, Peter is the CEO of Meisterline Analytics, an international pioneer in the science of professional expertise and a leading provider of professional expertise metrics for law firms and their clients. He is also the author of 8 books, including the seminal reference book, Unlocking the Secrets of Legal Genius: Measuring Specialist Legal Expertise Through Think-Aloud Verbal Protocol Analysis, The KUJI Handbook and The 21 Secrets Of Gritty Professionals. Peter has a Master’s Degree in Competition Law and a PhD in Cognitive Science.


In 2022, Peter founded his own unique law firm in Melbourne, which specializes in signature witnessing, document certification and the formal authentication of documents for every legal and official use within Australia and internationally. For more information about the unimaginatively named Peter Macmillan & Associates, please visit pmaca.com.au/about.



[1] BN Macnamara, Z Hambrick and FL Oswald, Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta Analysis, Psychological Science 15(8) (2014).


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