Rethinking What It Means To Be Smart

This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.

Growing up, I knew I was smart; I had the test scores to prove it. I excelled in math — so when I enrolled in college, I decided to major in engineering. I confidently signed up for the requisite introductory classes in science and calculus. By the time fall break came around, I was already in danger of failing three classes, including a calculus class that I could have tested out of, based on my AP scores. I eventually pulled out a decent grade in calculus, but I barely passed chemistry and physics. I was so ashamed that I switched out of engineering before the start of the spring semester.

I made many mistakes in the first few months of college. Some of those mistakes were typical of a first-generation college student. I didn’t know how to study, I was afraid to ask for help, and my time outside the classroom lacked structure. However, one of my biggest mistakes may not seem like a mistake at all: I knew I was smart. After ten years of teaching college students, I now see how that belief set me up to fail.

At some point in your life, you may have wondered about your own IQ. The allure of knowing exactly how smart you are seems appealing, but the notion that a test can accurately measure innate intelligence isn’t without its problems. We know, for example, that a person’s IQ can fluctuate over time, something that should not be possible if it represented innate capacity. Even Alfred Binet, regarded as the inventor of IQ testing, denied that his test could reveal a child’s natural intellect. However, decades of standardized testing and GPA calculations to the hundredth decimal place reinforce the idea that we have some quantifiable level of intelligence, and students still wear those numbers like badges of honor (or shame).

Busting the IQ myth does not imply that scientists believe humans have some inexhaustible potential for intelligence. We do have some theoretical limit, but very few people will ever reach it, and no test can tell you yours. Many external factors play a role in determining your aptitude, and you have more to gain by controlling what you can than worrying about what you can’t.

In fact, worrying less about being “smart enough” might be the best move you can make. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has done several studies showing how beliefs about our own abilities affect the effort we put into a task. In one study, Dweck gave a group of fifth graders a set of easy puzzles, and then divided them up into two groups. In one group, she praised each student’s success as a sign of their intelligence. She praised members of the other group for their hard work. Then things got interesting. When given a more difficult test, the challenge made the “smart” kids visibly miserable, while the hard workers reported having fun and asked for more problems. A third test, designed to be as easy as the first, yielded the most surprising results. Students praised for their hard work improved upon their initial scores, but the performance of those praised for intelligence actually decreased.

Despite the limited exposure to praise, the smart kids developed what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset;” they internalized the idea that they were intelligent. Initially, they liked believing they were smart, but the more difficult material threatened that perception. We see these effects in many “smart” students. As a result, when things get tough, they put in less effort, procrastinate more or give up entirely; they would rather fail on their own terms than suffer a failure on someone else’s.

Conversely, the students Dweck praised for hard work had a “growth mindset.” Students with this mindset are more likely to approach challenges as useful opportunities to improve and learn. Roadblocks do not as easily dissuade them, and they enjoy themselves more because they see failure as just another step in the process, rather than a sign of their own inadequacy. Ironically, many of these students end up looking smarter than those who care the most about intelligence.

When working with students, I often talk about Dweck’s work, so much so that some of my more frequent students smirk whenever I launch into it. However, the message of the work is so important that I don’t mind sounding like a broken record. I wish someone had drilled that message into me when I was a first-generation college student failing a course that a test told me I was smart enough not to need.

Changing the way you think about intelligence may help you become a better student in- and outside the classroom. Dweck’s website offers an online test to determine your current mindset and tips for developing a growth mindset, too. However, just like any change of habit, thinking with a growth mindset takes practice and persistence.

You’re bound to make some missteps in your college career, and it can be tough not to think about how these will influence your long-term future, especially when so much emphasis is placed on quantifiable measures of intelligence. Nevertheless, it’s up to you to decide what that final number means. A growth mindset can help you construct a college career that tells a story of embracing challenges, overcoming obstacles and gradually becoming a better student and person. That says a lot more about the type of employee or graduate student you’ll be than any number can.