In Malcolm Galdwell's Outliers, he makes a bold assertion that math skill is directly and primarily correlated with persistence – how long are you willing to try to solve a problem? He's looking for an explanation for why Asians are, statistically speaking, better at math than most of the rest of the world. He finds that Asians are measurably more persistent in problem-solving, and their persistence directly correlates with their math scores, relative to other countries. Which leads to the next question: what makes Asians so persistent? He believes it ultimately comes from a culture of rice farmers, which is a form of agriculture that demands vastly more attention and work than other forms of agriculture more common in Europe. Their culture values work, because the rice paddies reward work. That cultural norm has persisted far beyond the rice paddies into their industrial economy.
I'm not used to thinking of other cultures as valuing work more than mine. After all, the Europeans are constantly slighting the Americans for working all the time, and never taking time to enjoy their families and the simple pleasures of life. The Americans, in turn, look down on the Europeans for their stagnant economy and their socialist sense of entitlement. We are the hard workers of the world, right?
I might have thought that, until I started working with a Chinese programmer. He works eight hours a day, seven days a week, every week. Moreover, as far as I can tell, he does not consider himself to be a particularly hard worker. That is in line with the Gladwell's estimates that the average traditional rice farmer works 3,000 hours a year.
I take great hope in such findings. Mathematics is a field we often associate with high IQ and raw intellectual talent . . . and once again, Gladwell is showing that talent is not nearly as important as work and persistence. Maybe, after hearing this, people will be more inclined to believe that work and persistence is the determining factor in spiritual endeavors as well. Teachers have been saying it for eons. "Earnest is all," says Sri Nisargadatta. "Pray without ceasing," says St. Paul. Holiness is not the domain of specially gifted people; it belongs to anyone who keeps after it.
Having taught math for ten years, I feel pretty confident in saying that success is a combination of hard work and raw talent, just as it presumably is in most fields. Brian soars through with "A"s at the highest levels, with far less work than many of his peers. Johnny worked his butt off to get "B"s.
Yes, persistence matters. No, it is not the only thing that matters, and no, life isn't fair. I suspect the same is true in spiritual matters.
Here are a couple of thoughts about Asians: the first politically incorrect, the second not so much.
1. Why shouldn't different races have different abilities and intelligences? Given all the physical differences--in hair, skin, eyes, and so on--it would be downright surprising if there were no mental differences.
2. It's almost impossible to do an apples-to-apples comparison. The Asians we see in the US, of course, are not at all a randomly selected group: they are the ones who made it here. And the Asians in their home countries are going through a radically different educational system from the start.
It sounds like my two points contradict each other, but really, what they both do is leave the doors open. Maybe Asians are just more mathematically gifted than we are, and maybe they aren't, but it's incredibly difficult to tell.