For this week’s Human Factors in History, I went back to the 1920s to a book on the development of expertise. As you know, I am passionately interested in this topic. I am an advocate of Scott Barry Kaufman’s approach, which he shares quite extensively in his book Ungifted. But little did I know that a similar approach had been proposed as early as 1920 by Catharine Cox who had studied eminent scholars from the 15th through 19th centuries. Now THAT is a historical perspective!
I was motivated to share her research because of one particular conclusion she comes to, which I am borrowing from a lit review in WIRES Cognitive Science, not coincidentally by Dr. Kaufman and his colleague. I couldn’t find a copy of the original book, so this is from their paper:
“High but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”
The reason this particular quote resonated with me is that our society seems to give fundamentally different kinds of status to those of exceptional intelligence and those of exceptional persistence. One we call “talented” or “gifted” whereas the other one “makes up for it with hard work.”
If persistence is the more important attribute, then I guess we should refer to people of high intelligence as “making up for their lack of persistence.” Shouldn’t we?
Amazing how this was known in pretty good detail 100 years ago. Another book cited in Dr. Kaufman’s paper tracked participants for 50 years starting in 1958. That kind of longitudinal study has a validity that is hard to match with cross sectional studies. And it came to the same conclusions.
I guess it is a natural bias to see intellectual capacity as a gold standard and persistence as a valuable approach for the rest of us. And we know that scientific evidence is no match for natural bias and some good anecdotal stories.
So what do you think? What is your natural instinct regarding the concepts of intellectual capacity and persistence? What images pop into your head when you think of each one?
Image Credit: Glen Johannes