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Can brilliance replace the need for hard work?+ #37

+ GenWise Residential Program | Rise Global Scholarships

Quote of the Week

“Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about work was probably school, which made work (what they called work) seem boring and pointless. I had to learn what real work was before I could wholeheartedly desire to do it.” Paul Graham, Co-Founder of Y Combinator that has funded 2000+ startups

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

In this week’s main post ‘Can brilliance replace the need for hard work?’, we highlight some key points from Paul Graham’s insightful essay, How to Work Hard. Many of the points in this essay are relevant to teenagers making a transition to high school/ college.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club (ages 13-90), a community of interested students, parents, and educators. Check out this link for more about the club and how to join it. It is open to all in the current beta phase. 

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.


Can brilliance replace the need for hard work?

GenWise Residential Program, Dec 2021

Rise Global Scholarships

Can brilliance replace the need for hard work?

In this post, we highlight some key points from Paul Graham’s insightful essay, How to Work Hard. Many of the points in this essay are relevant to teenagers making a transition to high school/ college.

Why teenagers may think hard work isn’t necessary

Often teenagers tend to think that hard work may not be necessary, especially if they seem to be naturally good at something. The need for hard work to do well is not necessarily obvious because schoolwork may be relatively easy, and the hard work great athletes, scientists, business people etc. put in, may not be visible to them.

Paul Graham talks about how the need for hard work was not obvious to him as a kid.

Schoolwork varied in difficulty; one didn’t always have to work super hard to do well. And some of the things famous adults did, they seemed to do almost effortlessly. Was there, perhaps, some way to evade hard work through sheer brilliance? Now I know the answer to that question. There isn’t. The reason some subjects seemed easy was that my school had low standards. And the reason famous adults seemed to do things effortlessly was years of practice; they made it look easy.

Why doing great things boils down to hard work

Paul takes examples of Bill Gates and Lionel Messi to show how hard they worked for years in spite of having exceptional natural ability.

There are three ingredients in great work: natural ability, practice, and effort. You can do pretty well with just two, but to do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability and to have practiced a lot and to be trying very hard.

He then goes on to argue that practice and effort are the only variables in your control, as you can’t change your natural ability.

If great talent and great drive are both rare, then people with both are rare squared. Most people you meet who have a lot of one will have less of the other. But you’ll need both if you want to be an outlier yourself. And since you can’t really change how much natural talent you have, in practice doing great work, insofar as you can, reduces to working very hard.

We would point out though that recognising natural ability and interests is in your control. This is something we have spoken about in this past edition- How recognising aptitudes helps us go from good to great. Also, as Paul says, deep interest in a topic leads to hard work, much more than discipline can (See the section ‘The role of interests in hard work’).

Learning to do hard work (real work)

It might seem to us that diligent students already know how to work hard- they may have learned to avoid procrastination and distraction, and to persist even when things go wrong. But these habits alone are not enough- because if you can do these things only to study for exams, you haven’t yet learned ‘the shape of real work’.

In another essay, The Lesson to Unlearn, Paul speaks about smart young startup founders (from top colleges with good grades) who would ask him things like “How do you raise money? What’s the trick for making venture capitalists want to invest in you?”. Paul was surprised that these smart people were focused on peripheral issues like this and much less on making a great product, which is the foundation of a great company. He wondered why this was not obvious to them and concluded that this was because they had spend years of their life figuring out how to ‘crack exams’ rather than on doing real work.

The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn’t something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

Paul says that real work generally involves things that are not clearly defined or externally imposed and how he had to learn to do this kind of work.

What I’ve learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed. You’ll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.

He says that he started ‘desiring work wholeheartedly’ only once he started understanding what real work is; school work had seemed boring and pointless to him. He adds that understanding what real work is, is a process and offers some suggestions.

There are two separate kinds of fakeness you need to learn to discount in order to understand what real work is. One is the kind encountered in school. Subjects get distorted when they’re adapted to be taught to kids — often so distorted that they’re nothing like the work done by actual practitioners. The other kind of fakeness is intrinsic to certain types of work. Some types of work are inherently bogus, or at best mere busywork.

He goes on in his essay, to talk about how to know how many hours to work on things and other details- you can read the entire essay, How to Work Hard, here.

The role of interests in hard work

Paul also talks about how it is important to figure out what kind of work one is suited for, apart from understanding the shape of real work, before one can really ‘do hard work’.

As well as learning the shape of real work, you need to figure out which kind you’re suited for. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out which kind your natural abilities match the best; it doesn’t mean that if you’re 7 feet tall, you have to play basketball. What you’re suited for depends not just on your talents but perhaps even more on your interests. deep interest in a topic makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can.

He points out that it can be hard to discover your interests though. He says interest in a topic is a subtle thing that may not mature till your twenties, or even later. The topic of your interest may not even exist earlier! Take for example the case of smartphone apps which barely existed some years ago..

In a past edition- From potential to expertise- Pt.2 of Helping children develop talent, we have spoken about how opportunities for creative problem solving, authentic projects and exposure to new domains typically come through out of school programs and experiences. Such experiences are important in both understanding ‘the shape of real work’ as well as identifying one’s interests.

Summing Up

Paul sums up his insights at the end of the essay, as follows-

Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to 11. It’s a complicated, dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind you’re best suited for, aim as close to the true core of it as you can, accurately judge at each moment both what you’re capable of and how you’re doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can without harming the quality of the result. This network is too complicated to trick. But if you’re consistently honest and clear-sighted, it will automatically assume an optimal shape, and you’ll be productive in a way few people are.

As you can see, there is no shortcut and no way to ‘fake it’, but everybody can achieve their potential if they are ‘consistently honest and clear-sighted’.

GenWise Residential Program, Dec 2021

We are running a 2-week residential program from Dec 18-30, 2021 at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bangalore for children currently in Grade 8, 9 or 10. The recommended duration is 2 weeks, though participants are free to choose either week. For more details and to register, visit the program page

Our residential programs are much more than the ‘academic enrichment component’ the above courses represent. The benefits of attending a GenWise Residential Program are highlighted here.  GenWise co-founder, Vishnu Agnihotri, has also shared his personal take in a previous edition of this newsletter titled ‘The Magic of Residential Programs for Children’.

We have very high standards in ensuring the safety of children. Several young athletes (age 9 and upwards) have been staying at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence Residences for the last few months- a child-friendly facility with strong COVID protocols for all residents and visitors. We are actively tracking developments regarding the Omicron variant. We also consulted with Infectious Disease experts and have put together a robust protocol for managing our program this month.

Rise Global Scholarships for 15-17 year olds

Apply for Stage 1 by Dec 22, 2021. All participants apply for Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Rise, an initiative of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust, is a program that finds brilliant people who need opportunity and supports them for life as they work to serve others. The program is a $1 billion commitment from Eric and Wendy Schmidt to find and support global talent. The program starts at ages 15–17 and offers access to benefits that last a lifetime, including scholarships, mentorship, access to career development opportunities, funding, and more as the Global Winners (100 every year) work toward solving humanity’s most pressing problems.

Unlike many traditional applications, Rise uses videos, projects, and group interviews, so applicants have multiple opportunities to showcase their potential. 

All applicants must be 15-17 years old as of July 1st, 2022.


Stage 1 applications- Dec 22, 2021

Stage 2 application- Feb 16, 2022

Stage 3 application- Feb 23, 2022

Selection of 500 Finalists- June – July 2022

Selection of 100 Global Winners- Late 2022

For details about the entire Rise scholarships application process, click here.


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