If you are constantly told you’re a genius, how would it affect your work ethic? Would it make you work harder because you know your ability, or make you lazier because you know you’re already ahead?
Carol S. Dweck, a leading expert in motivation and professor at Stanford University, studies the effects that praise has over mindset. What she’s found is simple alterations in wording greatly shape attitude toward work, and whether one will strive hard enough to reach their full potential.
In a series of studies, Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she and her team experimented on 400 fifth graders from different parts of the United States. The children were from varied ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
First, participants were given a series of puzzles to test their IQ. After they finished their test, they were told their score and praised in different ways. One group was praised for their intelligence and was told: "You got x number correct. That's a really good score. You must be very smart at this." Another group was praised for their effort and was told: "You must have worked really hard."
The students were then given a choice as to what kind of test they would take next. They could either take one that’s harder than the first, or one that’s just as easy. A majority of the children who were praised for their intelligence chose to take the easier test, whereas 90% of those praised for their effort chose to tackle the harder puzzles.
Afterward, the researchers gave the students even harder tasks. They found the "smart kids" no longer enjoyed what they were doing and weren’t interested in practicing the problem sets. However, the children with grit believed hard work was all they needed and enjoyed the difficult puzzles, even if they couldn’t always solve them.
The students who had been praised for their intelligence believed their skills were innate—something they either have, or don’t have. Students who had been praised for effort believed that intelligence was something they had control over and could enhance through hard work, writes Dweck in the journal American Educator.
While Dweck’s series of studies centered on children, it’s important to note how having a particular mindset can affect you at any age. As someone with a fixed mindset, you believe basic qualities—like intelligence—are fixed traits. Since you are often praised for your intelligence, you want to continue remaining intelligent in the eyes of others so you shy away from challenges. You think failure is a personal attack on your intelligence, so you don’t recover as easily when goals go awry.
On the other hand, as someone with a growth mindset, you believe the harder you try, the more you’ll improve. You’re not afraid of taking risks, even if there’s a big chance you’ll fall flat on your face along the way. You believe your experiences will form new connections that will make you smarter. According to Dweck, those with a growth mindset have a higher chance of success in life.
"More and more research in psychology and neuroscience supports the growth mindset," she writes in the journal Educational Leadership. "We are discovering that the brain has more plasticity over time than we ever imagined; that fundamental aspects of intelligence can be enhanced through learning; and that dedication and persistence in the face of obstacles are key ingredients in outstanding achievement."
Those who were told they’re smart their entire lives believe intelligence alone will lead them to great success. Their intellect makes them feel superior, so they don’t spend time developing it. Over time, they stop growing because they fear challenges and failure.
Dweck’s research teaches us an important lesson about success: Smarts can only take you so far. The rest of the way is paved by grit and determination.