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Hard Work vs Raw Talent

Why instilling admiration for hard work rather than raw talent is the key to fostering a well-adjusted mind.

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” He recounts:

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.

Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

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Dating For Dads 2

She was my first internet date, and I was a bit nervous.

Firstly because I knew that this was my first journey down the dark side of online dating, that murky avenue where the discarded remnants of failed relationships lurk in search of company and maybe some form of social acceptance.

To set the scene, it was a popular, well-frequented suburban watering—hole-cum-restaurant roughly halfway between us. The sort of place where your husband-brother-or-father would watch rugby. But on entering the crowded and chatty building from the always full, pine-fringed car-park that night I felt as if all eyes were on me, that everyone knew why I was there.

At least that was my thinking then. Because who does this sort of dodgy online dating stuff anyway?

That was about two years ago, and not long before a boyhood school-friend and long-time New York city resident announced to the table over dinner at a Cape Town city restaurant that it’s the done thing in his part of the world. ‘Hey man, it’s the boss!’

Essentially, it was the validation that I needed, and translated the concept into a ‘good enough’ reality for me.

I had tried to call her number a few times before we met, but with no luck. So I went ahead and agreed to meet nevertheless.

Turned out that she didn’t she didn’t really live where she said she did on her ‘profile’. If you’re from these parts (Cape Town), you will appreciate that broadly speaking, while physically not too far down the road, Muizenberg is on another level, far removed from Strandfontein. In the way that socie-economics is the great separator, it just isn’t the same.

She also posted pictures of herself as a teenager. It could’ve been someone else altogether.

I could’ve walked out, accused her of ‘social fraud’, of wasting my time invested in the communications we’d had over the past couple weeks, of misleading me. But I felt bad; she had travelled far, and being all alone she would’ve been totally out of place in what for her was a clearly foreign environment.

That’s internet dating for you, and I suppose the reason why I finally relented and opted to try the Tinder app. What I imagined to be something trashy, without even having tried it, turned out to be an effective application, populated by people like me, and with no charge.

It pulls limited personal information from your Facebook page – like your profile pictures – and even highlights mutual connections you may have. So the odds are good that the person behind the profile is genuine. If the person is suddenly 30kg heavier, well therein lies the baggage gathered over a lifetime – at least youve had the time  to develop the skills of diplomacy and kindness to deal with it – and  a real person with real stuff.

And there’s a bonus that I suppose was every bit intended. Because it’s an app, you interact with it when it suits you, no shotgun-scatter emails and weirdos flooding your inbox. Welcome to the new dating generation. It beats sitting at the bar and bugging your buddies.

Six & The Shoelace

I never quite attached the importance to shoelaces that I did last year, the sixth time the earth has circled the earth since my son was born. We had sat on his floor a bunch of times, him fumbling with those laces, me silently willing him to get it right while offering mild encouragement.

Being aware that he has limited patience for fiddly things, akin to my own, I understood the frustration that I was witnessing.

I remember when collecting him from school on ‘my day’, that a classmate was sitting on the brick floor outside the classroom, tying his laces. Around him, children grappling with bags half their size stumbled towards their waiting mothers*, but the boy remained resolute, focused, and finally stood with a look of triumph.

My first thought was a vaguely competitive ‘hey, we have to practise’. That was something of a knee-jerk, primitive response, but looking back, I hadn’t been here before. With each new developmental day comes a new experience, but I knew this was a landmark event, along with learning to ride a bike and catching his first frog.

Allied to this sense of understanding and appreciation, was a realisation that at his mom’s house he didn’t have lace-ups, only those shoes with velcro straps. Which meant no opportunity to practice.

Yes, they’re much easier to put on and take off, but learning this skill is obviously a non-negotiable that will equip him in his battle with the drawstring in his shorts, and I suppose later on with knotting the rope in the tree he wants to swing from, like the one outside our home.

Luckily this was happening a few months ago, as winter got going and footwear – as opposed to slip-slops – were a necessity. It would’ve been harder now, with summer at last here, as I support he and his little sister going barefoot as often as possible and when appropriate.

But that’s all history now, he’s pretty much got it mastered. Check this out from a few months back:

Yes, he did start with the laces the wrong way around, but here’s a tip (if it’s needed): it’s important to let our children make mistakes, to give them the chance to work them out themselves. The sense of achievement visible on his face when he got it right was a highlight of my year, almost up there with learning to ride his bike.

I will soon be sharing that experience, plus the process of learning to read with this excellent reader I came across. In the meantime when I get my boy this weekend after ten days apart, we’ll fit in a shoelace refresher, working on that coordination needed to tighten those laces. Further down the line, when he turns seven in February, we’ll have a separate bunch of challenges on our hands.

If you have your own tales of success, failures and lessons learnt, please share with me, and in so doing help us all learn from each other.

Parentally, Happily and Paternally Yours 🙂

* not too many dads seem to do the pick-ups at our school. Luckily I work for myself, and with minimal time to see him I treasure the opportunity to learn about what’s going on in his world, even if it’s just a lift, so he knows his dad is present.

PS – you might also enjoy this link.