In the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, the author looks into the role that motivation and positive reinforcement play on children and their development. One area that Wiseman focuses on is academic performance and praise. He reviews the work by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck and sums up their findings with the following quote, “The results clearly showed that being praised for effort was very different from being praised for ability. …children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure.” Mueller and Dweck studied over 400 children and their performance on tests and puzzles. The researchers administered tests to all of their participants, and collected and scored the results. Half of the students were told they did very well and must be very intelligent, while the other half had their tests collected without being told anything. After tests had been collected and graded the students were given similar tests with similar problems and the students who had been praised actually performed worse than the students met with silence.
I think about this study frequently, both with how I would approach young kids (I don’t have children and don’t interact with kids too often) and with how I approach myself. What Wiseman suggested from the research is that children who were told they were smart ended up being afraid to truly apply themselves. If they put in a full effort and failed, they would risk losing the praise of being smart. The identity label we attached to them would fizzle away and they would lose the praise they received.
On the other hand, children praised for being hard-working, for studying hard, and for working well with others have a reason to continue to apply themselves. Being hard working is not the same as just being talented or naturally smart. It is a mindset and a disposition that can be cultivated over time and developed, even if we don’t seem to have some natural special something to make us smart, creative, or exceptionally insightful.
The way I think about this research in my own life is in thinking about praising effort over praising identity. In myself, when I think about what I want to do, what I could do moving forward, and about the things I should be proud of myself for doing, I try to think about the habits, focus, learning, and hard work that I put forward. I don’t judge my blog by the number of viewers, I don’t just myself by my bank account, and I don’t judge my fitness by how many people I beat in a half marathon. Instead, I ask if I truly worked hard, if I was consistent and applied myself to the best of my ability, and if I am using my resources in a responsible way to help others. We should all try to avoid judging ourselves and others based on fleeting identity cues, and instead we should judge ourselves and praise ourselves and others based on the level of hard work, engagement with others and the community, and the efforts we put forward to make the world a great place.
There was an aspect of Marcus Aurelius’ life that would seem incredibly foreign and difficult to most Americans today, the ability to live with uncertainty and accept ambiguity. For many people living in the United States today, unanswered questions are painful and challenging, and there is a clear preference for seeing the world as black or white. Aurelius on the other hand, seemed to be a master of living life in the intersection of ideas, constantly thinking through the good and the bad of any one thing or event, and constantly trying to reconsider everything in his life from multiple perspectives. He never saw a bad event as being truly terrible or awful, and believed it was within person’s ability to choose how to interpret any given event. Aurelius wrote,
“Now, in the case of all things which have a certain constitution, whatever harm may happen to any of them, that which is so affected becomes consequently worse; but in the like case, a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.”
The emperor is taking a negative situation in this quote and expanding it beyond the current moment to imagine it within the context of a human life. By shifting his focus he is able to view a negative as a necessary part of life, as an opportunity to grow and face new experiences. This is not something that is easy to do, especially when in pain immediately after facing a negative event or challenge, but it can help an individual begin to see that their actions, thoughts, and decisions will shape how their life is impacted by the bad things which happen to them.
What he is also able to do in this situation is see the world in a complex manner. He is looking at the universe and removing his impulse to describe events that happen. He does not narrow the possibilities of the universe down to a single point. To accept that it is our opinion which shapes the reality around us is to live with open possibilities and to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the power of our minds and how we can change our thoughts to improve the way we move through the world. He focuses on self-awareness and the importance of recognizing how we behave and react to things and events in our lives. By taking control of our thoughts and actions we give ourselves the power to guide our life in a way that is the most productive and helps us be the best possible version of ourselves.
When it comes to our behaviors and reactions Aurelius writes, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements” (emphasis mine). What Aurelius is saying in this quote is that we can decide how we will react to events in our world and that we shape the way that our lives play out. In the general course of our lives we can change the way we think about and perceive events that we deem to be negative if we can refocus our thoughts and find a positive perspective.
Changing our thoughts means that we have to recognize that no event and no thing has power over our individual faculties of mind. We always have control over our mind even if we have lost all else. Certainly this is a great challenge during major life challenges like illness, foreclosure, and death, but recognizing your own ability to control your faculties of mind can help give you a stillness during the tempest, and return power to your situation. Aurelius argues that this ability allows us to abandon the idea that something is either good or bad, and gives us the skill to evaluate the world in a more complete manner. It is in our power to decide whether we think something is good or bad, an it is up to us to determine how any event or item impacts our life.