Kendra: “You’re just so smart,” a classmate of mine says after listening to me orally analyze last night’s reading assignment. Others nod their heads, agreeing with this statement. I chuckle. Another class fooled. While developing my obsession with sticky notes and flashcards, I got the reputation of being “the smart girl.” In reality, my success comes not from innate ability, but from my work ethic.
Only recently did I realize that not everyone does all the homework or studies diligently for big test. My willingness to participate in the learning process has provided me with the fastest route to success I know: hard work.
Even before I could toddle, my parents chose to reinforce specific good behaviors rather than compliment general traits. For example, they avoided saying, “You’re a good girl,” in favor of things like, “Good job picking up your toys.” While other kids got ice cream for doing their math homework or getting a perfect spelling grade, I got a hug. My parents never let me off easy when I tried to get away with doing the minimum, and they encouraged me to challenge myself with hard classes.
I’ve spent hours crying at the kitchen table as I struggled to learn complex integration. Yet, I in no way resent my parents for inspiring me to do my best. Well, maybe I resent them a little for the lack of ice cream. But I now appreciate the effect of their strategy on my success in school and at work, where my managers appreciate my lack of entitlement and eagerness to work hard.
I’m trying to do the same thing as I begin my college applications — dream big and try hard. I encourage my peers to do likewise; to find the confidence to search for a college that will set me up to make a real difference in the world. It’s a lofty goal, but as I consider top-rated schools and surreal internships, I draw closer to making my dreams into reality.
Rarely does that happen because of anyone’s inherent brilliance or an inborn trait like photographic memory. We are successful because we refuse not to be.
Wes: An NPR Morning Edition story from last November recently reran on Labor Day — quite fitting, I’d say — about hard work. It compares how American and Japanese parents and schools encourage their children’s academic success. Simply put, Americans are more like Kendra’s classmates commenting on success as a matter of smarts. The Japanese are more like her parents — they encourage intellectual struggle.
Before you think I’m going to get all “Tiger Mom” on you (I’m not really a fan of her model), let’s step back and consider the point, wholly apart from cultural competitions.
In the NPR piece, UCLA psychology professor Jim Stigler is simply noting that when you lift up a child’s talent or intelligence, you’re telling them that they’re successful because of an innate gift — something he cannot change. You might as well say he’s lucky.
If, instead, you tell a child he or she is successful because of his or her efforts, you’re assigning accomplishment to a variable that is within the child’s power. And guess what? The next time the child faces an intellectual challenge, he or she will think that trying hard is the key to success, not good fortune.
The Japanese see intellectual struggle not as a sign of low intellect or weakness, but as a chance to show strength. Everyone is expected to struggle. It’s kind of the point of learning.
When faced with an experimental math problem that was intentionally impossible to solve, the Japanese student persisted until asked to stop. The American students gave up after 30 seconds and said, “I haven’t done this before.”
Stigler is quick to note that the Japanese face some very different problems in their approach — lack of creativity, individuality, etc. Other research finds Asian kids to be a pretty stressed lot. But the point of the research isn’t to turn our kids into Japanese kids.
It simply and eloquently points out the value of stressing hard work over talent and intellect. And, by the way, in my many years of seeing young adults, I’ve found that it’s not the smart kids who finish college and graduate school.
It’s the persistent ones.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.