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Once again, praise kids for effort, not for 'smarts' (nymag.com)
161 points by saturdayplace on Feb 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

When my Daughter was born (now three) my wife insisted that I and everyone who has regular contact with her focus on her hard work and not simply say "you're soo smart!". It's tough to make that association but I think I've seen actual results from it. My daughter is about three weeks into ISR swim classes and I can see her shift into her "hard working" face even when she's a little upset or crying. She knows that she has to work hard (show visible effort) at staying calm or calming quickly or trying new things if she wants her reward (her favorite thing in the world: Futurama). It's one of the few developmental guidelines my wife has laid down and I've come around to see it as the most important because to be frank I didn't learn that lesson until WAY too late.

The fact that your three year old daughter loves watching Futurama already says a lot about her mental aptitude/attitude.

I'm sure she doesn't "get" a lot of it at this stage, but I bet she will learn a surprising amount from sticking with it.

Actually that's the strange thing. She's learned not only the specific funny quotes but she uses them in situationally-correct instances. When crashing two cars together, "Buckle your sphincters!". When I pull her out of the tub and she can't see because her massive amount if hair is in the way, "My lawyer will hear about this!" When she wants to make us laugh she puts both her claws up in the air and goes for a Zoidberg scuttle.

I've had to defend the fact that I let a three year old watch Futurama many a time. Mostly to people who would rather I show things like Dora (I don't like my kid yelling at the TV) or movies like The Little Mermaid (truly horrific from viewpoint of relationship modeling). Admittedly sometimes my kid walks around quoting Bender "Ass Ass Ass Ass Ass!" and it might one day get sent to the Principle's office but she also admires female star ship captains, recognizes hard work (fry and the holophoner), and naturally distrusts cephalapod doctors. There are a lot more issues I hope she can start to pick up like the value of friendship, that math is awesome and to never be without your doomsday device "for duck huntin'!"

Sorry for the tangent.

Mutant anthrax is for duck huntin'. Doomsday devices can be used for, amongst other things, triggering chronoton implosions and powering bending units.

Futurama is like Animaniacs. The humor and meaning unfold and deepen as you rewatch it while growing up.

I like this approach. What kind of encouraging words do you tell your child? My son is a few months short of 2 but I want to do the same for him (well... maybe not Futurama) and he definitely doesn't understand hardwork or smart yet - but I want us (my wife and I) to get into this groove.

These things seem to go in waves. In the 1990s, I remember the opposite worry, that a bunch of new educational theories had put too much emphasis on praising effort rather than results, the whole A-for-effort thing.

It's interesting that the politics have shifted a bit, though. I remember the emphasize-effort view being associated with clearly "liberal", almost hippie approaches, that what's important is encouraging every kid to give it their best try, so they actualize their own potential, etc. Meanwhile the more "conservative" view was very results-oriented, sort of: I don't give a damn if your kid is trying hard or lazy, all that should matter in math class is whether he does the math right or wrong. The current wave of articles don't seem to have that same political divide.

Emphasize effort doesn't mean emphasize effort that lead to bad results. That is, it's not "as long as you put in effort" (which is the approach you're talking about), it's that when there is success the thing that should be praised is the effort to reach that success.

Sometimes you need to learn from your mistakes, regroup, change strategy, and try again. It's a balance between avoiding failure and learning from it, but not fearing failure of something that is just beyond your reach. Otherwise, we risk making the bar so low that we're praising effortless success.

The idea is to take good results as evidence of effort.

Hmm, that one I could see more, but unless my schooling was very atypical, it often wasn't the case in K-12 that good results actually were evidence of effort. Would kids believe it if you told them?

If I remember, say, algebra class, the kids who did best were mostly kids who found algebra easy. Somehow it just made sense to them, and the concepts clicked with them as soon as they were introduced. If you praised them for putting in effort, would that be believable? Maybe it's different in classes which are heavy on memorization, but that was my experience in concept-heavy classes; the best students just got stuff instantly, and subjectively felt it to be nearly effortless.

Certainly in my own strengths/weaknesses, I felt that I put in the least effort in the classes I did best in. Where I put in more effort was stuff I wasn't as good at. Praising me for that might've been believable, but if someone praised me for putting in effort in the stuff I was really good at, my reaction would've been sort of incredulous, since I hadn't done so. Not consciously as "effort", anyway; though it's plausible there are things I did in my spare time as "fun" that shaped what I was good at (like puttering around with computers, and reading a lot of books).

I'm having a hard time thinking of classes where memorization dominated "being good at." Even history, if it was taught as a bunch of meaningless dates, treaties and battle names, was still amenable to learning through outside reading, because if you found the right books, they'd make those dull meaningless facts memorable.

