Would you rather think of yourself as smart or hardworking?

Imagine that you’re given a puzzle to solve.

After you find the solution, the researcher tells you how smart you are and asks you to pick another one to solve; one is easier and one is harder than the original puzzle.

Which do you choose?

Now imagine that the situation is exactly the same, except the researcher tells you, “You must have worked really hard!” after you solve the first puzzle.

Do you make the same decision when it comes to picking the second puzzle?

This is a real experiment created by psychologist Carol Dweck and enacted by a classroom of four-year-olds. When praised for their intelligence, the kids tended to pick the easier puzzle that would reinforce the “smart” label they’d been given.

However, when adults complimented their work ethic, they were more likely to reach for the harder puzzle to stretch themselves even further.

Dr. Dweck calls this a “fixed” mindset versus a “growth” mindset. You can read some excerpts from her book and more about her experiments here.

Did you grow up with a growth or fixed mindset?

My parents were firmly in the “growth” camp while I was growing up – they’ve always encouraged me to take risks and try out new things, even if I didn’t get the hang of them right away.

At the same time, I got hit with the “smart” label fairly early on in school – I was in gifted and talented classes from second grade on, and I never took a regular class if there was an option with “Honors” or “A.P.” in the title.

Being “smart” quickly became part of my identity, even if I sometimes had to work my butt off to keep it that way. There were times when it felt exhausting just to keep up with performance expectations, both real and perceived.

It’s interesting to see how this dichotomy plays out in my life today.

I chose to do something fairly risky when I became an entrepreneur, but at the same time I have to work through my anxiety and fears about failure before I can commit wholeheartedly to a course of action. I consistently seek out new experiences and activities, but often get childishly frustrated when I’m not an immediate expert.

Interesting – as I’m writing this, I realize that there’s a part of me that equates intelligence with competence or being in control. It’s not about knowing things like calculus or the capital of Libya, it’s about knowing what to do next.

This part (it feels really young) is really scared of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. It wants to learn and try new things, but also wants to skip to the end where I’m already an expert and avoid that whole middle section of muddling through and making mistakes and figuring out things as I go along.

Which brings us to a story about intelligence, hard work, and pottery.

I first came across this little parable in the excellent book Art and Fear.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A,”forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A.”

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This blog is my pottery studio. I’m not always perfectly satisfied with everything I post, but at the end of the day, I figure it’s better to put something a little messy out into the world instead of endlessly waiting for the berry of inspiration to fall in my lap so I can write the perfect article.

I push the publish button and the world doesn’t fall apart. Eagles don’t swoop down and tear out my liver for daring to write something rough around the edges.

There’s still a big part of me that gets anxious when I don’t know what to do next. Here are a few things that help me:

How has your identity of intelligence shaped your experiences?

Are there times when you’ve held yourself back because you didn’t want to challenge that label? Would anything in your life seem different if you looked at it from a growth-minded point of view instead of a fixed one?

Photo credit: freeimages.com/KillR-B

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