Thoughts on intelligence, effort, and the myth of talent

I grew up knowing I was one of the “smart” kids. Looking back, being smart was very much a part of my identity. I worked hard, and I was proud of that too, but I nonetheless thought of smart as a gift, a mystery, a thing I was lucky enough to be born to.

Yet more and more studies I’ve been reading the past decade have been suggesting that it’s not some mythical natural talent that leads to success, and that children who are told how smart they are don’t do nearly as well as children who are told they’re good at working hard.

Today I came upon another article on current research on the subject, and it had me nodding all over the place:

Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

That last I’ve seen not only among young children, but at rather high levels in every field. I’ve even heard, in some fields, the phrase “she works hard” used as criticism, to indicate the lack of some more natural gift.

We love that myth of magical talent. We hate to give it up or even minimize it’s role for the less magical and more challenging and more long term idea of hard work.

There are some good thoughts on the dangers of false praise in the article, too:

New York University professor of psychiatry Judith Brook explains that the issue for parents is one of credibility. “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” she says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

Thinking about my own school days, in spite of knowing I was “smart,” in high school I still sought challenges and worked hard at things: I remember once being the only student, even, to leave the classroom when given that choice so I could keep working on a difficult problem, rather than letting the teacher just “give” me the answer like everyone else. I loved challenges.

But then I hit college, where everyone had grown up knowing they were smart, and where surely, I feared, we couldn’t all be as smart as we thought. The first time I nearly flunked a test I began to worry that maybe I wasn’t one of the smart ones after all, and that it was only my higher-scoring classmates who were the truly brilliant. When I eventually switched out my dreams of being a research scientist for dreams of being a writer, it was in part because I thought writing was still clearly something I was “good” at, while working in the lab was something I just as clearly wasn’t.

I don’t regret that choice at all. I loved writing, in a way I didn’t love labwork, and it took my struggles with the latter to give me the courage to pursue the former full-out. Yet I can see now the falseness in the reasoning that got me there. It was the very act of working to become a professional writer that taught me that “talent,” wasn’t enough, wasn’t even the main thing. It taught me that I was going to have to be persistent and always learning and always willing to work incredibly hard, for years and years and years.

In the early days, I was convinced several of my writing friends had more natural talent as writers than I did, too. But sometime amid all the work, I stopped playing that game. Wondering who the smart writers are is no more meaningful than wondering who the smart students are.

I’m not able to write at a professional level because I’m smart and was always good at it. I’m able to do it because I’m really, really good, at learning and struggling and persisting and working really, really hard. I’ve never stopped doing that–I’ve gotten better at it instead –and I get now that it’s not a weakness, but one of my most important strengths.

It’s a strength that far more of us have than we realize.

Janni Lee Simner

About Janni Lee Simner

Janni Lee Simner is the author of the post-apocalyptic Bones of Faerie trilogy and the contemporary fantasy Thief Eyes, as well as four books for younger children, more than 30 short stories, and the script for the video game The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse. Check out her Writing Life Series for practical tools to hone your writing craft and unlock your creative power or join her email list for ongoing updates here.
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