Work Harder, Not Smarter

During my entire childhood, I was “gifted & talented.” I was the bright kid. Top of my class. Great grades. And so on.

It was all bunk.

Since most schools group by age, almost every school will have a cutoff date for each year’s incoming kindergarten class – if you’re not 5 years old by that date, you wait until next year. My birthday happens to fall about a week after the traditional cutoff date. It was close enough that my parents could probably have made a stink about it and gotten me in anyway, but since I had a close cousin who would be attending the following year anyway, the family decided not to push it and just let me roll over to the following year’s class.

I wasn’t the bright kid. I was a full year older than all of my peers!

I’m going to tell you a secret – even an average 6-year-old looks like a freakin’ genius next to a group of 5-year-olds. That whole year is a big deal. Sure, there are individual exceptions all over the place, but we’re talking about group dynamics here – I was definitely at the far end of the bell curve, but it was only because I was in the wrong bell curve.

(Fun note: this is true in high school sports, too. Want a kid to be a rock star in high school football? Make sure he’s born just after the cutoff date so he’s the oldest kid in his grade, and thus more physically developed than his competition.)

Anyway, while I certainly don’t think I’m unintelligent or anything, I’m certainly not the genius I was painted as in my youth. Another note of unfairness – I remember how often that aforementioned cousin got compared to me academically, since his grades were never as good as mine. But I don’t recall it ever being mentioned once that he was a year younger than I was! It was wildly unfair to compare our fourth-grade report cards, but we spent so much time together that it just naturally happened. He wasn’t any less smart than I was, I just had a full trip around the sun’s head start on him in brain development.

And in fact, that same cousin does extremely well. He turned out great – he has an awesome job, a wonderful family, owns two houses, is satisfied with his work, great circle of friends. No one is without their flaws or troubles, but I admire him greatly. My dumb straight A report card never did a thing for me, but you know what he developed far earlier than most?

A stellar work ethic.

My cousin is an absolute workhorse. One of the hardest-working guys I know, in fact, and he’s been that way forever. I had to kill a lot of bad habits in my 20’s that he never developed in the first place because he was grinding too hard. And he enjoys his success! He’s a workhorse, but not a workaholic. He spends time with his family, he has a tight circle of friends, and he barbecues at his lake house. He’s in his 30’s.

A year younger than me, remember?

My oldest daughter is incredibly bright. I’m trying to keep her from realizing it. I explained to her tonight that intelligence is like flour, eggs and milk – but hard work is turning them into pancakes. You can make even mediocre ingredients into great pancakes, but without the process of mixing and cooking, even the best ingredients won’t taste good by themselves. Intelligence is the raw material, but only hard work will make anything of it.

She’s in karate, and she’s very good. Talented. But tonight, watching her in class, I noticed something. There was a particular exercise they did that she wasn’t very naturally good at – it involved balance and rhythm, which aren’t her strong suits (she’s tall and lanky, which makes her naturally great at a lot of exercises relating to speed, jumping, and reach – but not balance). She dismissed it quickly, not just because she wasn’t good at it, but because she was so good at so many other things she didn’t think it mattered.

Boom, target acquired!

I told her at dinner afterwards that if she could do fifty of that exercise in a row without messing up (in front of her instructor!), I’d give her $100. I even let her pick that number.

Let the games begin. Natural talent is great, and I want to always encourage her in the things she enjoys and praise her for a job well done – but that work ethic needs to come now. Because “gifted & talented” really just means you had the head start, but once everyone is grown up, the advantage fades. Then it’s all about who can out-work the competition. And I want to make sure it’s her.

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