Getting Gritty: Stop Thinking about Your Ability; Start Concentrating on Your Effort

If you spend any time around children, you will probably hear someone say one of the following to them:

  • You’re so smart.
  • You’re athletic.
  • You’re creative.
  • You’re just not good at math. Neither was I.

Usually they are meant as compliments. Or as a salve to make someone feel better. But you might be surprised to realize that these statements are also cultural. They are likely to be heard in Western, not Eastern, cultures. In fact, according to researcher Heidi Grant Halvorson, in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, the major difference between East Asian and American students is “Americans believe in ability, and East Asians believe in effort

She goes on to say, “Asian children are explicitly taught that hard work and persistence are the keys to success. . . . Too often American students labor under the (mistaken) belief that doing well in math and science is a matter of possessing some innate ability–as if some people are just born capable of long division. When they first encounter a difficult concept or a problem they don’t know how to solve, they jump to the (mistaken) conclusion that they don’t have what it takes to do well.”

Just as it is important to praise children for their effort, we also need to look at our own attitudes and what we say to our students (if we’re teachers) and what we say to ourselves (if we’re students). 

  • One of the best math professors I’ve ever known took a different approach on the first day of class. Some of her colleagues would start off a semester stating that students should relax because math is not hard. It was meant as comfort, but then when students started having trouble, they concluded, “Well, my teacher said this is easy and I can’t do it. What chance do I have of succeeding in college?”  My friend, instead, started out the semester like this: “You’re nervous because you think math is hard. Well, it is hard. However, if you work hard, do the practice, ask questions, and come see me in my office, we’ll get through this together.” 
  • We should be honest with our students about our own academic struggles, letting them know how we overcame them.
  • As students, when a course gets hard, don’t say, “Well, it’s obvious I wasn’t mean to major in engineering” or, even worse, “I should quit college.” Instead say, “It’s college. It’s SUPPOSED to be hard.” Then ask yourself what is the next step YOU can take to learn the subject.

Changing your focus from ability to effort is like changing a filter on Instagram. It provides a different way of seeing the familiar, one that is more likely to bring you success.


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