Effort creates ability
Some musings on establishing an effort-first mindset
For years and years, I was told this: Be good at school, have a sport, play an instrument, be social - balance all of this and you’ll be just fine.
I was quite mediocre at all of these things. These past times and work and maintaining relationships were constantly competing for my attention and time and the habits that I picked up, left me not particularly good at anything. I rarely put in the effort I needed to be particularly good at anything.
The 10 000 hour rule
Malcolm Gladwell’s work, Outliers, tells the story of how the existence of ability is far-removed from aptitude, our natural ability to learn. He argues against the “story usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition.”
The book outlines the stories of a few exceptional people, “those who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically plausible” and coined the 10 000 hour rule.
The rule is as follows: it takes 10 000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery.
We know not everyone starts from the same place (including their natural abilities, opportunities, or access to resources) but it is clear that with time and care, we reap results. We can nurture the growth of whatever we’d like to with enough effort; we can create this natural ability.
I’ve been thinking a lot about effort lately, and the systems in which we learn. The systems in which we learn are structured around the assumption that success is highly dependent on a natural inclination to do something.
The environments we learn in are conducive to the growth of those who are naturally abled in whatever specialities are required for that space and cease the growth of those who are less naturally abled. These two groups are often separated, and this might look like physical dividers through sitting in different classrooms that seek to accommodate these different ways of learning but more often it is a mental division - being treated differently by teachers, parents, or friends.
The consequence of this is that the naturally less abled cannot be bothered to break through the low expectations placed upon them. When someone tells you as a kid that you can’t do something, you take it as truth. They’re older and experienced, and they understand the world and you, so that is why they can say this with certainty.
This doesn’t stop affecting you just because you’re older - I recall in a college statistics class, I barely passed a midterm and asked my professor, ‘how do I improve?’ The answer was merely that ‘you either understood the material or you didn’t.’
To professors, when most of the class understands the material, they are convinced it is because they have done a good job. Yes, sometimes, it is that. But other times, it is a consequence of the support these systems give the naturally abled throughout their education. It’s a system in which the good get better and the less naturally abled, stay stagnant.
Having this notion that success in any field is a product of natural conditions creates a self-sustaining loop of low esteem and it misrepresents how important effort is. When everyone around you perpetuates this belief that you either have ‘it’ or you don’t, forcing yourself to put in effort is hard!
Embracing the belief that effort can create ability
There is an institutionalized fixation on aptitude and even once we leave the confines of the education system, this narrative is difficult to leave. But, once we leave this narrative and understand that effort is the main contributor to our success (whatever that may look like) - it becomes much easier to accept rejections and failures.
When you're constantly praised for ability, you are more likely to attribute failure to low ability than those praised for effort. There is often more self-handicapping, which creates barriers to progress, and a positive self-image is dependent on something that is out of your control.
Conversely, those who contribute success to effort are able to retain feedback because these rejections and failures are no longer a representation of us, and instead represent a lack of effort. Effort is something that we have control over, something that we can change while ability is simply a result of natural conditions. You’re in control of your ability to succeed when you embrace this knowledge and recognize that if you put in enough effort, you can have what you want.
Aside: Everything I say should be appended with ‘true to an extent.’
There will always be other barriers that come in the way of creating this ability which lends to success yet this essay is related to establishing an effort-first mindset and understand that natural ability will only get you so far.