The “talent myth” revisited

Carol Dweck

The research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University has certainly generated a number of bestselling books (e.g. Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code) as well as hundreds of articles. Their collective impact has repudiated what is generally referred to as the “talent myth”: specifically, that innate ability rather than practice is what ultimately determines whether or not we have it (i.e. the “right stuff”) within us to achieve excellence. In fact….

Many people who share my interest in this subject are unaware of the fact that, beginning in 1978, Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford and one of the most influential psychologists of modern times, studied the relationship between talent and performance. One of her experiments that interests me most involved 330 fifth- and sixth-graders. Testing revealed that some were convinced that talent is set in genetic stone. They had what Dweck characterizes as a fixed mind-set. Others who believed that intelligence can be transformed through effort had what Dweck characterizes as a growth mind-set. Members of both groups had demonstrated above-average abilities prior to being asked to solve a series of exceptionally difficult puzzles.

Their responses to failure are rather interesting. According to Dweck, “We saw that the students in the helpless [fixed mind-set] group blamed their intelligence [or insufficiency of it] when they hit failure. What did the students in the mastery-oriented [growth mind-set] blame? The answer, which surprised us, was that they did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for the failures. In fact, they didn’t even seem to consider themselves to be failing….”

To me, these are the most significant implications of what this experiment reveals:

1. Those with a fixed mind-set tend to interpret initial failure as evidence of their inability to succeed.

2. Those with a growth mind-set are not discouraged by initial failure and tend to try new approaches, solutions, etc.

More often than not, as various research studies suggest, both success and failure (however defined and measured) often seem to be self-fulfilling prophecies. This is probably what Henry Ford had in mind when observing, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

I highly recommend Dweck’s Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (2000) and a more recent book I found much easier to understand, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006).

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