I will never forget a D on a report card I got from a writing professor in college oh so many years ago. It was my first and in a subject that I actually always got praise for and excelled at throughout school. I’ll save you the sordid details of my mortification, but when I went to the professor to get her justification of the grade – after she had written glowing praise about my ability to write all semester – the long and short of it is that she wisely handed me a grade for effort. It was one of the single most impactful grades of my life. Dr. Wagner told me, “You are a gifted writer, and because of that you don’t believe you need to work hard to get better. So while your paper is very nicely written – likely an hour before it is due – it is nowhere what it could be if you believed you could do better. While it’s someone else’s A work; it is your D work.” Ouch.
Dr. Wagner may have intuited what education and psychology professor Carol Dweck of Stanford* discovered decades later. It’s a counterintuitive twist to how we think about praise and doing our best. She and others found out that if someone is praised as smart or gifted – they often believe that their ability is a fixed trait – that that individual doesn’t frequently work as hard as someone who is praised for their effort instead of their brains. That seems backwards, doesn’t it? We like to tell people how smart they are. We like to say to our kids when they come home with a good grade that they are smart. But what happens if they then come home with a bad grade? Dweck’s research shows they often get over-anxious and risk feeling bad about themselves. They often give up. Those in this intelligence-is-fixed mindset also do not take feedback very well. On the other hand, her research shows that those who work hard and believe that they must put in effort in order to get good grades are more successful overall. She found that this permeates most aspects of their life and they just try harder. These people have a growth mindset, according to Dweck.
I was a fixed-trait thinker back then. But, there is hope! We can change! Apply the following to yourself, colleagues, or kids:
1. Believe you can always do better
2. Avoid complimenting someone on how smart they are and instead compliment them on how hard they must have worked.
3. If you try to do something one time and you come up with less than great results, will yourself to get back to it again and try harder.
4. Those who give up because they think a teacher or a boss didn’t give them a fair shake are more prone to blaming others for their failures and so they don’t work on getting better. They work on getting those to blame out of the way, whether by excuses or avoidance.
*Carol Dweck, 2007, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.