A for effort

I've long believed that all the hyperbright procrastinators I know, many of them underachievers, are the product of a particular mindset about intelligence. They are people who long ago internalized the notion that performance is largely based on innate talent--and are therefore putting off work because they know it won't be perfect. Procrastination delays the moment at which you find out that you aren't as talented as you hoped and believed you were.

This is approximately Carol Dweck's argument here. I agree with the diagnosis, but I'm a little more sceptical about the cure:

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 math 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 math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, 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.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

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. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. 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.

My parents, who had both themselves found school excruciatingly easy, certainly never told me I was smart; they believed the important thing was effort, not talent. I nonetheless internalized the notion that talent mattered more than effort, because in my case, it was obviously true. I learned my lessons far faster than the kids around me with absolutely no effort at all; I mastered long division in about ten minutes, then sat through three excruciating weeks while all the other kids in my class caught up. Telling me that this was the result of my effort, rather than native ability, wouldn't have made me believe in effort; it would have made me believe in the idiocy of adults.

Needless to say, this belief was incredibly harmful when I got into harder academic environments where effort was required; it took me a long time to catch up when I switched from public to private school, because the work was harder than that in my old school, and I didn't know how to tackle it. But before you can reward smart kids for putting out a lot of effort, you have to put them in an environment where some effort is required, and for most really bright kids in America, that isn't the case.