If You Were 'Naturally Talented' At School, You May Struggle With These 5 Things
We all know those children at school who just 'got it'. Whether it was academic achievements or sporting endeavours, some of our peers seemed to pass every test or win every race with little effort or struggle. They leave other children, the teachers, and their parents, assuming that they are 'naturally talented' at these skills.
I was one of these children, and boy did I know it. I was constantly told how clever I was, how talented, how quickly and easily I picked things up in class. I developed the belief that I was naturally intelligent and would have it easier than others in later life. Honestly, I was pretty cocky when I was at school!
Yet, as I moved through school and to university, I was plagued with immense anxiety and worry when it came to academic achievements. My success in academia became so linked to my identity and sense of worth, that I was terrified of failing, even going as far as to try less hard revising for exams so that I would have an excuse if I failed. I would breathe a sigh of relief upon getting a good mark, safe in the knowledge that my natural talent was still in tact.
This trait of mine started to really bother me, and as I grew older and started learning more about what caused this anxiety, I stumbled on a psychologist named Carol Dweck, and her theory of Fixed and Growth Mindset.
Dweck's research originated in an educational setting, looking at learning capacities in children. Dweck found that there were many children who, when presented with a problem or challenge that was just outside of their capabilities, immediately gave up and didn't want to engage in the activity. They believed that because they didn't have the knowledge or skills to complete the challenge, then they never would. This is the mindset that Dweck calls Fixed, and this is a mindset that I resonate with greatly. If you believe that talent and intelligence is 'natural', or 'fixed', you may very well affiliate with this description!
On the other hand, there were a great number of children who loved the idea of a challenge, and a way to broaden their knowledge. They accepted the problem enthusiastically, knowing that they would learn something new. They weren't afraid to make mistakes in order to develop new knowledge. This trait is called Growth Mindset, and is linked to greater ambition, success and achievement.
I have worked with university students on the concept of Fixed and Growth Mindset, and I want to mention a few things. Firstly, having a Fixed Mindset does not make you lazy or weak. Conventional educational systems do unfortunately foster this mindset in children - if you don't do well in school, you are labelled as 'less able'. If you are able to pick things up quicker, you are known as 'clever'. I can't tell you how many classrooms I've been in where the teacher has split the class in to groups, cleverly named, but specifically designed to separate the talented from the 'stupid'. There is very little room to foster growth and learning in these settings. Secondly, Growth Mindset is something you can learn, practice and cultivate in your academic or professional life. You can also have a mixture of Fixed and Growth Mindsets in different areas of your life - you may love challenging yourself at sports, but tell yourself you definitely can't cook!
So for clarity, I want to list 5 traits that you might possess if you were considered to be 'naturally talented' at school. Of course, anyone could develop a Fixed Mindset, so this isn't only for this particular category of people, but hopefully it gives you an insight in to how this is developed over time:
1. You Are Scared To Fail
Children who were told they were clever at school very rarely did badly on any kind of challenge or test - this is how they got their title, after all. If you are someone who has mostly done well in life and has not had a major setback or shock grade, it's likely you'd be very worried about failing at anything. For me, I thought that only less intelligent people got bad grades, and that certainly wasn't me. So I remember when I failed my History exam in Year 12, I was absolutely devastated. I thought that I must have been mistaken, and that I wasn't actually clever at all. Many people feel this fear throughout their lives, and it prevents them from trying anything new that they aren't certain they'll do well at. Of course, by never trying anything new, we're stuck in the same place we were before.
2. You Procrastinate
Because why would you submit a piece of work, or show something to your boss, if you weren't absolutely sure it was perfect? Rather than touting the phrase 'done is better than perfect', us naturally clever peeps are so scared to not do brilliantly well that we would rather not be judged for our work at all. By showcasing any of our work out in the world, we are exposing ourselves to the possibility that the work might not be at the standard required. This scares the hell out of us, so we put this moment off until the last minute, trying desperately to iron out every kink. I have worked with many university students who would regularly miss deadlines from fear of being judged for their work. Missing a deadline and failing due to a timing issue is ultimately better than failing based on our own abilities, right?
3. Hard Work Makes You Uncomfortable
The little voice in your head says 'if I am finding this difficult, I must not be very good at it. Clever people don't find things hard'. Negative self-talk can be tough to deal with. If you were talented at school, you may not have found many things particularly difficult. So this little voice in your head - which, by the way, is a very normal and common voice to have - isn't a regular occurrence and makes you feel weird. And so you avoid being in a position where you have to confront that voice head-on. I know that when I start learning something new and am finding it challenging, the little voice telling me 'I'm stupid and that this is a waste of time because I'll never get it' can be quite loud, and quite tiring!
4. You Cannot Accept Feedback Or Criticism
Feedback is a direct acknowledgement that we could have done better, and there is room for improvement. For the clever crew, 'room for improvement' is unacceptable - we are supposed to be clever, and that's the end of it. I know that for me, criticism about my work feels like a direct attack on my sense of self and my identity. Above all, I have categorised myself as someone who doesn't need to improve - I am supposed to have it all up in the old noggin already! Which brings me to my last point:
5. Your Identity Is Tied To Your Achievements
Our lives consist of stories and 'truths' we tell ourselves over the years. We like strawberries. We are female. The list goes on - and these 'truths' form and become the structure for how we see and identify with ourselves. So if you were told you were clever at school, this will have formed a large part of your identity in later life. So when this 'truth' is threatened by a setback or bad grade, we think 'well if I'm not clever, what am I?'
This paints a bit of a sorry picture, and I feel that those with a fixed mindset are often touted in research and the media as 'less than'. This can cause a lot of shame with us Fixed Mindsetters, so I want to dispel that myth right away - if you resonate with these traits, this doesn't mean you are not capable of success and ambition, and it doesn't mean that you are 'worse' than our Growth Mindset cousins. Just as intelligence is not 'fixed', our mindset is not static either, and the vast majority of us move between these two mindsets through our lives.
However, if you find that these traits are causing you unhappiness and is something you'd like to work on, there are a few things you can try:
1. Notice your discomfort around challenge and hard work, and commit yourself slowly to sticking with the discomfort when it arises. For me, I am learning to play the piano, and I am committing myself to practicing reading sheet music for 15 minutes a day. No-one expects you to just 'handle' the discomfort straight away for an extended period of time. Start small, something easy, and work up from there.
2. Try to hand in something that you know has a mistake in it. Whether that be a report to your boss, an essay, or a bloog post, handing things in that are less than perfect is crucial to overcoming a fixed mindset. Nothing is ever perfect, and embracing this fact of life is key.
3. Set goals that are focused on hard work, rather than an end goal. When working at the London School of Economics, I encouraged first-year Law students to set process-driven goals during exam season, rather than an end goal of 'get a first'. Setting goals like 'make 3 pages of notes on a chapter' or 're-read my learnings every morning', are tangible goals that focus on the process of learning and growing. This is so helpful for cultivating a Growth Mindset, which emphasises hard work and challenging oneself as the key indicator of success and achievement. Ultimately, if we work hard at something and put maximum effort in, this is much more important than an arbitrary grade at the end of the year.
Do you feel you resonate with a Fixed Mindset? Would love to hear your experiences!