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.