Yesterday, a guy in his early 30s was relating a story to my hair stylist as his 5-year-old sat in the chair for his summer buzz cut. 

“It saved my life,” he said passionately.  “I really do think it saved my life.”

He was waving his IPhone 4S around and talking about Siri.  Since I hadn’t gotten a full demonstration of Siri capabilities, I wondered how this nameless, faceless, person-less female voice had saved his life.

“How?,” I asked.

He described how he had suddenly felt the whole side of his body go numb, and then had slumped to the floor.  He couldn’t see and couldn’t move.

“But I could feel the phone in my pocket.  I pushed the button and asked Siri to call my girlfriend because no one was home to help me.  I was really scared because my brother had had a stroke at 15, and still isn’t better 4 years later.”

The man’s girlfriend arrived quickly, rushed him to the hospital where they performed a battery of tests without finding anything but low blood sugar, exhaustion and a lack of food.  He felt fortunate to learn he hadn’t suffered a stroke, and acknowledged that he’s wedded to Siri for life.

Later yesterday, I started thinking about how I once knew how to operate a slide rule, the first math calculator invented in the 17th Century.  Before I had totally mastered it, my Dad, a gadget nut, bought one of the first-ever Texas Instrument pocket calculators.  My Dad was a visionary because it wasn’t long until pocket calculators were mainstreamed into classrooms.

Pocket calculators scared parents who began to ruminate on the downfall of student math skills. “If they use these calculators, they won’t know how to add simple numbers or even how to make change for a dollar,” many worried.

Today, I can’t remember step one for operating a slide rule.  But I’m fairly certain it doesn’t matter.
I don’t know how to load a musket either.

This morning, I heard a talk by Angela Lee Duckworth. She began by reviewing her many accomplishments before age 35.  A successful career with McKinsey.  Study at Oxford. COO of a non-profit firm.  An impressive track record of leadership in a number of industries.  But when she decided to get her doctorate, she wanted to look into what it really takes to unlock the power of talent.  Others had studied the many characteristics of talent but not specifically how to unleash it.

Ms. Duckworth interviewed many people at the tops of their fields.  She studied people we think of as geniuses like Darwin and Mozart.  She discovered the notion of what she has labeled as “grit.”  She concluded that those with most notable accomplishments – who had changed the world in some way – didn’t have extraordinary intelligence as we’ve come to suspect.  They didn’t have access to extraordinary education. They didn’t have some incredible disposition toward self-discipline.

Instead, they had an unbelievable ability to stay on task. As she puts it, they were not “flakes” who flitted from one professional pursuit to another, as she reminds herself of what she had done until age 35.  They focused on one thing with inspired passion, dogged determination, and perseverance in the face of setbacks.

Ms. Duckworth has now been studying and testing for Grit for a number of years, and her body of work helps determine things such as which candidates at West Point are likely to drop out when they go through a really tough orientation program called Beast Barracks.

Ms. Duckworth will share her work to illustrate how Grit stacks up against, and is a better predictor of talent than, IQ, self-discipline and other traits that we expect to predict greatness, at the CorpU Leadership Congress May 15 through 17 at the University of Pennsylvania.

For me, her work implies an enormous shift in the way we select and develop future leaders, fit people to their passions at work, and evolve K-12 and higher education.  If you consider the potential of focusing minds on what they love and focusing from an early age on today’s wicked problems, we might rethink most of what we currently do in terms of learning, talent development, selecting leaders, and how we organize around the most important topics.  It’s possible that our practices and even the topics we make important are today’s slide rules.

Taking that a step further: if tools like Siri can get us farther, faster than knowing how to conjugate verbs, and can allow each of us to focus with Grit on the ideas most important to future success, what could be possible. It’s really worth thinking about.

Don’t miss the presentation by Angela Lee Duckworth.  It will change your mind.


Go here to register now for: CorpU Global Leadership Congress

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