In a study of college students reported in 2006 Carol Dweck and her team wanted to know why what you believe about your intelligence significantly impacts your success. Put it this way: Is your learning and success about innate ability or something else?
Dweck has shown throughout her research that what you believe about yourself can be sorted into two different theories. The huge majority of students and professionals believe that your smarts is fixed, that you're born that way and that you can't grow it. In contrast, those who believe that intelligence can be shaped, altered and extended will rebound far better from failures and can go on learning and building their smarts throughout their personal and professional life.
What, practically speaking, causes these different results? Let's simplify the research.
Those who believe that smarts is innate and fixed emphasize their performance. Let's say your boss tells you, Jack, that he needs you to learn a very complex software program. He'd like to access your expertise within three weeks. You agree and start working on achieving that objective. By the end of the first week, you realize you may have bit off more than you can chew, and you start getting nervous. By the end of the second week, you're scared. So you put in longer hours and work your tail off. When your boss drops by at the end of the third week, he wants to know what the hell is going on. You turn red-faced, clam up, get defensive, throw up your hands and just give up. He sets off to find someone else. You feel ashamed and guilty and tell yourself that you're never going to take on a challenge like that again.
In contrast, the boss offers the job to, Jane, who thinks through the job, breaks it down into small bits, and says she'll try to meet the objective in three weeks. By the end of the first week, she looks at her learning schedule, recognizes right off that she's failing to meet that week's objective. Three weeks for that much learning is not feasible. So she heads off to talk with her boss. In spite of the fact that her boss is tactless, she admits that she bit off more than she can achieve and is not going to meet that deadline. It was simply a larger project than she anticipated. After an intense dialog she tells her boss that she would still like the project, but needs some consultant coaching and also needs to revise the schedule. Her boss agrees to a "tentative" schedule. With that agreement, she goes back to work. She keeps her boss up-to-date on a twice weekly basis. On one more occasion she has to renegotiate times, but finally achieves his objective after five weeks.
What's going on here?
Jack, the traditionalist has no success, rolls over and quits the project. That, of course, means his boss may limit his offerings and his future. It also means that Jack is not going to step forward to work on risky projects with a lot of ambiguity. He's got a ceiling over his head now.
Jane, the incrementalist, initially fails, but picks herself up, renegotiates, gets help and moves on. She has no guilt to deal with. . . and she also has a wide open future.
I've exaggerated Jack and Jane for easy recognition. If you've been in the workforce a few years you can readily identify the Jacks and Janes. Furthermore, you may be able to put yourself in either's shoes.
The neuroscience, with a focus on brain wave forms, also gives us two different pictures. Jack's picture, in contrast to Jane's, shows little sustained memory-related activity. He quit working at the project. That means less to draw on and fewer connections in the learning process.
If you're a business professional who tends to emphasize your performance, over the long term you're not going to achieve nearly as well as if you'd emphasized your learning--breaking every job into learning bits. This is not about semantics, but about perspective, mindset and ultimate achievement.
It also applies to the family: Don't praise your kids for their performance. Praise them for their effort. That way they'll be ready to go back to work when they fail.