Recently Ken Bain wrote a fascinating article based on his forthcoming book, What the Best College Students Do (August 27, 2012). Dr. Bain explains that most people think of intelligence as a sum-total game, one in which each of us is born with a specific amount of intellectual horsepower. And that that’s it; the quantum of brainpower between our ears at birth is all we get. Sorry! When it comes to IQ, that’s all the Lord dispensed.
Then as we grow up, we are riddled with tests designed to assess our intelligence. By the age of 16, the number we score becomes a societally accepted fact about us, an indelible “smarts score”! Moreover, we come to believe that our “proven” intelligence is an infallible barometer of our ability to succeed. In this way, a score we are labeled with in our mid-teens when we are inexperienced, relatively unread, and certainly untraveled determines what we think of ourselves and then what challenges we attempt for the rest of our lives. Splice these two issues together—the IQ number itself and how we regard it–and many of us conclude that our capacity for success is pretty much a done deal from conception onward.
But Dr. Bain argues that that’s not true. He claims–and I believe him–that we have the ability to grow, to develop our intelligence. And that a growth mindset—a faith in IQ growth–can be learned! In fact, the difference between success-minded people and also-rans is that when faced with a difficult problem, the former delve beyond their native intelligence for a workable answer while the less successful easily convince themselves that the problem is unsolvable. They turn away from not only the pleasure and difficulty of facing a mental challenge, but they turn away from exactly the problem-solving process that helps build their IQ. And that’s what we’re after—the mindset that accepts the idea that intelligence and problem-solving capacity increases over time by the individuals’ experiences of all kinds. What a bitter irony!
Success-prone individuals believe that whatever the problem, “[They can] solve [it] with a little more effort.” They may put it down for now, but they keep trying to figure it out and will return to it later, trying some new approaches. Apparently, other people don’t try because their psyches are awash with the fear of failure. If your mind gives aid and comfort to that mental predator, you’ll often avoid life’s challenges rather than consider the bracing possibility that your self-image is weak. That your self-image does not at all conscribe to reality and that you can change it. How sad, indeed!
But here is the important upshot of Dr. Bain’s observations. When leaders dispense praise, we must make certain it is based on effort rather than on mortal gifts such as aptitude; often people have aptitude in many areas, but they don’t train and use those innate talents. Thus, praising an innate talent you see in a coworker may appear to be foolish, empty praise by his or her coworkers who see day to day that that innate talent goes underutilized in the person. Thus, praise only a job well done.
A jobwell done is, after all, just that. In any organized endeavor, be it a personal project or a corporate goal, we need to praise work products rather than some species of illusory pride we take in an employee based on his or her potential acumen in consciousness. For instance, when I composed letters to employees in my sphere of responsibility, I wrote about the challenges named individuals overcame, the efforts they expended to succeed, and how that effort is the best path to achievements that matter most!
Last week I wrote about being on the lookout for powerful lessons we could take away from the Olympic Games. Is there any better forum to observe effort-based results that build higher intelligence to apply to future projects? Did you watch the American swimmer Missy Franklin as she provided a much-needed boost to what is already one of the greatest swimming programs in the world?
Coming back less than 14 minutes after swimming a semifinal heat to go up against a killer field, Franklin won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Surely she will have a dazzling career. But if she had not won, she would have had a trainload of excuses acceptable to most people. Many people watching had no doubt already constructed their own best excuse, the one they would have rolled out if they were Missy and hadn’t won. But that is the point to remember–that what many of us gauge an acceptable effort differs from what a world-class athlete like Franklin considers acceptable. Of her performance Michael Phelps said, “She’s a racer and knows what to do,” meaning that Missy’s training caused her to learn and understand that only an extraordinary, top effort could produce such stunning results!
Like Missy or Michael, any one of us–those in your company, department, or group, too–can be taught that degree of effort and dedication necessary to reach a stated goal. By praising each one only for efforts expended in the pursuit of excellence, coworkers or family members can learn to go beyond narrow, early labeling and beyond mechanistic, set numbers such as IQ to take pleasure and suffer difficulty in solving hard problems. They can be motivated beyond all expectation and beyond every creative excuse they might summon to defuse the problem of failure. That’s what it is that separates big-time winners from companies or individuals that chronically fall short of their confidence and focus, first, and then of their aims and desires.
The sportscasters talk in every high-value contest nowadays of doping, of athletes’ taking substances to give them artificially boosted physical abilities, so here’s a “Suppose . . .” that takes it one step farther: If we could bottle success, would the fear of failure come off of life’s table? Would the daunting mystery of whether we can achieve our longed-for aspirations or not be no more? Would a daily dose of “Sure Success” make us feel better about ourselves and what we accomplish?
Even as I write those words, I can imagine how boring it would be to pour “A Job Well Done – 1 tsp. after breakfast each day” from a mystic container, rather than experiencing the thrill that resonates to the core of our being when we out-think or out-work a competitor. My friends, strengthening our faith in our ability to learn and grow during our adult years, along with learning to value an effort-based mentality, is a combination with great energy and stamina–a formula sufficient to each of us for success of Olympic proportions.