I wish someone had told me this secret to being smart 

A smart kidIn my elementary school, each grade was split into three groups based on ability - essentially smart, medium, and dumb. I was happy when my teachers and parents labeled me smart. Looking back, I wish they hadn’t.

How did they know?

Certainly, hearing someone tell me I was smart was better than hearing I was stupid. But one problem with this system is that those labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. The kids in the stupid class think they're stupid and tend not to try hard. Their teachers also tend not to try as hard.

Salman Khan, who’s on a mission to change education which Khan Academy, described how these labels for kids are only relevant when applied to certain subjects at certain times.

There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said “these are the gifted kids,” “these are the slow kids” … But when you let every student work at their own pace - and we see it over and over and over again - you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted. 

So the labels are often wrong, but they can lead to a mindset that shapes your life.

Fixed and growth mindsets

In the 1990s, researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University worked with fifth-graders to understand the effects of different kinds of praise on motivation. After an easy set of problems, some students were praised for their ability (”You must be really smart!”) and some were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard!”). After a second set of problems, though, all the students were told they hadn’t scored  well.

The researchers aimed to measure whether the different kinds of praise would affect how the children dealt with challenges. Would their performance vary on the third set? Given a choice, would they choose easier problems? Would they view themselves differently?

The results showed a dramatic difference in performance. After receiving a poor score, children praised for being smart did 25% worse on the next set of problems. Children praised for working hard performed 25% better. Even more fascinating were the other differences they found. The children praised for intelligence equated their performance with their ability. So they did all they could to maximize their performance relative to other children. They chose easier problems, asked about the performance of others, and even “misrepresented” their scores more than the other children. They described intelligence as a fixed trait.

Children praised for their effort, however, equated their performance with how hard they worked. So they did all they could to maximize their learning. They chose problems that were harder. They were more interested in strategies for solving the problems than in the scores of others. They believed intelligence was something they could improve.

The secret

For me, the advantages of being labelled smart faded as soon as I got my big break and entered a high school where everyone was labeled as smart. Though I worked harder than ever, I optimized on the grades, not on the learning. I’d cram for the test and would even write the occasional formula on the palm of my hand. In college, I dropped courses that were too difficult. Like the fifth-graders in Carol Dweck’s research, I was desperately trying to validate my label and the story I’d been telling myself. And I limited my possibilities as a result.

It was only decades later that I realized the secret to being smart - and to accomplishment in almost any field - is having a growth mindset. It’s more effective and fulfilling to focus on getting better over being good. Instead of relying on some inborn gift, you rely on effort and feedback. You view setbacks as learning opportunities. You persist.

Next week, I’ll write about a school that creates a growth mindset in children, and produces the smartest kids in the world as a result. We’ve known for a long time there’s a better way to identify and develop talented people. And organizations of all kinds have a lot to learn from such a school.