When praise goes wrong

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6811140195_f3d7572eaaI fancy myself a bit of a writer.  It started way back in high school when I wrote for the school paper.  I wrote short stories too, and silly little poems, and I always had a journal to express my adolescent angst.  It was just fun.  I played with words like others might play with clay or paint.  I built stuff with them–lined them up, rearranged them, messed with their context, syntax, meaning.  It was just play.

This continued into college where I again wrote for the student rag and received praise from professors for my witty and creative essays.  During winter break, I remember the thrill of writing sports for the Inter County Leader.  Writing appealed to me for the simple joy of expressing myself.  The biggest thrill though, was publishing–because then people could read my stuff and tell me I was good.  My ego loved that part the best.

Now well into my forties I still enjoy writing.  But when I look back on my life as a writer, I notice something very interesting: long stretches of silence, almost decades, in which I’ve written nothing.  Nothing!

What a waste.  All the words I could have written.  All the thoughts I could have captured.  The meaning I could have made!  But why did I stop?  It used to baffle and frustrate me.  Now I know.  I quit because I began to think I might have talent.

I know this seems insane, but as it turns out, it’s actually quite common.  Carol Dweck explains this counter-intuitive phenomena in her ground breaking book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential.”  In it, she explains that, generally speaking, people are of two mindsets: Fixed and Growth.

According to Dweck, if you have a Fixed Mindset, you generally believe that as far as talent or ability goes, some people are just born with it.  They pick up on things faster and just generally have more skill.  Whatever it is, painting, math, computers, athletics, you name it.  If you’ve got the gift, lucky you and when it comes to time to demonstrate your talent, things just flow easily and naturally.  At least, much more easily and naturally than for the rest of us.

Those with a Growth Mindset generally love a challenge.  For them, it’s okay to fail–as long as they learned something along the way and can then use that to improve for next time.  People with a Growth Mindset believe that, even if it doesn’t come easily or naturally, the challenge is worth the effort.  These people just love figuring it out.

To better understand into which camp you fall, ask yourself, “When do I feel smart?”  Then consider the following possible responses:

“It’s when I don’t make any mistakes.”

“When I finish something fast and it’s perfect.”

“When something’s easy for me, but others can’t do it.”

“When it’s really hard, and I try really hard, and I can do something I couldn’t before.”

“When I work on something a long time and I start to figure it out.”

The first three responses are fixed mindset responses.  The last two are growth.

So what does this have to do with my quitting just when I started to think I was a good writer?  I quit because I began to believe that effort was only for those without talent—and often, for me, writing was hard. Then, I began to fear failure.  The idea of trying and still failing was terrifying.  Failure, especially after effort, would mean that I didn’t really have the gift and was just wasting my time.  Better to work overtime or do dishes or mow lawn or wash windows than try and fail.  At least then I’d be getting something done.

I share that with you so that I can share this: Be very careful when you praise a child for his or her talent.  You may unwittingly be setting her up not for failure, but for the fear of it.  And I think we all know what’s worse.

Photo Credit: Krissy.Venosdale via Compfight cc

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