In high school there were a lot of classes where memorization was the only real measure of "smart". Every test was a "remember the fact / date" test for history, social studies, and quite a bit of english. I have a really horrible memory for that type of stuff and just memorized a sheet I wrote before the test. Outside reading is a lot easier now, but at the time the school library was pretty pathetic for that type of stuff (no ref book checkout either and no study halls).

Before someone mentions the "local library", there was none during my high school years. The closest one (in the next town over) specifically barred people from my town from using it (taxes and another less happy social reason).

There's an excellent quote from the Korean file "My Sassy Girl" about this. To paraphrase, "Never tell a child he's smart, after a while he'll begin to believe it and start to get lazy."

It's such a shame that people who want to be popular define "smart as"

    smart = results/effort
It gives them an incentive to slack, and while that may work in the lower tiers of the school system, they're going to hit a brick wall at some point, and for many, it will be too late for them to do anything to catch up.

I also recall someone on Quora referring as the distorted picture in places like Stanford described as the "duck syndrome": on the surface, everyone seems to be coasting calmly, but below, they are paddling like mad.

* * *

Praising kids and people can be so friggin' difficult. I remember playing football (soccer) in school, and I was a bit of a geek, but when I played, I would sometimes get all these "compliments": "Nice one, kmfrk!", "You played a great match today" from class mates and the gym class teacher. Most meant well by it - some didn't - but even though I wasn't very old, what was going on was very transparent. (I was a blatantly bad player, except as a goalie, so I took the compliments about my role as the latter more to heart.)

It downright annoyed me, because I knew that I was awful.

It has made it very hard for me to discern actual praise in my life.

Your equation is mathematically equivalent to:

    results = effort x smart
The problem is optimizing this equation for smart, rather than for results.

I like that construction. The article also emphasizes teaching kids another contributing equation:

  smart = sum(previous efforts)
Giving a final equation:

  immediate results = immediate effort * sum(previous efforts)

I don't think aiming at the results/effort equation is a bad heuristic for lots of things, depending on how effort is defined. Though maybe it isn't a good equation for schooling in particular, and I agree defining people as unintelligent based on them putting in effort isn't a good strategy.

It's the basic heuristic of elegant code, for example: elegant code maximizes the ratio of results to coding effort. The opposite is when you get the results, but by slogging through a bunch of inelegant boilerplate.

It's also the whole premise behind the "hacking the workweek" type ideas, though I realize not everyone likes those.

If anything, I'd say it's a pretty pervasive part of hacker culture, and what differentiates it to some extent from "normal" engineering culture: hackers aim for that results/effort win, the cool hack, virtuosic performance, etc., rather than the N-hour straightforward, carefully managed slog. Not even just because it saves time/money, but because somehow it's intrinsically interesting to see people finding ways to get great results via a route other than "I just plowed through it and got it done". That's sometimes necessary too, but it's not the part that gives the hacker spirit a spark.

The problem here is that you were comparing yourself with the rest of the people.

I have trained track and field for some years now and if I would try to compare myself with Michael Johnson, I would always be a failure. But in every sport you are (at the end) just trying to improve yourself and competing against yourself. My point is that you could have been doing a good game (for you) even without being anything similar to Pele, and maybe they were praising you for that.

I totally get that it'd be okay to praise me for making progress of putting effort into it, but - at least - in these cases, I weren't really. That's why it annoyed me.

It's also a reminder to be specific about your praise, too - nebulous praise is useless.

"It gives them an incentive to slack, and while that may work in the lower tiers of the school system, they're going to hit a brick wall at some point, and for many, it will be too late for them to do anything to catch up."

Agreed. I hit the wall in the final year at University. Worst time ever.

Story of my life.

been there, done that :)

Haha, wow. That's the first time I've ever heard reference to that film outside Korea. Awesome. And it's totally true. It took me decades to get over my I'm smart syndrome.

Or the child will be obsessed with living up to the high opinion everyone has of him and avoid anything that might make him look dumb.

I feel like reading this article may make me react in the same way that the sample groups of the tests did. Hopefully in the much greater long term, that'd be nice. Good thing I read it(maybe).

I had noticed the same pattern in myself. My parents would tell me that I'm smart, and then I'd get pissed and frustrated at my math homework if I didn't understand the concepts within a grand total of 15 minutes. Then Discrete Math hit me and I realized that there would be no way for me to survive on just 15 minutes of attempts of any problem/concept(but I'd still be frustrated all of the time).

That is exactly what happened to me, made cs at the university unbelievably hard...

Watch Malcolm Gladwell's interview with Fareed Zakaria for his book "Outliers" (part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCt1Wc8Kx4U, part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf3NalDYIT8).

In "Outliers" Malcolm explores what makes a person successful and asks the question, "Why do some talented people flame out early while others go on to brilliant careers?"

