First, a wall of text. If you don’t like it, skip ahead to the graphic.

“Thomas (a child who scored in the top 10,000th of the population on aptitude tests) didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
-How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise.

Dweck found that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge.

“Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are,” Dweck says. “They are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to learn.”

When parents, teachers and coaches label a child, they tell the child that he or she is the label and is judged for this label, not for his actual capabilities. The child becomes risk-averse and doesn’t want to chance messing up and being labeled “dumb.” In other words, a “smart” child often believes that expending effort is something only “dumb” kids have to do.
-Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids

Through more than three decades of systematic research, [Carol Dweck] has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.
-The Effort Effect

Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, argues convincingly that having a growth mindset, or the opinion that intelligence can be developed, sets the stage for success. This is opposed to having a fixed growth mindset, in which intelligence is believed to be static and unchanging. Here’s a pretty graphic:

Growth Mindset

But I think Professor Dweck can go even further. I think it’s perfectly rational to take the fundamental lesson and apply it to more than just intelligence.

If “being” smart locks us into certain expectations, doesn’t “being” anything lock us, and others’ expectations of us, into certain roles? That’s why “S/he’s pretty business savvy for a woman/Latino/kid” is a diss. Are we not all people? Should we not all be encouraged to grow with the same guidelines, whether it’s athletics, academics, or art?

Furthermore, I have heard countless people use the excuse that they are not the “type” of person who could achieve the goals they secretly want. There is a whole field of psuedo-science behind types of personalities, whether it’s astrology or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In the case of MBTI, while there is some value to knowing what kind of person you were when you took the test, it’s much more important to know what kind of person you want to be going forward. This way, you can better understand who you were and what you want to change and improve on.

There’s a lot of needless anxiety about being or not being a type of person. “Being” a type of person does not preclude you from being someone different a year, a week, a minute from now. Personality is malleable. The person you were 10 years ago is not the same person you are now. It’s an opportunity to take control of your development. We can all change for the better.

Finally, if we are to benefit from formlessness, we should note that others have the same opportunities and motives to change. It’s an entirely human reaction to explain circumstantial behaviors to personality. If someone cuts you off, it’s because they’re a jerk, not because they really needed to get to that turn lane. If someone doesn’t answer a question correctly, it’s because they’re “a little slow,” and not because they don’t have a background in the subject.

It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error, or the “tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.” Once you believe in someone’s ability to change, they will often surprise you. Two highly cited studies reinforce the importance of expectations: one in which students who were reminded of academically negative racial stereotypes performed much worse, and another in which a group of teachers were told that they had been given the brightest students, who all went on to do much better than the average. In fact, they had been given the regular assortment of students.

So, give yourself a shot at being what and whoever you want to be. Then extend the same courtesy to others.


…if you got to the bottom of this tirade, then I’d be interested in hearing your opinion. What value do you see in typing people, or vice versa?

EDIT – There’s a great list of alternatives to the word “intelligence” at Tim Chevalier’s blog, Dreamwidth: