I just finished reading Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”
One of the many thought-provoking concepts in the book is the “growth mind-set,” which means having beliefs that support our ability to grow and change. The framework of the book is the education system, so his writing about the “growth mind-set” centers around students, their beliefs about intelligence and their subsequent academic performance.
“…the question of the malleability of intelligence is actually hotly debated by psychologists and neuroscientists. Although scores on achievement tests like the SAT can certainly be affected by training of different kinds, the purest kind of intelligence is not very malleable at all. But a psychologist at Stanford named Carol Dweck has discovered a remarkable thing: Regardless of the facts on the malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable. Dweck divides people into two types: those who have a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and other skills are essentially static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence can be improved. She has shown that students’ mindsets predict their academic trajectories: those who believe that people can improve their intelligence actually do improve their grades. “*
Believing something despite evidence to the contrary— like believing your intelligence can be improved despite evidence that intelligence is not a malleable thing—is sort of, well, delusional.
But it is a kind of delusion that serves us in our efforts to grow and improve. So I’d like to introduce the newest member of the deliberate family: deliberate delusion.
Deliberate delusion means intentionally ignoring evidence that supports a fixed view of the self insofar as it doesn’t serve us in our efforts to grow and change.
For the students in Tough’s book, that fixed view might look like, “I’d like to make better grades, but I’m just not very smart.”
They are making this judgment based in large part on past performance, behavior and what they’ve been told by folks in their home and school—a prime example of rearview mirror syndrome.
Deliberate delusion allows us to look forward through the windshield and see where there is space for growth and improvement. It helps us get unstuck, calling up confidence in our ability to change rather than settling for a defeated acceptance of who we are.
This looks more like, “I’d like to make better grades. I’ve never done that well in school in the past and I’m not known as a ‘smart kid’, but I wonder what would happen if I strove for more. How much am I capable of?”
Deliberate delusion serves us because despite being biologically predisposed and socially shaped to exhibit certain traits, the expression of those traits can be seen on a spectrum from muted to full. This is what I see Tough and Dweck getting at with their example of intelligence and grades.
Remember that old nature versus nurture debate?
Though we may be born with a certain level of intelligence (or any other trait), our environment and our mindset have the ability to influence how muted or full our expression of that intelligence is.
Certain programs in schools are helping the students in Tough’s book with a previously muted expression of intelligence move toward fuller expression. Maybe the kiddos in Dweck’s study will plateau in the expression of their intelligence eventually, stopping when they hit their genetic upper-end, so to speak (e.g. going from being a D-average to a stubbornly B-average student). But the “growth mind-set” paired with access to resources and support will help them get to the fullest expression of their inborn trait.
Use what your mama (and papa and ancestors) gave you…
*I use this example because it was striking and supported by many studies in Tough’s book. I want to say that I tend to subscribe more to Howard Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. By using the example of “intelligence” above, I do not mean to elevate logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences (the ones often measured in schools and on standardized tests) above other kinds of intelligences like interpersonal, musical, or bodily-kinesthetic. To the contrary, I think our expression of any given kind of intelligence can be seen on a spectrum from muted to full and with a growth mind-set and support we can move toward a fuller expression of all intelligences.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Albert