Hint: the answer is not “be smart” or “work hard.” Decades of research and reflection have convinced Howard Gardner, a renowned cognitive psychologist, that believing wit and grit equate to success is not only limiting but fundamentally wrong-headed.
Academic and other forms of intelligence are clearly important. In recent years, non-cognitive forms of human capacity have become increasingly relevant and just as valued: empathy, kindness and creativity among them. These days, it’s grit – perseverance, mental toughness, stick-to-it-ness – that triggers spirited debate among educators, policymakers and parents, explains Gardner, who is best known for his multiple intelligences theory, which revolutionized the fields of psychology and education nearly 40 years ago.
On the surface, it seems like common sense: if you work harder and longer and are more focused you will do better in school and in life. But it’s not a magic bullet nor is it so black and white. Nazi soldiers had grit. The embattled executives of Enron had wit. Clearly there are more – and more valuable – traits and skills that define success, and produce good people, good workers and good citizens, a message Gardner drives home in his recent TEDx talk, “Beyond Wit and Grit: Rethinking the Keys to Success.”
Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls it the “triple helix” of excellence, engagement and ethics. Smarts alone, just as determination alone, aren’t enough; we need both, focused on the “good.” It’s the basis of The Good Project, a large-scale, non-profit, research-based effort co-founded by Gardner, to identify and study individuals and institutions that exemplify the kinds of people and societies we want to foster.
We won’t find them by focusing on test scores and rankings, Gardner stresses. “Isn’t our hope that we use our intelligence to actually make a difference in the world?”