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October 30, 2007

Oh Honey! You’re so—uh—well—

This column is a part of an ongoing discussion series between Kelly Corrigan and Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center.

KC: Now that I'm seeing everything though this fixed mindset/growth mindset prism, I feel a little tongue-tied around my kids. I’ve been in a terrible habit of saying things like “You’re such a good artist” and “You have a beautiful singing voice.”

CC: I do it, too. I'm training myself to keep pointing out that practice pays off.

KC: It’s Interpersonal Communications 101: always separate the action from the actor. “You are being mean” rather than “You are mean.” We have to stop generalizing and talk instead about specific actions.

CC: “You connected with the ball much better this time” carries a completely different message than “You are a fantastic baseball player.”

KC: The trick is when I’m trying to build up my kids’ confidence. For instance, when I see Claire struggle or hesitate, I want to say, “You can do this, honey. You’re a smart girl.”

CC: That’s a mixed message. The fixed-mindset part—telling her she’s smart—is tempting but that’s exactly the kind of praise is that causes problems. (By the way, I’m constantly having to stop myself from saying to my kids “You’re brilliant!”) We need make the message constructive by saying something like “I know you can do it if you put your mind to it.”

KC: Praise is a powerful drug for a kid. Once they’ve tasted it, they’ll do anything to get it again.

CC: Kids feel people evaluating and judging them. And certain praise reinforces feelings of being valued for their achievements alone. Carol Dweck says, based on her studies of thousands of kids, “Maybe the ability they proved yesterday is not up to today's task. Maybe they were smart enough for algebra but not calculus. So they're racing to prove themselves over and over…amassing countless affirmations, but not necessarily ending up where they want to be.”

KC: That's heartbreaking.

CC: Dweck’s team did an experiment where they give kids a short test and then one line of praise. They either said: “You did really well; you must be very smart,” (fixed mindset) OR they said, “You did really well; you must have worked really hard” (growth mindset).
After the first puzzle, the researchers offered the kids either a harder puzzle that they could learn from or one that was easier than the one they completed successfully. The majority of the kids praised for their intelligence wanted the easier puzzle—they weren’t going to risk making a mistake and loosing their status as “smart.” On the other hand, more than 90% of growth-mindset encouraged kids chose a harder puzzle. Why? Dweck explains: “when we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might—or might not—look.”

KC: It makes sense to me. Attributing success to innate gifts is a recipe for anxiety and joyless achievement.

CC: Joyless is the key word. In Dweck’s study, during the first puzzle, pretty much everyone had fun. But when the ability-praised kids were given a harder puzzle, they said it wasn’t fun anymore.

KC: Because it’s no fun when your special talent is in jeopardy.

CC: In another study, praising kids’ “smarts” actually lowered their IQ scores! Besides making them insecure and crushing the fun of learning something new, telling kids that how smart they are actually hinders performance.

KC: So we can praise our kids all day long, as long we focus on effort, commitment, resourcefulness, and tenacity.

CC: Right. Because those are the things that truly help them grow and succeed.

October 13, 2007

What Christine Told Me, Part I

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from the Bay Area News Group.

Last fall, when Georgia was in kindergarten, she tried soccer. I could go into it—making dandelion necklaces, lying down on the field, wearing a skirt to practice—but let’s just say it didn’t take. It was an interesting mix of disinterest and inability and I wasn’t sure which was feeding which. When she got frustrated, I was quick to take off the pressure by saying something like, “It’s no big deal, honey. Not everybody’s good at soccer. Some people have it in their bones and some people don’t.” Because I was feeling her pain and had been trained to communicate that I didn’t care a whip about her achievements, I’d go on. “I was never much good at sports myself. And it was funny because people always thought I should’ve been better, since I came from such an athletic family,” I’d ramble. “My brothers—your uncles—they had the magic touch but not me.”

Why?” she wanted to know.

“Well, I wasn’t that fast and I didn’t know where to be on the field and I couldn’t really kick that far. There was a guy on my team—he was really gifted—who could just wind up and send that ball halfway down the field. Not me, though. I was more the creative type.”

We talked for a while like this, about how different people have different talents. We talked about Daddy, who is musical and good with numbers. We talked about a third-grade girl named Tess who is such a natural athlete, I’ve watched grown men one-up each other with Tess stories—the time she whipped every 5th grade boy in wall ball, the time she stole second, the time she threw a football 30 yards, a perfect spiral. Then there’s Sophie, our babysitter who sings opera with this voice that’s as powerful and beautiful as a waterfall.

Then my husband came home and while the kids ran laps around us, he recounted an interesting conversation he’d had with his co-workers that day about what kind of people make the best CEOs. One guy was sure you couldn’t be a CEO unless you were born with something he called the killer instinct. We inventoried my husband’s traits—he was strategic, level headed, good in a crisis. But was he a born killer? Maybe it was like me and soccer—maybe it wasn’t in his bones.

