Freshman year at Stanford had been a humbling experience. Everyone around me, it seemed, was smarter, more experienced, more accomplished than I was. Shawn Green was a personable guy in my dorm – and the only frosh I knew getting a $725,000 signing bonus as a first-round draft pick for the Toronto Blue Jays. Our dorm also claimed the new quarterback, a handful of All-American Water Polo players and a Junior Olympic sailor (not counting the acquaintances from nearby dorms that went on to win gold in the following year’s Olympics or sweep several consecutive NCAA volleyball championships). I use the athletes because they quickly illustrate the level of excellence surrounding me; the academic and intellectual playing field was just as crowded with talent.
Suddenly it was the second quarter of sophomore year at Stanford, and things were not working out as planned. I was used to working my ass off and getting results, and this trend had largely continued during my freshman year despite the doubling of effort it required on my part. Then a C grade in Organic Chemistry 33 undermined my confidence, calling into question my future as a physician. For the first time in my charmed academic life, I was not succeeding.
Big Pond, Small Guppy
It was easy to feel overwhelmed. I was surrounded by geniuses whose work ethic matched or exceeded my own. Everyone seemed to grasp the material more quickly, with less visible effort than I did. Fortunately, I did not have to look far to find a way to overcome my disappointing performance. Carol Dweck, a Stanford Professor of Psychology, articulated a theory that one can approach learning with either a fixed or growth mindset. Fixed mindset regards intelligence as based on innate ability. Growth mindset, in contrast, suggests that mastery of new material comes incrementally from hard work, persistence, and constantly practicing a new skill.
Patience, Young Grasshopper
I was not going to suddenly become innately smarter. But I’d be damned if I couldn’t work harder than most to catch up. I woke early and stayed up late to study. I found smart friends who were generous with their time, and organized small study groups where we’d divide up difficult concepts and break them down for one another. I went to T.A. office hours. I scheduled time in the gym as a physical outlet. For a brief, intense period, the study groups became my social outlet until I could get back on track with my academic goals. I whittled down my extracurricular commitments to a very few things I could participate in with minimal time to distract me from academics. The Rocky theme played in the background for this period of my college life. I retook Organic Chemistry 33. I got an A-.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Fast forward 20 years, and we are trying to teach our kids the same lesson about growth mindset. My daughter is in third grade, where the boys in class aggressively boast that math problems are easy and there seems to be an age-related desire (regardless of gender) to be the first to finish classwork. Despite this, she and one other boy in class are held in high regard for their aptitude in math. This week her desk mate, a generally sweet kid who I’ll assume was more curious than taunting, asked her, “Who do you think is smarter in math, you or [other boy]?” She thought about it seriously for a minute, then replied, “Whichever one of us works the hardest at it.” I love that answer. Thank you, Carol Dweck, for a gift that keeps on giving.