“You’re smart.” Versus “You worked hard.”

by Suzita on November 16, 2011

Eliza lives down the street.  She’s seventeen now but we’ve known her since we moved to the neighborhood eight years ago.  She’s a tall girl with a tangle of blonde curls.  She’s often wearing splashes of colorful apparel, chosen more because the fabrics appealed than the items matched.  When Eliza was fourteen she babysat for our kids a few times but babysitting was never really her thing.

Art was her thing.  Her mom, Marta, told me Eliza has loved making art since she was a little girl.  “She loved making art, but she wasn’t exactly artistic.”  When she was younger Eliza would beg her mom for various art classes:  How to Draw Cartoons;  Making Works of Art from Nature;  Pastel Painting;  Beginning Sculpture;  Black and White Sketching Basics;  and even Sewing.  Eliza greatly enjoyed these courses, but more often than not, the instructor found a way to let Marta know her daughter wasn’t “a natural” in artistic endeavors.

Eliza achieved similarly average results and grades in her art classes at school.  Her sixth grade art teacher informed her mother that Eliza worked diligently in class, but her outcomes weren’t commensurate with the energy she applied.  Marta made sure not to pass along these comments to her daughter.  She herself was continually surprised, though, when Eliza’s attraction to all forms of art grew year by year.

When Eliza was fourteen, a local art studio offered a class in stained glass.  It was more expensive than some, but Eliza requested it be her sole birthday gift and her parents relented.  Six weeks into the class she brought home her first stained glass production, which was but two rows of glass squares in a range of blue hues welded together.  It was the spark in her daughter’s eyes, though, that Marta noticed.  “Mom, I’ve found my medium!  I’m going to stick with stained glass for good.”

Three years later Eliza has been true to her word.  She babysat to earn money for stained glass classes, equipment, and supplies, then organized a small studio in one corner of their garage.  Sure enough, step by step Eliza learned this art form.  It likely took her longer than some, but this didn’t dissuade her.  When she recently showed me some of her gorgeous, newly-made pieces, she acknowledged that not all her works turn out well.  She said this is frustrating because they take a while to make and the supplies cost money, but she always tries to understand what went wrong with those pieces, so she won’t make those mistakes again.

Two months ago Eliza showed her stained glass artwork in public for the first time.  She was shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response to her work.  She told Marta she’d expected people to react as her art teachers had, giving her B-/C+ types of responses.  Thinking about the path she’d taken to become an artist, Eliza figured she’d developed a thick skin over time.  And more significantly she’d become used to creating the art that she envisioned, not that others wanted.

As I’ve watched Eliza grow up over the last eight years, I’ve seen her utilize what researcher Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset.  Eliza has focused on following her aspirations and learning new techniques in art, not on grades or even final products.  She relished the challenge of gaining new skills and expected these learning processes to take time.

In Mindset: A New Psychology of Success, Dweck describes the findings of her numerous studies on elementary-aged children.  In one notable study, after successfully completing some fairly easy puzzles, some kids were told, “You must be smart at this.”  But later these “smart” children were less likely to take on increasingly challenging puzzles.  It seems they didn’t want to risk failing, and therefore losing their “smart” label.  Meanwhile children who were told they must have worked really hard to do the puzzles successfully, were energized by the feedback and wanted to attempt harder puzzles next.

One little sentence highlighting children’s intelligence or diligence ended up having an enormous impact on their mindset.

Turns out some children (and adults as well) see intelligence as fixed, meaning they are born with a certain level of IQ which they have little control over increasing.  Because people with a fixed intelligence mindset believe being smart means achieving effortless success, expending effort makes them feel incompetent.  This is how we find certain exceedingly bright students who “avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty,” Dweck explains.

Children with a growth mindset believe that no matter who you are, you can always become a great deal smarter.  If they do poorly on a test, they are more likely to think about what went wrong and what they can learn from their mistakes, much like Eliza does with her stained glass artwork.

Eliza exemplifies Dweck’s finding that there is no relationship between one’s history of success in a certain area, and one’s current efforts to seek out or cope with challenges.  The ability to master a difficult task is not about our actual skills, but about the mindset we bring to the challenge.  Each time I catch sight of the soaring bird fashioned from a riot of colorful glass which I bought at Eliza’s art opening, I’ll remember this sentiment.

Thoughts or comments?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie Poppen December 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Love this post – so true. We’ve got a perfectionist kid who resists taking on challenges. If she doesn’t get something right away (she often does), she blows up and refuses to continue. Somehow we need to instill the ideas that it’s OK to fail and OK to work hard to find your own definition of success. Thanks!

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Play. Fight. Repeat. December 3, 2011 at 11:02 am

I wrote a post a while back about a technique my stepfather used with me when I was a kid to help me with my perfectionism. Basically he paid me when I failed (at something I’d really wanted). I’ve been thinking about how to introduce this kind of system with my kids, but I think it was a bit easier to do it from the position as step-parent… I still want to figure a way to do it though. The post is at: http://playfightrepeat.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/paying-kids-failing-reward-system/
Thanks for your comment!

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Dean Pajevic December 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

You hit the nail on the head. This basic fact is so easy to forget. And our society always shines its light on the successes, not on all the work that it took to get there. Thanks for the big reminder of what matters in life: Following your dreams by acting and doing, and doing again, and again.

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Play. Fight. Repeat. December 3, 2011 at 11:05 am

I think I write about this so much as a way to remind myself repeatedly about this important message. Glad you liked the post!

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Rachel June 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

Love this! Was writing about similar issue from a different angle recently on my blog. I was at a story hour with my 4 y/o, watching him make a rather imperfect ladybug, when all around us nannies and moms were doing the craft for the kid so that it turned out better (I’m guessing that was the reason?). There’s this whole trend of 1) praising the result rather than the effort (even when the result is not good) and 2) overparenting to the point where you experience things rather than your kid getting the chance to learn something.

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Lynne April 14, 2013 at 6:43 am

Thank you for this. My 5 year old daughter is beautiful and extremely intelligent, and we’ve been very conscious of not over-praising her looks (which others do for us) but definitely falling down on focusing on her smarts rather than her efforts. I’m turning over a new leaf!

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Suzita April 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Good for you! And thanks for your comment. Having a daughter myself, I notice how much more adults (me included) tend to comment on her appearance or current outfit. Yet people rarely make similar comments to my sons, instead comments directed at them tend to be about sports and academics. Very interesting. For me it takes a conscious effort to change what I focus on with boys and girls.

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