Malcolm's main premise is, "Success doesn't have much to do with talent. It's almost always a product of hard work and the culture of which we live our lives."

But I think Malcolm is really describing the development of genius and how the environment/culture either encourages or discourages people from focusing on a certain areas or ideas. Go the wrong way and you miss developing into your true potential.

From my perspective, genius is not so much measured by IQ, although a high IQ helps, but genius can be measured by how rare and valuable your perspective is and how effectively you see patterns in- and make associations or connections among disparate ideas. Paul Cooijmans has a similar perspective (http://www.paulcooijmans.com/genius/).

Developing these rare or unique perspectives usually takes deliberate and devoted focus on something (like when Malcolm talks about the 10,000-hour rule).

Einstein wasn't a genius because he was most skilled in math -- he wasn't -- Einstein became a genius because he relentlessly explored a problem, following it our farther than anyone had taken it before. This allowed him to see connections that no one had seen before, and these connections/discoveries were valuable to humanity.

So yes, praise kids for their effort -- it's one of the requisite components of genius.

Using "Once again" in the title seems misplaced, since the article is from 2007.

When I was growing up, it seemed ok to be praised for being smart, because life outside of being smart was terrifically difficult. Taking the school bus to school, being bullied, having a weird foreign name, the Canadian winter, those all seemed to promote some resilience, and being smarter than your average bear just seemed to be a light of hope.

http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ is the non-print version for anyone that ran into problems with the javascript on the print page.

This advice applies not only to kids, but to everyone around us.

> These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged.

> To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific.

> Just as the research promised, this focused praise helped him see strategies he could apply the next day.

This strongly reminds me of how successful companies experiment to improve their products' performance. These experiments, by definition are trial-and-error, and involve mistakes and backtracking, because they don't yet have enough data to develop a theory that predicts exactly what will work. Over time, as it does become formalized, that aspect is no longer profitable because then anyone can do it.

Calling someone smart has little meaning, because it means different things in different contexts and one persons smart may not even be considered smart at all to others. A lot of it is age related to, being good at multiplication in the first grade is going to get you called smart, later in life it's just assumed.

Also as a related example people confuse memorization with smarts, here in Australia times tables are generally taught up to 12*12, if a kid if very fast at these but falls over once the number goes over 12 they have just put a lot of time into memorization without picking up the principles properly.

When praise becomes the reward, the strategy is to do whatever it takes to get praise. When success is the reward, the strategy becomes learning how to succeed, which often means passing through failure. We all have an innate ability to find the success strategy. For example, video games have no mercy--the only way to succeed is to keep trying until you get better. And yet most kids will continue to play a new game until they improve because, in this case, learning is an adventure, its own reward. The best teachers seem to apply this to the classroom.

Praising kids for effort is a mistake. That leads to adults who excel in giving the impression of expending great effort without properly planning for success. Praise kids for what you want - achievement.

Like most things in life, there's a middle-ground and a balance between the extremes that isn't easy to figure out. There's no easy answer for such things.

There's a good bookm that reiterates the point in the article. Brain Rules. Worth a read.

It also depends on how strong your kids are. There is no silver bullet

To be honest your kids can usually figure out if they are smart or not pretty quickly once they enter the school system. The thing is there are lots of smart people out there. As you progress through the education system you usually meet people smarter than you and hopefully realise that you need to work to keep with them. It's like thinking you are the king of code in your job and then discovering HN - you quickly realise there is always someone smarter so you need to work to get their level.

The real world doesn't care nearly as much about effort as it does about the end result, except as a mitigation for failure. Why effort and not .2 x effort + .8 x accomplishment?

I think this was the point of the article.

To answer your question, because no matter how smart you are, there will come a time when you HAVE to work extremely hard. If you don't learn this skill early in life, you will suffer simply put.

It depends on what are you referring to with the real world. Are you talking about money? Yeah, sure, you can even have 200x accomplishment with .1x effort.

The message is the culture of effort, and I could not agree more. If you "teach" your kids to optimize their time, for them a test score of 8/10 would be enough if they need to dedicate 5 times less time that they would have to get a 10/10. Eventually this will derive into decreasing more and more the effort and, with it, the results. Knowing when to optimize is also a learned lesson, which comes (again) from effort, failures and success.

I have felt what they describe in the text, and... I wish somebody would have praised my effort back then. If we check most people that have accomplish something in their lives, they have done through effort. Yeah, sure, more variables are needed (you can't run like Usain Bolt or think like Gauss only by effort) but if there is a common characteristic, this is effort.

You can control your effort directly. You can only control your accomplishment indirectly, through the effort you put in.

Yeah, but the accomplishment is by far the most important part. It's very easy to expend a lot of effort doing things that don't actually increase one's chance of success on something, and I don't think that should be praised.

