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Fortitude, Not Aptitude, Will Help You Achieve Your Goals

Strength of mind is more powerful than raw talent in achieving your goals.

Key points

  • Fortitude, or strength of mind, is a better predictor of success than is aptitude.
  • Fortitude can be learned at any age.
  • Curiosity, the willingness to be vulnerable, avoiding complacency, and connection to others will help you achieve your aspirations.
simisi 1/Pixabay
Source: simisi 1/Pixabay

The stories are legion. How often have you heard of people with great aptitude who never lived up to expectations? On the other hand, how many times have you heard of extraordinary successes achieved by people who possessed less-than-extraordinary aptitude?

The good news is that fortitude (strength of mind) is a more powerful determinant of your achievements, including longevity, than is raw aptitude (natural ability). And the best news of all is that, while you may not be able to increase raw aptitude, you can increase your fortitude at any time in your life.

A Remarkable Study

The year 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of perhaps the most influential investigations testing the power of great aptitude. In 1921, Stanford psychology professor Dr. Lewis M. Terman identified 1,521 children who scored 135 or greater on the Stanford-Binet intelligence (IQ) test. The moniker of “gifted” or genius is typically applied to those who attain a score of 130 or above.

These children, who on average were born in 1910, were referred to fondly as “Terman’s Termites.” Terman and/or his research group followed these geniuses throughout their lives. As you might expect, Terman’s geniuses achieved certain levels of success. But there was more to the story. Two children who were excluded from Terman’s study group, being deemed not intelligent enough, actually went on the win Nobel Prizes, while none of the individuals included in the genius group did.

But a more revealing analysis of the life trajectories of Terman’s geniuses was conducted years later by Dr. Melita Oden (1968). The 100 most successful study participants (A group), consisting of Ph.D.s, physicians, lawyers, and judges, were contrasted to the 100 least successful (C group), consisting of sales clerks, cleaners, and technicians (i.e., careers deemed as not utilizing their innate potentials). On average, their measured IQs were the same.

So what accounted for the greater successes achieved by the A group? The study directors concluded that the members of the A group were more highly motivated to succeed, possessed greater willpower, and were more persistent. Overall, persistence, confidence, and the support of others differentiated the “most successful” from the “less successful.” In short, greater success and even longevity seemed to accrue to those with fortitude, not aptitude.

The aforementioned research was conducted with persons deemed “gifted”—that is, those with the greatest aptitude—and yet it was fortitude that seemed to determine success and perhaps happiness.

Characteristics That Foster Fortitude

If we integrate the factors that seemed to foster “success” amongst Terman’s “gifted” on the individual level with factors postulated by Yuval Harari (2014) in his masterpiece Sapiens to be the secrets to success at the population level, we find at least four characteristics that foster fortitude:

  1. Curiosity: Harari makes a cogent argument that what separates civilizations that became empires from those that did not is curiosity. Curiosity is the lifeblood of discovery and growth.
  2. Willingness to be vulnerable: Vulnerability is not weakness; it is a form of strength that very few will choose to mobilize. Vulnerability is choosing to enter into situations wherein you do not have control. Only then can you possibly reap the harvest of unknown opportunities.
  3. Decisiveness and the avoidance of complacency: Decisiveness harnesses the power of the Thomas Theorem. This theorem was asserted by sociologist W. I. Thomas: “If a person perceives a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” Simply said, actions and outcomes often follow beliefs. If you believe you are destined for a better life, so it shall be.
  4. The willingness to reach out to others to form supportive and collaborative relationships: The connection to others has consistently been shown to predict health, longevity, opportunity, and resilience, while at the same time the absence of connection to others predicts depression (Everly, Jr., Strouse, & McCormack, 2015). The social aspect of emotional intelligence appears to be a source of happiness and achievement.


The evidence strongly suggests that fortitude (strength of mind) is a more powerful determinant of your achievements, including happiness, and perhaps even longevity, than is raw aptitude (natural ability). Curiosity, willingness to be vulnerable, decisiveness harnessing the power of self-prophecy, and connection to others are characteristics that can be learned and become highly developed over time.

© 2022. George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., ABPP


Everly, GS, Jr., Strouse, DA, & McCormack, D. (2015). Stronger. NY: AMACOM

Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens, A brief history of humankind. Published in agreement with The Deborah Harris Agency and the Grayhawk Agency.

Oden, M. H. (1968). The fulfillment of promise: 40 year follow up of the Terman gifted group (Vol. 77). Stanford University Press.