Friday, February 16, 2007

Effort, not Talent

About nine or ten years ago, my Great-Aunt read a translation of mine (Jacques Réda's "The Letter Scale") and remarked on how talented I was. To my surprise, and especially to hers, I was offended: I had worked for hours and days and weeks on that translation, and I wanted to be praised for my effort, not for my talent.

I thought of that little incident when reading "How Not to Talk to Your Kids," by Po Bronson, which I found a link to on AL Daily. Bronson addresses research by, among others, Carol Dweck:

“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.

Considering Dweck's emphasis on effort rather than talent, I found it ironic that Bronson quoted someone who said that "Carol Dweck is a flat-out genius."

At the end of the article, Bronson describes his own efforts to apply these ideas to his son:

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.


Donald Brown said...

This discussion reminds me of "The Royal Tenenbaums" in which the kids are a "family of geniuses." When the neighbor kid (Eli Cash), who always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, writes a novel, it receives a review that says Cash is "not a genius." He asks his girlfriend Margot Tenenbaum: "do you think I'm particularly NOT a genius?" She replies, "it's not a term I use lightly."

I have the feeling about this entry, and the next one, that terms in praise like "smart" and "intelligent" are simply to indicate that the speaker is "smart" enough to get it. What isn't clear to me is what that standard is. What makes someone "a flat-out genius"? Like Margot I don't use that term lightly and can't think of that many people I'd apply it to. And unlike Hoagland I'm very reticent to say that I participate in the intelligence of a really smart writer. His remark seems to me to be conferring an intelligence BECAUSE he's smart enough to find it there.

As to talent and hard work, or as the saying goes, inspiration versus perspiration: being talented or gifted always seemed to me to mean that you make some kind of connection or are able to imagine something ahead of most of us. Whether or not that "gift" or "talent" is ever manifested for the rest of us to participate in depends on whether or not you make some effort.

Put another way: smart people understand what is already there, they grasp "what's what" very quickly; the talented and gifted grasp what isn't there yet, the potential of something. Which is why that term applies to artists and inventors and those who produce things that many smart people can understand (once they see it done) but could never have come up with themselves. I would use talent to refer to such ability.

To say one should praise effort instead of talent is good in that it shows gratitude to the talented person for taking the time, for making the effort. But not all efforts succeed. And it seems to me your aunt wanted to praise the fact that your effort, thanks to your talent, succeeded where others have failed or would fail, even if they made the effort.

Dr. M. L. Grim said...

I heard about Dweck's findings on NPR and was equally fascinated and thoughtful about it, from a parenting perspective, as you do here, but then your post made me think about its implications for the way that we relate to ourselves, our accomplishments and our aspirations. I understand why your auntie irked you, since, in your mind, talent meant you did something effortlessly, when the opposite was the case. Still, would your effort have amounted to anything if you didn't possess some "talent," or "knack" for word-smithery?

Oddly enough, your post made me realize that, when I've worked hard to create something that means a lot to me, I don't really care if someone acknowledges the effort. I'm looking instead for affirmation of my abilities (or "talent"): "Wow, I didn't know you could do something like that." That sort of thing. Indeed, even when I've worked for a long time to hone a song, for example, I never really think of it in terms of the effort, in part because I experience the work more as compulsion than effort, if that makes sense.

On the flipside, I've tended to discount the things I've done that impressed people when they came to me more or less effortelessly. This was especially a problem throughout school when I continually succeeded, even to the point of receiving a PhD, even though I rarely felt that I was working hard.

Finally, Dweck's main insight isn't that there is no such thing as innate intelligence - in the sense of an overall capacity to grasp or imagine connections. Instead, her work seems to emphasize the relationship between performance and self-perception. Specifically, her experiments involved teaching children to think differently about how the brain works, and this encouraged them to study harder, put in more effort, and, ultimately, perform better on math tests. In other words, her point seems to be that self-image, and even a factual understanding of how learning happens, can motivate us to fulfill our potential, not necessarily expand that potential.

Ms Baroque said...

Hi Andrew,

This discussion goes back to every teacher's report I ever had - "could do better," "could try harder." I had worked out pretty early on that I could hand in first drafts and get a B+. In fact, it never really occurred to me till I was embarrassingly old that other kids wrote two or three drafts of everything. So yes, I could have done with being persuaded to be more diligent, but as I say below, I was looking for someone to take me seriously and give me something proper to DO. I'm talking about writing and English lit here, but also history - when I went to teachers begging for further reading, their knowledge was exhausted. They wanted to help but had no idea how. They always told me how talented I was, but I was starved for something I could use. I loved doing research papers because they were the only time I felt I could really get stuck in and follow something up. And I worked very hard on them.

Of course the Royal Tenenbaums approach is wrong (God I love that film), but I'm not sure I agree with a total flattening-out approach either. NOT having your innate talent recognised - & I know a couple of kids who don't - doesn't make you work harder or feel better about yourself. It makes you feel weird, and like you're out of step with the world, and like there's something everybody else gets that you don't. Bright kids need stimulation and they need to be taken seriously.

Of course ALL kids need that. But there is a thing about a talented kid, who may be very serious about his or her pursuit - writing, music, art, football, maths, chess - needing to be taken seriously on a level by adults who are masters of it. Praising only effort sounds patronising. Praising only talent provides no usefulness.

I think more important than adopting rules is to pitch it right for the individual kid.

Of course I am only speaking of myself here! Your story sounds touching, & the other comments make a great point.

Andrew Shields said...

This magnificent set of comments has left me speechless. No mean feat, as Don and Dr. Grim both know full well!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm coming into this late - I was just looking for an example of "effort not achievement" advice on the internet for a blog of my own - but I felt compelled to agree with Ms. Baroque about not only acknowledging efforts.

Stating that we should praise effort and NOT accomplishments seems a little extreme and more than a little out of touch with the real world. Of course a person should feel good about putting forth an effort - say training for a race - but if you are a world class sprinter and you just won the olympic 50 meter event, you do NOT expect everyone going around gushing about how hard you TRIED. You want a little recognition for the results!

It often amazes me how willingly someone will dispense advice about children when that same advice wouldn't even be considered for an adult and the issue isn't age related at all! After all, adults receive - and often expect - praise as well! Sure an employee wants to be recognized for the effort he puts into his job, but when he succeeds, you can be sure he wouldn't mind a little recognition at that point as well. And just try using this advice with your wife sometime:

Husband: "The show is starting soon, are you ready to go?"
Wife: "I think so, how do I look?"
H: "Wow! You really put some effort into your makeup! I can tell you spent a lot of time finding the right outfit and accessories that coordinate with it! You should be proud of the work you did!"
W: "but how do I LOOK?!"
H: "You look like you really tried to make yourself look beautiful!"
W: "So I look ugly? What, are you saying? Am I FAT??"
H: "Honey, it doesn't matter how you look, what is really important is the effort you put forward to achieve your look. I want to emphasize your effort."
W: "Oh, I see now! That makes perfect sense! For what its worth, it's pretty obvious that you 'really try' in bed too."

Look, I'm not saying we shouldn't emphasize the importance of striving, persevering and pushing your limits. I'm just saying that when all that is done, it's still okay to acknowledge the end result every once in a while too.