Effort versus Ability

Prof. Deepak Khanna, Management Area, NIIT University

In a selection process for some Management Trainee jobs with Hindustan Unilever Ltd., many fresh MBAs applied. There were some candidates from the elite IIMs as well as students from tier 2 and tier 3 business schools. In the final selection interview a candidate with average grades from an average college was asked,

“Why should we hire you, as we have candidates from the top B-schools sitting outside who want to join us?”

He replied, “Sir, if I am selected I will be obliged and will work harder than them to reassure you that your decision about me is not wrong. If you select them, they will assume this entry position as rites of passage and keep looking out for their next jump.” He got selected.

Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

Many leading companies and banks now purposefully hire effort-demonstrating students over just the brilliant ones. Many jobs like that of a (TSI) Territory Sales In-charge or an Entry / Middle Management Position in a Bank don’t require as much intellect as sheer willingness to exert. There is brain power involved, no doubt, but most jobs are repetitive in nature and can be learnt by anyone. What matters then, is the willingness of the candidate to plod through tedious and unvarying jobs.   

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to success in life.

Many years ago, a brilliant student, Ajay, sailed through his convent school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned marks in high nineties. He puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability is a recipe for success.

Ajay joined one of the prestigious IITs and was selected by Brooke Bond India Limited for their Management Trainee Program. He started his training as a Shift In-Charge in their CTC Tea producing factory. Right in the first week, ‘Brilliant’ Ajay started finding faults with worker’s work methods. Just before the first weekend, an elderly worker had an acrimonious argument with Ajay in front of all other workers. This was followed by a tool down strike that quickly spread throughout the factory. The furore lasted well past the weekend. The factory management sided with the workers and wanted Ajay to apologise. Rather than doing that, he quit.

People like Ajay hold an implicit belief that his innate intelligence is superior, period. This makes striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to change as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose big time, when the work required to be done is no longer ‘brainy’ but ‘brotherly’.

Praising children’s innate abilities reinforces this brainy mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential.

On the other hand, other studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort and flexibility-to-change rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

These studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. They focussed on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to become better through learning.”

Teachers can encourage a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a lifelong learning machine.


Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – A Book by Carol Dweck