It’s not easy to live up to your fullest potential. There are so many obstacles that can get in the way: bosses that don’t appreciate what you have to offer, tedious projects that take up too much of your time, economies where job opportunities are scarce, the difficulty of juggling career, family, and personal goals. But smart, talented people rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome to be as successful as they might be lies within.
People with above-average aptitudes – the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished – often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do (particularly in Western cultures). Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room. Understanding why this happens is the first step to righting a tragic wrong. And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.
Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth-grader. You did well in several subjects (maybe every subject), and were frequently praised by your teachers and parents when you excelled.
When I was a graduate student at Columbia, my mentor Carol Dweck and another student, Claudia Mueller, conducted a study looking at the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth-graders. Every student got a relatively easy first set of problems to solve and were praised for their performance. Half of them were given praise that emphasized their high ability (“You did really well. You must be really smart!”). The other half were praised instead for their strong effort (“You did really well. You must have worked really hard!”).
Next, each student was given a very difficult set of problems – so difficult, in fact, that few students got even one answer correct. All were told that this time they had “done a lot worse.” Finally, each student was given a third set of easy problems – as easy as the first set had been – in order to see how having a failure experience would affect their performance.
Dweck and Mueller found that children who were praised for their “smartness” did roughly 25% worse on the final set of problems compared to the first. They were more likely to blame their poor performance on the difficult problems to a lack of ability, and consequently they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up on them sooner.
Children praised for the effort, on the other hand, performed roughly 25% betteron the final set of problems compared to the first. They blamed their difficulty on not having tried hard enough, persisted longer on the final set of problems, and enjoyed the experience more.
It’s important to remember that in Dweck and Mueller’s study, there were no mean differences in ability between the kids in the “smart” praise and “effort” praise groups, nor in past history of success – everyone did well on the first set, and everyone had difficulty on the second set. The only difference was how the two groups interpreted difficulty – what it meant to them when the problems were hard to solve. “Smart” praise kids were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective performers as a result.
The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities – including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice. When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student,” this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder.
[Incidentally, this is particularly true for women. As young girls, they learn to self-regulate (i.e., sit still and pay attention) more quickly than boys. Consequently they are more likely to be praised for “being good,” and more likely to infer that “goodness” and “smartness” are innate qualities. In a studyDweck conducted in the 1980’s, for instance, she found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up compared to bright boys – and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. ]
We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright kids are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be adults who are far too hard on themselves – adults who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.
Even if every external disadvantage to an individual’s rising to the top of an organization is removed – every inequality of opportunity, every unfair stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family – we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.
How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids – and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.
No matter the ability – whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism – studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.
Tanveer Naseer says
Thanks for sharing these interesting results from these studies on our how the feedback we get from others impacts our perception of our intellengence and ability. I’m wondering if another factor that is at play here is also how we internally define being smart.
For example, I’m sure many of us have had someone praise us for coming up with a smart idea which to us was not that remarkable. And yet, on another occasion, we come up with something we think demonstrates our high intellect, but it gets only a cursory nod from those around us. I think these situations reveal how what we consider to be the benchmark for being smart varies from person to person. Consequently, the internal conflict comes from trying to resolve what we see as being smart and what those around us perceive as being smart.
However, if we look at how we view effort, if something is hard to do, it’s often apparent to everyone – both to the person doing the exercise and those who are informed of the person’s work. So, being recognized for putting in so much effort reinforces our perception of our drive to persist and reach that goal. Consequently, this kind of feedback helps to reinforce or validate our own perceptions of what we think is easy and hard and in particular, of how we’re capable of tackling challenging work.
In any case, you’ve given me again some interesting food for thought, something I’m going to pay more attention to in terms of the kind of praise I offer to my children.
Thanks again, Heidi, for the thought-provoking post.
Heidi Grant Halvorson says
Hi Tanveer – thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I agree. There are so many kinds of “smart”, and if you don’t feel that your kind of “smart” is recognized as such, it could absolutely undermine your future motivation. Excellent point – thanks for raising it!
Currently, looking toward reaching forty next April. Grew up in an abusive home situation. Quite intelligent in writing, reading.The school folks had determined me as an ‘at risk’ for dropping out. Abusive home led to emotional, mental issues and caused me switching schools a few times for special education needs. Faced difficulty with math until later on in high school. In high school was directed toward a vocational trade, welding.
One day our welding instructor summons all of us in from the shop. In the class room he asks us if we are aware of what we’ve been doing regarding blue print reading. “Hard stuff”, “Looking at pictures to build stuff” we all replied along these lines.
“No, you guys have been doing trigonometry. It is a specialized form of math using geometry, algebra, fractions, calculus and general math all together. You all have been doing a fine job of it too, even you.” He was pointing at me.
Your two articles _The Trouble With Bright Kids_ and _Nine Things Successful People Do Differently_ have reminded me of this experience. It felt good because later on that instructor would have vouched for me at a job station where the best welders worked, further he would have sponsored me via the UWA, United Welders Association. Learned that a few years later. Nice to hear praise, sure. Nicer still when there is a genuine feeling of support based on your merits at something.
