Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability — along with confidence in that ability — is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.
For children who hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, striving to learn seems far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.
[M] astery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn.
Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. [In a 2007 study,] at the start of junior high, the mathematics achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their mathematics grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester — and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.
[The full article also discusses the positive outcomes of a growth-mindset in college students, at the workplace, and in personal relationships. Here I will reproduce the section on praise.]
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about mathematics geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with mathematics and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mindset, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.
We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example,
shied away from a challenging assignment — they wanted an easy one instead — far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.
Praise is very valuable if it is carefully worded. Praise for the specific process a child used to accomplish something fosters motivation and confidence. Here are some examples:
· You did a good job drawing. I like the detail you added to the people’s faces.
· You really studied for your social studies test. You read the material over several times, outlined it and tested yourself on it. It really worked!
· I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that mathematics problem until you finally got it.
Parents and teachers can also teach children to enjoy the process of learning by expressing positive views of challenges, effort and mistakes. Here are examples of such communications:
· Boy, this is hard — this is fun.
· Oh, sorry, that was too easy — no fun. Let’s do something more challenging that you can learn from.
· Mistakes are so interesting. Here’s a wonderful mistake. Let’s see what we can learn from it.
Finally, Dweck’s research also establishes that knowledge about how the brain works and grows contributes to having a growth-mindset. You can find an article about the brain (tailored to children) here:
and if you want grown-‐up reading on the growth of the brain in response to enriching stimulation, I recommend the work of the neuroanatomist Marian Diamond, who has written many articles for general audiences.