Grit versus Intelligence in Innovation

When I was younger, I placed a high value on intelligence. It made sense, since I was reasonably smart. However, it wasn’t until I added some grit that I started to really get things done. Up until my university years, most things came pretty easily to me. I was fortunate in that I was able to concentrate and learn a lot about things that interested me, so almost by accident there were some things that I ended up building some skills in. But it wasn’t until university that I started having to make the conscious decision to work harder, and do things that weren’t immediately fun if I wanted to get anywhere.

The summer after my first year, I got a job as a floor hand in a feed mill. It was really hard work. For the first couple of weeks, I could barely drag myself home at the end of each day – I felt broken. At the end of those two weeks, my boss Doug called me and the other new floor hand in, and chewed us out pretty comprehensively. The basic message was that we had to work a whole lot harder, or he’d get rid of us.

My first impulse was to tell him to screw himself. I was working harder than I ever had before – I had no idea even where to begin. I went home and talked about it with my Dad. He agreed with me that it didn’t seem fair. But then I started thinking about what it would mean if I quit. What if I didn’t find another job? I had to make money over the summer as part of my scholarship arrangements. After a lot of thought, I went in the next morning and asked Doug for some specific suggestions that I could follow to get better. He gave some, and I discovered that I could indeed work harder than I had been.

That’s when I got some grit. It still took a long time for me to get better at digging in and working at things, but I’m getting there, slowly.

I bring this up because Julien Smith highlighted an excellent article yesterday by Jonah Lehrer in the Boston Globe on the issue of grit versus intelligence. Lehrer starts by discussing a stream of research from psychologists that has shown in many cases, grit accounts for success more than intelligence does. It starts by talking about the story of Isaac Newton and the falling apple:

There is something appealing about such narratives. They reduce the scientific process to a sudden epiphany: There is no sweat or toil, just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knows that things fall – it took Newton to explain why.

Unfortunately, the story of the apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight – it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”

I think that this is a critical issue for innovation. We’ve talked a lot about the gaps that are common between inventing something and the idea actually getting embedded in the economy – there are several examples here, and a discussion of Edison and the light bulb also illustrates the point. Randy Haykin talks about another great example by showing how many of the features in the new iPad from Apple originated in the Navigator – a prototype the firm made in 1987.

You have to have intelligence to come up with these great ideas, but you have to have grit to get them to spread. It’s not an either or situation – one way or another, you need both. As Lehrer says, the genius idea is attractive, because it doesn’t require nearly as much effort. But the simple fact of the matter is that to successfully innovate, we need perseverance. Execution is at least as important as ideas, probably more so.

That’s why I think that Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod is one of the best innovation books I’ve ever read. He talks about creativity not as inspiration, but as hard work. Here’s an excerpt from one of his 39 other keys ‘Dying Young is Overrated’:

But the kid thinks it’s all about talent; he thinks it’s all about ‘potential’. He underestimates how much time, discipline and stamina also play their part. Sure, there are exceptions. But that is why we like their stories when we’re young. Because they are exceptional stories. And every kid with a guitar or a pen or a paintbrush or an idea for a new business wants to be exceptional. Every kid underestimates his competition, and overestimates his chances. Every kid is a sucker for the idea that there’s a way to make it without having to do the actual hard work.

So the bars of West Hollywood and New York are awash with people throwing their lives away in the desperate hope of finding a shortcut, any shortcut. And a lot of them aren’t even young anymore; their B-plans having been washed away by Vodka & Tonics years ago.

Meanwhile their competition is at home, working their asses off.

Innovation is not about having great ideas. It is about having great ideas, and getting them to spread. You need both grit and intelligence to do this. If you need some more grit, I can put in a good word for you with Doug at the feed mill…

(Feed mill picture (not the one I worked at!) from flickr/rverspirit under a Creative Commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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18 thoughts on “Grit versus Intelligence in Innovation

  1. Hi Lexi – thanks for stopping by! For me, I grew it when I was forced to, but once I learned how, I’ve slowly gotten better at building grit on my own. I’m still often lazy – but I’m getting better.

    I think that the key is to take on tasks that take a while to complete, and that push you to learn new things. This can be hard, so it often helps to have someone else trying the same thing with whom you can talk about it.

    The research results suggest that it is as much about putting the hours in as anything else – something that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in Outliers too.

  2. I have had my fair share of Dougs in my work experience, far too many to be exact! I think that in my specific case, grit along with maturity have allowed me to have clearer ideas and perspective in terms of my innovative being.

    I can see it in simple things that I create such as some of the music that I write. I think that the grit of writing many songs and playing in gigs, together with rehersals has allowed me have clearer more defined ideas at the creative stage, I have heard what works and what has not.

    I give music as an example of an area where I have had to work hard to create, but I can see that this is also applied to other areas in my creative life, too.

    Thanks Tim.

  3. Thanks for the comment Ivan. Music is a great example, as it’s something that takes a fair bit of time and dedication to master – it’s almost automatically grit producing!

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