As often happens, the next day I got talking with my friend Christine, who, in true PhD style, referred me to a huge body of research on mindsets, completed mostly by a woman named Carol Dweck, who’s done the rounds at Harvard and Columbia and is now down in sunny Palo Alto at Stanford. There were basically two mindsets, Christine explained, two ways of thinking about yourself and your abilities. Fixed and growth.

Apparently, talking about gifts and natural talents had made me an unwitting evangelist for the fixed mindset, which could be summarized as: you are what you are because you got what you got and once the plaster dries, there’s not much wiggle room.

Whatever I may have said, I don’t believe traits and skills are fixed. No, ma’am. I believe you reap (if only after much back-breaking tending) what you sow and that you can sow whatever you want. Personally, I plant new things all the time. Which brings me to the growth mindset, which gives all the credit to time on task. In other words, people are good at things they work at. My brothers broke scoring records in lacrosse because they started backing up the goal for my dad’s club games when they were in kindergarten. As teenagers, when other kids were hanging around the 7-11, they were playing Fall Ball and in the summer, while the other kids were playing ping-pong and doing cannonballs at the local pool, my brothers were sweating it out in Baltimore, at lacrosse camps. During the actual season, in the spring, they came home from a two-hour practice and went straight to our backyard to play catch until my mom called them in or it started raining. They were really good because they worked really hard. The same is true of Tess, who’s had a ball in her hands 80% of her waking hours since the day she was born. And Sophie, who spends several hours every day developing the muscle that is her voice, a routine she began when she was eleven. And so it is that Georgia will never be any good at soccer until she stands up, drops the dandelions and does the drills.

Now it’s a matter of consistently communicating that and not slipping into the limited (and limiting) thinking that credits born instincts and magic touches over the real enablers—study, training, rehearsal, revision and growth.

For more on this topic, click the play button below or head on over to Greater Good Science Center. The video download may take a minute or so. If you prefer to view on, which will be instant, click

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October 05, 2007

Had to share these lines

...from p 52 page of Gilead, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. If you haven't read it, it's just beautiful, as beautiful as anything on paper can be. The narrator is an old pastor at the end of his life and he's talking to his young son.

"I am writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you have done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to have been no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."

As someone who wrote a whole book about what it means to be someone's child while also being someone's parent, I bow down to this.

October 01, 2007

"Hey...just calling to check in..."

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Bay Area News Group.

I know that on Mondays at 10am, my husband meets with his boss. Those meetings last about ninety minutes and often there is about fifteen minutes of pressing work on either end. I also know that the first Friday of every month, the board of his small start-up meets and those meetings require about two hours of uninterrupted prep time and at least twenty minutes of chatting afterwards. I know his train schedule and that it takes him about ten minutes to settle into his commute and feel ready to kick back and chat. I know these things because I have been living with him for eight years and I have picked up on his basic routine. These effortless observations help me decide when to call and when to hold off for an hour, or even just five minutes.

Now. My husband is more “spontaneous.” He might call at 8:05am, to ask me to remind him (when he gets home in twelve hours) to find that parking receipt from last week’s trip to LA for his expense report. Or, he might call at 6:00pm for no reason at all, just a sweet, lazy hello, as he stares out the window at the traffic jam on 880 North. I have tried to point out that the kids’ dinnertime is not when I am at my conversational best. I have tried to explain that I only pick up at this time in case of emergency or to get the vigil ante thrill of barking at a telemarketer. And yet.

Last summer, during one such call, he called with a tidbit.

“Hi,” I said. “Bad time. Can we talk when you get home?”

“Sure yeah, just lemme tell you one quick thing—” he insisted.

“Um, ok,” I responded, phone wedged between my ear and my shoulder, hip blocking my daughter from the frying pan, fingers poking at a softball of frozen peas.

“Guess what?” he said, sounding titillated, like you might if you won a new Bentley.

“No idea honey.”

“Selma Hayek skipped a grade.”


“She skipped a grade. She graduated from high school when she was sixteen.”

Let’s just say that no mother would call another mother at 6:00pm unless, perhaps, she opened her fridge to discover there was only a drop or two of chardonnay to carry her through the day’s last grueling hours.

So for the men out there, loving husbands all, here is a list of approved reasons for an ill-timed call:

Your car has broken down and AAA is not answering.
You got a raise. A big one.
You’re at the jewelry store buying diamonds and you need to confirm her ring size.

You’ll note that although surprising and impressive, Selma Hayek’s high school transcript does not make the list. That’s something to tuck away for Day Six of a week vacation where you have exhausted meatier topics like whether to replace your mattress this year and if the kids are listening to High School Musical 2 too much.

That said, I’d rather be doing an Andy Rooney routine over inconvenient calls than no calls at all, so if it’s an either/or, go ahead and keep em coming.