Success ≠ Smart. Success = Effort + Time + Determination

10 Jan

Success 3.jpg

Students often complain to me that they don’t feel “smart” enough to compete against their peers — either in the school system or later in their careers. They worry they don’t have the skills, the knowledge, or the ability to do what they want to do.

Over and over, I hear the same argument in my classroom — “But I’m just not one of the smart kids. I can’t get an A.”

However, success (in my experience) is rarely dependent on intelligence or mental ability. Sure, being smart may make Success easier — but it doesn’t determine if success occurs. Success depends on a willingness to put in the work, the time, theattention, and the heart. I have learned that there are very few things the average person cannot learn to do WELL, if they are willing to really try.

I recently had a conversation with a student who was unhappy with the group she had been assigned to — “None of us are A students. We don’t have a smart team member, and I want a good grade.” I asked and found out her group consists of about 4 team members that I happen to know have really been working hard this semester. It is true, they have gotten D’s and “F’s” on some projects in the past, but these students have been getting Bs on their assignments this semester and were really putting in a lot of work. I mentioned to her that I thought they had a pretty good chance since so many people were interested in working hard on her team. “You just don’t understand. We can’t do it. We don’t have anyone on our team from the smart students. No one can do our work to get a good grade.”


I tried to explain that she was sabotaging her own team with this kind of approach. Her team were invested in this project in a way that many other students were not. She had a team of 5 people who wanted a good score and had proven that they were willing to work for it. Three of them want to go to the west to study and realized they needed the scores to get into the western program. One of them wants to go to Portugal and work for a non-profit he is passionate about, but knows he has to get out of college before his dad will pay for the trip. One of them has already taken the class last semester (a repeat) and is determined not to take it again (too humiliating and he misses his girlfriend). Sure, they may not have gotten As in the past, but that did not mean they could not get an A this time. These students had gone from Ds to Cs to Bs — why couldn’t they be the A student now? They had an interest. They had time (two weeks of no classes). They were willing to put in the effort. There was NO reason why they could not be just as successful as the students who it came easy to. Even though the project might be more difficult for her team and it might take more time and attention, they still had a really good chance.

There are some subjects in school that always came pretty easy for me. We all have those favorite classes, and in general I’m pretty quick to understand some things. English, History. Grammar. International Relations. Psychology. Cultural Studies. Art. Humanities. Computer Skills and Technology. Graphic Design. Those classes, I got. Sure, I studied. But it wasn’t particularly HARD — just interesting.


Math and Science were NOT on that list. I have a not-so-secret hate relationship with science (no love) and a general dislike of certain math. Algebra and geometry are fine, but calculus? It doesn’t come easy to me the way it did to many of my classmates. I was an honors student and landed in a course with students who were math majors (or from Asian nations that I’ve since learned teach math differently, and I think more effectively) and flew through the material. It seemed like they just grasped concepts automatically that totally bewildered me. In fact, there was one question on my mid-term that I couldn’t even start to comprehend how to answer. Afterwards, I talked to the professor, he gave me some tips and said try again. I tried and tried. A week later, I went back to him — it still didn’t make sense to me. He explained some more. I tried again. This went on for almost a month. But at the end of that month, I clearly understood the concept he was sharing. I spent hours in my teachers office that semester and hours more on my own or with my friends (and the very kind guy who often sat and helped me with in-class assignments) working and working and working.


To be honest, economics originally did not come easy for me either. My teacher was really good at math and assumed everyone in the class understood why graphs go certain directions or take certain shapes. He kept throwing around vocabulary I was unfamiliar with and using all of these abstract explanations and drawing connections that seemed to me to be out of thin air. “Thomas buys more apples, so the supply curve goes here.” “This is of course diseconomies of scale.” Why?!? and What?!? -_- I spentweeks studying for those exams. I poured through his textbook and PPTs. I found other economics textbooks online and read them. I read article after article. I used all the online school websites. I went BACK to my calculus teacher and asked for help. I worked with my mom (she has an MBA in economics and business). I worked with friends. I memorized and studied over and over.

Some A’s I got easily, I am not gonna lie. For my A in Calculus and Economics, I worked my butt off. Those As weren’t because I was “smart” or “one of the A students” — I got them because I worked and read and practiced. I did hundreds of practice problems. I talked it through with people. I studied and watched help videos. Most importantly, I figured out my own style of learning and adapted my classes to fit my own needs. I created my own PPTs. Instead of using normal notebooks, I bought an art book and treated economics and math like an art class. I drew the graphs in different colors so I could see the patterns and flows of ideas. If the picture didn’t make sense, I drew it again and worked my way backwards. I created step-by-step patterns to explain the connections, instead of trying to jump from theory to conclusion. I used lots of symbols and arrows and images to help myself. I am a part visual – part kinesthetic learner. So I made it fit my style. Once I found the way that worked for me, I put in the time and started mastering my subjects.

You know the funny thing, of all the classes that came easy to me and that I was “smart” at . . . I am currently teaching Business, Economics, and Law. Now, the law — that’s one of the easier ones for me. But Business and Economics? It’s all back to those dreaded graphs and charts and theories that I struggled with in college. But today — it makes sense. I get it. The theories are logical, the equations come out in a reasonable way. Of course the demand curve slopes downward when the price goes up, no one wants to pay more money for extra products. If I bought the first product for $5, why would I pay you $6 for the second? Oh, you mean that I have a farm, and the more land I use for apples means I have less land for oranges. So apples and oranges form a substitution problem in supply? Sure! It makes sense to me.


I still use my drawing books. I still use colored pens and markers. I still draw picture after picture. I still check and double-check my graphs when I come to them to make sure I understand them correctly before moving on. You can see from my other posts that I like using pictures and emojicons and symbols still today. I often explain things in a very simple manner at first and follow a very step-by-step process to lay things out. I still draw all over the blackboard and my PPTs are full of graphics and examples. Almost every point I make, I add an example so students can see how that would play out in real life. In fact, I think my own struggles at the beginning have made me a BETTER teacher than I would have been if it were easy from the start. When students are confused or look at me with that “0_0” stare, I get it. I know where they are coming from because I too was totally lost and wandering in a theoretical graphing hell once upon a time.

Today, I love economics. It’s one of my favorite classes that I teach. I love the way it combines business with history, psychology, culture, and international relations (four of my great loves). I find it fascinating that we can study what is happening in Venezuela today and see predictions for the future in other nations. To see patterns and trends in the way people behave and act. To know that the Chinese dislike for super sweet treats has impacted demand for Oreos, leading the to creation of many “Chinese” flavors like Green Tea and Mango. The goal being to increase taste and thus quantity demanded instead of focusing on price (which is already fairly high for a treat in China). To be able to basically predict the future. It’s kind of, pretty much, awesome.

My point is, you don’t have to be smart or intuitive at something to succeed at it. You do not have to be the best in the class. It does not have to be easy. In fact, the harder you have to work for it, the more you usually appreciate what you learned in the end. The better you become at explaining it to others. The more you had to study it, I find the better you are at adapting situations and understanding how it works when the fact patterns change. Because you studied it for so long, you understand it thoroughly, like an old friend. Becoming good at something or doing a good job doesn’t always come because your IQ is high or because your “one of the A people.” It’s more about effort and a willing to put in extra time and attention.

If you are willing to put your heart into something — you should be able to succeed. And if it’s harder for you than others, well that is just that much more impressive!

Success 2

*Update: The team got a 91 on their project, and the teacher said they were one of the better ones he’s seen in a while. He was impressed with how they used the textbook material from other chapters to help support the one they were assigned to. See! Success!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: