The Key to Success - Effort or Intelligence?



We tend to believe that only a handful of talented people born under a lucky star are destined for great accomplishments. Therefore, the path to excellence in any domain belongs only to the chosen ones. This would imply that success is nothing but a passive realization of our innate potentials. But, is that really the case?

Dr. Carol Dweck, an acclaimed Stanford psychology professor, would disagree. She argues that our mindset profoundly influences the way we lead our lives, and determines whether we can accomplish things we value.

What Exactly is a Mindset?

Mindset is a set of our beliefs about our basic abilities and talents. In other words, it is our mental inclination or a frame of mind. It is a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. We could say that the three components that make up our mindset are: emotion, cognition, and behavior. 

The emotional component influences how we feel about a particular person, object, issue, or event. The cognitive component comprises our thoughts and beliefs about something. The behavioral component determines how our beliefs influence our behavior.

Our Mindset is a Prerequisite For Success

Our beliefs about what we can become and what we actually become are strongly interconnected. While the psychological characteristics written in our genes could be of great scientific importance, for us as individuals, it is more important how we think about them, accept them, and deal with them. Namely, the way we think about our abilities for success has a bigger impact on our actual success than our IQ or talent. Our conscious and unconscious beliefs strongly affect whether we will get what we want and the scope of our achievements.

In her research, Dweck identified two types of mindset - a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset are more inclined to believe that personality traits are predetermined, that we are born and remain either talented or untalented; smart or stupid. They believe that what we consider to be our personality - our character, intelligence, and creativity - is innate and can't be changed, and that success is a mere confirmation of our inherent abilities. 

As a culturally desirable trait, we value intelligence and avoid making mistakes to maintain the image of us being smart, special, and talented. For this reason, we tend to avoid doing anything that can make us look bad. We start avoiding challenges, lose interest, and simply stop trying, because, if you show as if you didn’t care, others can’t judge your full ability. 

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves - in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” - Carol Dweck

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that their basic qualities are just a starting point that can be cultivated and developed through effort. Growth-minded people believe that talent and intelligence are not a gift, but something you have to work for. For them, effort is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but another rewarding experience and an opportunity to learn, develop, and improve.

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it's not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives." - Carol Dweck 

The growth mindset is a fruitful framework for development which strengthens the desire to learn and progress, instead of fueling the perpetual hunger for confirmation. Our mindset is a decisive factor that shapes our lives, and the main reason why some people succeed and some don’t, why some people manage to realize their potentials and some never do. 

“Everyone holds his or her own key to success and happiness. It's just that sometimes you have to test out a lot of wrong keys first to find the one that fits.” - Brittany Burgunder

Factors That Influence Our Mindset

The idea - "You can do anything if you put your mind to it!" - is nothing new. If anything, it's a thread of every self-help book you can find. Dweck's work is different as her research focuses on how the mind works, and explores how these mindsets are born. It turns out, they are formed at a very young age.

In one study, she gave a group of four-year-olds jigsaw puzzles to solve. Each of the puzzles was fairly easy for them, and all the kids loved it. However, when she increased the puzzles' difficulty, one group of children showed a steep decline in interest and effort as the puzzles got harder. They chose to stay on the safe side and redo the same puzzles saying that smart kids don't make mistakes. 

On the other hand, another group of kids didn't shy away from the challenge. They chose to keep trying because they saw harder puzzles as an opportunity to get smarter. In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to keep their face and look smart, while the growth-mindset kids wanted to learn something new. This study showed that even these young children adapted the characteristics of one of the two mindsets.

In another study, Dweck and her colleagues gave a group of adolescents a pretty challenging non-verbal IQ test. They praised the students for their performance, but in two different ways. One group of students was told: "Wow, you did well. You must be really smart." While the others were told: "Wow, you did really good. You must have worked really hard." In essence, one group was praised for their ability, the other for their effort. 

Carol found that the ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset. They rejected new challenging tasks, because they didn't want to expose their flaws. In contrast, 90% of students who were praised for their effort accepted new tasks they could learn from.

The effort praised encouraged the children to engage more deeply and persistently in new challenges, and they enjoyed overcoming them. On the other hand, the group of children who were praised for their intelligence, was more concerned about the possibility that they won't be able to complete new tasks successfully. The ability praise leads to an increase in anxiety due to the threat that a child might look not as smart, and it causes a drop in a child's self-confidence and motivation. Finally, when the examiners asked the participants to describe their experience to the neighboring school students, the children from the first group were dishonest and lied about their scores. 

“In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.” - Carol Dweck

This study clearly illustrates the key difference between the two - for the fixed mindset, success is about establishing superiority, while, for the growth mindset, success means being your best by trying your best. The former can be devastating for kids and young adults, because avoiding challenges can significantly impede their development, motivation, and performance. They are afraid to show effort because they think it mirrors the lack of ability. 

For this reason, Dweck suggests parents and teachers should praise children's efforts rather than intelligence to support their diligence and flexibility.

"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." - Elon Musk

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