The reason to expend lots of effort on useless things is so that you're mentally conditioned to succeed when the important things come along.

Truly life-changing opportunities are fairly rare, and they usually pop up when you don't expect them. To capitalize on them, you have to be prepared. If you've been sitting around slacking off for the previous several years, you're probably not going to be in a position to pounce when the opportunity arises.

Anyone have some good advice on getting out of this sort of pattern, if it was established in your youth?

The only teacher that broke that habit at my school was my Chemistry teacher. He knew I was very smart, and I started handed in the bare minimum of lab reports. For example when he was expecting 6 steps of working and 10 lines of analysis, he got 1 line of working/answer, and two lines of "bloody obvious, X = Y" style analysis :P. He fixed that by shouting "What is this? Hmm? You're a lazy toad!!!" at me in front of the whole class... not very professional, but it worked. He always got the best of my effort. And I think he always marked me down compared to the rest of the class: whilst my work may have been to the same standard as them, it wasn't close to my best work.

In the world of work, the best antidote has been working with other very smart people. To stand out or earn their praise, being smart isn't enough, you have to get things done too. When I was slacking off for 20mins here to check Facebook, and 10mins there to read some news... they knocked out 30mins of code and moved on. Crap!

So I now look for smart people to work for/with, ones who work harder than me, because they inspire me to actually work, not just coast-work-coast through my day.

Its not that we think too much of ourselves or too little, but that we think about ourselves too much.

Here the praise is feedback about actual effort made, not about some abstract concept of how great or smart we are. The abstract raise focuses the mind away from the real world towards an abstraction.

Why not praise them for both. Joel Spolsky wrote a whole book on the importance of hiring smart people, but also people that get stuff done. I tend to think that having a strong work ethic is more important than being smart, as longs as you are smart enough to complete the task at hand, but if you spend all your time grinding on the wrong thing, you aren't going to get anywhere.

Praise kids for effort put into intellectually challenging work that they complete with good results. We should praise intelligence, it's what our society runs on. Intelligence certainly doesn't need to be devalued any more than it already is.

Praise kids for effort put into intellectually challenging work that they complete with good results.

Because you don't want to tie praise to good results, because that stops people from trying things when they aren't sure if they are going to succeed.

It's an issue of practical psychology and incentives, not a politically correct devaluing of successful people.

The author of this article has an excellent book titled "NurtureShock" (co-authored with Ashley Merryman), covering this and other relevant subjects. I highly recommend it, even if you don't have kids but especially if you do.

I'm reminded of Philip Larkin's "This be the verse", sometimes referred to as "They fuck you up, your parents do" - http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar2.htm

I was one of those kids praised for smarts and I attribute that to my innate laziness. I somehow believe that we're missing something when we tell people not to praise being smart. Surely a better way would be to adopt a more rounded approach? But then again, I'm neither a child psychologist nor a parent so what would I know?

The article actually gets it wrong.

I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

No, I don't think that's it. At least for me, I have caught myself thinking many times "I'm not good at X, so odds are I won't be able to be one of the best at X, so it's not worth trying"

(My parents never praised smarts and neither did my teachers, but I unfortunately discovered far too early I could skate by in even the hardest classes with very little effort.)

I was praised for being smart, and my experience, at least, is more similar to the article's.

I wish my parents had doen this. I definitely fell into the mindset where "oh, I'm smart, so I don't need to try". Needless to say, I'm now playing catch up.

Another consequence of this upbringing is that learning became a grind for me - pursuing intelligence rather than interest.

I burnt out at the age of 12, and the past 8 years have been trying to find direction and motivation for my academic life.

1) Praise kids for results.

2) When there's no success yet, recognize effort and praise progress toward the result.

3) Recognize smarts and talent in general for how they help get results.

We should be encouraging, about intelligence, effort and results. But it's important to remember the goal (result), otherwise there's no clear focus.

They may have gone to a lot of effort, but I have to say it's not smart to put content on a page that doesn't work when javascript is off.


insert upvotes and a repost to the front page

This article is right on the spot. When I grew up, I never remembered myself being told as smart. I never was. But I always worked hard and probably took longer to finish home work and stuff like that.

I think persistence and hard work are very closely related. Will Smith during his interview on PBS once said something like "If you put me in any challenge, no matter how smart you are and I may not have the natural talent but I will practice and work hard till I die or win"

When I got good scores, my dad never told me I was smart but always said "Your hard work is paying off". I guess he did this naturally and did not put any logic or theory behind it but now it all makes sense.

With my kid, I am going to be more aware of what I am going to praise him for and track the changes. Amazing article.

Conversely, I was always told I was smart. I always aced tests but I struggled constantly with doing my homework (not because it was difficult but because I avoided starting it until the last minute).

That's not what my Chinese mother told me.

yah your chinese mother told me she only cares about results ;)

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