Monday, June 13, 2011

The "Other Stuff"

This week has been a whirlwind of activities associated with my son Alex's graduation from middle school.  We've had final performances, award ceremonies, and, of course, the graduation itself.  Maybe it's an East Coast/West Coast thing or maybe the times have just changed, but I don't recall any of this hoopla when I finished 8th grade.

What I found most interesting this week was the awards ceremony.  There must have been fifty different awards given out over a wide range of activities - music, art, leadership, drama, science, math, spirit, community service - the list went on and on.  I was quite impressed by the diversity of opportunities offered by the middle school, all chances for a student to find their passion and place where they might excel in their own unique way. And I understand the high school offers even more!

And from the whispered comments amongst the students, I think this took some of them by surprise as well.  I kept hearing some variation of "XXX?!  How did XXX get that award?  They're not that smart!"

I found that type of comment very interesting.

You see, in Silicon Valley, brains and achievement are practically objects of worship.  In fact, brains are almost automatically linked in the minds of many with achievement in a mathematical relationship that looks like this:

where ACHIEVEMENT = f (BRAINS, knowledge, other stuff )

But in my experience, while being smart and educated are no doubt an asset, they are a helpful yet insufficient condition for achievement.  (And I'm not willing to equate success with mere achievement.)  Instead, what I've seen is that it is often the "other stuff" that accounts for why someone who is less gifted intellectually can achieve as much or more as their high IQ peers.

What is the other stuff?  While obviously not an exhaustive list (and in no particular order):
  • Capacity and willingness to work hard - A big part of achieving something is be willing to do the work that needs to be done.
  • Determination - In almost every challenging endeavor, there is a roadblock or two or three.  Those with the will to keep at it often find a way over, under, around, or through it.
  • Resiliance in the face of setbacks - And in the process of overcoming roadblocks, there are many blind alleys and unforeseen setbacks.  Those willing to press on and not succumb to despair are much more likely to achieve their goals.
  • Courage to try - The first step on the road to achievement is just putting yourself out there.  The journey of a 1000 miles isn't happening if you're afraid to step out of the house.
  • Being able to relate to other people - While individuals are often the catalyst, it is difficult to achieve things without the help of others.
And that's what I saw at awards night.  While there were definitelymany awards aimed at scholastic excellence, there were just as many celebrating endeavors where the other stuff was just as, if not more important, to success than sheer brainpower.  What a great lesson for the students.

Over the next three weeks, I'll be taking a three week blogging holiday until mid-July. The reason?  I've again been given the privilege of teaching high school students about business as part of the Stanford Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY).  These are some of the meta-lessons I hope to convey.

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