Which cog turns the wheels of success?

There has been much noise of late surrounding the value of standardised testing in schools and the merits of cognitive vs. non-cognitive skills in general. The idea that the trajectory of your academic future, professional direction and self-schema is often so strongly linked to the experience of undertaking such tests, the results achieved and ultimately the outcome of those results is sobering. The current structure informs our options directly as it effects submission to colleges and eligibility for employment and indirectly in the beliefs we form about our abilities and competencies. It has been found that non-cognitive skills are the most important determinants of lecture attendance and independent study, which are key determinants of academic achievement, and disparities in non-cognitive skills contribute to the academic achievement gap separating wealthy from disadvantaged students. Society has developed a disturbingly limited view in terms of human value assessment and appraisal, creating a detriment of unrealised potential and missed opportunity.

As the old saying goes ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’. Focus is beginning to broaden and shift to examine a spectrum of skills, other than cognitive crystallised intelligence, and it is becoming apparent that non-cognitive skills may be just as important, if not more so, in determining success in the long term. A meta-analysis of over 200 interventions increasing social and emotional learning of children ages 5–18 resulted in overall positive association between interventions and higher academic achievement.

Studies have shown that achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success, and that these tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills. Yet non-cognitive or soft skills have been proven to predict meaningful life outcomes. Boosting non-cognitive skills early in life increases the benefits of education later in life and these skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later stages, due to slow development of the prefrontal cortex.

Angela Duckworth has carried out much work in this area, and has identified that ‘grit’, a measure of perseverance and passion for long-term goals, may be as essential as IQ and more important than conscientiousness in predicting achievement. More educated adults are found to be higher in grit, and it has also been found to be positively correlated with conscientiousness, academic achievement and performance. For example, one study showed that grit predicted completion of a summer training program at the West Point military academy better than any other predictor.

David Mc Clelland emphasised the importance of motivation and incentive value for predicting achievement performance in his Human Motivation Theory. Recent research has identified that the responsiveness to incentives on IQ and achievement tests depends on a person’s non-cognitive skills, and that motivation of test takers predicts IQ scores, which some psychologists assume are good measures of intelligence. This suggests that non-cognitive skills contribute to performance on standardised tests and may be indirectly assessed in the process. Individual differences in grit account for significant incremental variance in success outcomes over and beyond that explained by IQ. However, ‘smarter’ individuals are no ‘grittier’, therefore grit is not assigned as a cognitive skill, nor an apparent bi-product of fluid intelligence. Grit and self-discipline are highly correlated but grit predicts accomplishment of very high challenges among high-achievers better than self-discipline.

The concept of a growth mindset is the acknowledgment that limiting self-beliefs can shape our reality. Whether people believe core qualities fixed or can be developed directly effects their personal development and progression. Growth mindset measures the implicit theory of intelligence; the extent to which an individual believes that their ability and performance can improve with effort, rather than being fixed by factors outside of their control. This belief informs the amount of effort a person will invest in development and improvement, and ultimately the degrees of progression and increased ability. Put simply, one’s belief in the ability to improve informs the desire and effort invested in improvement and the acquisition of new skills. The outcome results in a reinforcement of the underlying belief, as those who believe improvement is possible and whom put in the effort, will experience increased ability and this confirms their belief that development is possible. On the other hand, those who believe that their ability to progress and succeed is dictated by factors outside of their control will allocate little to no effort to improvement, which will often result in stagnation and thus their belief is also reinforced. Growth mindset interventions have proven to improve performance and people who cultivate a positive mind-set demonstrate superior performance and elicit favourable business outcomes. Engagement, motivation, choice, ownership, and a growth mindset are intimately related. Individuals with a growth mindset experience positive affect, and these individuals differ systematically in the cognitive and motivational strategies they employ, displaying higher levels of creativity and productivity.

A recent survey by the CBI found that non-cognitive skills such as team working and problem-solving are the most prominent deficiencies in graduates’ skill sets, despite 81% employers placing more emphasis on these skills than degree type and grade. The Buffer Hypothesis suggests that high self-esteem assists people in coping with stress and adversity. In a time where corporations require 110% from their employees, and the demands of life have increased exponentially, the ability to keep composure, rise to the challenge and persist in the face of pressure is invaluable. The ability to perpetuate this intrinsically, maintaining a calm internal equilibrium and honing the skills to effectively and adaptively deal with stress and pressure rather than simply the external appearance of composure, is crucial for long-term mental and physical health. Closely linked to self-esteem are self-efficacy beliefs, which are imperative to a growth mindset. Self-efficacy beliefs influence motivation, persistence and resilience and ultimately the realisation of success.

Conscientiousness and self-control provide the strongest evidence of predictive power over academic and life outcomes, even when controlling for cognitive ability and demographics.

There are strong correlations between self-control and higher academic performance, better adjustment, better relationships and interpersonal skills. Mischel’s Marshmallow Test discusses Hot and Cool systems, Cool representing the trigger of cognitive functions to enable an individual to assert delayed gratification and the Hot system as quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers. When a hot stimulus overrides the cool system, this results in impulsiveness. Susceptibility to emotional responses influence behaviour throughout life.

The prefrontal cortex (performs executive functions such as decision making) and ventral striatum (which processes desires/rewards) showed more activity in those with low self-control.


