" Dr. Simons is quick to say this his persistence, more than his intelligence, is key to his success"
That's a very interesting thought. I'm very interested in science, engineering, etc. but seem to lack the innate math ability to do anything beyond a bachelors degree. I probably would have been a lot happier as a researcher, but by the end of doing a BS in chemistry, I was pretty burned out. What's interesting about that statement and made me think is this -- if we were able to pull in more people who aren't "good at school" but still have something useful to contribute, there could be a lot of talent picked up. Success in early education still hinges on the ability to do well on timed tests that check your ability to remember key facts. Therefore, it favors people who can get the material down quickly and have a photographic memory. And it all builds -- early diagnostic tests in elementary school start identifying people's strengths and determining where they should focus, the SATs and other entrance exams determine to some extent what further education you are able to pursue, and exams in undergrad college courses determine whether you stay in the education game or not. For people who don't do well on tests, this can really discourage any further study, even through there's much less emphasis on this kind of learning/testing cycle in graduate studies. It's an interesting thought now that a lot of "knowledge work" is even disappearing and we have to find something for everyone to do. Identifying talent without equating talent to memory ability is a challenge for the current system. I'm not saying everyone can be a Ph.D researcher, I'm just saying that I think we miss a lot of people who could be good at this stuff along the way.
One of the things that has always struck me about math education is that so little applied math is taught. Now that I don't have the pressure to perform on exams anymore, sometimes I go back and try to figure out some of the math concepts that I never fully understood. Pairing the procedural stuff with a real world example makes it so much easier to understand, and makes it less of a procedure. Simons is a good example of taking something highly theoretical (basic math research) and applying it to something practical (being one of the first hedge funds to do HFT/heavy data analysis.) Unfortunately, it's very difficult to teach applied math to a class of 30 students, some of whom don't care, so a lot of people miss out on this. But it's kind of like chemistry...you have to have a good early education experience to make the jump from chemistry being a jumble of elements, equations, etc. to a set of rules describing how materials interact. People who don't get that exposure in their first chemistry classes aren't likely to continue.
He's right though -- people who work hard and are persistent do get ahead. Not always, and life isn't fair sometimes, but that tends to be true everywhere. Yes, some people just get lucky, and we only hear about those examples in media. But for normals, how well you do is definitely linked with how much effort you put in.