I've seen instances like this play out perennially throughout my life. I have a theory as to the cause of failure in these instances: complacency.
The rest of us, well those of us that cared, toiled to understand abstract concepts. No matter the mark we received, it was effort and perseverance that drove us to finish. The individual in my example, though, was conditioned for things to come easily. When things suddenly became challenging, he wasn't equipped with the same tools to enable him to keep pushing forward. He became lazy.
Basketball and IQ
It's a counter-intuitive idea. High IQ people are supposed to be successful people. At least that is the popular notion. Malcom Gladwell, in his book 'Outliers', addresses this popular notion. He cites studies that show IQ to be analogous to height in the sport of basketball. In basketball, having a certain minimum height is advantageous. However, past a point, it doesn't make you any better as a basketball player. After all, what is the skill difference between a 6.5 foot and 7 foot tall player? IQ is the same way. You need a minimum amount to be 'in the game'. After that, it is not all that helpful as a driver of success.
Success is less about IQ and more about perseverance and commitment - even through failure and hardship.
10,000 Hours on the 'OK Plateau'
The skills needed for success rarely come naturally. That's OK. You keep on pushing to improve yourself. Eventually, you arrive at what Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, calls the 'OK Plateau'. This is the point where most of us stop. We learn a skill, become good enough at it to get by and then move on to something else.
The OK plateau is not necessarily a bad place to be. Why is this? Let's take the example of making grilled cheese sandwiches. This is a pretty handy skill to have. I can make something quick and tasty when I'm hungry. Unless my ambition is to be the next Emeril Lagasse, I don't need to take this skill to the next level with fancy breads and cheeses. I'm 'good enough'. I'm on the 'OK Plateau' of grilled cheese making and that is fine with me.
In other cases, we want to get better at a particular skill. If we are to leave the plateau, we have to keep challenging ourselves. This means mastering new skills within our area of interest. Joshua Foer cites Malcom Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule: It takes, on average, about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. That's a lot of commitment.
10,000 hours seems about right, though, doesn't it? In my career as a software engineer, it really wasn't until around the 10,000 hour mark that I started to have a more intuitive feel for my field. Around this time, I began to, sometimes at least, instinctively diagnose problem areas or issues with software construction. So it would seem that actively practicing your craft for a lengthy period of time is a prerequisite to success.
The Four Minute Mile
So what's next? Have you 'arrived' once you experience the thrill that goes along with extensive experience? Hardly. You are merely on another, albeit higher, OK plateau. If you want to progress, you need to keep exposing yourself to new ideas and new ways of doing things - even if this means failing.
It is necessary to see what works and what doesn't in order to be successful. That means embracing failure rather than avoiding it.It is an odd thing to say, but it is true. I can't count the number of successful people that point to the lessons that their failures have taught them on their journey to success. The danger is in thinking 'I've arrived'. That is the only true way to fail: staying on your current OK plateau.
Joshua Foer gave the striking example of running a four minute mile. For the longest time, running a four minute mile was thought impossible to achieve. Then, someone ran a four minute mile. Once achieved, other athletes started reaching this previously unattainable milestone. Today a four minute mile is impressive but nothing spectacular.
That's a powerful example. Where do you perceive your limits to be? Are you sure they actually exist? I'd challenge that notion.
The Chief OK Officer
In closing, I'd be remiss not to point out that success does come at a cost. If you throw yourself wholly at one pursuit, other areas of your life are bound to suffer. Recently, the technology world was all abuzz about the Facebook COO who leaves work at 5:30. Gasp! The COO, Mrs. Sandberg, is likely on an OK plateau where she is extremely effective at her profession. Any further focus would jeopardize her relationship with her family. Focusing on achieving the next level would mean accepting that she would be on one of the lower OK plateaus as far as being a mother and spouse is concerned.
While pursuing your goals, never lose sight of the things that truly matter. Mrs. Sandberg proves an excellent example of this philosophy. It is the relationships and bonds that provide for a meaningful existence while we are here. By all means, push yourself, but never lose focus on what truly matters.