Think You're Smart?

Ken Del Rossi

As they say in the movies, this account is based on actual events.

Two kids from the same neighborhood are playing chess. Both boys are bright, but only one of them is what one might call “gifted.” He knows this because his parents have told him so, and “being smart” is a badge of pride. The second child has no reason to believe he is overmatched, and approaches the game with gusto.

The “smarter” child wins the first game, and the second, and the third. But each match is closer. And after each loss, the losing child is eager to play another game. At last, he wins. The first child, irritated, reluctantly sets up the board for another game. The second child wins again. Now the first child is upset, declares his friend “lucky,” and refuses to play another game.

You may have encountered a similar scenario, under different circumstances but with familiar results. One of the players in this scene is demonstrating what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mind-set, while the other one, brilliant but unmotivated, has fallen prey to his fixed mind-set.

This is fascinating stuff. After reading Marina Krakovsky’s, ’92, story about Dweck’s research (page 46), I could think of many examples when natural gifts have been constrained by a mind-set that assumes innate talent, not effort, dictates success. It occurs to me, in fact, that had I known about Dweck’s research I might have been a much better motivator to some of the kids I’ve coached in youth sports.

Many years ago I coached a Little League team that featured the best player in the city. He was one of those boys, familiar to anyone who has parented or coached at this level, who seemed genetically engineered for Little League success. Bigger and stronger than his peers, almost adult in his physical prowess, he could overpower his smaller opponents. Most other kids were too intimidated to hit his blazing fastball even if they could have caught up to it. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this boy developed a mind-set that suggested Dweck’s “entity theory.” He thought he was a good pitcher because he was born with a golden arm.

So when I tried to work with him on locating his pitches strategically—low and away, down and in, high and tight—he wasn’t much interested. He had his arm, what else did he need? And for a while, he was right. Nobody could touch him. Then came an All-Star tourna­ment and suddenly several opponents were as big and strong as he was. In the first inning of the first game, he allowed a home run to a pre-whiskered 12-year-old almost 6 feet tall. By the end of the third inning, our star pitcher had allowed five runs and was out of the game. His response was right out of the Dweck textbook: convinced that success was based on ability, his confidence was shattered. It hadn’t occurred to him that trying harder, practicing more, might have fashioned his ample abilities into a more polished package. He never did embrace the notion that he could improve on a good thing, and within a couple of years he had stopped playing baseball altogether.

As you will read in Krakovsky’s piece, Carol Dweck’s work is finding an ever-larger audience as practitioners take her ideas and apply them to school, business, sports and other fields. I can think of a chess-playing boy and a 12-year-old pitcher who really could have used them.

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