Harvard Business Review

The Trouble With Bright Kids


It’s not easy to live up to your fullest potential. There are so many obstacles that can get in the way: bosses that don’t appreciate what you have to offer, tedious projects that take up too much of your time, economies where job opportunities are scarce, the difficulty of juggling career, family, and personal goals.

But smart, talented people rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome lies within.

People with above-average aptitudes — the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished — often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do (particularly in Western cultures). Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room. Understanding why this happens is the first step to righting a tragic wrong. And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.

Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth-grader. You did well in several subjects (maybe every subject), and were frequently praised by your teachers and parents when you excelled.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia, my mentor Carol Dweck and another student, Claudia Mueller, conducted a study looking at the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth-graders. Every student got a relatively easy first set of problems to solve and were praised for their performance. Half of them were given praise that emphasized their high ability (“You did really well. You must be really smart!”). The other half were praised instead for their strong effort (“You did really well. You must have worked really hard!”).

Next, each student was given a very difficult set of problems — so difficult, in fact, that few students got even one answer correct. All were told that this time they had “done a lot worse.” Finally, each student was given a third set of easy problems — as easy as the first set had been — in order to see how having a failure experience would affect their performance.

Dweck and Mueller found that children who were praised for their “smartness” did roughly 25% worse on the final set of problems compared to the first. They were more likely to blame their poor performance on the difficult problems to a lack of ability, and consequently they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up on them sooner.

Children praised for the effort, on the other hand, performed roughly 25% better on the final set of problems compared to the first. They blamed their difficulty on not having tried hard enough, persisted longer on the final set of problems, and enjoyed the experience more.

It’s important to remember that in Dweck and Mueller’s study, there were no mean differences in ability between the kids in the “smart” praise and “effort” praise groups, nor in past history of success — everyone did well on the first set, and everyone had difficulty on the second set. The only difference was how the two groups interpreted difficulty — what it meant to them when the problems were hard to solve. “Smart” praise kids were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective performers as a result.

The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities — including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice. When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever,” or “such a good student,” this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

Incidentally, this is particularly true for women. As young girls, they learn to self-regulate (i.e., sit still and pay attention) more quickly than boys. Consequently they are more likely to be praised for “being good,” and more likely to infer that “goodness” and “smartness” are innate qualities. In a study Dweck conducted in the 1980′s, for instance, she found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up compared to bright boys — and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses.

We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright kids are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be adults who are far too hard on themselves — adults who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Even if every external disadvantage to an individual’s rising to the top of an organization is removed — every inequality of opportunity, every unfair stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family — we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is a motivational psychologist and author of the HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2011). Her personal blog, The Science of Success, can be found at www.heidigranthalvorson.com. Dr. Halvorson is available for speaking and training. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.

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