Nov. 2, 2011 -- You don't have to be the brightest kid in the class to become the best scholar. Researchers are finding new clues about what it takes to succeed in school, and probably throughout life.
For centuries thinkers have argued about what intelligence is, and how much it takes to make a genius, whatever that means, and how important intelligence is in guaranteeing success. Today, most would agree that intelligence is the cornerstone of academic success.
But there's more to success than that, and there's plenty of examples, including Steve Jobs, the legendary innovator who changed the world.
No one would suggest that Jobs wasn't very, very smart. But he probably didn't have to walk far across the Apple campus to find a bunch of employees who were just as smart as he was, and maybe much smarter.
Biographer Walter Isaacson argued in the New York Times that Jobs was not overly smart in a traditional sense, in that he did not try to solve problems by rigorous analytical pursuit, common marks of intelligence, but relied more on "imaginative leaps" that "were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical."
Jobs made his mark in the business world, not academia, and his success was due to many things, including personal charisma, and he was the kind of salesman who could peddle ice cream to Eskimos in the middle of the winter.
Bright, yes, but much more than that.
But what about us commoners, who shuffle through life without the gifts that enabled a man like Jobs to do so much? What does it take for us to succeed?
Although Jobs dropped out of college to launch his career, nearly all of us need a first rate education to compete in what has become a highly competitive world. And even in the realm of academics it takes more than intelligence to succeed, although only a fool would argue that intelligence is unimportant. It establishes the basic foundation.
Beyond that, however, educators agree on a second component – effort. No matter how bright you are, you've got to work.
And now, researchers have added a third component. You need intellectual curiosity, or as they put it, a "hungry mind."
In a huge study, scientists in England and Switzerland gathered data from 200 studies involving about 50,000 students to see what it took for them to excel in school. They published their findings in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Curiosity turned out to be a major player.
"Curiosity is basically a hunger for exploration," coauthor Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh said in releasing the study.
In brief, the study concludes that effort and curiosity together were as important as intelligence in achieving academic success.
"Our results highlight that 'a hungry mind' is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement," the study concludes. Curiosity, which they call the "third pillar of academic performance," has been largely overlooked by educators, according to the study
And that, they argue, is a huge failure in schools today.
"Schools and universities must early on encourage intellectual hunger and not exclusively reward the acquiescent application of intelligence and effort," the study says, adding this:
Academic success is likely to be achieved by "not only the diligent class winner who writes an excellent term paper but also the one who asks annoyingly challenging questions during the seminar, a habit that is, unfortunately, not appreciated by all teachers."
In other words, the kid who has all the answers deserves no more encouragement than the one who asks curious questions, clear evidence of a "hungry mind."
The study doesn't attempt to explain how to create that hunger. Encouraging those annoying questions may help, but it probably sends us back to that old debate over nature vs. nurture. Some kids are probably born with it, others learn it in a home that encourages curiosity.
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, who has spent decades studying what it takes to be a genius, argues in a new book that it takes more than good genes. It also takes good surroundings.
Other factors also contribute, like good health, financial support, and a little luck.
Any genius needs that. Theirs is not an easy road to follow.
Stanford University researchers, for example, found a link between genius and mental illness, including manic depression. Most highly creative achievers, they concluded, are a little disturbed, which in turn gives them a broad emotional range that possibly contributes to their creative efforts.
And, by the way, over the years I've interviewed many brilliant scientists who easily rank as geniuses. They aren't all nuts.
The only person to receive two Nobel prizes in physics, John Bardeen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was described in a biography by historian Lillian Hoddeson as "a humble, calm, soft-spoken Midwestener who had plenty of friends and who liked to play golf and have picnics with his family."
He was also very bright, worked very hard, and had a "hungry mind."
That leaves us with this question. How many Bardeens are there out there who will never get that spark that ignites their intellectual curiosity?