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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.

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