The #1 stumbling block for smart people (and how everyone can avoid it)

The Old Good Year Truck by Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

Image by Stuck in Customs, via Flickr

A lot of people think intelligence, or innate talent, is responsible for success. It seems to make sense, right? But actually, that’s not quite true. It’s the people who keep growing that come up with the best ideas and are willing to take the risk of trying something new.

There are basically two mindsets you can have when it comes to learning: a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset assumes your outcomes are determined by your intelligence and talent, which can’t be changed; a growth mindset assumes you can get stronger, better, and smarter over time by learning.

The danger of being a genius or an expert in a certain field is that it’s easy to fall into an ego-driven fixed mindset, where you’re so busy maintaining your image as the smartest or best, you become afraid to try new things for fear of making a mistake in front of someone. “Experts” often end up very attached to their pet ways of doing things, to the point that they’ll fight passionately for their use over other methods, even when their approach really doesn’t make sense.

It’s not just experts, though. Anyone can fall into the fixed mindset trap. If you believe that you’re smart and people expect it of you, you can become afraid to try new things and appear stupid or incompetent. Meanwhile, if you believe that you’re dumb, you can also become afraid to try new things, because you believe you’re doomed to failure. Both of these are symptoms of a fixed mindset, and either way, they stop you from learning and growing.

How to recognize a fixed mindset

People with a fixed mindset tend to stay in their comfort zones as much as possible. They feel threatened by:

  • challenges—what if I don’t have what it takes to meet this challenge?
  • obstacles—what if I can’t figure out how to get around this obstacle?
  • having to expend a lot of effort—if talent is what counts, why should I have to work this hard? Will it buy me anything?
  • criticism—the things I’ve done reflect my abilities, so criticism of my work is a criticism of me
  • others’ success—if they do something I haven’t, it’s probably because they’re smarter or better than me, so I can never catch up, and it makes me look stupid by comparison
  • new ideas or approaches—if what I already know isn’t enough, that means I’m obsolete

I recognize more of myself in this than I like to admit. Every time I’ve tried a new hobby, I’ve found myself frustrated that I wasn’t immediately good at it. Playing roller hockey, spinning yarn, contra dancing, autocross, painting—with each one, I got very frustrated and discouraged at how bad I was at it and how much better everyone else was, even though I knew that was ridiculous. Nobody is born knowing how to do any of those things. Some people pick them up faster than others, but everybody has to learn and practice if they want to get good. That’s just how life works. But somehow I still find myself thinking “I’m smart, so I should be good at this!”

Worse than that, I’ve let some of my skills atrophy because the world moved on without me, and I was too intimidated to learn the new stuff. When the internet was first becoming mainstream, I was on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, I haven’t moved much beyond cutting edge, circa 1998. Needless to say, I’ve been left in the dust. It’s not that I couldn’t learn Ruby on Rails or CSS or any of that stuff…but I didn’t. I never realized why it all seemed so menacing to me, but it must come from a fixed mindset. By being afraid of becoming obsolete, I made myself obsolete in an area that was my best strength.

The problem with a fixed mindset is that it limits you to never being much better than you are now. In contrast, a growth mindset approaches the brain like a muscle that can be strengthened and developed. Challenges and obstacles are just opportunities to get stronger. Things that require effort teach you useful skills and help you grow. Criticism shows you areas where you can improve. Other people’s success does not diminish your own, but offers lessons for how you can become more successful, too. New ideas allow you to build on what you know and make it even better.

Say you will by MightyBoyBrian, on Flickr

Image by MightyBoyBrian, via Flickr

How to change

I think just recognizing the difference between these two mindsets is a good first step. Now that I understand how my fixed mindset was limiting me, I want to take on a growth mindset as quickly as possible in all areas. In fact, I should already be good at it now! (Just kidding.)

If you accept the premise that your mind can grow and improve with exercise, make sure your outlook matches. When you try something new, you may find yourself automatically reacting with a fixed mindset thought, such as “This looks hard–what if I fail?” or “Oh no, I suck at this, and everyone can see it!” That’s ok, just catch yourself and dispute it. Remind yourself that your goal is to grow. You’re learning and practicing and expanding—that is the way to get better, not staying home and acting cool. Choose to see challenges, obstacles, and criticism as opportunities to learn. Stretch yourself by trying new things that you’ve never done before. Don’t let your fear limit you–grow!

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15 Responses to The #1 stumbling block for smart people (and how everyone can avoid it)

  1. aquatom1968 says:

    Cara, thanks for this post… you have highlighted an area in my life that I was, or rather am, stuck in. I am always willing to learn, but never give myself the chance to due to my constant thinking that I don’t know what I’m doing (when really I must do – or partly anyway!). You have given me something to ponder on there!

  2. Cara says:

    Thanks! I’m really glad you found it valuable.

  3. emjayandthem says:

    ooooh!! This one rang true for me. I’m used to being good at pretty much all I do… till I try something new and can’t master it. Golf. Gave it up and it took me years to figure out why. Ouch! Sometimes we really are our own biggest obstacle aren’t we? Nice job Cara, thanks for this one.

  4. helenkosings says:

    So good to hear from you!

    It’s true we tend to be the biggest problem we have. When one has the mindset that one can try, it opens up so many horizons, but as we get older, I think the natural tendency is to avoid change. The challenge is to be aware of it. Lovely post!

    • helenkosings says:

      Oh yeah, and more and more the scientific research shows us that talent isn’t any where near as important as EFFORT!

      • Cara says:

        Thanks! I think I’m emerging from my hidey hole at last! 🙂

        Good point about effort–doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you don’t do something, it’s not going to do itself. I know–I’ve tried it! lol

  5. ed says:

    One idea i’ve heard of (and should remember more often) is to replace my “negative broken record soundtrack of failure” with the sound of myself “reparenting” myself. In other words, talk to myself in the words of my ideal parent…”Thats ok, try again!”, “good job”, “I like how you try new things, and have new ideas!”. etc Its like a second chance to grow up : )

    • Cara says:

      Nice–I like that! I think of it as being my own best friend (instead of my own worst enemy), but same idea. I love the idea of getting the chance to grow up all over again. I’ll be pondering that one. 🙂 Thanks!

  6. Pam says:

    Oh, how very right you are! Intelligence and innate talent can actually hinder success. Besides, some intellects are snobs. I’d rather be me. 🙂

  7. Bryan Walls says:

    One nice thing about stuff that moves as quickly as geek technology has and will is that if you start paying attention right now, in six months you’ll be state of the art again, and most of the stuff you’ve missed doesn’t really matter anymore. Skip Ruby and learn Objective C for iPhone apps, or whatever they’re doing Android apps in. Forget CSS 1.0 and 2.0 or Flash or Java, learn CSS3 and HTML 5. Don’t know netbooks? They are so 2009. Everything is touch tablets now.

    And the concepts don’t really change. There’s the constant flux of whether the power is on the client or on the server, and there’s never enough bandwidth. But, really, the situation with a Mac or Windows 3 computer in 1985 dialing into the school Vax is really pretty much the same as today’s smart phone connecting to the school Sharepoint site. It all changes; it’s all the same.

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