Why did this happen ? According to Carol Dweck, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
The article further states: “Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Carol Dweck has written a book about her work, “Mindset“, and even has a website devoted to the subject. Dividing the world into two camps (ever since Descartes, it seems that the West is forever carving up the world into two camps): those with a “fixed mindset” and those with a “growth mindset”. From the website:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.
Coincidentally, I was talking with a friend of mine who mentioned that he had heard about a research on the radio in which they found that kids who were praised for being smart were found to lie more often to not disabuse the belief that they were smart.
Not picking up harder challenges to avoid the cognitive dissonance that arises should they fail at accomplishing the task, lying to calm the cognitive dissonance already awakened, all because they were praised for being smart. For a long time, I was haunted by the passages in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that described the brilliance of one of the main protagonists, Francisco D’Anconia. How I longed to be that brilliant. To effortlessly master a task. Here I was, bumbling my way through life.
Growing up, I learnt quite quickly that getting into my parents’ good books was easy if I topped the class. Everytime I stood first in the class, smiles were aplenty from my mom and my dad. If I came in second, I was grilled about what I did wrong, who had beaten me, to study their weaknesses and beat them the next time around. While they did say “Don’t worry, study harder and come first the next time, you’re smart”, it was quite evident that what mattered was coming first. In the Indian school system with monthly tests, quarterly and annual exams, there were lots of opportunities either win their affection or lose it.
Unconsciously, I equated being loved to being the first in whatever I did, beating everybody else. Inadvertently, my parents had pushed me into the comparison game, a game at which satisfaction was always transitory. It was like attempting to overtake vehicles on a highway; there was always somebody else ahead to overtake. It was exhausting.
In my attempt to top the class, I took to rote memorization of the subject. Sometimes, if I was very tense, I’d mix up the question and answer at first and had to work extra hard to undo the mistake and still finish the exam on time. To this day, I can expound on evolution, neuroscience and network protocols, but my basic physics is practically nil as is my basic chemistry and math. I memorized the rules without ever understanding them enough to know when to apply them in everyday life. It is a constant source of amusement to Shanthala who says that I got into college without ever passing through school.
This attempt to top the class also made me very competitive and jealous of anybody who could beat me at the game. It was in Davangere that I first learnt that there are other ways of learning, of being. When I topped the class the first time, Shanthala and another friend congratulated me enthusiastically. Surprised at what seemed like genuine praise, I asked them, “Are you not even a little jealous that I beat you to it ?”. Dumbfounded, they said no. I couldn’t believe my ears.
With the growing years, this urge to compete at everything, the urge to win every argument, to have the last word, made me a fairly abrasive individual. How I made the good friends that I have, I’ll never know.
I was never happy with where I was. Happiness and peace were always ahead of me, never with me. One day, a few years back, I was biking to work. A kid was biking ahead of me. He turned and saw me, and decided to peddle hard to stay ahead. Automatically, I picked up my pace and raced past the kid, who looked sad as I effortlessly passed him. A little later, I was horrified at what I had done.
I was talking to a close friend at work, many years my senior, about my competitive reflex. He told me a story that happened when he was new in the industry, and working at one of US’ premier research labs in computer science. His boss had just been listed by the Time magazine as one of the top 25 innovators in the country. The week after that article had come out, they were in a meeting with one of the gods of computer science, of distributed computing. My friend, Michael, told me how his boss, a publicly acknowledged paragon of brightness and innovation, stammered and fumbled through the meeting because he wanted this established figurehead to think that he was smart.
I was the same. I realized that if I didn’t give up this quest to top everybody and everything, I’d die unhappy, unsatisfied, malcontent. Since that day, I’ve worked to enjoy what I do, to focus on the process and not the end result.
I had resolved very early on that in raising Maya, I would never focus on the end result, only on the process. The research by Carol Dweck indicates that praising for what you do as opposed to what qualities you possess is another parenting mistake to avoid.