Monday, March 30, 2015

Praise (part two)

Here's another perspective, from another anonymous e-mailer, about the Praise post last week.

Your recent link and post on praising children for intelligence vs. effort have really gotten me thinking with my first child on the way. I felt compelled to write something, I guess just to share another anecdote in the blurry region between hard workers and failed child geniuses.

I am also "naturally brilliant", and was told this from a young age. I wasn't raised with a particular emphasis on effort, although I never developed that aversion to failure as a sign my intelligence was fraudulent. In looking back, I largely credit games for this. I always played chess and scrabble with my mother, and she handily beat me for years and years. I also owned an NES as a child, and lost life after life to platformers. I knew things came easy to me but that that wasn't all there was to success.

At each level of school I put in the limited effort required to excel: procrastinating but always spending the hours to finish a project in the end. I found shortcuts wherever I could, but didn't cheat. I grew up in a poor town, so there were no gifted programs to push me. But in return, I find I value everyday people more than most brilliant individuals I meet. I never thought I was better than my peers, just different. Since school came easy, I never felt like that made my school achievements something worth bragging about. Since it clearly came hard to others, I didn't view that as a poor reflection on them.

Reading the comments on the article you linked to, it sounds like a lot of us brilliant young things praised for our minds develop a deep aversion to trying, but I guess I avoided that. At the same time, I never found a love for it either. I picked up the boardgame Go recently, which has an incredibly steep slope. It takes dozens of games to not be an atrocious player. That hasn't scared me off and I've kept playing and improving. At the same time, I'm not rushing to expertise because I can't bring myself to devote the hours to studying and practicing.

The point I wanted to get to was that I love how I am. I don't doubt that if I had the drive I could write a great novel or build a robot army. I could have clawed my way towards the top of corporate America. But after 8 hours of work I want to go home and hang out with the wife. I want to play a computer game or read a book. I'm not afraid of trying to achieve things, I'm just happier living a middle class life than going for greatness. So in once sense I'm exactly what that research warns about, a ball of under-utilized talent. In another sense, though, the level of effort I want to put in is enough to achieve good things in the world. Not things they'll write about in history books, but some of those million little things that push progress forward. It's impossible to tease apart all the causes and effects in life, but I wanted to put out an anecdote of being a brilliant underachiever and not wanting it any other way.

I think one of the hardest things for an adult is to find out who they really are, and to be comfortable in their own skin. I know plenty of adults who still haven't figured that out. 

I didn't mention this last week, but I think that when kids are constantly praised for being smart, it makes it very difficult for them to appreciate multi-dimensional effort. If you want to be good at anything, a one-dimensional effort is likely to fail. 

As an example, Eli 13.7 has these levels in his approach to hockey:
--structural stability and functional strength (30-minute, low-intensity strength exercises with lots of stretching to help him avoid injury).
--dry land workouts to build explosiveness and strength (an hour, and they're hard)
--former college players shooting on him once a week
--tennis, to build quickness and stamina

Notice what I didn't list there? Actual games. Most kids his age just play the games and ignore everything else. That's the one-dimensional approach, and while those kids want to be good (and some of them are really good), they don't have the patience for a sustained, multi-dimensional effort. Eli does, and he understands why it's important.

"Smart" kids are more likely to look for the fastest path to success, even if it's not the most enduring success. They want the praise reward, instead of being in it for the long haul.

Please note that I might be completely wrong about that. Being around lots of kids, though, that's how they seem. 

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