We are all impressed by demonstrations of ability. Pro athletes, computer whizzes, math
geniuses, bold entrepreneurs, accomplished musicians, gifted writers … these
people are widely-held in admiration, because we appreciate their extraordinary
aptitudes. And we envy them a
little, too. You’d be hard pressed
to find someone who didn’t wish that they were a little smarter, a little more creative,
a bit better at communicating, or perhaps more socially skilled.
So you would think being told that, due to practice and
learning, you have gotten smarter (or
more creative, eloquent, or charming) would be welcome news. Don’t we all want to improve? And aren’t we all happy when we
do? Yes … . and no.
For many of us, improvement – while objectively a good thing – is also, often unconsciously,
That’s because we believe it shouldn’t be possible.
Dozens of studies by Carol Dweck and her colleagues have
shown that roughly half of us subscribe to the belief that our abilities are fixed. These so-called entity
theorists expect their performance to be relatively stable–in other
words, you have just so much intelligence (or creativity, or charm), and there
isn’t anything you can do about it.
Incremental theorists, on the
other hand, believe that ability is malleable
— that it can and does change with effort and experience.
So what happens
when an entity theorist who thinks his intelligence is fixed finds out that he
has, in fact, gotten smarter? A set of studies by Jason Plaks and Kristin Stecher provides the
answer: It freaks him out.
In their studies, college students were given difficult
reasoning problems, and after the first round, everyone received feedback that
they had performed at the 61st percentile. Next, all of the students were given a lesson on how to
approach solving the problems, including tips and strategies. After a second round of problems, some
students were told that their performance had not changed, while others were
told that it had improved to the 91st percentile.
Not surprisingly, everyone who improved was happy to have
done so–but entity theorists, believing that they really shouldn’t have improved,
also reported significant increases in anxiety. The more
anxiety they felt, the worse they performed on a third set of problems that
In fact, entity theorists who were told that they didn’t improve did better on the third
set then those who were told that they did!
So when we don’t expect
to improve, does this mean we actually prefer not to improve? I wouldn’t go that far. Everyone welcomes improvement, but only
for entity theorists does that improvement come with anxiety. That anxiety, in turn, undermines
future performance – eroding our confidence that improvement was ever actually real.
Looking back, these studies have given me some insight into
some episodes in my own life. For
instance, take my experience with billiards. I freely admit that I am a terrible pool player.
I played a few times in college and it was a sorry sight. I wrote the game off quickly, believing
that I just didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to ever be any good at it. (I
should mention that I had a long track record of lacking hand-eye
coordination. When my brother
tried to teach me to catch a ball in our backyard when I was 10, I caught it
with my face and broke my nose. )
Years ago I dated an avid pool player, who convinced me one
night at our neighborhood bar to give the game another chance. Before beginning, he gave me a brief
lesson–how to hold the cue, how to line up a shot, etc. We played, and something totally
unexpected happened–I played well. In fact, I came awfully close to beating
him. And I remember feeling both
elated that I had improved, and completely freaked out. Did I really improve? How
was that possible? I’m not good at this sort of thing. Maybe it was a fluke.
A few days later we played again, and I approached the table
with a nervousness I hadn’t felt before, even when I thought I’d play
terribly. What would happen? I had no idea. And that nervousness wreaked havoc on
my ability to play–I couldn’t sink a ball to save my life. I
knew it was a fluke, I thought.
I’m definitely not good at this sort of thing.
Granted, we’re talking about playing pool here, and I
realize that it’s not a skill that usually has life-altering consequences. But what if it was? What if instead of writing off my pool-playing
ability, I had written off my ability to do math, learn to use complex computer
programs, write well, be creative, embrace risk, give compelling presentations,
or become more socially skilled?
What if I believed that I couldn’t improve when it came to something
that really mattered?
The bottom line is, no matter what kind of learning
opportunities you are given, you probably aren’t going to see lasting
improvement if deep down, you don’t believe improvement is possible. Believing that your ability is fixed is
a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the self-doubt it creates will sabotage you in
To be successful and truly make the most of your potential, it’s critical to examine your beliefs, and when necessary, challenge them.
Change really is always
possible, and the science here is crystal-clear–there is no ability that can’t be developed with experience. The next time you find yourself thinking, “But I’m just not
good at this,” remember: You’re
just not good at it yet.