The Problem with Bright Kids

…is the lesson we teach them when they’re young.

I read a great article in the Harvard Business Review (subscription required) by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

She talked about studies showing that people with above-average aptitudes, the people we would classify as especially smart or creative or insightful — people a lot like you —  judge their own abilities much more harshly, and very differently, than the rest of us.

Gifted children often grow up to be less confident and more vulnerable, even though their brightness should produce the exact opposite outcome.

And that’s because we tend to view abilities as innate and unchangeable.


Heidi talks about a study of two groups of 5th graders, each given identical sets of easy problems to solve. After the first set, one group was praised for their abilities (“You did really well. You must be very smart!”) and the other was praised for their effort (“You did really well. You must’ve worked really hard.”)

Next, each set of students were given identical sets of really difficult problems, problems so tough they couldn’t be solved. All students in both groups were told that they hadn’t gotten any of the answers right.

Finally, each group was given another set of very easy problems. Researchers wanted to see how dealing with a failure incident affected the outcome on another set of easy problems.

The students praised for their “smartness” did about 25% worse on this set of easy problems than they had on the first set. And, you guessed it, the students praised for “effort” did 25% better on the third set of problems.

When each group was asked about the middle set of problems, the ones so difficult that answers were impossible, the “smart” 5th graders said they just didn’t have the ability to figure them out, and gave up in frustration. The “good effort” students said they ran out of time but thought with more work they might have correctly solved them.

The important part of this is that the two groups of students were matched in terms of ability, and got identical problems to solve. The only difference was in the way the groups treated difficulty.

This probably happens to most of us.

We learn at an early age that there are some things we cannot do, some problems we cannot solve, and when we learn this lesson, we self-limit our achievement.

Failure feels so demeaning, we avoid difficult situations and new challenges, content to coast along half-bored rather than risk an assault on our self esteem.

The fact is, however, that in almost every ability we view as innate — intelligence, creativity, self-control, or athleticism — scientific studies have proved, again and again, that they are malleable.

With effort and practice, almost any skill can be learned, and almost any problem can be solved.

If you’ve been cut loose by a Radio business that doesn’t value you as it once did, and you can’t think of how to get back to your feet, re-read this post.

The answers to most of your problems lie, as they always have, within you, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Think not of what you want to do with your life moving forward, but rather who you want to be.

You can’t change your past, but you can shape your future. Believe.