Are smarts a prerequisite for success?

Trevor Sytsma

It seems that some in our culture have adopted the idea that intelligence is innate. That our ability to succeed academically is somehow rooted in our genes, in our family legacies, in our unique ethnic backgrounds. That some people are naturally smart, while others are naturally doomed to failure in school.

While our genes do play a big role in our abilities, more often the determining factors in success have as much to do with grit and determination as innate intelligence.  We all are born with certain gifts or challenges (athletic, academic, etc.) but for most of us it’s how we nurture our abilities that ultimately determine success.

After failures early in school, some students reason that naturally, their shortcomings are inevitable. “I’m just not smart enough, so I can’t do this” gives rise to “There’s no point in trying,” a thought process that can lead to certain failure. This is where the idea of inborn intelligence becomes a problem.

It’s true; there are kids out there who inherently have remarkable intellectual tendencies. There are those who ace their SATs on their first attempt, child prodigies going to college at twelve years old, students who stroll through AP classes with 4.0s like it’s a walk in the park. But think of how many of those people you know. They’re obviously a tiny minority.

The majority of successful students know that their efforts in school (or anything for that matter) correlate directly to their accomplishments. Perseverance, hard work, and initiative in the face of challenges are some characteristics that make even “normal” students successful and seem inherently “smart.”

It is not an inborn ability to do math problems that make the majority of strong math students successful. It’s drive and willingness to work at the problems and take the extra time outside of class to develop understanding.

We shouldn’t think of natural intelligence as the main determiner of academic success.  We can’t all be the next Bill Gates, or have the highest IQ, but we can continually improve and grow by hanging in there and working at it every day.