Note: You can read an updated version of this post here.
Once upon a time, there were two girls, Julie and Joan. Julie was born with a gift for words. She taught herself to read when she was four. She was writing stories when she was six. In high school, she could write an essay that earned an A with her first draft—every time. Once, when her AP English teacher assigned the entire class to revise their research papers, he made an exception for Julie, writing on her paper, “This is perfect as it is! No revision necessary.” When she entered college, Julie’s only method of writing was to wait until the last minute, then write one draft and hope for the best. In the back of her mind, she assumed that good writers should not have to revise, and while she knew she was a talented writer, she did not understand at all what made her writing good, or not.
Joan, on the other hand, while not bad at writing, did not have a talent for it. However, she loved to write as much as Julie did. She read a lot, too. In high school, Joan rarely received A’s on her papers. She usually got a B, with many suggestions for revision. Sometimes she revised her work, and sometimes she didn’t, but she always read the comments and knew how she could make her writing better. By the time she got to college, she knew that she could not write a paper the night before if she wanted a good grade. She also was confident in her ability to work with a first draft to improve it. When she wrote something that wasn’t very good, she could tell, and she changed it.
Which student were you?
Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, discusses the difference between the “fixed mindset” of Julie and the “growth mindset” of Joan (excerpts from Dweck’s Mindset website):
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
I was definitely Julie. My wake-up call came in a college literature class, where my usual type-em-out-the-night-before habit didn’t fool the astute professor. C+?! I thought I would disappear with shame.
But that was the beginning of my learning, finally, to be a writer.
So, what’s a talented writer with a fixed mindset to do?
Simply recognizing the flawed thinking of the fixed mindset is the first step. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to have talent! But, as Malcolm Gladwell has said, in the end, “Talent is the desire to practice.”
Begin to acknowledge that you need to work at what you are good at and that you sometimes do things imperfectly, even those things you do best. If you are a parent, say it out loud, often, and within hearing distance of your children (especially teens).
And, if you are a teacher, be sure to give the talented students as much opportunity to practice as those who need to work harder for the A’s. They will thank you in the acknowledgments for their first book.