My young nephew Max is good at playing cricket. He gets told that he is talented and skilled frequently. His family tells his so, as does his cricket coaches and his team mates. He has a lot of positive feedback in this regard. So much so that Max believes he is talented.
Ordinarily people would assume that this is a good thing as it would help his esteem. But there is a counter intuitive mechanism at play here. The more Max believes his talent alone will suffice the less likely he is to succeed. It works like this:
If I believe my intelligence by itself is enough to get a degree, the less likely it is that I will work for the degree. I might not study as hard for exams or put in the necessary effort to polish essay writing. I remember hearing about a friend’s daughter and how she did not do as well on her exams as they hoped. She herself was deeply disappointed. The father could not understand the low marks given that he believed her daughter was highly intelligent. The daughter received a lot of praise for her prominent levels of intelligence over the years.
The part which was missing was that she stopped working as hard as she had done previously. In a fashion, she unconsciously came to believe the hype of her intelligence. Instead of studying and developing the skills she needed for the exams, she came to believe that her intelligence would win the day. It almost always never does. The difficulty is not the fact that she is intelligent. She is. It is that the necessary work and endeavors to bring forth her talents had come to a standstill. Simply put she stopped working for her results.
Her intelligence was enough to get her a pass mark, but by her usual standards this was a mediocre result at best. She really wanted a much higher mark. The difference between passing and excelling in her case was directly related to her lack of study and practice for the exams.
Carol Dweck studied this phenomena in depth and coined the terms fixed vs growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is one where people believe their qualities and talents are fixed traits. They begin to stop developing their traits and abilities. For instance, studying for exams is a way to develop oneself and therefore utilize their intelligence in a beneficial manner. It is a way of getting the most out of what we have got. It is often the getting the most part, which people stumble over.
The other side of the coin is the growth mindset. In this type of mindset, the belief is that abilities and talents can get developed through hard work and dedication. Dweck’s research clearly shows that people who believe that brains and talent are merely starting points achieve greater success in life. If we look through the lives of great people, almost all of them had a love of learning. Developing skills and learning new things are essential for major success in life.
Back to Max. Max may be headed for disappointments later in life unless something changes in his psyche. His talent won’t thrive unless he begins to take the path of learning and developing what he has. The feedback he gets needs to go from “Max, your talented” to something like, “Max, you worked hard in that practice session, I am proud of you”. The feedback should still be positively orientated. Max like all kids needs to know he is valued and appreciated. Helping him develop a growth mindset does not oppose helping his esteem grow. In fact, the two often go hand in hand.
People sometimes ask me how they can help develop their own children – code for how can I be a good parent. One way is to help them develop their own unique talents by helping them cultivate a growth mindset. Hopefully Max, gets to maximize the most out of his potential by using this approach. I should point out that it’s never too late to change and if you are not already doing so, then switch to a growth mindset.