Innate Ability vs the Effort Effect

Friday, January 8, 2010 , Posted by Johnny Fuery at 1:26 AM

Originally Published 2007-03-16 17:20:09

Guy Kawasaki blogged about The Effort Effect a couple of days ago, which refers to a body of work by Carol Dweck, currently a Stanford academic. Po Bronson, an author I admire, has also written about her work in a recent NYmag article.

Guy outlines the basic premise as well as I ever could: "...people have two kinds of mindsets: growth or fixed. People with the growth mindset view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are “set” as either good or bad. The issue is that the good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything."

Po Bronson, in the article noted above, includes more anecdotes from the study, leading off with a tale describing a precocious young man who has been told all his life that he's a genius -- and when faced with a challenge he doesn't naturally excel at immediately, he's frozen in his tracks, sometimes outright refusing to comply with the challenge life presents.

I wrote recently (in the personal blog that I never link to from here -- sorry, post a comment with a valid email address if you really want to see my inner monologue) about how, in my own life, I feel more lost now that I've achieved a degree of success than I ever did as a cocky youngster struggling to "come up". It's interesting to cross-reference my own experiences with the ideas Dweck (and Kawasaki and Bronson narrate) presents. My own memories of reinforcement were quite contradictory, you see -- parental guidance simultaneously suggested that I was both a child prodigy and a good-for-nothing leech.

Having something to prove certainly placed me within the "growth mindset" at the sunset of my adolescence, and this carried over well into my 20s. Interestingly, I think that the focus on effort was encouraged by the management I encountered early in my career, probably because my lack of traditional education (sorry, folks, but American educational opportunities are very oppressive to the lower socioeconomic classes -- it doesn't matter what your SAT scores are) made most of them reticent to proclaim that I was innately intelligent. (Of course, it could have just been good management, but based on Dweck's work, I have to applaud their effort/behavior, not make pro hominem statements. :-))

With my success, however, has come a pressure to live up to expectations -- I often feel pressured to always have an answer, always opine on a topic whether I have expertise in the field or not, and, perhaps most impactfully, always be able to cover financial mistakes in business transactions. This "Johnny will have an answer" mentality that my friends, family, and colleagues reinforce seems to have faltered my growth mindset a bit -- not unlike Guy's thoughtful remarks on the pattern of young companies who grow up to sit on their laurels. Guy calls this the "inexorable march toward mediocrity". Nice verbiage, GK.

It's easy for me, as an individual, to write my recent stagnation off as "taking a breather", "pseudo-retirement", or simply "refocusing", all of which are fine, but I can't help but wonder how much of this is the Dweck effect. I don't feel like I've made a mistake in a long time, and I AM sometimes afraid of new challenges simply because I haven't seen them before. This is vaguely true of everything from new relationships (romantic or otherwise) to new business ventures (even my recent undertaking to sign up affiliates for BeyondThePod is relatively benign -- it's low hanging fruit in terms of my ability to perform).

There's a balance to be found, of course. One has to have enough success under his or her belt to exude the natural confidence that inspires others, yet still remain humble enough to relish new challenges. My basketball game has just achieved this level of maturity in the last couple of years. My small forward game has progressed into a point guard game. A friend of mine I've been playing with for years noted just the other day that I'm now "finding him in the paint" often, i.e., creating an opening for my center and/or power forward when I drive. And knowing it well enough to drop him the ball for an easy score. This comes from the confidence of knowing that even if my drive fails, I won't turn over the ball and can simply reset by passing the ball outside to one of my shooters. Conversely, it also comes from the pressure to grow and progress that comes from being almost 30 and playing with 20 year olds that play college ball. And the occasional semi-retired NFL star. :-)

I've noted in the past how getting pushed around as a youth often creates malaise and how it's not worth it. I might be wrong. The whole shebang that comes with not being loved and protected by the two people in the universe who actually should still sucks -- I still stick by my assertion that it's better to be happy and forgotten than a miserable super-achiever -- but I think I would rather have the "growth mindset" over the "fixed mindset", even with the empty, black-hole-esque place I've been trying to fill up with achievement. The trick is to find a balance where growth is sustainable and can coexist with an underlying feeling of contentment and happiness.

My gut feeling is that when that balance is found, the two are far from mutually exclusive. They're synergistic.

Incidentally, I just ordered Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Succes from Amazon. I'll do my best to post an objective review in a few weeks.


On 2007-03-31 21:30:22 BillyWarhol said:
Yeah it depends to whether U want to Sell Out + work fer the Man*

So many people are stuck in the Ivory Towers in mind-numbingly boring jobs - shame too cuz much of our Higher education be it College or University gets completely wasted*

Boggles the Mind really*

Hopefully the Blogosphere might create a New Worldwide Economy so that Artists + Musicians + Actors + Painters + Photographers etc. can make a Living doing what they love to do - Creating* They are also the type of people that Help other people so I see some real Positive spinoffs for all inhabitants of this lovely planet Earth*



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