I always asked myself where intelligence comes from. Is it something people are born with? Is it nurtured by parents or caretakers? In my experience, most people who I think of as very smart also had intelligent parents. But sometimes they didn’t—it was just their own drive and motivation. I’ve come to think that some of it is innate, and a large part does depend on your parents and how you were raised.

It seemed to me as I got older that I didn’t get less intelligent, but rather that my backdrops were shifting—I was no longer just up against the neighborhood kids, I had to compete for a spot in a high school and then again in college. So, in the least braggadocios way, in elementary school, getting all fours (on a scale of one to four) was commonplace. I didn’t really have to try and most of the students around me in high school and now college were like that too. In my one year in sixth grade at a different school, I had to try a bit harder, but was still in the top five percent of the class. In high school, I was average. I was better at some things than others and got better grades on certain things, but I didn’t see myself as exceptionally smart.

I don’t tell you of my academic success earlier in life to brag about being naturally smart or having intelligent parents—I do it because it has forced me to think about the merit there is in hard work, and the constant push and pull I had between trying to grasp an understanding of how in the world good grades come to be.

If I had put the same amount of work into my high school workload as I did in elementary school, I would have done very poorly. Surely, most people can agree. It was frustrating for me to start an essay a week before it was due and do worse than classmates who started it the night before. It was frustrating to meet with teachers and try to understand concepts and study for hours for some tests and watch people who didn’t study at all do better than I did. It was incredibly off-putting. At times, it made me wonder if all the work I put in was worth it at all. And it was something I asked myself almost every day; there were less than ten days in my whole seventh to twelfth grades that I didn’t have homework for a night. 

But it wasn’t so much in high school that I realized hard work prevails. It was in college, when everyone’s workload was significantly more individualized, when there was more malleability in terms of study habits and when you really only know the routines of your closest friends. In high school, it generally went like this: you’d go home after school, maybe after hanging out with your friends for an hour, you’d study until dinner, eat dinner, then continue. On less busy days, you could start later. Either way, you were always texting your friends because you were in the same classes and had the same homework. Everyone’s circle was a bit smaller.

In college, I observe people and their success more from afar. And every single person I consider to be successful in college puts in the work. There is no doubt they are also naturally smart and know a ton of things. However, they are also up late working, don’t start their assignments the night before and work on things outside of schoolwork. Their motivation is inspiring and contagious.

I realize that natural intelligence is there to stay—it is not something people tend to lose. Such people are generally pretty curious about the world, stay up to date with news and seek out information. Though motivation can waiver with certain days and weeks, if it has gotten you to a successful place before, it is likely that it is also there to stay. Hard work is also far more rewarding and that feeling is the fuel to continue to do better and to keep the ball rolling. I’m sure most college students can agree that if they have an A in a hard class, they will be more motivated to keep it there than to try to bring a C to a B. There’s something about the feeling of being already there that is so good you don’t want to lose it.

Hard work is what helped me establish a good work ethic. I generally don’t start my papers or my studying the night before. I proofread them to show the professor I didn’t do a sloppy job. But, I am no model student—I slack off occasionally, I end my studying early to sleep and I don’t go to my professor’s office hours enough when I need the help. But the ethic is now ingrained in me and slacking off to the point of slipping grades just doesn’t seem to be an option. My hard work is what has gotten me good grades. I cannot rely on my natural intelligence in the way that many other people even on the college level can. I simply wouldn’t do as well.

Though not true for everybody, most professors can tell when you’ve done something the night before. Doing a seven-page essay 12 hours before it’s due will get the job done, but it will hardly get the job done well. And to me, even if I do better than expected on something I didn’t put a lot of work into, I know I could have done better. That notion has stuck with me for a while—if you can, by a combination of your own smarts and motivation, do better, why don’t you? The most successful people who started companies that changed the world were, yes, incredibly smart. But it was in the application of their skills and ideas that they grew an empire—not because of the complacency that came with merely getting the job done.

However corny, my dad never fails to recite Thomas Edison’s famous line when I complain about working too much: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Natural intelligence and a good idea will only get you so far.

I’ve learned that the biggest ideas come from the biggest dreamers, the hardest workers and the ones who know that falling back on what you were awarded at birth does not fuel you forward in life. 

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