Intelligence as a skill: learning, mistakes, and fear of failure

Just one more post from Mistakes Were Made (but not by me!), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. This time the topic is education, specifically how fear of failure inhibits learning, and how we’d be wiser to think of intelligence as a learned skill (or set of skills) than as an inborn trait.

“Making mistakes is central to the education of budding scientists and artists of all kinds, who must have the freedom to experiment, try this idea, flop, try another idea, take a risk, be willing to get the wrong answer.” (p. 233)

The current focus on constant testing in schools, the authors say, “has intensified the fear of failure,” which inhibits risk-taking, which of course is essential to creativity and any real learning that goes deeper than rote memorization.

But there’s more to it:

“[American children] worry that making mistakes reflects on their inherent abilities.” The authors cite the research in which some children were praised for their abilities and others were praised for effort:

Children who, like their Asian counterparts, are praised for their efforts, even when they don’t ‘get it’ at first, eventually perform better and like what they are learning more than children praised for their natural abilities. They are also more likely to regard mistakes and criticism as useful information that will help them improve. In contrast, children praised for their natural ability learn to care more about how competent they look to others than about what they are actually learning. (p. 234)

This is a huge difference in attitude. Is a mistake evidence of some inborn trait, something you can’t do anything about, like height or eye color? Or is it evidence of skill, something you can work on and improve?

Certainly some people are born with a greater potential for intelligence than others. They learn more quickly. In the same way, some people are naturally stronger or better athletes, and accomplish with little effort more than another person could do with years of workouts and training. That said, you can make yourself stronger, and you can make yourself smarter–and not just smarter in the narrow sense of knowing more stuff, but smarter in the more important sense of being more skilled at learning, better at critical thinking, more creative (another quality we often consider a trait, but which is mostly a set of learnable skills). And just realizing that can change your life.


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