Most days I drink tea from a mug with a quote from Winston Churchill: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Churchill’s quotation is about attribution, or what labels we put on things. Behavioural science blog The Situationist, in an excerpt from Stanford University’s alumni magazine, provides scientific validation for the aphorism, in an interview with behavioural psychologist Carol Dweck.

(Dweck) has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t — why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.

What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. . . .

So-called “attribution error” comes down to how we attribute success and failure. Successful people tend to respond enthusiastically to challenge, and are less interested in performance. In other words, they are process-driven, rather than results-driven. In tests with children, Dweck and colleague Carol Diener encouarged children to:-

“think out loud” as they faced problem-solving tasks, some too difficult for them. The big surprise: some of the children who put forth lots of effort didn’t make attributions at all. These children didn’t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: “Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy—something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type—faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.””

The interesting discovery is that this mind-set is not fixed. Recent research by Dweck and Lisa Sorich Blackwell of low-achieving seventh graders showed results could be improved if students’ belief about the learning process was re-educated:-

All students participated in sessions on study skills, the brain and the like; in addition, one group attended a neutral session on memory while the other learned that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise. Training students to adopt a growth mind-set about intelligence had a catalytic effect on motivation and math grades; students in the control group showed no improvement despite all the other interventions.”

The story notes that this is not a green flag to the boundless expectations of a lot of self-help and life-coaches. Ability is important. But beliefs about ability and the role of hard work are as important as the latent talent itself. And this can change.

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