How a Fixed Mindset Kept Me From Learning

When I graduated from college, my mother decided to hand over all of the sentimental things she’d kept for me — favorite stuffed animals, photo albums, my christening gown and a folder stuffed with my childhood test scores, including my first IQ test.

As I looked through this folder I thought, “What happened to me?” My childhood IQ was high. I was labeled “gifted” and took advanced courses throughout my primary and secondary education. Though I excelled far more in my language courses than in math, I took high school math classes in middle school and did exceedingly well in them.

My teachers and parents told me that I was smart. My friends said I was the smart one. I felt smart and that feeling was propped up by the reality that I never needed to study in high school. I could write a paper 20 minutes before it was due and still get an A. It was all so easy, including that classes that were supposed to be difficult. Then I went to college.

At Tulane University, many of my classmates were from the Northeast. They’d attended prep schools and much of what we’d eventually learn during our freshman year was merely a refresher on information they’d learned during their junior and senior years of high school. That’s when it happened: I no longer felt like the smart kid in the room.

I was so intimidated by my classmates that I didn’t raise my hand in class to answer a question. I often skipped class altogether. I thought that my abilities were all an illusion created by the fact that I’d attended public schools. While I may have been “smart” for a public school kid, I wasn’t nearly as smart as the kids I went to class with at Tulane.

So, I shrunk to the back of the class, if I even attended class at all. I was a horrible student for more than half of my four years in college.

It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and I spent a semester at Duke University that I realized I could still learn. Despite battling some of the most intense stress of my life, I buried my head in my books to study, to get away from the pictures of flooded streets and displaced children and I did really well. That semester at Duke was the first time in college that I got a 4.0 GPA.

But then I went back to Tulane and, though I kept it up, I never quite kept the essential lesson from Duke with me. The lesson that I really could learn. So when I saw the folder my mother gave me with my old test scores and aptitude tests, I thought something must have happened. I was no longer “smart.”

For the last 10 years, that’s been something I’ve struggled with daily. Even in marrying my husband, at times I felt intellectually inferior to him. Luckily, Nick Hwang thinks I’m intelligent and his confidence has boosted me through some major challenges, including becoming a fellow of the New Leader’s Council, a yoga-teacher’s training program, taking on the role of the communications director at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and going back to school via Harvard Business School’s online HBX CORe program.

The first week of the CORe program was incredible. I was learning new things. I was excited about financial accounting and walked around my office trying to talk to our fiscal division staff about how incredible interesting accounting really is. Then I took my first quiz and did not do as well as I’d hoped. I made a passing grade, but immediately felt defeated.

I called Nick. “I’m not smart enough for this. I thought that I could do this, but what if I can’t?”

He propped me back up again. “You can do this.” And though, I believed him, I still didn’t feel “smart.”

Almost 10 years after graduating from college, I was letting the same mindset take over again. If I didn’t do well at first, it meant that I wasn’t smart enough. That’s when I decided not to let it rule me. I can learn these concepts and I can improve.

That shift in mindset is something I’m attempting consciously and it has been helped dramatically by a 45-minute lecture from Carol Dweck. Her theory is simple: if we tell a child they are smart, they only attempt the tasks at which they believe they will succeed. They will shy away from challenging material and will set themselves up to believe that they are only “smart” at certain things or subjects.

The lecture focuses on something called the Growth Mindset, which instructs us that if we believe that we can learn new things, grow and develop, we can. Dweck says that when we tell a child they are smart, they limit themselves. And when they encounter something that they cannot do, they begin to believe that they are not smart, which keeps them from trying harder, revisiting the materials and, ultimately, from learning.

I know that changing my own mindset won’t happen overnight. It is going to take a consistent effort and many, many years of practice. Participating in the CORe program is an incredible opportunity for me to put that mindset to work.

When I get something wrong, I’ll have to say that I haven’t yet gotten it. When I miss a quiz question, I’ll need to go back to the concept and really dive into it again rather than moving on because I believe that I’m not going to get it.

This is something I want to do not only for myself but also for the kids that Nick and I will one day have. Dweck’s theory encourages removing “smart” from our repertoire of praise. Instead, she says, we should praise the learning process. The more that we do this, the more inclined children are to learn new things, even those things that at first seem too difficult.

The only limitations on our minds are the ones that we put there ourselves. I don’t need to be “smart,” but I need to really want to learn.

Did your parents call you smart as a child? Do you tell your children they are smart? How do you face the challenge of learning new things that seem difficult?

Additional Thoughts:

I want to note here that I think telling a child that they are smart is an incredible compliment. It comes from the most genuine place of adoration and affection. When I’m with my nieces or nephews, I often tell them that they are smart in lieu of saying they are pretty or cute. Smart is what we all want to be, so being told that we are just that thing boosts us up. In fact, there is an entire movement led by Amy Poehler called Smart Girls that I really love.

There are so many theories on the right and wrong way to raise children. When I was a kid in the 80s and 90s, telling a child they were smart was exactly the thing psychologists told parents to do.

These observations about learning are meant only as a way to share my personal exploration with learning.

I also want to note that my parents are wonderful, loving, kind people who raised me very well. They gave me incredible opportunities to grow and learn — opportunities that got me to Tulane in the first place. Thanks, Mom, Dad, Tracy and Jim! <3