In response to Kenny's comments on the primacy of effort:
If social scientists can accurately predict whether someone will drop out of high school on the day they are born, does that necessarily mean that effort is not the primary factor in their success or failure? Maybe the social scientists have merely learned how to predict who will make the effort (e.g. people in a cultural context that values education and economic advancement) and those who will not (e.g. those who lack those forms of support). And, even if their predictions are 80% right, we could still look at the 20% who defy those predictions, and I'm fairly certain we would find greater effort as a common characteristic of those who beat the odds.
Along those same lines, consider the results of the KIPP schools (mentioned both in the New Yorker article and in Gladwell's book Outliers). 80% of the eighth graders in the KIPP program in the South Bronx scored at or above grade level in reading or math – nearly twice the New York City average. The core difference of KIPP schools: effort. Between extended school calendars and piles of homework, they make students spend 100% of their time working on academic success. The differences are dramatic. Again, nothing is a guarantee (there are still the other 20% who are not performing at grade level) but that still a huge difference.
Kenny is correct that an individual's success is vastly dependent on the context in which they are born, and that effort is insufficient without opportunity. If you pull back and consider a family's success over several generations, you will see the correlation between effort and success become much stronger. If one or more generations are willing to make the effort and sacrifices necessary to create the environment of opportunity (e.g. coming to America, working two jobs to save for kids' college, etc.) then families can readily advance from poverty to the middle class, or from the middle class to the outright wealthy. One can argue whether it is morally just that the virtues or the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children . . . but most humans would agree that it is just (to the extent anything is just in this world), and that we have a right and a responsibility to work for the advancement of our children.
All of this is tying back to our earlier (and ongoing) discussion about our moral obligations to the poor. Yes, we have vastly more than most other people in the world . . . but that's not an accident. Our wealth is the result of a particular context of opportunity, which was primarily created out of the effort, sacrifice, and risk-taking of our forebears. I think we need to pay as much attention to the virtues that created this wealth in the first place, as well as the impulse to share it with others. (More on this later.)
I agree that intelligence and willpower are strongly correlated. Notice the kind of intelligence, though. The article explicitly points out that willpower is a feat of imagination – the ability to create a mental vision of the future rewards, or to mentally erase the prospect of immediate gratification. And yet most of our schools (at least, the schools I grew up in) do very little to stimulate our capacity to imagine. Imagination and creativity were usually regarded as something extra-curricular, something beyond the pale of standard education. If you look at the report cards from the Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools, you will see that for grades one through five, "imagination" and "creativity" are never mentioned.
Excellent points, all. If I had to guess--and this is just a guess, completely devoid of any actual information--I would guess that in their headlong rush to emphasize academics, the KIPP schools are cutting out what little the conventional schools offer in the way of nurturing creativity.