Our blind belief in fixed qualities and its largest cause you need to avoid
Many people have believed and still do believe that they have fixed qualities that they were born with. In short, they possess the so called “fixed mindset” we’ve talked about in our previous post. A very good example is Jack. Jack went through his primary school years without a scratch. He got straight As all along the way to high school. In his mind, he can not fail. He is simply fit for school, he learns fast as hell and he doesn’t even need to put much effort into studying. Most teachers “marked” him as a “genius” or as “one of the smartest kids they have seen“. This would seem pretty amazing to most people, simply because that is the way traditional education makes us think. We assume that there are smart kids like Jack, who have no issues in school, and then we assume there are less smart kids, who will end up doing some worse paid job due to their poor performance in school. What is the issue? The issue is that we think that once you are marked as smart, you are smart and that is what you are praised for. You are not praised for your efforts, your hard work or your progress, which is the important part of success we should focus on. This article thus looks at the way we praise our friends, our partners or our kids and talks about what we might want to improve to ensure their better personal growth.
Ever since we have been young, we have been praised. It doesn’t matter whether it was just a small good job from a friend or something much bigger like a praise from your university professor in front of the whole class. We have been receiving these verbal rewards ever since we’ve made our first step or since we’ve first spoken. Undoubtedly, we all love to hear how great we are, how smart we are or how good we look. However, we do not realise that these praises do more damage to us than good. Don’t get me wrong, praising others is a very positive thing, it is the way we do it that is critical.
First, let’s look at the reason for a praise. Why do we praise others? The reasons include increasing their confidence or providing them with an instant stream of positive emotion that makes them feel good and thus helps them understand that they have finsihed the task well. Second, let’s look at how we praise people. We usually use (often unconsiously) adjectives like smart, great, amazing, strong, fast, etc. These terms are what Carol S. Dweck Ph.D. criticises in her book Mindset. She claims that by using these fixed qualities to praise others, we unconcsciously reinforce fixed mindsets on them. Why is that? Let’s look at the next scenario to understand it properly. Jack, as we already know, is doing very good in his school years. He gets accepted to a prestegious high school in his town. The great news make his parents incredibly proud, so the first thing they do is tell Jack how incredibly smart he is (which they have been telling him ever since he started visiting his elementary). A few months later, Jack’s first high school day comes. Having been told how incredibely smart Jack is, he walks into the class very proudly waiting for the teachers to ask him a question so he can present his brains to others. Next week, there is a math test. Jack has been nailing math at his middle school, so he expects nothing less than a straight A. What he does not expect is that the high school teacher plans to challenge the kids to show them that high school is not as simple as middle school was and that they have to work even harder there. Jack gets a C. He has never gotten a C. What happened? Everyone told him how smart he is, how come he got a C? Jack, completely destroyed gets home and tells his parents what happened. What he does not realise is that the amount of work he put in the revision for his math test simply was not enough. His picture of himself fell apart. He is not as smart as everyone thought, man he is not even sure whether he can pass the next test… Where is the problem?
The problem is in the way he has been thinking about his characteristics, which is partially caused by the way everyone praised him in the past. He accepted the fixed characteristic of “being smart” and thought that his brain will automatically solve all his issues because he is smart. He completely disregarded the hard work he put in to get where he is, he completely disregarded the progress he went through ever since he was in his elementary. Why did that happened? One of the major causes is the way he was praised.
We need to think about the way we praise others and start focusing on their progress, growth and development and on the efforts they have put in to overcome their issues. Instead of “you’re so smart”, say something like “man you’ve put so much effort in, you made it happen” or “you’ve grown so much since last time, lovely progress”. What is the difference? The difference is the nature of what you praise, more specifically what message you put forward. Instead of praising the person’s fixed traits, focus on the flexibility of his character, focus on the way the person changed or developed. What this will do is that the person you are talking to will receive the message that the work he has put in is the source of his success, which indirectly tells him that if he wants to succeed, he needs to work hard and grow. What you have just done is you have helped the person shift his mindset to the growth side, which is where we all want to be.
Praising Jack’s progress would have helped him understand nothing else than his failure was due to the way he prepared for the test and that he needs to find a better one next time. It would not have made him feel worthless, but rather motivated to get pass the challenge in front of him.
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