The Excellence of Effort

Mountain HikingSeventh grade is tough.  Suddenly you’re thrust from the comfort and security of a well-known environment where you were the big fish into the new, sophisticated world of junior high school.

Even if you have done pretty well in school until now, if you’re like most kids, your first report card is going to be a shock.  Your math scores, if you’re normal, are going to plummet.

Psychological research and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, set out to see if she could change that.

She and her team went to several New York City public schools and separated the new seventh graders into two groups.  For half an hour once a week for eight weeks, they taught the kids about the way our brains work.

One group, the control group, learned about various brain functions, such as memory.  The other group learned how experience and genuine effort can make brains smarter.  Intelligence, they found out, was like a muscle.  The more work you give it to do, the stronger it gets.

Over the course of the school year, the math scores of the control group fell.  But the kids who had learned that working your brain makes it smarter got higher scores. 

Just showing them that it was possible to improve your learning ability motivated them to work hard enough to prove to themselves—and everybody else—that it was true.

Plenty of research since then backs up the hypothesis that Dweck had set out to prove: Whether we see intelligence (and other personal traits, too) as fixed or changeable significantly impacts our lives in surprising and counterintuitive ways.

The Flaws of the Fixed Mindset

If you believe that you were born with a fixed helping of intelligence, or of the ability to write or do math or be sociable, you’re what psychologists call an “entity theorist” and you’ll hold different kinds of values, make different kinds of choices, and set different kinds of goals than the “incremental theorists,” people who believe these traits can be developed and grown.

In her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Stanford psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., says entity theorists turn away from challenging goals.  Because they believe they are stuck with a fixed amount of ability, they only go for things they’re pretty sure they can do.  They take it for granted that there are some skills they can never possess or some things they could never be good at doing.

Yet we promote entity theorizing in some very counter-intuitive ways.

Suppose, for example, that as you were growing up everybody told you, “You’re so smart!”   Would you be willing to tackle any challenge that came your way?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.  If you failed at something, after all, it would show that you weren’t as smart as you thought—or that others believed you were.  And that would be embarrassing, maybe even crushing.

Entity theorists (who see traits are fixed), believe there are limits to what they can achieve, that abilities are set and no improvement is possible.  They believe that talent creates success without effort and give up when things seem difficult.

According to an article in New York Magazine, for example, a large percentage of gifted kids underestimate their abilities.  If math or spelling don’t come easily to them, they assume they just aren’t good at that subject and set it aside for something that is easy.

Kids “who think that innate intelligence is the key to success,” the article explains,” begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Most American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.   “But a growing body of research,” the New York Magazine article says, “strongly suggests it might be the other way around.  Giving kids the label ‘smart’ does not prevent them from underperforming.  It might actually be causing it.”

The Power of the Incremental  Mindset

The better way to help a child—or anyone else, for that matter—is to encourage the incremental mindset by praising her for her effort:  “Wow!  You must have put a lot of work into that!”

The positive results the incremental, or growth, mindset produces even show up in the corporate world.

When CEOs believe that mistakes help people learn, they can lead their companies into greatness, Dweck says.  Such leaders encourage employees to see their mistakes as providing valuable feedback that they can use to develop different strategies.  They set up mentoring and employee development programs to encourage employee growth.

Companies that see themselves only as a showcase for brilliance, on the other hand, try to hide their mistakes and often end up failing.

Take Home Lessons

The first take home lesson is that if you want to be great at something, get to work on it.  “If you can’t excel with talent, triumph with effort,” says talk show host Dave Weinbaum, and he got it right.

At her website Mindset Online,  Dr. Dweck cites Robert Sternberg, “the present-day guru of intelligence” as saying that “the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.”

The second lesson is to challenge your limitations and dare the rough ground.   Don’t deny yourself exciting and valuable opportunities just because you’re not sure you can do them.   Keep reminding yourself that you can learn.  The science in neuroplasticity says experience even changes our DNA.

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it,” says Dweck, “even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Part of the reason that you thrive when you adopt the incremental mindset is that you no longer fear failure.  It falls into its rightful place as information instead of acting as a label of your abilities or worth.   It’s still not fun to fail of course. But when you see things with a growth mindset, it becomes worthwhile, freeing you to give even the scary things a run for their money.

And doing the difficult makes you feel like a million bucks.

Photo: stock.xchng
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2 thoughts on “The Excellence of Effort”

  1. Great Blog. The greatest gift you can give someone is that of a growth mindset. It costs nothing but a bit of time and the positive flow on effects is not in proportion to the costs of implementing it.

    A case of maximum bang for minimum buck. Something that should get the budget people interested in for those worried about the costs of implementing things.

  2. Yes, instilling more self-confidence in someone by recognizing their efforts truly is a wonderful gift to give, Robin. Unfortunately, all too many of us have acquired the habit of praising the person instead of giving them credit for time, attention, thought, practice or work they put into their achievements. So for a lot of us, the gift does come with a cost: we have put in effort ourselves to become more mindful of the ways we offer encouragement. But that makes it a two-way gift, doesn’t it! A genuine win-win situation. And as you say, a case of maximum bang for the buck.

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