Effort more than talent is the key to achievement

By Martin Vogel

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In conventional thinking, the people who get on in life are those who are brainy or talented. But this apparent truth was overturned by the Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Through many years of research, she found that being labelled as talented could quickly become an obstacle to achievement. It turns out that effort is much more important than talent.

This simple but important finding is presented in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. The key insight it contains is that people learn and develop best when they adopt a “growth mindset” – open to learning as a challenge, relishing setbacks as an opportunity to learn – and flounder when they adopt a “fixed mindset” – defensive of their identity, frightened to take risks in case they fail. The fixed mindset values innate talent over cultivating potential.

Although Carol Dweck presents this idea most of the time as a binary matter, she clarifies that we all tend to have elements of both mindsets. You might, for example, have a growth mindset when it comes to learning a language, but a fixed mindset in relation to dancing. But she is clear that the growth mindset can be learned. So, if we have a fixed mindset, we are not condemned to be stuck in it.

There is a certain amount of repetition in the book as Carol Dweck explores how the mindsets show up in different fields: sport, business, marriages. The most interesting parts describe how the growth mindset can be cultivated. For parents, it entails teaching children to love a challenge. For couples, it’s about being open to the truth of what your partner is trying to communicate when it might not feel very comfortable. For leaders, it’s about prioritising learning above the protection of one’s self-image. A leader who is prepared to listen rather than declaim is more likely not just to develop a growth mindset themselves but also cultivate it in those around them.

To encourage a growth mindset, praise should be directed towards effort rather than talent. But the growth mindset is about more than effort. It’s about a relishing challenge and welcoming when you get something wrong as an opportunity to learn. It entails trying new strategies when the ones you’ve adopted aren’t working. And it requires you to seek help when you encounter difficulty. Anticipate setbacks and learn from them.

It’s also necessary to keep setting goals for your growth – and not just vowing to pursue them but making an active plan and sticking to it. Carol Dweck says this can be quite granular: what are my opportunities for growth tomorrow? Her advice on this reminded me of that contained in Deep Work to cultivate a discipline of planning one’s time. This planning, acting on the plan, and recalibrating when knocked off course is central to both growth and productivity

The other aspect of cultivating a growth mindset is neutralising your fixed mindset. Carol Dweck advises identifying your fixed mindset triggers so that you can recognise them and face them down when they’re activated.

Carol Dweck’s findings are highly influential and have had a significant impact overcoming low expectations for socially disadvantaged children in schools. For those who are video-inclined, Carol Dweck has done a 10-minute TED talk which presents an inspiring account of her work.

Image of runner courtesy Marina del Castell.