Growing up, I heard the word genius a lot.
It was always my dad who brought it up. He liked to say, apropos of nothing at all, “You know, you’re no genius!” This pronouncement might come in the middle of dinner, during a commercial break for The Love Boat, or after he flopped down on the couch with the Wall Street Journal.
I don’t remember how I responded. Maybe I pretended not to hear.
My dad’s thoughts turned frequently to genius, talent, and who had more than whom. He was deeply concerned with how smart he was. He was deeply concerned with how smart his family was.
I wasn’t the only problem. My dad didn’t think my brother and sister were geniuses, either. By his yardstick, none of us measured up to Einstein. Apparently, this was a great disappointment. Dad worried that this intellectual handicap would limit what we’d eventually achieve in life.
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the “genius grant.” You don’t apply for the MacArthur. You don’t ask your friends or colleagues to nominate you. Instead, a secret committee that includes the top people in your field decides you’re doing important and creative work.
When I received the unexpected call telling me the news, my first reaction was one of gratitude and amazement. Then my thoughts turned to my dad and his offhand diagnoses of my intellectual potential. He wasn’t wrong; I didn’t win the MacArthur because I’m leagues smarter than my fellow psychologists. Instead, he had the right answer (“No, she’s not”) to the wrong question (“Is she a genius?”).
There was about a month between the MacArthur call and its official announcement. Apart from my husband, I wasn’t permitted to tell anyone. That gave me time to ponder the irony of the situation. A girl who is told repeatedly that she’s no genius ends up winning an award for being one. The award goes to her because she has discovered that what we eventually accomplish may depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent. She has by then amassed degrees from some pretty tough schools, but in the third grade, she didn’t test high enough for the gifted and talented program. Her parents are Chinese immigrants, but she didn’t get lectured on the salvation of hard work. Against stereotype, she can’t play a note of piano or violin.
The morning the MacArthur was announced, I walked over to my parents’ apartment. My mom and dad had already heard the news, and so had several “aunties,” who were calling in rapid succession to offer congratulations. Finally, when the phone stopped ringing, my dad turned to me and said, “I’m proud of you.”
I had so much to say in response, but instead I just said, “Thanks, Dad.”
There was no sense rehashing the past. I knew that, in fact, he was proud of me.
Still, part of me wanted to travel back in time to when I was a young girl. I’d tell him what I know now.
I would say, “Dad, you claim I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am.” I can imagine his head nodding in sober agreement.
“But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”
And if he was still listening: “In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”
All these years later, I have the scientific evidence to prove my point. What’s more, I know that grit is mutable, not fixed, and I have insights from research about how to grow it.
This book summarizes everything I’ve learned about grit.
When I finished writing it, I went to visit my dad. Chapter by chapter, over the course of days, I read him every line. He’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for the last decade or so, and I’m not entirely sure how much he understood. Still, he seemed to be listening intently, and when I was done, he looked at me. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded once. And then he smiled.