I Used to Think I Was Smart

When I first entered college, I believed I was smart, and that my smarts would carry me through the rest of my life. I was a math whiz, and my pre-calculus teacher was so impressed he suggested I pursue a career in math.

Then I took calculus, and suddenly things weren’t so easy anymore.

That’s when I quit, and I realized that I wasn’t as smart as I thought. But my problem wasn’t that I lacked intelligence, or talent.

It was that I lacked effort.

Calculus was the first time I needed to exert true effort in order to understand the material, so that’s when I gave up.

My belief that I could get by on ability alone arose because of what I was told when I was growing up. All around me, I could see that society valued:

  • Talent (natural ability over effort)

  • Intelligence (believing that it’s fixed)

  • Prodigal children (born gifted)

  • Perfectionism (lack of mistakes)

Many parents, teachers, and coaches push the idea that we need to be good at what we do, we need to be good naturally, and we need to be good immediately. On top of that, we are supposed to feel confident, have high self-esteem, and be competent while we do it.

Except that these beliefs gloss over the personal responsibility and effort it takes to be good at things. Thus we are left worrying more about how we’re feeling than how to actually get there. And more importantly, worrying that if we’re not there yet, we’re never going to get there.

An emphasis on impatience and lack of control has negative consequences.

When you believe that you aren’t born with a certain set of personality traits, or you are taught to feel worthless for needing to put time and effort into changing, feelings of helplessness arise—because taking risks and exerting effort might reveal your inadequacies.

If you believe that if you aren’t born talented enough, or smart enough, fear is going to drive you to give up when you don’t achieve what you think you should right off the bat. Fear of failure becomes more intense when you believe you’re stuck and lack the ability to grow. And when you do fail, it crushes your confidence and your self-esteem.

To combat this destructive mindset, what we should really be praising and encouraging is:

  • Talent Belief in effort

  • Intelligence Persistence in overcoming obstacles

  • Prodigal children Embracing challenges

  • Perfectionism Resilience in the face of setbacks

Because when you allow for growth, and you allow for mistakes, you automatically increase your potential for achievement.

Even talented individuals need to practice—A LOT—before they can master something.

Even geniuses need to study—A LOT—before they can be considered a genius.

And along the way, these talented geniuses experience just as much failure as everyone else, perhaps more, because they’re willing to keep making mistakes.

Mistakes still feel bad to them. Failure still feels bad to them. But they have adopted the mindset that effort and challenge are necessary components of growth.

They don’t sit and wallow in the fact that they made a mistake, or that they haven’t achieved their goal. They recognize that they’re not there YET, and they use the feedback to keep going.

Even if you believe you’ve been born with fixed traits, you can change your beliefs about yourself and your potential.

You can adopt what Carol Dweck termed a "growth mindset."

Luckily, after my calculus failure, I found a teacher, my violin teacher, that believed in the power of effort. She believed that a strong work ethic trumped talent, and she nurtured this belief—a growth mindset—in me. 

With a growth mindset, you can reframe the way that you think about what you’re capable of and the setbacks that you face. You can not only achieve more, but you can feel better on the path there.

Or, you can sit back, complain that you lost the genetic lottery, and quit whatever you set out to do. 

Your choice.