Brilliance Is Worthless

I have two students. One, let’s call him Darrel, is obviously brilliant and has a natural talent for languages. The other one, let’s call him LeShawn, finds languages to be very hard. Everything comes to him at the cost of a lot of effort.

Darrel relies on his brilliance, never prepares for class, fires off exams and hands them in without going over them, and eventually ends up being the worst student in the class.

LeShawn, however, comes to my office hours twice a week, goes over every single correction I make in his homework, constantly asks questions and participates in class. By the end of the course, his Spanish is phenomenal.

I’ve seen this happen so many times that it isn’t funny any more. Students who rely on their natural gifts and invest no effort into their work end up staring at their failed exams in shock. Plodding hard workers, however, always end up succeeding.

It’s all about hard work and consistent effort, people.

P.S. This post is actually a message to myself because I’m starting an intense research stretch that will last from now until the end of August. I need reminding that brilliance is nothing while perseverance and consistency are everything. I’ll tell you how it goes.

19 thoughts on “Brilliance Is Worthless”

  1. I have been told this is the secret of how to get through graduate school in general… getting a PhD requires less brilliance than perseverance and hard work. In my little world, I like to think that combining brilliance with perseverance and hard work is the way to go, right? πŸ˜›


  2. You are absolutely right on this Clarissa. I recently read a scientific study where they basically showed that children who think intelligence is inherently static were less successful academically. Those who thought themselves as very smart would not try very hard, and when they failed, they would get discouraged very quickly. Where as those who did not think intelligence is static, relied more on hard work than on their intelligence and thus did better in school. They also did not get so discouraged by failure because they knew if they worked harder they would do better.


    1. Tv shows and movies do a lot to promote this idea of static intelligence. How often do we see a plot line where a kid does nothing and then suddenly and mysteriously gets the perfect SAT scores? Like those scores just appear out of nowhere. I was shocked when I first saw that on Buffy.


  3. I wish I’d known that when I had been 17, I coasted on my intelligence alone when I first entered college and didn’t make an effort. Now I know better and put equal parts intellect, passion, and effort into what I do, and the results are much more satisfying, both in terms of GPA and sense of pride.


  4. Conrad Burns: β€œIn life you are given two ends, one to think with the other to sit on. Your success in life depends on which end you use the most. Head you win, tails you lose.”



    1. In my profession, in order to succeed, you need to have an iron bum. Meaning that you should be able to stay sitting and reading / writing for hours on end.

      So bums matter, too. πŸ™‚


  5. This is exactly what I keep saying. Talent is overrated (and I’m not saying that because I don’t have any). I can’t count how many super intelligent people I’ve met who accomplished nothing in life because they lacked the seat-meat. And I know very very few people who have worked hard and consistently and have not accomplished a great deal in their lives.

    Also the saying “where there’s a will there’s a way” is very problematic and misleading. Wanting something is easy – anyone can do that – that doesn’t mean there is a way and even less should anyone assume that “will” is even remotely sufficient for accomplishing anything.

    There is no substitute for hard work. I think the main reason so few people realize that is because in the early parts of life, talent is often enough. I’ve known so many highly intelligent people who never had to work in school because it was just so easy. But once the level gets high and you meet other highly intelligent people as competitors, all that changes.
    Everything that reaches a certain level requires hard work to succeed in, no matter how intelligent you are.


    1. Tolstoy always said that his brother was much more gifted as a writer than Tolstoy himself. But he lacked the capacity to sit down to write every day. This is why he didn’t become a writer and today nobody knows he existed.


  6. When I was younger, I relied a great deal on what you call natural talent. I wasn’t lazy, but I never found it particularly challenging to get an A while in high school, and I came to expect it with every exam. Then I went to college and my experience changed dramatically. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t ‘the bright student’ anymore, but just on in many, and that I couldn’t continue to gloss over the requirements, write up something ‘brilliant’ but half-arsed and get a good result.

    I know I am not the only one, and I think part of the reason that we are told some somewhat untrue stories about what higher education is about. We are told it’s about creating ‘smart minds’ but really, it is about advancing students’ discipline in producing well-crafted intellectual material that other people can use. So that means (good) academic training is about becoming familiar with research methods, designing projects, writing reports, finding appropriate theoretical and analytical perspectives for your work, planning a time span and sticking to it, etc. Sure, you will still hold an advantage if your mind is naturally inclined towards the particular subjects you’re studying, but ‘brilliance’ alone won’t teach the rules of the academic game, and it wont help you figuring out the expectations to a good research report, for example. That takes experience and work effort.

    I guess that’s why your second student ends up being better at Spanish at the end of the day – because through his work experience , he knows what the fuck he’s doing, while the other one is relying on inherent abilities totally removed from other people’s expectations and demands.


  7. Having brilliance/natural talent is very useful when used in conjunction with a good work ethic. It means that you can get all required schoolwork done fairly quickly and still have time for creative work and reflection not directed by your teachers.


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