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Elvis Chidera

On Being Smart — Paper Summary

summary, paper1 min read

Today's summary is about a paper written by Nabil H. Mustafa.


  1. The author argues that persistence/hard work is the crucial parameter for success in graduate school, instead of just intelligence. Intelligence only matters to a level.
  2. In the current environment, everyone wants to be smart, or at any rate, appear smart.

  3. This severely interferes with learning, naturally: students who consider being smart important become more conservative in the length and hardness of problems they attempt, which is a reasonable risk-averse way of preserving their image.

  4. When students eventually enter the real world (like graduate school), this risk-averse strategy usually doesn’t suffice, which leads to demotivation and procrastination.

    Procrastination kicks in, and soon the student is busy with a diverse set of academic (but non-research!) activities to hide the reality of not working, like writing complicated scripts to automate their soon-to-be-coming publication phase, optimizing their daily vitamin B12 intake, getting heavily involved with political and religious movements and so on.

  5. The author uses Andrew Wiles, Laszlo Polgar, and a few others to buttress his point.
  6. Finally, he references an experiment done by NYMag, where one group of students were told: “you must have really worked hard”; and the other group was told: “you must be smart at this”.
  7. The first group was more likely to choose harder problems, were scrappier in trying various solutions, etc.

The brain is ultimately just a muscle. Make it stronger by working it out.

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