I remember the first and only time I got a D in a class. I was studying abroad in France, taking a French class to help me and the other foreign students adapt.
The classes were divided into twelve levels. Level one was for extreme beginners, who had no knowledge of French. Level twelve consisted of people who were, for the most part, already fluent. I must have tricked someone into believing I had moderately competent French, because they stuck me in level seven.
There, with only a couple months of informal self-study, I was in a class that mostly consisted of people who already had at least 2-3 years of French study in university under their belt. I was definitely the weakest student in the class.
I remember the frustration of my teacher. I would make basic errors, she would prompt me to think of what I had done wrong. I would draw a blank and she would exasperatedly explain a rule I had never heard of.
When the final exam came, all the groups were merged, everyone wrote the same test and were graded to the same curve. I don’t blame the test, but it was perhaps a bit unsurprising that I ended up with a ‘D’ given I was writing against those who were fluent before they arrived in France.
From Inauspicious Beginnings…
Despite this bumpy start, I did learn French. In fact, after six months (three months after my lousy exam performance) Benny Lewis  was impressed enough with my French after spending some time with me in Paris, to include me as a case study in his book.
After I left France, I continued my French self-education further. I dated French girls, read Verne and Dumas in their original words and even went back to Paris for a month where I was able to live my life in French without any obstacles.
Looking back, I’m so grateful I stuck it through. In retrospect, my slowness in French had nothing to due with my innate intelligence or that I didn’t have a “language gene” but simply because I was less prepared than the other students. They came in with a stronger foundation than I did, so while they built their towers, I was still digging the base.
I think about that experience a lot. In French, I felt like the dumb kid. Reconciling that the others had more practice than me was a hard thing to do when I saw them breezing through topics that gave me difficulty. Had it not been for my previous successes with learning, which gifted me the confidence and stubbornness to grind on, I would probably not speak French today.
“What if I’m not smart enough?”
Having had that experience it also showed me how easy it is for students to believe this about themselves. The student taking the intro computer programming class is discouraged because all his peers have written code since they were twelve. The language learner who only hears noise, and only gets criticized when trying to speak. The biology student oppressed by terminology that classmates memorize effortlessly.
If you managed to restrict the world so everyone has exactly the same prior knowledge and study, would intelligence matter? What happens if we equalized everyone for motivation, confidence and self-discipline? How much would it matter then?
Intelligence certainly has an impact. If in our hypothetical world, some students would learn faster than others, perhaps because their nerves have a bit more mylenation, sending electrical impulses a bit faster. Perhaps their hippocampus is a little more efficient at storing those semantic memories, or maybe they have a slightly higher working memory capacity, allowing them to process a couple more chunks at a time.
However we never view life in a laboratory where such inequalities are omitted. In reality, there are always differences in prior skill (sometimes enormous ones). There are always differences in motivation, confidence and self-discipline. There are always differences in studying habits and technique.
Reality is like my French classroom. I didn’t see every individual advantage, I just saw the aggregate. The aggregate said I was weak, but it didn’t tell me why.
The Problem with IQ
I get many emails from students worried that their IQ isn’t high enough to succeed in a particular subject. They are getting feedback from the aggregated factors of intelligence, prior knowledge and habits which tells them they’re weak. From this aggregated feedback, they blame their IQ.
I profoundly disagree with this sentiment for two reasons. First, the faith they put in IQ tests is misleading and dangerous. Second, even if there is some truth in the number, holding that belief is demonstrably bad for your success (more on that research in a bit).
My first critique is with how people interpret IQ tests. A big part of the problem is that statistics isn’t intuitive and so it is very easy to take a perfectly logical conclusion and twist it into one that isn’t.
The first critique is that people believe IQ tests, in general, measure you innate intelligence, removed from all your prior experiences and knowledge. They believe that IQ truly signals the advantage you would have in the hypothetical situation I gave earlier, where all knowledge, motivation, confidence and discipline were equalized.
This isn’t the case. Most tests measure both fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is closer to what people think they mean when they say IQ, being the ability to solve novel problems. But crystallized intelligence, which depends crucially on prior knowledge, is mixed in on many tests.
Confidence and self-expectations are also something that can’t be eliminated from the test. Indeed, some clever experiments show that when you prime someone with a stereotype of poor performance on a test, they actually do worse . Their innate abilities didn’t change, you just temporarily dinged their confidence and they performed accordingly.
I don’t think IQ tests are worthless. However, people untrained in statistics often give the number far more power than it deserves. If I scored 95% on a history test, I wouldn’t say my History Quotient is 95. That would be ridiculous. Why then do we hold up our IQ scores as if they were any more a part of who we are?
The IQ test argument is a minor one, however, because most people who worry about their IQ have never taken an IQ test. Instead they use IQ as a synonym for inherited intelligence, another troubling excuse.
Is Intelligence all in Your Genes?
Studies put the heritability of intelligence at around 50-85% . At first, this might seem hopeless. After all, if most of your smarts come from birth, then there’s nothing you can do, so you might as well give up.
Looking a bit more deeply, however, the numbers have a very bizarre pattern. Heritability increases with age. Your genes determine as little as 20% of your intelligence in infancy, 40% in middle school and as much as 80% in adulthood. What could possibly explain that having had more experiences makes your intelligence more dependent on your genes?
There’s a simple possible explanation: young people who are a little smarter get rewarded for learning, so they do more of it. Those who were punished for making slightly more mistakes get discouraged, and remove themselves from cognitively stretching activities. The gap widens, heritability explains more of the difference, but the reason is not that intelligence is fixed, but that it grows.
This is called the Matthew Effect  for the biblical phrase from the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” The rich get richer, the smart get smarter.
But, if the smart get smarter, that also necessarily implies that getting smarter is possible. People see statistics like this and believe that high heritability necessarily implies that intelligence is fixed. It might, however, imply just the opposite.
What Attitude Should You Have?
All of this examination of IQ and genes isn’t to paint a black-and-white picture. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Innate, fixed ability matters, but all the other things you can control matter a lot too. Where that line is eventually settled upon, I’ll leave to the researchers investigating such questions.
What matters to you is what attitude should you have. Should you believe that your ability to learn in a particular domain is fixed, a destined fate of your genes or IQ? Or should you believe that you can improve?
Interestingly, there’s research on this too. Carol Dweck  has studied people across many dimensions on whether they have what she terms a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”. The difference is striking—those that follow a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset in almost every case.
What’s more, this mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who believe their abilities are innate and rigid tend to stay that way. Those who think they can grow and improve do that too. Perhaps that line researchers are trying to draw depends a lot on which way you choose to look at it.
Innate Talent Matters, Just Not as Much as You Think
People have a hard time thinking in shades of grey. So, I’ll bet there will be a half-dozen comments from people arguing that innate advantages do exist in some form, or that intelligence does have some fixed components.
Those people are missing the point. In reality you never approach the laboratory setting. There are always differences in prior knowledge, confidence and technique. Not to mention that even when we do detect differences because of IQ or heritability, that doesn’t imply that those differences are fixed.
For the majority of students (eliminating the bottom 5% of extreme disability and the top 1% of genius) what matters is what they choose to focus on. I say, focus on growth. Focus on the fact that you can learn new things every day which boosts your prior knowledge, a huge part of your overall intelligence. Focus on building confidence through small goals. Remember that you can learn anything anyone else can, and ignore the people who say it’s impossible for you.