When I started my last job on the first day I said to myself “I am going to fail.” There were a number of reasons I thought this — the role itself seemed impossible. Telling myself that I was going to fail wasn’t the most productive thing to say to myself over and over. Every little challenge resulted in my returning to this statement. Why did they hire me? I didn’t have the innate ability to be successful in the role. Sure, I had been successful in the past and this lead to the company wanting to bring me on, but that was a fluke, an outcome due to other people not my own contributions.
And so, six months later, I failed.
While the failure itself was not career ending (and for many other reasons the role and company was not right for me and I should have never selected that role in the first place) I didn’t have to force myself to suffer so much through this experience. I didn’t have to wait up every morning and tell myself “you can’t do this” instead of “you can.”
So for my next job I’m determined to 180 on this mindset. To start I actually do believe I can do a good job because I understand the space better, I have an awesome colleague who is going to consult for me who is one of the best in the business, and overall I just feel better about the company and my chemistry with the team. While it won’t be perfect or easy, I’m really ready to kick some major ass.
However, I want to address my mental models around success and failure. Spending time with my family this week has reminded me exactly why I’m so messed up when it comes to cognitive dissonance around my intellect and my potential performance.
What Does Smart Mean Anyway?
There are numerous studies which point to parenting styles having a large impact on a child’s potential success. In one recent study on types of praise and performance, researchers found that kids praised for their effort tended to take on more challenging tasks and learn more. Meanwhile kids praised for their intelligence would request the easier task and give up more quickly.
As I get older and older, returning to spend time with family allows me to put on more of an observational lens to see the psyches that shaped my own mindset as well as that of my sister, who is struggling in her own right though still managing to grow up and find herself. In the discussions about my grandfather this week around his funeral, one thing that stood out was the commentary around how strict and hot-tempered he was with his sons, though my father could get away with any calculated murder, it seems. My father, this first born of six, was a nerd, and he never had the same energy as his brothers to partake in sports. More so, he believed firmly that his skills and aptitude was innate and could not be changed and he was praised relentlessly for being “smart.”
Years later when my father was a masters student in theoretical physics at a top tier program he dropped out because it got too hard. I’m sure to him after all the years of things coming easily he was not prepared for the challenge. He has stated to me that he just wasn’t up to the level of work required. I believe he was just forever stuck in the mindset that your abilities are what you are born with. And that mindset trickled down to his parenting style with myself and my sister. Meanwhile my mother also grew up with that type of parenting so she believed she wasn’t smart but was reasonably talented at art – at least enough to work as a business professional in design but not enough to be a great artist.
Thus, as early as I can remember my parents were bragging to others about how I am so smart. When I struggled in school, I felt like I had failed them. I was told to study but I was never told “this is hard and you have to work at it to get good.” I was basically told that if things were hard it’s because you just aren’t good at them and you never will be that good at them. And early on I gave up at trying. When I managed to get good scores on quizzes or papers I felt rewarded for being smart. When I failed, well, that was just because I would never be smart enough. It was an easy out but it also made me give up way too quickly most of the time. And it still does.
Girls Get Results-Based Feedback More Often than Boys
Since I do not have a brother, it’s hard for me to compare my upbringing to that of a boy. However, I often look at the differences in how my sister — who had some breathing issues at birth and has a learning disability possibly due to this — was raised and how I was raised. We both were raised with black or white thinking around intellect. I was smart. She wasn’t smart. Neither of these were true by the way. She’s quite intelligent and curious and I’m finding my way with the acknowledgement that smart doesn’t really exist with the rare exception of someone born with very high IQ.
In this Psychology Today piece – The Trouble With Bright Girls – it highlights how girls are more likely than boys to omen who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon. be praised for things like “being good” and being smart. Meanwhile boys can be a handful so they’re often praised for their effort and progress. Th
How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.
Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.
We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves–women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.
Of course my initial argument here was that my father actually gave up too soon, but generally speaking there is research to support this story. And he only gave up after many years of being the intellectual champion of his little world — as he managed to get out of things like being in trouble for skipping homeroom since he never woke up on time given his extremely high GPA. Yet I think how easy everything came to him… and mixed messages from my parents around what it means to be a good, talented and beautiful girl over academic performance… really f’d up my motivation.
But I’m Better than This…
Knowing how things are I should really be able to change my mindset, right? Why is it so damn hard to change the way I think from believing anyone can learn vs that knowledge and abilities are so innate? I spent so much time trying to convince my sister of this as she fights through her own frustrations, knowing full well that she’s capable of so much despite being raised to think she couldn’t do much of anything. As I approach my new role it really feels like a new phase of my life, one that I want to start off with confidence. I want to wake up every morning and tell myself “I can do this. I can do this really well. It will be hard and at times I will make mistakes. But overall I can kick some major ass. And I will.”