You’re So Smart! No I’m Not!

I tell my almost-two-year-old son Toby how smart he is all the time. It was said to me over and over when I was a kid.

Decades later, I know in hindsight that I believed my “smartness” to be innate and unrelated to effort or discipline. I therefore, in turn, also believed that when I felt challenged, that it was because I lacked a sufficient amount of “smartness” — that I was inherently flawed and unable to achieve a goal, rather than because of a lack of sufficient effort. I won’t go into it here, but I’ll just say that it’s perhaps the biggest psychological challenge I now face in the wake of all the other traumas with which I’ve had to cope of late. It’s a discovery I’ve only recently made, and it’s of enormous significance for me.

And then, as though the folks at Bloomberg News have been listening in on my therapy sessions, my too-smart-for-whatever-room-he’s-in pal Skylar linked to this piece in Businessweek:

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.

The piece then cites a study on how well-meaning, shorthanded evaluation of children effects 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% better on 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.

The conclusion, with emphasis from the original:

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.

Let me tell you from first hand experience, this mountain feels utterly unscalable. Only a lot of time and, well, effort, will tell whether I can traverse it. I’m somewhat gladdened, perhaps a bit validated at least, to see it acknowledged in this form.

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