Effort – more important than ability?

Phantom Scribbler and Laid Off Dad had thoughtful comments on this article from the New York Times on how you should praise your children – how it is much more effective to praise a child for putting effort in, than for being intrinsically smart.

I recently found a fuller article on the same research in the Stanford Magazine. It’s about far more than just parenting – the article describes applications for business, sporting teams. Fundamentally, if you think of yourself as intrinsically smart, or good at sport, or good at any particular characteristic, then putting effort into training or improving whatever it is will imply that you aren’t particularly good at it in the first place. But if you think of that characteristic as something that you can improve with effort, then you are likely to get much better at it.

Seems obvious, when put like that, but thinking of it in a school situation, as described in the article:

Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor.

The Stanford article goes on to describe a way of thinking that is more likely to lead to achievement – illustrated in this diagram. Fundamentally, a growth mindset can be described as someone who:

  • believes that intelligence can be developed
  • leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to
  • embrace challenges
  • persist in the face of setbacks
  • see effort as the path to mastery
  • learn from criticism
  • find lessons and inspirations in the success of others
  • leading to ever-higher levels of achievement.

On the other hand, a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is static, leads to a desire to look smart and therefore

  • avoid challenges
  • give up easily
  • see effort as fruitless or worse
  • ignore useful negative feedback
  • feel threatened by the success of others
  • as a result they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential

There are lessons here for far more than just parenting. Changing your mindset is not easy, but if you are trying to get the best out of people, in any area, it is worth thinking about what mindsets you are reinforcing. For example, in a business setting, assuming that there are people who are intrinsically good or bad at their jobs ignores the big difference that their level of effort can make. Certainly, some people are intrinsically better at (say) communicating than others. But assuming that you are intrinsically good (or bad) at it, ignores the difference that you can make with effort. 

For myself, I’ve decided that I really should have the courage to learn to play chess; I’ve always been scared to take chess seriously, because people have told me for years how good I should be at it. If I try hard, it might show up my lack of intrinsic intelligence. So I’m going to give it a go; and see how long I’ll be able to last before Chatterboy beats me.

  6 comments for “Effort – more important than ability?

  1. March 24, 2007 at 1:51 am

    Thank you so much for the link to the fuller article!

  2. March 24, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    This was interesting. I’d heard about the article but wrote it off as parenting blah-blah-blah, and never saw what PS or LD wrote.

    I love the way you take parenting tropes and apply them to business, and vice versa. It’s as if you’re implying that, like, both require similar skills! That they’re equivalent in importance!

    My anecdote: When my 5-year-old started skiing on his own at the end of last season, we told him what a fantastic skiier he was. What we meant was, You can do it! All your hard work (and ours) paid off! We’re so proud! But of course all he heard was, I’m a great skiier. So this year we put him in a class and he didn’t pay attention to the coach. I’m already a great skiier, he kept telling us. So we spent a lot of time telling him that although he has inate ability (of course not using that phrasing), he still has a lot to learn, and listed specific skills he needed before he could, say, ride the really big chair lifts. 10 lessons later he is still telling us how awesome he is, but he’s also telling us proudly about how he can almost do a hockey stop.

    All of which is to say, I can clearly see the problems with calling your kid “smart” but its correctable. For our purposes praising our son as he picks up new skills been working the best.

  3. March 26, 2007 at 12:18 am

    Great post! You have inspired me to write my own post (focusing on the implications of this research for young law students going for jobs)

  4. March 28, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    That’s fascinating – makes me think of the amount of fun I’ve missed avoiding things that I wasn’t good at. Like chess, strangely enough – I stopped playing in my early teens because I couldn’t consistently make the school team. It was precisely that attitude of (to paraphrase) if I can’t be very good at this, I don’t want to know (which is inked all over my high school report cards!)

    Something to carry around and think about as I approach this afternoon’s to-do list.

  5. March 29, 2007 at 1:37 am

    This is fascinating–I’m glad to see it making out of the “parenting how-to” and into other, equally practical and at least equally necessary areas. I might pick it up as a self-improvement post b/c I can see how caught I am by some of that thinking.

    I mean, it’s great to apply it to how I talk to Frances; but if I can’t apply it to how I talk to myself, it isn’t likely to do much good, is it?

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