Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.
I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.
But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.
When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.
It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.
In an education system in which ‘grit’ is revered, and ‘perseverance’ is considered a universal human value, there can be a tendency to encourage students to “just keep trying” or to “try harder”.
Now, that’s fine for a while, or when a student clearly is not quite giving their all.
But “try harder” is, literally, the worst piece of advice you can give a student…
…when they are using the wrong technique or are unable to access the right strategy.
Grit and perseverance can become the enemy of achievement…
…when we are going about something the wrong way.
And this is where discerning teachers are not afraid to encourage their students to ‘quit’; to reevaluate their approach, to pivot, and to try an alternate pathway.
Instead of ‘try harder’, often our students need to hear: ‘try differently’.
How much, if anything, does innate genetically-endowed talent contribute to a child’s musical or mathematical or sports achievement? Or is it all just down to hard work and effort?
The talent versus effort debate has been raging in academic circles for at least 300 years. And it is still a very-much alive discussion in schools around the world.
But perhaps it should end now.
University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, summarises hundreds of reseach studies into human performance and ability in these simple equations:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
So, talent counts but effort counts twice.
(And given that we have 0% control over talent and 100% control over effort, it doesn’t seem like ‘talent’ should get much, if any, airtime in schools, does it?!)