Praising Effort

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.

Unfolding Outcomes

In her book Packing Light, Vesterfelt also writes, “Most of life is unfolding on the road in front of us. The “outcome” can change as fast as the scenery.”  This quote is important for me because it represents a lot of the thoughts that I have about my future. I am unsure of what I really want in life, and often have trouble with answering questions along the lines of where do you see yourself in 5 years, 10 years, or any length of time. In the past I know that I was locked in to an image of what success was, and I knew the outcomes I wanted: a big house, a classic muscle car, lots of medals and awards from running races.  Over time, I have had to try to identify what skills I have and what opportunities present themselves to me, matching the skills I have. With this process I have had to look at what goals or images of success I had in my mind (the outcomes) and get to the base of those goals and ideas of success to try and understand where they came from.
With life constantly changing, and new opportunities presenting themselves to me I have learned to let go of the outcomes, and focus instead on trying to be the best version of myself that I can be. It is an incredibly stressful process because I am constantly looking for security, but the things that seem to be “secure” to me don’t seem to be interesting or rewarding. Learning that the outcomes can change, and allowing the outcome that I desire to shift has allowed me to have a more dynamic approach to my every day life. I do not feel so locked in to a particular goal or vision of success, and allowing those goals to change reduces the stress I feel, and also seems to provide me with more time to allow myself to reach a state where I feel successful with the person I have become.