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What Predicts Success? Myths and Realities

What Predicts Success? Myths and Realities
Hi there. It’s good to see you. In this session you’ll learn about what predicts success. And I’m going to begin the session with a little quiz. Now how much of your success, and let’s say salaries and promotion, is predicted by your IQ, your Intelligence quotient. For our purposes we’ll use IQ to mean how well you do on standardized tests of intelligence, and let’s assume you’re somewhere in the normal range of intelligence, and let’s even assume that you’re on the high end of intelligence. So again, how much of your success, let’s say salary and promotions, is predicted by your IQ? 75- 100%, 50- 74%, 25- 49%, or below 25%. The correct answer is D, below 25%.
Researcher Robert Sternberg, one of the world’s most renowned experts on the link between intelligence and success in life, found that IQ as assessed conventional standardized tests, predicts only between four to 25% of people’s success in life, assuming they’re somewhere in the normal, even high range of intelligence. As Sternberg says, that’s scarcely something to write home about. So why isn’t IQ a powerful predictor of long-term success? Sternberg says that people often assume that being smart is the same thing as being intelligent. And they define intelligence as how well people do on standardized tests and grades in school. Now IQ tests tend to focus on analytical skills, also known as book smarts.
Although book smarts may help us get high grades in school, book smarts aren’t the only kind of smarts we need to succeed in a complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing world, in which real problems are often hard to define. The one best answer doesn’t always exist, and we need the support of others to accomplish our goals. We also need flexibility, creativity, and the willingness to take calculated risks, and invest in life long learning. We need to be able to inspire others, influence others, and develop mutually supportive relationships. And we need to be dependable, because other people count on us to achieve their goals as well.
And we need to be able to manage stress and be persistent and resilient, especially in the face of hurdles and failures. Finally we need to know when to cut our losses and find opportunities that are better aligned with our values and life goals.
This explains why some people who excel in school never achieve their goals after they graduate. And why some people who are mediocre students achieve or even exceed their goals. I’m not saying here that analytical skills aren’t important to your success. The ability to think clearly and logically, being able to see the different parts of complex problems and how these parts fit together, being able to see patterns and solve problems in a systematic way using evidence in order to make decisions, and being able to communicate the steps you take to understand and solve complex problems certainly matter a lot in life.
But analytical skills, as measured by standardized tests of analytical ability, will not be enough to help you achieve the success that you desire. Now people often ask me whether IQ is something that is wired in at birth. Well the answer is complicated, because researchers have been debating this for a long time. Many researchers argue that IQ is innate. But many other researchers believe that a person’s IQ can change certainly up to a point through supportive environments and practice. Researchers have found that a supportive and intellectually stimulating environment can result in a 12 to 18 point difference in IQ scores for some people.
Now this increase in points can move someone from being categorized from low to average intelligence, or from average to above average intelligence. Some researchers have found that for each year that a student misses in school, their IQ scores decline about six points.
I have a personal story related to this. MBA programs typically require that students take the Graduate Management Admissions Test that’s designed to assess a variety of verbal, writing, and analytical skills believed to be relevant to success in business. These skills include analytical writing and problem solving as well as skills in data analysis, logic, and critical reasoning. When I was applying for admission to MBA programs, I took the GMAT test twice. The first time I didn’t do very well and in fact not very well at all. And my college counselor told me that I should forget about getting an MBA. And he’d be happy to hear now how my life turned out.
Thankfully, instead of believing him, I bought a GMAT preparation book, and that was before the Internet, that had hundreds of questions, and I studied from that book every night. I answered every question in that book. I identified which questions I got wrong. And I figured out why I got those questions wrong. And then I take the practice test over and over again. And when I took the official GMAT test again, my score went up quite a bit, enough to help me get into the MBA program I wanted to join at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and eventually into the Yale PhD Program.
Now that’s a photo of me after my graduation from the MBA program. And who knows where I’d be today if I had listened to that college counselor.
Now, I’m not saying that studying for tests of scholastic achievement will always improve someone’s grades, but it does for many people. My point is that you may have more control over assessments of your analytic abilities than you think. Jumping into the middle of a debate about whether IQ and analytical abilities are innate may be entertaining and they may be interesting. But it won’t help you in your quest for success? How do I know that? Because Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck and her colleagues have shown that you’re more likely to achieve your life goals if you believe your intelligence, talents, and personality are fluid, which means changeable with effort rather than fixed which means innate and unchangeable.
