Thursday, March 26, 2015


When Eli 13.7 was still very young, I started seeing research about praise.

There was a common thread to all this research: give praise for effort, not talent.

The short version always went something like this: when you praise children for effort, they will attempt more difficult tasks, and be more likely to grind through the work necessary to succeed, than children who are praised for being "smart" or "talented". Kids who are told they're "smart" will tend to chose less difficult tasks, because they're afraid that if they don't succeed right away, then they won't be considered smart anymore. Kids who are praised for effort, in contrast, aren't discouraged if they don't succeed right away, and they seek out more difficult tasks.

That struck a chord with me, mostly because it's damned hard to be good at anything, and much harder to be great. No matter how much "talent" someone has, there's an incredible amount of work involved. I think I have some kind of aptitude for programming (hey, now--no laughing), but I worked very hard for five years and I'm STILL not anything but vaguely competent.

So right from the beginning, I never praised Eli for being smart. I praised preparation and process. He gets good grades not because he's smart, but because he's prepared (and he is--man, he's so much better at being prepared than I ever was). He is confident in hockey not because he's talented, but because he's he's earned confidence through thousands of hours of effort.

When he starts doing something new, and decides he wants to be good at it, he just works. And he doesn't look for constant praise as he works, because he's not working for praise. He works for himself.

Eli 13.7: not a coaster.

Last Friday, I linked to this article: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise. It's a fascinating article, and I highly recommend that you read it instead of my shorthand summary. I say that because the examples they provide are genuinely striking, and it reinforces that how we talk to our kids has a huge, absolutely huge impact on how they see themselves and what they think is important.

What I didn't expect after posting this link was to get a poignant and piercing e-mail from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. I have always respected the clarity of his thinking, and even more so after reading this e-mail. Here's what he wrote:
I don’t want to spend too much time on this. I just wanted to say, I’m in the same IQ percentile as the kid in the article, and I had the same kind of childhood, though in a much less prestigious school. I just wanted to confirm: everything this article says is the absolute truth. I’m not a researcher, or a parent, I’m a product of this kind of reinforcement, and even today, at 32, I am still trying to unravel and understand all the damage it’s done to my life. I’ve been “gifted” or told I was gifted all my life. Everything came easily to me. School was a breeze. Most of college was boring and elementary. The only classes I could sink my teeth into were those that really engaged and challenged me.

In school we’re given lots of special treatment, constantly lauded for our intelligence. The effect of this on me was that I never made the mental connection between hard work and good results. I never needed it. I got good results with no effort at all. I never had to work hard at anything mentally. Now, as an adult, I flit from hobby to hobby, from interest to interest, interpreting a lack of immediate success as failure. I’m adequate at my job, but I don’t stand out. Aptitude was always what granted me success before, so it’s hard to understand that aptitude isn't the hammer to the nail of all life’s problems. That said, I can sit here, I can talk about this, I can see the problem. But that’s not the same as being able to solve it. It gets in your bones. It’s how you think. It’s part of who you are.

I've thought a lot about how my present difficulties might have been prevented, and the only thing I can think of, as unfair as it sounds, is that we should be held to a higher standard. If I’d had to work as hard as others to succeed earlier in life, it would've been doing me an immense favor. But it seems manifestly unfair. Even advocating it, I can see how unfair it seems. Still, I wish above almost anything else that it had been handled that way.

I haven’t read the entire article yet, so perhaps it touches on this, but if you’re interested as a parent, my advice to you is this: praise your child for their accomplishments, not their intelligence or other natural aptitudes. I am living proof that intellect is meaningless without drive and discipline. Not just intellect, any natural ability. They are all worthless. Yet our society exalts them, to the detriment of our children. Please believe me when I say, it is poison.

As I said in the beginning, it’s something I struggle with daily. It is the single, central conflict of my life. It makes me very happy that that article was written. I just wish more people understood the problem.

On a personal note, though, I never give up. Bit by bit, I try to gain the understanding I should've gained in childhood, applying myself to new problems, ignoring failure, trying to figure out how to turn effort into results. But sometimes it feels impossible to unlearn the things we learn as children. You have to change the way your mind works, change the way you think. Other people have goals in life like “earn this degree,” “get that job,” “write that book.” My goal is to get to a state where I’m able to achieve goals. If I ever do, my potential might be as limitless as I was always told it was. 

One of the things that I most appreciate about writing this blog, even after so many years, is that while I often reveal myself, many of you have revealed yourselves as well, and often at the most unexpected times.  

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