Secrets of real success

Hard work, creativity and luck are keys to accomplishment, says Tim Birkhead

January 29, 2009

The remit of the books pages of Times Higher Education is "books by academics reviewed by academics", so I guess that a tome that won't make these pages is one that many academics and their undergraduates would, nevertheless, find useful.

Outside academia, opinions vary on Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers: The Story of Success, as evinced by a review I saw in one of the colour supplements. It deprecatingly described it as a study of, and I quote, "the bleedin' obvious".

It is, but often the bleedin' obvious, rather like common sense, is worth exploring, especially in academia.

Outliers is about what makes certain individuals successful. The take-home message is that success does not depend on extreme intelligence (at least as measured by IQ), but on hard work, creativity and at least a smidgen of luck.

Non-academics often assume academics to be very clever. Indeed, some academics assume themselves to be very clever. Some undoubtedly are, but as Nobel laureate and biologist Peter Medawar was keen to point out, to be a successful biologist only modest intelligence is required.

Outliers confirms this, quoting a range of studies showing how the IQ scores of successful individuals are only slightly greater than average.

Beyond about 120, IQ makes virtually no difference to how successful an individual is in his or her career.

Much more important is elbow grease. To put a figure on it, as Gladwell points out, about 10,000 hours of hard work are required for people to have any hope of excelling at music, rock-climbing, bird-watching and so on.

Even Mozart practised relentlessly as a child, as did Bill Gates, the Beatles and just about anyone you can think of in academia that's made it. Moreover, the reason we refer to different areas of academic endeavour as "disciplines" is precisely because they require application, tenacity and discipline to master them.

What about creativity? IQ tests do not measure it, but other tests do. They are especially revealing in terms of being a successful academic. I could have said "researcher" here, because research is where some people assume creativity matters most. But good academics are - by definition - also good teachers, and good teaching is - by definition - also creative.

One test of creativity is wonderfully straightforward and consists simply of asking someone to list in two minutes how many different ways they could use an everyday object, such as a brick or a blanket. The longer the list, the greater the creativity. It isn't perfect, but it provides an index of creativity.

I'm not advocating the brick or the blanket as a way of formally assessing the creativity of our undergraduates (or colleagues), but we could use such tests in the informal context of a tutorial to make it apparent what creativity is.

Many undergraduates seem to have little notion of either the concept or value of creativity and I suspect that the teaching-to-the-test school system is partly responsible.

It is considered far too dangerous to allow school-children to discover anything for themselves: much safer for all concerned if they are spared the extraneous process of discovery and instead are tube-fed with partly digested and carefully sanitised information.

It isn't just school. Lifestyles have changed out of all recognition and curtailed the opportunities for developing creativity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my own field of zoology.

During my youth I spent at least 10,000 hours cycling around the countryside watching birds and catching insects.

My parents were concerned that I'd never make a career from studying natural history, but I was lucky to be an undergraduate during the expansion in higher education.

Today, the freedom to discover the natural world for one's self is rare. Instead, anyone interested in natural history watches television.

I used to think Sir David Attenborough was the best advocate of biology to young people, but now I'm not so sure.

His programmes are so spectacular that they have sapped people's desire to get out there and discover things for themselves and, with it, the creativity that arises from such exploration.

Don't get me wrong - Sir David is one of biology's best publicists. It is just that his television programmes have excised any need to explore the natural world and thus find new things or new ways of looking at old things.

A few months ago in this column, I suggested that there ought to be an A-level course called "thinking for myself". As some readers were quick to point out, such a course already exists, called creative thinking.

Great - but neither I nor virtually any of my colleagues (including many schoolteachers) had heard of it.

This suggests that while someone in curriculum development recognises the value of getting creativity back on the agenda, the publicity department seems to lack the creativity needed to properly advertise it.

In fact, a creativity course is little more than a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. What's really needed is creativity permeating the entire education system.

Outliers is about real success, not the superficial triumph of ever-increasing A-level or undergraduate-degree scores. Real success in a career depends on hard work, creativity and luck. That much is obvious.

What is less obvious is how to encourage and reward these values among schoolchildren and undergraduates.

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