It is becoming more apparent that, as with the Nature vs. Nurture debate of times gone by, the overarching solution is that the matter should not be viewed as a one versus the other debate, but acknowledged that the focus should be placed on nurturing the development of both skill sets, as concomitant factors, and that traditional values of merit assignment should be revised to incorporate the vital importance of non-cognitive soft skills in development, success and academic and professional achievement.

The Power of Perception

I recently attended a discussion hosted by a therapist who works with women in abusive relationships. She described how one of the common challenges which she faces is in trying to introduce the concept of existential choice to women whose belief that they do not have a choice has restricted their perception of their power to control their circumstances, specifically to change them; for a host of reasons, individual and general, leaving their abusive partner is simply not an option for them. This limiting belief plays a large part in creating the psychological conditions that condemn the individuals in question to enduring treacherous and sometimes fatal relationships, and which hinder them from taking the necessary steps to allow them to change their circumstances.

In these instances, it is quite literally a mindset, albeit one that has been extensively manipulated and conditioned through the medium of mental and physical abuse, that anchors these individuals to a relentlessly painful situation. Upon reflection of this concept, it struck me that the idea of a mental construct limiting our potential is apparent in many areas of our lives. Although the context above is indeed a particularly grievous example, it occurs to me that so many of us continue to perpetuate life circumstances contrary to our preferential dispositions. Most notably, perhaps, in our careers. I know people who are heatedly passionate about what they do for a living, and their motivation, drive and obsession is inspiring. However, I know many more for whom the term ‘career’ is synonymous with ‘pay cheque’. Exploring this with colleagues and acquaintances, those for whom their work is merely a means to a financial end frequently lament the career they ‘could have had’ or the academic and professional choices they ‘should have’ made. The very language employed indicates defeat and resignation to a figurative ship that has long since sailed beyond the horizon of possibility and opportunity. If I proffer that they should take deliberate action to redirect their career path, such as returning to college, taking a course or undertaking a business venture of their own, the universal responses can almost always be narrowed to a few catch all cliché excuses: I’m too old/It’s too late, I can’t afford it, I don’t have time. The truth is that these reasons are analogous excuses, borne out of subscription to a limiting mindset. The belief that there is no option available other than to continue along the same path results in sympathetic behaviours which serve to reinforce and further perpetuate the belief, effectively giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A strategy that has proven effective in counselling women in abusive and fearful circumstances is to encourage them to embrace a new mindset, through which the possibility of choice can empower and embolden them to feel capable of making the necessary changes and to achieve conviction in their power to control the situation and incite change in their circumstances. This is achieved through helping to reframe the variables they had considered as obstacles or preclusions, and to instead view these challenges as consequences of the decision; ultimately acknowledging that whilst the variables about which they are concerned (such as financial instability, loss of residence, loss of partner, etc.) may exist, they do not result in a negation of choice, but rather represent unfortunate but necessary consequences of the decision of leaving. This transformative mindset shifts the dilemma from a perceived lack of choice, diminishing the associated feelings of hopelessness and resignation, and begins to introduce a new perspective, whereby they are faced with a difficult choice. The subtle but significant shift means that a difficult choice is introduced to a previously hopeless situation. This introduction of choice to a mindset that had been manipulated and compressed over a cycle of abuse to the point of desolation and resignation is the seed of empowerment for these women to find their inner strength and nourish the bravery they need to change their circumstances. Though the process can be arduous and requires tremendous emotional strength, support and courage, the dissipation of limiting beliefs and the introduction of the ability and possibility to change and regain control is the critical catalyst to impel the current of change.

The principles here are appropriate to motivational coaching and indeed as a strategy for inciting change in any area of our lives. Motivating ourselves to take the initial steps to make the changes must first begin with a desire to do so, and a belief that it is possible. These basic beliefs are paramount to achieving our goals and in ultimately realising professional and personal fulfilment. We must first allow ourselves to envision that change as a possibility, to empower us to act and effectuate that change. We must raise our standards of productivity, ethics, and commitment that inform and empower our belief constructs. We must reject the concept of fate as a predetermined course. Our future is not predetermined by our past, nor our present. Our paths are governed by a continuous, dynamic flux of interacting elements, informed by our choices, our beliefs, our willingness to commit, and our dedication to make the decisions and accept the consequences necessary to achieving our desired outcomes. Try altering your inner monologue and reframing your thought processes around the rationale for why you have not yet begun pursuit of your dreams. Rather than telling yourself you cannot do X because of Y, tell yourself that you could achieve X if you were willing to accept the consequences and sacrifices necessary to overcome the challenges presented by Y. Now ask yourself which outweighs the other; your desire to achieve X, or your unwillingness to assume the responsibilities and sacrifices necessary to achieve it.

I guarantee you will find it a lot more difficult to reason why you shouldn’t chase your dreams when you reclaim the power to believe in your control of the situation, and cease relinquishing that power to passivity. If these women can overcome extensive and pervasive psychological abuse to become empowered with the incredible mental strength to reclaim control of their minds, bodies and lives, to alter their previously held convictions of the indomitability of their circumstances, I am certain that actively choosing to amend your mindset will unlock limitless potential and reveal a spectrum of possibilities which you never allowed yourself to think possible. Achievement is borne of the seed of believing it possible.