When Smart Kids Grow Up

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Were you one of those students who made schoolwork look easy, earning a galaxy of gold stars and an alphabet of A’s between your first morning of kindergarten and your graduation day? Did everyone gush over how smart you were?

If so, you might know the curse of the gifted child. An overload of affirmations can hamper the future success of bright kids, reports Heidi Grant Halvorson for Harvard Business Review. Students who receive praise for intellect rather than effort, she says, develop a belief that their abilities are innate and unchangeable. As adults, they lose confidence in trying to develop new, difficult skills. They get stuck. Halvorson writes:

People with above-average aptitudes–the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished–often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do (particularly in Western cultures). Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room.

In a study conducted by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller of Columbia University, fifth graders were evaluated to determine how different kinds of praise affected their performances. The students were given three sets of problems–the first relatively easy, the second nearly impossible, and the third simple. Dweck and Mueller found that offering the praise “You did really well. You must be really smart!” to one group resulted in a 25 percent drop in performance on the third set of problems, after they had failed the second set. Conversely, the group that received praise that focused on their effort (“You did really well. You must have worked really hard!”) improved their performance by 25 percent. The “smart” group became stymied, doubting their abilities, while the “hard-working” group persisted, feeling that if they tried hard enough, they would succeed.

When gifted children who were praised for their brainpower grow up, they often feel shackled by self-doubt, avoiding challenges and sticking to easy goals. Halvorson posits, however, that it’s possible to get unstuck by realizing that capabilities are wonderfully elastic:

No matter the ability–whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism–studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

Source: Harvard Business Review

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