How to Encourage

I found this article online today, and I thought it was a very interesting study on the difference between praising someone for being smart, and praising someone for working hard. Before I read this, I didn’t think there was much of a difference:

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. Understanding why this happens is the first step to righting a tragic wrong. And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.

Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth-grader. You did well in several subjects (maybe every subject), and were frequently praised by your teachers and parents when you excelled.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia, my mentor Carol Dweck and another student, Claudia Mueller, conducted a study looking at the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth-graders. Every student got a relatively easy first set of problems to solve and were praised for their performance. Half of them were given praise that emphasized their high ability (“You did really well. You must be really smart!”). The other half were praised instead for their strong effort (“You did really well. You must have worked really hard!”).

Next, each student was given a very difficult set of problems — so difficult, in fact, that few students got even one answer correct. All were told that this time they had “done a lot worse.” Finally, each student was given a third set of easy problems — as easy as the first set had been — in order to see how having a failure experience would affect 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.

It’s important to remember that in Dweck and Mueller’s study, there were no mean differences in ability between the kids in the “smart” praise and “effort” praise groups, nor in past history of success — everyone did well on the first set, and everyone had difficulty on the second set. The only difference was how the two groups interpreted difficulty — what it meant to them when the problems were hard to solve. “Smart” praise kids were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective performers as a result.

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. When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever,” or “such a good student,” this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

Over the last few years, I have come to believe that self-confidence is very important. One of the most effective ways that spiritual warfare is waged against us is by insidious seeds of doubt being planted in our minds…are you really good enough…does God really love you…can you really trust Him? And it is so important for us to affirm those around us, especially those with whom we have the most influence, that they are valuable, and worthy of respect. Teachers and leaders must be always aware of the effect they have on their students and those under them, and should be encouraging whenever possible.

Even if every external disadvantage to an individual’s rising to the top of an organization is removed — every inequality of opportunity, every unfair stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family — we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

[read the entire article at http://www.businessweek.com/management/the-trouble-with-bright-kids-11212011.html]

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