The Myth of Natural Talent (and ability, and intelligence, and personality, and…) – part four – Mindset


Why can praising intelligence actually jeopardize a child’s success?  Why are positive labels (“you’re so smart!  you’re so talented!”) dangerous? Last week, I wrote about a neurological substance called myelin which is responsible for the speed at which neurons in the brain communicate.  I mentioned that myelin grows when we engage in struggle, attempting to do things that are difficult for us (working inside the “learning zone”) and that this understanding has given me a completely different outlook on failure.  I then asked the question “But what if who I am (or, rather, who I perceive myself to be) is so bound up with success that to fail at something would mean that I am a failure?”

According to the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck, this belief is part of a mindset that I’ve developed over the years which says that personality, ability, and talent are inborn and cannot be changed.  According to Dweck, every person looks at the world through one of two different mindsets.  Those with a “growth mindset” believe that talents, personality traits and abilities can be developed over time while those with “fixed mindsets” believe that these things are inborn and can’t be changed much.

In the world of the growth mindset, success is about stretching and developing yourself to learn something new.  Failure means you haven’t grown and reached for the things you value and that you aren’t fulfilling your potential.  In the growth mindset, effort is what makes you smart or talented. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it.  The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.”

By contrast, in the world of the fixed mindset, success is about validating yourself and proving you’re (already) smart or talented.  Failure is considered a setback. In the fixed mindset, lack of effort (the ability to do something easily) is what proves you’re smart or talented.  People in the fixed mindset thrive when things are safely within their grasp. “If things get too challenging – when they’re not feeling smart or talented – they lose interest…. The idea of trying and still failing – of leaving yourself without excuses – is the worst fear within the fixed mindset.”

These mindsets can be fostered early on, by the praise (or lack thereof) of teachers, parents, and friends.  As Dweck writes:

Listen for the messages in the following examples:

‘You learned that so quickly!  You’re so smart!’
‘You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!’

If you’re like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem boosting messages.  But listen more closely.  See if you can hear another message.  It’s the one that children hear:

‘If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.’
‘I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.’

As I read this book, I recognized the “fixed mindset” in myself right away.  As a child, I was constantly praised for being “gifted” and “talented.”  I was accepted into special Magnet and Art schools and learning (at least for a while) was easy for me.  I readily believed that things were easy not because I had previously learned the skills necessary for me to accomplish them, but because I had some innate ability programed into my DNA.  I equated “this is easy” with “I must be smart and talented in this area!”  And by contrast, I subconsciously equated “this is hard” with “I must be dumb and untalented.”

But “easy” must always be challenged if we’re to excel at anything, and so this mindset soon created a cycle in many areas of my life: “try something, fail at it, quit.”  And eventually, this cycle was shortened to simply: “don’t try.”  Because, as Dweck writes: “lurking in the subconscious mind of the fixed-mindset is the question ‘if you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?  …Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.  If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.” This kind of thinking not only led me to shy away from trying anything new (after all, if I failed, it would mean *I* was a failure), it also led me to need constant validation.  Dweck writes, regarding her own struggles:  “Every comment, every look was meaningful – it registered on my intelligence scorecard, my attractiveness scorecard, my likability scorecard.”  For me, this kind of thinking eventually led to a crippling fear of people and public situations (that, for the record, I hide somewhat well and has slowly gotten better over the past few years, but was once so debilitating I never left the house alone, if I could help it.)  And I think in many ways it explains why I’ve always felt so ashamed of being overweight.

Because being overweight was the one failure I couldn’t hide.  Ever.

I don’t want to get really deep into that (I’m sure I’ll write about it at some point,) but I think it’s important to note how the fixed-mindset has permeated our culture.  Teachers shy away from challenging students and parents praise their children for being smart.*  People think that because they were “born this way,” this is the way they should be and spouses divorce in record numbers over the inability to compromise.  “This is who I am!” is a battle cry that echos across America.

But what if we can change?  What if everything about who we are can, through effort, be altered?  What if we don’t have to be shy or impulsive or stubborn?  What if we could no longer justify our behavior with the statements: “this is who I am” or “I was born this way”?  What if “who we are” doesn’t have to be who we are?  In that case, we’re left without excuses and given, in exchange, a great deal of hope.



**Most parents believe it is necessary to praise a child’s ability in order to foster his or her confidence and achievement, but when Dweck conducted studies to determine the effect praise has on children, the results were surprising.

In Dweck’s study, hundreds of students were given a set of ten problems from an IQ test.  The students did well on them, and were praised upon completion.  With half of the students, the praise was aimed at ability (“wow, you must be really smart at this!”) for the other half, the praise focused on effort (“wow, you must have worked really hard!”)

Then the students were given some new problems, which were more difficult.  The students didn’t do well on them, and as a result the ability-praised children felt they weren’t as smart (after all, “if success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.”)  They began to dislike the exercise.  In contrast, the effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.  Then the researchers then gave each of the children more of the easier problems.  In this new, easier test, the performance of the ability-praised children plummeted, while the effort kids showed better and better performance.  “They had used the hard problems to sharpen their skills, so that when they returned to the easier ones, they were way ahead.”

There was one more finding in the study that was “striking and depressing at the same time”:

We said to each student: “You know, we’re going to go to other schools, and I bet the kids in those schools would like to know about the problems.”  So we gave students a page to write out their thoughts, but we also left a space for them to write the scores they had received on the problems.
Would you believe that almost 40 percent of the ability-praised students lied about their scores?  And always in one direction.  In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful – especially if you’re talented – so they lied them away.
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.


When praising children, Dweck suggests praising for effort rather than ability, and withholding praise for completing a task quickly.  When a child completes a task quickly and perfectly, she suggests a response along these lines: “whoops.  I guess that was too easy.  I apologize for wasting your time.  Lets find something harder you can really learn from.”   In this way, we make difficulty something praiseworthy.


Related Articles

The Myth of Natural Talent (part one)

The Myth of Natural Talent, (part two) – deliberate practice

The Myth of Natural Talent (part three) – How Failure Leads to Success

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