Originally published February 13, 2020
There are those who have a natural inclination towards music. Some can stay on perfect pitch, while others command their instruments, effortlessly producing beautiful, precise notes. We also know those natural athletes who are able to coordinate their limbs to master sports with great strength, dexterity, and grace. Still others seem naturally good at developing fluency in multiple languages or in math.
Most people, however, hold on to the idea that being naturally talented is a prerequisite for pursuing an interest or discipline. Because why in the world would someone participate if one isn’t naturally talented? After all, the competition typically includes those “naturalists” – the musical prodigies, Olympians, and polyglots. Is that valid? If you aren’t naturally talented in an area, should you steer clear? Should we give up on pursuing an interest based on a basic litmus test – because either we have it or we don’t, whatever "it" might be?
The answer is NO – because we DO, in fact, have a creative hand in nurturing our abilities.
Here’s the thing: life is not to be lived on the sidelines. Giving up before you start is not good practice. Our day-to-day beliefs about our abilities create our individual mindset, and it is from this personal set of beliefs that we make choices for ourselves. In other words, the way that we see our abilities is critical to our growth.
Researcher Carol Dweck conducted a study with students about their feelings about failure. From her findings, she introduced the idea that there are two ways of thinking about ability – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
The fixed mindset embodies the perception that we are endowed with certain abilities, and from those we get what we get. You are born with or without. This attitude frightens people away from trying new things. In addition, the fixed mindset whispers messages of self-doubt to those who are "naturally talented." It keeps them from the edge of their abilities – that important, industrious place of challenge and growth that comes from pushing yourself. For all people – both the naturally talented and the person learning new skills – a fixed mindset is a dead end.
How, then, can we foster a healthy growth mindset instead?
We start by being curious and facing challenges head on. Behind every talented individual, there are likely hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hours of practice unseen by others. The natural musician has years of practice behind them, and even "natural" mathematicians may spend hours upon hours thinking about formulas, problems, and math concepts as they go about their day, their mind full of numerical analysis, geometric abstraction, and mathematical innovation.
Keep in mind that even the “born superstars” have to work hard to develop their abilities, and often, what led to that hard work was an inherent interest. A joy for sports, music, math, or learning languages sparks the hard work that develops the talent. For those with superstar friends, you might ask:
"Have you always liked math?"
“When did you become interested in baseball?"
“What makes learning languages fun for you?"
And then ask more practical questions, such as:
“How many times a week do you practice?"
“Are you on more than one team?"
“What do you do to learn new words in Spanish so that they really stick?"
Keep in mind that feedback and failure are probable outcomes to curiosity and challenge at one point or another. Accepting feedback and thinking about how to move forward with stronger skills is an important part of growth. When your English teacher offers you their time after class so that you can review your essay together, take them up on it! The few minutes you spend on the writing process one-on-one will help you build the skills that you will later need for your research paper. Collect those skills and keep them handy in your toolbox. And when it comes to failure — bombing on a test, losing an election, missing out on the star role — review, revise and move forward.
So, when you dream about high school and some of the things you want to be good at doing, gently remind yourself that everyone has to work to get better and, more importantly, everyone can. It’s up to you to decide when, where, and how to apply your hard work