Now, feeling a bit more inspired, confident. Thank you. May attempt that computer science degree after all. Either that or take an exam for Linux System administrator on-line. Can always write, too. Again, thanks for rekindling a spark.
I fit your description of the frustrated adult who was a gifted child to a tee. I still remember being put into the gifted track in elementary school and being called “brainiac”. I am wracked with feelings of inadequacy whenever I am faced with difficult tasks today. I am paralyzed with resignation whenever I hit a roadblock. it feels like a lead weight in the pit of my stomach. I am hopeful that there is a light at the end of this long long tunnel. Thanks for your work.
Kim@How To Manage Stress says
This is really thought provoking material, Heidi and I thank you for bringing to light so many important visions that had been overlooked. Will definitely read this again and send a copy off to my friends!
Thanks for articulating something I have been unable to put into words, but this really resonates. It is something I am sure many of us have been struggling with in our lives but often feeling we are still failures.Very encouraging! Also helps me have better ideas on how to praise my kids, something i have given a lot of thought into but still felt my approach wasn’t quite right, but without knowing why – I really didn’t want them growing up as i did thinking i was clever and needed to put no effort in to succeed and then later really struggling! Now i feel i can support them in a far more positive way. thank you!
My husband send me the link, he wants to share this interesting article with me. Really inspiring, not only help me as an adult, I will use it to help my kids: Thanks a lot!.
Dr. Heidi, many of us live our lives this way…thinking that if we can’t be the best at something (or we won’t get that gold star), it’s not worth doing. We cower in a tower of “Specialness” and desperately hold onto it, while we watch others surpass us and, along the way, have a lot more fun. I write about this on my blog, Nothing Special, and have quoted you in my latest post: https://wp.me/p1UK7G-4g.
Hope that’s OK! Here’s to effort over natural ability (whatever that is!).
I’m a business student and I will present your article today in class. The following discussion will be about the difference in recruiting between American and European universities. SATs are supposed to rate effort and most of the time, students with worse SAT results graduate not only sooner but with better grades. In Europe, we don’t have SATs, so people are accepted to university just based on high school grades that in my opinion bright kids can get without effort.
On an unrelated note: if you are bright in the sense of intelligent (rather than having a talent), don’t you think that intelligence includes self-awareness and truly intelligent people will realize where results are coming from (effort or talent)?
Heidi Grant Halvorson says
Hi Christina – great question! Actually, our evidence suggests that the opposite is true – at least among high school students, those with the highest IQs were more likely to believe that their performance was ability-based, rather than effort. So intelligence (at least as measured by IQ) does not seem to be a predictor of the kind of self-awareness you speak of.
I cannot begin to thank you for this post! As a bright kid (and yes, a girl) who has just performed disappointingly in a postgrad programme, I had concluded that all the praise of my childhood/college years was erroneously given by my teachers, peers, etc. Your article has given me the strength to try again 🙂
Philip Weiss says
I enjoyed reading your post and as I had tweeted before, I shared the conclusion with my kids. I am still trying to get into the habit of praising their work and not their ‘smartness’ and I fully agree with your analysis as well as your conclusion. I wrote a blog post about your article and went on to explore how our adult paradigms can become detrimental to our learning ability. As we become convinced of the limitations or strengths that we have come to believe we have are fixed (check it our here: https://www.hyperthinker.eu/2011/soft-paradigms-and-bright-kids/).
I think the key message from your article is that we can and should learn new mental skills throughout our lives. I have experienced this personally having studied at Oxford, following an alternative school education and now running my own business), however I think we need to create a thinking system that help kids learn creativity and thinking skills in a structure way, hence my ‘hyperthinking’ concept. Would love to get your feedback and input on this project.
Dear Heidi – highly thought-provoking stuff. Read your book “Succeed” as well, it’s terrific.
I was a bright kid who was always praised for being smart, never for my effort. I was put on a pedestal by my parents, older siblings, extended family, etc. I absorbed the message that I’m destined for greatness (the “specialness” Thought Was Special mentioned) and that it, and everything else in life, will come easily to me. I definitely expect to succeed easily and very much resist hard work and effort.
How does one undo all the years of such programming to develop the mindset that achieving success will be difficult and will require a lot of hard work, effort, dedication, persistence, etc???
Dear Dr. Heidi,
My daughter, 10-1/2, is gifted. We came across Ms. Dweck’s book at least two or three years ago and have strenuously attempted to reinforce her efforts over her goodness or smartness. Since there’s no one else to measure her against, it’s hard to know how much this has changed her behavior. It looks like she puts in a lot of effort at what comes easily (singing, reading, writing, staging plays) and digs in her heels against what’s hard (math, analytical tasks, cleaning up, doing household chores and taking on simple mundane responsibilities). What troubles me and her mother most is that she does seem to have a very solid mindset that life is supposed to be easy. Despite our efforts and what looks like improvement in some areas, the basic mindset remains.