TQ: I’m Not A Genius. I’m A Veteran.

As I wandered through Barnes & Noble today, I came across The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure.  I read through the first 50 pages and really felt it reverberate in my heart.  The Author, Ian Robertson, discusses amongst many other things, the effect of a person’s understanding of intelligence.  His discussion is based on research by Diener and Dweck.  On one hand, intelligence may be something you are born with.  After all, children are given IQ tests and many people believe your IQ remains the same all your life.  Others, believe intelligence is something that can be grown through effort and hard work like a muscle.

What you believe about intelligence is very important.  A person believing in a “fixed mindset” would say as Dweck originally believed, “human qualities were carved in stone. You were smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t.”  Robertson shares anecdotal evidence about a boy named Tony, who had been told he had a very high IQ.  “As Dweck’s research has shown, once you start believing that your intelligence is endowed, you will tend to cope badly with failure compared with those who believe it’s something incremental that can be worked on.  … What had become a fundamental aspect of his self-perception – ‘I’m super-bright’ – was bruised and battered every single day by the reality of his school performance and his disappointed parents’ reaction to it.”  Many people, myself included, feel the truth of this when we get to college.  Suddenly, everything is harder and we may find ourselves thinking, “I guess I’m not as smart as I thought I was.”  This begins to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy when we don’t realize that hard work and perseverense can overcome those obstacles.

It starts to sound like a curse that we give our children when we let them believe their intelligence is something they are born with. What can we do to prevent this?  Robertson has some ideas.

Whatever we do, we should not praise a child for being ‘bright’, but rather for their effort, perseverance or ingenuity, otherwise we risk imposing the curse of genetic fatalism on them.
Rather than praise them for being bright, we should praise them for ‘grit’. Angela Duckworth and her colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania discovered that the quality of ‘stickability’ and perseverance was a highly significant factor in Ivy League undergraduate exam performance and even spelling ability in seven- to fifteen-year-old children. Their measure of ‘grit’ had two elements – consistency of interests over time and perseverance of effort. The sort of consistency questions were similar to this: ‘I find it hard to follow up on projects which last for more than a few months.’ Examples of the perseverance questions were similar to this: ‘Whatever I start I usually complete, I work hard or I don’t get discouraged by setbacks.’ Children and adults who were high on these grit items were more likely to be winners than those with less grit.

This idea is what I will call Technique:  I’m not a genius.  I’m a veteran.  This can serve as a humble reply when someone praises our ability instead of our effort.  This technique reminds us that when we are good at something, it is not because of anything innately special about ourselves but simply a result of hard work and dedication.  Anders Ericsson of Florida State University argues that genius only begins after 10,000 hours of practice.  Likewise, when we are UN-successful at something, this technique reminds us that with enough practice, we can overcome our obstacles.

Let us instill in our students the “growth mindset” by praising their effort instead of their abilities.  In the process, we can change our own mindset.  I have experienced this myself over the last 4 years.  I used to have a strong fixed mindset, but after learning about Dweck’s research, I have challenged my instinctual reaction to failure.  Dweck explains how to start talking back to your fixed mindset. The fixed mindset says, “What if you fail? You’ll be a failure.” The growth mindset replies, “Most successful people had failures along the way.”

Mistakes are a wonderful learning opportunity and a sign that we are still trying new things.  If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t challenging yourself.  It’s OK to make mistakes, just make NEW ones.  (TQ: How Fascinating!)


DON’T say:

  1. Great job on the test.
  2. She’s the smartest kid in the class.
  3. Math comes naturally for him.
  4. Social Studies just isn’t your good subject.
  5. I can tell you are smart because everything comes so easily for you.

DO say:

  1. Look at how much your hard work paid off on the test.
  2. Her effort doesn’t go unnoticed.  If she continues studying, she’ll perform even better.
  3. He is able to focus well and enjoy working hard in Math.
  4. By working harder and trying different things, you can do just as well in Social Studies as you do in other classes.
  5. The harder you work, the more you’ll accomplish.





Posted on December 15, 2012, in Techniques and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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