How many times has somebody praised you for being smart or for being good at something? How does it feel?
When I was a kid I was known for being good at lots of things. I was athletic. I was smart, always at the top of the class. I was tall and had long blonde curly hair. I had lots of friends. From the outside, I had it all.
I distinctly remember coming home from school in tears one day when I was about 10. My mom quickly embraced me, asking me what was wrong. She was braced for a tale of being bullied or teased, or maybe a story of having forgotten to study for an important test or presentation. What came out of my mouth both shocked her and tested her ability to keep from laughing in the face of her upset daughter.
In between tears I wailed, “I’m so sick of everybody saying, ‘Crystal, you’re so smart. Crystal, you’re so pretty. Crystal, you’re so tall.’ I wish they wouldn’t say that.”
My poor mom tried to comfort me and said with a smile, “I’m sorry they say those things, Sweetheart. I love you.”
She still teases me about this experience today. I have to admit it is pretty funny now, but at the time, I was genuinely upset. Being labeled “smart” or “pretty” doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but it can damage someone just as much as any other label out there.
Labels, even labels that are supposed to be positive, reinforce what is called the fixed mindset. This is defined basically as a belief that a person’s ability or intelligence is given to them and has finite limitations. So either someone is smart or dumb, talented or not, nice or mean, etc. This dumps a whole lot of pressure on the “haves” and severely handicaps the “have nots”. It is an incorrect view of what our brains are capable of. My wise mother understood that it wasn’t about what the teachers and kids were saying, it was about the pressure I felt from being labeled. It was about me being afraid to fail because I didn’t want to lose the respect of my peers and teachers who knew me as The Girl Who is Good at Everything.
In reality, our brains are muscles that grow and change as we use them. Nerve connections are made and strengthened as we practice a task over and over again, be that playing the piano, practicing a soccer kick, or studying algebra. As we learn and study and struggle and practice our brains get stronger and we get smarter. This is called the growth mindset. With this mindset, a person can literally learn anything.
So what does this have to do with you? Well, everything.
If you work with children as a teacher, a coach, or a parent (which I think most of you do if you are reading this blog :)) you need to be careful about how you praise and encourage those children. Carol Dweck at Stanford has done extensive research on fixed mindset versus growth mindset and the results are astounding. Children who are praised for their intelligence, for being smart, for being good at something, are far more less likely to tackle difficult problems because they are afraid of failing (fixed mindset). If they attempt a new or difficult task and fail they are afraid they will lose their value as being smart or talented or whatever. They are more likely to play it safe and stick to tasks that are easy that they know they can do.
Children who are praised for their effort, for working hard, for trying a new task, for persevering through a tough problem, are far more likely to want to try hard things in the future (growth mindset). They are more likely to tackle difficult problems or to reason through a new way of doing something because they aren’t afraid of failure. They are more interested in the process and in learning something new along the way, rather than in completing the task perfectly the first time. They actually enjoy the struggle in learning something new.
Here is a video that summarizes Dweck’s findings and gives you phrases you can use to change your child’s mindset today:
You Can Learn Anything
Did you know that you can learn anything? Literally. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what your background is. If you want to learn something, you can do it. Your brain is wired to grow and change, even when you are old. Want to learn a new language? Or pick up the algebra you didn’t grasp in high school? Or learn how to program a computer? You can.
My background is in chemistry. Until I founded this website I had never done any programming or graphic design or anything like it. I wasn’t sure I could learn everything I needed to know. But you know what? I started muddling along and I tried a thousand things that didn’t work, but I stuck with it and I learned a ton in the process. And it has been one of the most thrilling projects I have ever undertaken. I could almost feel my brain expanding as I persevered and learned hard things. And I know it’s not perfect and I still have thousands of little improvements to make and things to learn, but that’s all part of the process.
Sal Khan over at Khan Academy wrote a wonderful article on this subject entitled, “Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart”. I am posting his video below as a perfect summary of the beauty of the growth mindset.