Praise and its Effect on Effort
This article from NYMag is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Very perceptive, and it rings completely true for me. Rather than reading the blatherings of my post here, go read the article instead. It is great.
As a synopsis, the article is about praise, innate ability, and persistence. The article details how smart, highly-praised kids, and I think it applies to adults to a lesser degree, can be afraid to work hard. When they are praised for their abilities, they come to believe abilities are innate, not earned. Because they think brains, athleticism, musical adeptness, and other abilities are is innate, they shy away from challenges. When are praised for their process, the practice, the effort, and the hard work they’ve put in, they are more likely to do more of the same.
I lived this article. To some extent I still do. Often in high school, my friends and I would joke about how lazy we were, and how much wasted potential we had. We knew we had great capabilities, great intelligence, but we weren't willing to work. I always thought we were afraid of failure, but that wasn't it because sometimes, due to our lack of work, we DID fail. And it didn't bother us. What I realized we were afraid of was finding our limits--what we could and could not do. It was preferable to fail at something we hadn't tried at than fail at something we had. There was some dignity in failing, if you hadn't tried, because you still could be "smart." Heck, my senior quote was literally:
Some say, “I may not be the smartest man, but I can work harder than any other.” I say, “I may not be the smartest man, but I sure am close.”
I think there was dignity in failure when we didn’t try largely because we had some suspicions about ability being more innate than "earned" so to speak. And we'd brag, we said we didn't work because "we didn't have to," rather than the truth "because we were scared to." We even looked down on hard workers, made uncomfortable by their efforts to get ahead. They would study and we wouldn’t, studying to us was cheating, tilting the playing field. Because of this we reveled in pop quizzes where no one could study, and dreaded take-home tests where there were no excuses for not doing so.
Then college came and basically slapped me in the face. My first semester I took mostly classes I thought I could do very well at with little effort, but still look like I was working hard. No seriously look at my classes—Computer Science 235 (I'd done well in AP CS), English 115 (I bloody tested out of this, I didn't need to take it), Calc 2 (I’d already taken part of this in AP Calc), Physics (which I'd completely already had in AP physics), and a religion class (though I’d attended 4 years of seminary). So I didn't try in these classes, I'd had this stuff before right? And I got destroyed.
The next semester was little better. I took mostly classes others were taking. I didn't want to blaze my own trail anymore. I don't know when I gained confidence in my academic abilities, it was gradual. Coming back from my two year break, I was still largely careful to take classes I was comfortable in, or thought I would be. I still don't think I have full confidence in my abilities, my last full semester I decided to audit, rather than take, an econ course I knew I'd enjoy but had a reputation for being difficult.
This is not to say I didn't take difficult classes, I did. My first semester I accidentally took some very difficult classes. My last two semesters I took quite a few very challenging courses.
I don't know if my brother is similar in this way with me. Perhaps. Maybe he has something else. Maybe he really didn't have to work in high school. I don't know. I'll bet this could apply to my youngest sister though. And I think this problem is incredibly widespread.
Anyhow, the entire article rings true with me. I don't think anyone is to blame for my own laziness but me; everyone told me I was smart—school teachers, church teachers, my parents, my siblings, my friends, everyone.
I think about the praise I get now. Some of it I value, some I don't. I usually value specific praise—"You do incredible things with excel macros." I usually don't value general praise—"What an asset you are to our company." Both are loose paraphrases of compliments I received this week.
The exceptions to specific and general praise are when the praise comes from someone whose opinion I value greatly. If a non-technical person tells me they're impressed how much I know about computers, big whoop. If my boss (who I always think of as my co-worker, I don't know why) says he is impressed with some part of my technical knowledge, it means something. Even general praise can be valuable this way.
So I guess the challenge is not only to continue to fix the way I look at work, but, more importantly, to fix the way we praise others. To only give meaningful, specific, and motivational praise. And that is hard.