Self Disicpline is a Better Indicator of Success than IQ

Much has been said and lauded about IQ (intelligence quotient).  It has been the standard by which society measures raw intelligence and a metric used to determine future success.  But what if the metric is flawed?  What if the metric is only half of the picture of success?  That’s what psychologist Angela Duckworth thinks.  Her research is centered around grit and self discipline.  She thinks these two analogous things are better indicators of (future) success than IQ.  

The study that solidified this point is one conducted by Duckworth and Martin Segilman in 2004 (you can get the appended version of the research in this video). 140 eight-graders were followed for a whole school year and their grades were tracked.  At the beginning of the study, their IQ and reported self discipline (measured using questionnaires for the students, parents, and teachers).  What they found was that self discipline account for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades.  Essentially that means the students with high (measured) self discipline saw a bigger improvement in their final grade than those with higher IQs.  Many of the students with high IQs initially had better grades than those students with lower IQs.  However, as the school year progressed, the students with lower IQs but higher self discipline eventually improved their grades, and got better grades at the end of the school year than those with higher IQ but not-so-high self discipline.  As you see from the graph below, the high IQ group’s grades bounced up and down.  However, the self discipline group increased gradually, without a period of decrease.

self discipline

In the end, self discipline wins out.  Why is this?  This is because self discipline enabled students to spend more hours doing homework, to spend less time watching television, to go to school more often, and to begin projects and homework earlier.  The daily routine of delaying fun and putting in work adds up to huge returns over time.  And while the study participants were children, this isn’t just a lesson for kids.  It is a lesson for adults too.

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Too often we rely on smarts and brag about our ability to accomplish average results with minimal effort (think about the time you bragged about passing the test with an all-nighter).  But it is often the people who get up early everyday, can accomplish their to-do list everyday, and can work towards their goals everyday, and can say “NO” to fun—they are the people that eventually become more successful than the lackluster but smart people who are unable to put off gratification.  Self discipline, the ability to control yourself and resist immediate gratification is an important element of success.  Knowledge and intelligence are important, but it can’t do much without self discipline.  In the real world, intelligence without discipline is like a bird without wings.

Self discipline is essentially a form of delayed gratification; you are willing to forgo $10 today in return for $20 in a month.

Contrary to what some may think, impulsiveness can be stopped and self discipline can be taught, especially at young age.  Case in point, students at the TEAM Academy Charter School in New Jersey are required to stay at school until their homework is done if watching television was the cause of their unfinished homework the night before.  Over time, the students who had to stay at school eventually learned to do their homework before watching television, thereby ignoring immediate gratification.  In other words, doing homework first and foremost becomes a habit.    At the end of the day, self discipline is just another habit.

The habit is harder for some than others to form.  I for one know that because I have ADHD, whose diagnosees are notorious for its lack of self discipline and structure.  But I have seen myself become more self-disciplined over time.  In a later post, I will write about how to develop self discipline.

About the author


Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is "[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."