I can remember it clearly, the pressure to be right all the time.
Grade school, junior high, high school. It was all the rage. Especially in my group of friends.
I hung out with the “smart” kids. Girls (mostly) who took advanced placement courses, read for fun. Had unusual talents and interests. Yeah, we were geeks. Whatever.
But being a “geek” or a “nerd” wasn’t a core part of our identity. In those days, we viewed those terms as insults. And instead, we considered ourselves “smart.”
Everyone had been telling us we were since we were 4 or 5 years old. My friends and I had all been the gifted children in our particular families… and frankly, it showed.
And not always in a way that was pleasant or advantageous.
Because we didn’t really know who we even were beyond “smart.” And things got rather difficult when we all met each other. Because now we weren’t the only person like us.
Adults had brought us together and got us working with one another because it made logistical sense. And they probably thought it’d be nice socially, give us a little validation, hanging out with kids who were like us.
What actually resulted, however, was madness, passive-aggressive Lord of the Flies, as everyone in the group experienced identity threat. In a room of smart little kids who were used to being the only smart little kid around, our interactions with one another were often in danger of devolving into pissing contests.
There was the ever-present need to demonstrate to others that you were smart, smarter than the rest of them.
And I remember clearly what I thought that looked like in those days — my own personal picture of impressive intelligence: It was a person who magically knew all the answers without having to look them up. And a person who did well on tests without having to study for them.
In my own developing mental schema for intelligent, a smart person was just like that. They knew the answers. They didn’t have to work. And in fact, if they exerted any effort to learn, that was a signal that they actually weren’t intelligent.
It was a bit of magical thinking on my part, and predictably it didn’t serve me well. My formerly strong grades started to dip as I played chicken with all of my assignments, applied myself less, bluffed confidence that I knew things I didn’t.
Meanwhile, I spent hours studying musical theory for my high school job playing with adult bands at night as a jazz musician. Taught myself a substantial amount of (admittedly terrible) Romanian to bond with an exchange student who seemed bewildered and like she could use a friend.
It wasn’t that I was incapable of applying myself to learn new things. But when it came to my official school assignments, I just didn’t.
And I continued this pretty much the entirety of middle school and high school.
Viewing Intelligence as Fixed
In those days I had what’s known as a fixed mindset. Especially when it came to intelligence (which I defined quite narrowly; I had to yet to learn about theories of multiple intelligence, e.g., Gardner, etc.).
I viewed intelligence as something you had a certain amount of, and that was that. And I subscribed to the belief that there wasn’t a lot you could do about it. That you were smart or you weren’t.
My schema for intelligence at that point in my life had no room for a person who could work hard to study and learn things. In those days, I believed that if a person had to work hard to achieve their goals, it meant that they weren’t actually talented.
So I put all my energy into trying to be right all the time and acting like I knew what I was doing.
And the moment I didn’t know something or had to work to learn or understand something, I took it as a sign that I was deficient or not what I’d been told I was since I was a little kid.
Moving From Trying to Be Right and Focusing on Learning Instead
My first go at college was a disaster, for a number of reasons, although a fixed mindset of my own abilities certainly didn’t serve me well as the material got even more complex.
I took a break from school. Joined the workforce. Began to take classes as I could. And this time, something changed: I tucked my ego away. I stopped worrying about whether I was appearing smart to other people and started focusing on actually learning the material.
And everything changed. I became an excellent student.
Fixed and Growth Mindsets
Much later when I was studying to become a researcher, I would learn about fixed and growth mindsets, when reading the work of social psychologist Carol Dweck (fixed and growth were called entity and incremental mindsets in her earlier work but later changed to the more intuitively grokked labels).
As a kid and young adult, I had been the poster child for fixed mindset. I viewed ability as a finite resource, and because of that, I was more focused on demonstrating my competence than actually developing it further.
A growth mindset, however, views ability as malleable and talent as able to be developed and improved. A person with this outlook also tends to attribute their success to work that they’ve done rather than natural ability.
According to Dweck’s work, if you were to ask children with these mindsets how they got a high grade on an assignment, they’d have markedly different answers:
- Fixed mindset: “I’m smart.” “I’m good at this kind of stuff.”
- Growth mindset: “I worked very hard.” “I studied a lot.”
Research has consistently shown that a growth mindset is the far more advantageous of the two. Students that feel like they can improve their abilities and focus on doing so go further and have an easier time adapting to adult responsibilities and the workforce.
Your Mindset Can Follow You Everywhere
Dweck’s work has been frequently applied to help determine if the way that we test children is setting them up to succeed or to fail.
But fixed and growth mindsets don’t just affect school. And it isn’t just something that applies to children or young adults. You can see it play out in all of our social relationships. With friends, with family, with lovers.
There can be far-reaching social consequences to expending more energy trying to appear capable than on actually developing our talents.
And relationships can be profoundly adversely affected if one or more members are constantly trying to appear right all the time instead of being able to accept when they’re occasionally wrong and making sure that that understand what’s actually going on.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.