Why praising “hard work” is better than praising inherent “intelligence.”
As parents, we are constantly trying to positively reinforce our children in a way that will make them feel good about themselves and build the confidence they need to succeed. We are told that we need to encourage our children, tell them they are smart, that they can do whatever they put their minds to. We are trying to prepare them for a rough world that may not always appreciate them for who they are and what they are worth. According to an article in BusinessWeek titled “The Trouble with Bright Kids,” your choice in wording may have a bigger impact in how successful your child is than you may think.
This article brings up a point that I feel is extremely relevant today due to the fact that let’s be honest, it’s pretty cut throat out there. Just because you are good at something, doesn’t mean you will succeed. This article addresses the issue of the type of praise we give our children and why praising children for hard work may be better than praising them for their inherent intelligence.
The author Heidi Grant Halvorson points out that “Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room.” This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me as obviously it seems like the opposite should be true. But understanding why this is the case could help us reverse this wrong and help our children build the confidence and skill set they need to live up to their fullest potential.
In order to get to her conclusion, Halvorson and her peers conducted an experiment on the different kinds of praise given to 5th graders. This is how it went.
First: Every student was given a test with some relatively easy problems and was given praise on their performance. Half of the students were praised for their ability i.e. “Great job, you must be really smart” the second half were praised for their effort i.e. “Great job, you must have worked really hard.”
Second: Each student was given another set of problems, this time they were very difficult. The problems were so difficult in fact that none of the students got many correct at all. The students were told that they did a lot worse than before.
Third: Each student was given a third set of problems. This set was easy like the first set. The idea was to see how each student would handle the failure of the previous difficult set of problems.
The results are pretty amazing. Halvorson and her colleagues found that the students who were praised for their ability or for being smart, did roughly 25% worse on the third set of problems compared to the first set. The article states that “They were more likely to blame their poor performance on the difficult problems to a lack of ability, and consequently they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up on them sooner.”
The group of students that were praised for their efforts instead of their ability, did 25% better on their third set compared to their first set of problems. “They blamed their difficulty on not having tried hard enough, persisted longer on the final set of problems, and enjoyed the experience more.”
All of the students in the experiment had the roughly the same ability level and had a similar history of success in the classroom. All students did well on the first set of questions and poorly on the second set. The only difference was in how the students took the failure and difficulty of the second set of problems. The “smart” kids were much quicker to lose confidence, doubt their ability and perform less effectively.
The big takeaway is this:
“The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities — including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice. When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever,” or “such a good student,” this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder.”
We tend to carry these beliefs about our innate ability, what we naturally can and cannot do, around with unconsciously throughout our lives. Think about whether there is something you would have liked to do but didn’t because you thought you just wouldn’t be good at it. Believing that we just don’t have the skills to do something, or that we are stuck being just the way we are, is a trap. It’s a trap because it’s NOT TRUE! You’re abilities are not innate, or unchangeable. Hard work, effort and persistence DO pay off and in fact if you ask anyone at who is wildly successful at something, I’m willing to bet they will attribute their success to exactly those things.
My stepfather always said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get” and I think he had it right. So start today even as an adult, and throw out any preconceived thoughts about who you think you are or what you think you can and can’t do, and find the confidence to take on the things you never thought you could do. You can get in A for effort after all.