Dorothy Cummings McLean writes that success involves the Christian virtue of humility. Graphic by David Chen; Photo/Pixabay

Effort will take you further than talent

By 
  • September 8, 2016

School’s in, and again I look upon my lost youth with mingled regret and nostalgia. Not to terrify 14-year-old readers, but occasionally I see an ex-classmate on Facebook wailing, “If only I were 14 again and could do things differently.” Having read an excellent book called Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Harvard, 2014), I too long for the time machine.

Don’t get me wrong. The happiest day of my life so far was the day I went to Richardson’s Tartan Shop to try on my Loretto Abbey uniform, and this was superseded by the day I first stepped through the Abbey’s hallowed door frame. I have no regrets on that score.

What I do regret is that, having successfully got to the Abbey, I relaxed my usual regime of memorizing everything I studied through self-testing. Instead I trusted to rereading notes, highlighting and luck. This proved fatal, except in English and History — for which it pleased Almighty God to give me easy ability — and in French and Italian class, for I did actually study those through self-quizzing. Thanks to periodic review and testing, the Italian has stuck for 30 years.

The superiority of difficult self-quizzing over easy highlighting is stressed in Make It Stick. To quickly summarize the book, most of us have been approaching study all wrong. Trying to burn lessons onto our memories by reading them over and over again is an ineffective waste of time. Although we may think we are learning, subsequent testing proves otherwise. What works is testing — writing out a fact in your own words and then turning over the paper and quizzing yourself on it. Delay works, too, for having to really think to remember helps strengthen neural pathways. Quiz yourself on the studied fact the next day, or the day after, and then a week after that.

Make It Stick advises mixing up your study. Test yourself on old material mixed in with new, or on different kinds of related problems. The book provides geometrical examples that I don’t understand, so ineffective were my attempts to learn mathematics.

By 15 I decided I was not gifted in math and was therefore doomed to failure. Make It Stick challenges this defeatism. Intellectual abilities are not set from birth: every time you learn something, you change your brain. “Effortful learning” — which means the hard work of memorization and self-testing — builds new mental abilities, just as training turns noodle-limbed teens into Olympic athletes. The concept of giftedness can even be damaging to the student. The child labelled “gifted” may think he or she doesn’t have to work and then have an identity crisis when he or she comes up with a bang against an intellectual challenge he or she finds really tough.

It has been shown that children who are praised for effort, and told that effort changes their brains, try harder and learn more than children who are praised for being “gifted” and labour under the delusion that people are born clever or stupid. Unfortunately — and this is me speaking, not Make It Stick — a misunderstanding of the Parable of the 10 Talents may have had a role to play in our preference for talent over effort.

Bishop Robert Barron is of the opinion that the talent of the parable — actually a weight of treasure worth half a million U.S. dollars — represents not innate abilities but the mercy shown by God. The parable is thus neither about venture capitalism nor about God distributing gifts in a way we might be tempted to think unfair. The parable, thinks Barron, exhorts us to accept the mercy of God and to earn interest, as it were, by showing mercy to others. The chap who got the 10 talents must have been very naughty compared to the chap who got only one, I think, but then was much more grateful and merciful in return.

There is no point praising yourself or others for innate talent. The praise for that belongs solely to the God who gave it. But making yourself work and excel at something difficult for you — now that is impressive. It involves the Christian virtue of humility, which is not self-abnegation, but seeing the truth about yourself and wanting to improve. To learn something difficult, you must sacrifice your self-love every day on the altar of truth. You may think this is easy for me to say, grown-up and freed from school, but as a matter of fact, adults have to keep on learning in order to find employment and build careers. I am learning Polish, and this has convinced me that determination and hard work can indeed take the place of talent. It hurts, but it works.

(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Ceremony of Innocence.)

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