You’ll learn more about the power beliefs have in predicting your success later in this course. So if IQ isn’t as strong a predictor of success as many people assume it is then what about natural talent? Do you find yourself saying she’s a natural leader or he’s a natural communicator? Do you ever say things like I’m not a people person or I’m not a numbers person? If so, you’re showing one of the most common biases people have and one that can hold you back from achieving the success that you desire.
One of the most important lessons to take from this course is that believing in the idea that there are born leaders, natural talents, and overnight successes can hold you back from achieving your goals. Because theses beliefs can hold you back from putting in the years of dedicated time and effort that it takes to become successful in whatever you choose to do. Now what looks like natural talent is usually the result of years of mindful, deliberate practice. Consider the following example. Tennis champion Serena Williams, who has won four Olympic gold medals, is often portrayed as being a natural athlete. We don’t know if she was born with any innate, athletic advantages.
But we do know that she started playing tennis when she was only three years old, when her family moved to Compton, California to begin Serena’s and her sister Venus’, another world class champion, their tennis training in earnest. The family moved several times to give their daughters the best coaching available. Serena endured several loses and injuries throughout her career. By the time she was seen as an overnight success, she had invested over 15 years into becoming one of the most accomplished tennis players in the world. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose impassioned speeches inspired the United Kingdom during the darkest days of World War II, is considered to be one of the greatest orators of the 20th century.
Yet for years he worked hard to overcome a speech impediment. He practiced his speeches over and over again until they seem to flow effortlessly. Churchill sometimes even used his speech impediment to his advantage by deliberately inserting long pauses in his speeches for emphasis. Actor James Earl Jones, the famous voice of Star Wars’ Darth Vader, overcame a childhood stutter to become one of the media’s most powerful and memorable voices. In an interview, Jones said that he said his difficulty speaking when he was a child helped him become a particularly good listener throughout his life.
He credits his high school teachers’ efforts to help him overcome his stutter by repeatedly encouraging him to recite poetry in class as the first step along his path to becoming an actor. The Beatles, the best selling rock band in history, was an immediate sensation in the US when they made their television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. An unprecedented 73 million people watched them, and that evening’s Ed Sullivan Show became the highest rated TV show ever at that time. What is less known is that the band practiced throughout Europe for several years, including two years in German bars for eight hours a day before they became what seemed to be an overnight success.
The band had played in over 1200 concerts by the time they reached the Ed Sullivan Show. Now natural born geniuses and overnight successes may exist but they are few and far between. Most successful people develop their talents and earn their successes day by day, play by play while enduring roadblocks, mistakes, and failures along the way. Certainly some people are born with advantages, physical size for jockeys, height for basketball players, or an ear for music for musicians. We are after all not all born the same, yet only dedication to mindful deliberate practice over many years can turn those advantages into talents and those talents into successes.
So even though you may feel that you weren’t born with a talent for math you can significantly increase your mathematical abilities through such mindful, deliberate practice, or if you consider yourself naturally shy, putting in the time and effort into developing your social skills can enable you to interact with people at social occasions with grace and with ease. Now listen to what Michael Jordan, one of the most awarded basketball players of all time, has to say about natural talent versus hard work in this short video.
Maybe it’s my own fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t. Maybe I made you think my highlight started at the free throw line, and not in the gym.
Maybe I made you think that every shot I took was a game winner.
That my game was built on flash, and not fire.
Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength, that my pain was not motivation.
Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift, and not something I worked for every single day of my life.
Maybe I destroyed the game.
Or maybe you’re just making excuses.
Note that Jordan also created a sustainable career that brought him outstanding success beyond his years as a professional basketball player. Through his business acumen, he’s now one of the highest paid sports celebrities in the world, and he was the first NBA basketball player to become a billionaire. Now what I want you to remember is this. First, analytical intelligence, although important, is only one predictor of success. Second, you can increase your analytical intelligence as well as many other skills that are central to your success through devoted practice. And third, over-relying on intelligence can prevent you from learning other talents that are equally and sometimes more important to your success and well-being in life.
So if analytical abilities aren’t enough, and if natural talent isn’t enough, what does predict success? Researchers have found that successful people develop beliefs that propel them forward rather than hold them back. They develop an expertise that is meaningful to them, and that matters to others. They are self-motivated to achieve their goals and they move steadily toward their goals despite the inevitable failures and setbacks. And they do so by being conscientious and gritty. And they develop mutually supportive relationships through which they give and get resources that are necessary to their success and to the success of others.
I will discuss each of these strategies for success throughout this course, and I will provide you with insights from decades of research as well as ideas. And I hope the inspiration for implementing these strategies in your own life. Thank you for listening.
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The Science of Success: What Researchers Know that You Should Know

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