Everything You’ve Been Taught About Public Speaking is a Myth

November 30, 2014 5 comments

Let me clarify the title a bit: everything you’ve been taught about public speaking can only get you to a certain level of proficiency. Then, like in every other area of mastery, you have to re-think everything you’ve learned because it’s time to make finer distinctions. As Marshall Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Nine out of every ten sources of advice for public speaking are designed for one purpose: to get beginners over their fears. They say things like “know your audience,” “know your venue,” and “know your material.” The thing is, there are many professionals out there for whom this advice is an insult to their intelligence. They speak regularly, and want to become masterful. But what examples and advice do they have to work from?

This is a list of 10 truisms about public speaking that, once you gain some proficiency, will not serve you anymore. Don’t be the speaker or performer who is still using the same bag of tricks that got them through high school and college. Break out of old thoughts!

Myth #1: The Main Focus of Learning to Be a Speaker is to Get Over Nervousness

Most books and advice sites on public speaking imply that once you get over your fears, you’re pretty much good to go. To this end, they advise basic strategies like knowing your material, knowing your audience, practicing, and gaining experience.

Two issues here. First, there is no getting-over-the-nervousness. There is only executing-well-while-being-nervous. You think nervousness ever goes away for skydivers? Why would they want it to? The nervousness is the whole point. Without nervousness, skydiving is just five minutes of a rather nice view. Likewise, people become speaking and performance masters because of the rush. They embrace it and look forward to it.

Second issue: once you can speak to an audience despite being nervous, you’re not at the end of your journey. You’re at the beginning. The main focus of learning to be a speaker is to help your audience change their lives for the better. This is true no matter the topic. You want them to see something differently and behave differently after you’re done. It’s not about your nervousness, it’s about mastering the art of helping and serving others en masse.

Myth #2: I’m Ready to Go Once I’ve Run it a Few Times and Feel Comfortable

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I’ve met in my life who could deliver a masterful speech after only having run it a couple of times. And they were all well-trained performers from an early age.

What’s more, most people don’t rehearse their speeches or presentations out loud. They sit in a chair and flip through their PowerPoint deck a couple of times, and then bore their audience to death by reading off the slides. Again, “feeling comfortable” is not the standard. It’s only a slight reassurance that you won’t publicly soil yourself. I know speaking trainers who advocate an hour of rehearsal for every minute of speaking time. Whatever you’re doing no only isn’t enough…it probably isn’t in the ballpark.

Myth #3: Top Speakers Are All High Energy Performers

I want you to, right now, Google “Public Speaking Champion” and then look at some of the YouTube videos. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Most of them are cringe-worthy. Some are full of high-energy schtick. Others are more subdued, but full of very contrived pacing and performance-art moments. They seem like they should be powerful and captivating, but something feels inauthentic, like a Rolex from a sidewalk vendor.

That which is touted as “great speaking” today is stuff that is hacked together from a tool kit taught at the high-school and college levels. It is choreographed and paced within an inch of its life. All authenticity is squeezed out.

Really great speaking is that which the speakers manage to find renewed emotional connection to thoughts they’ve already had, as if they were experiencing them for the first time. The rest is decoration.

Myth #4: Nervousness Goes Away With Helpful Mental Tricks and Visualizations

See Myth #1. Nervousness does not go away. You know what compounds the problem? Taking your mind off your message and your audience in order to do something stupid like visualize them in their underwear. I have no idea why this old chestnut is still around.

Now, can meditation, guided visualization and/or a consistent warm-up routine help you before you speak? Absolutely. Most stage actors in fact tend to be rigorous bordering on superstitious about how they prepare for a performance. But do not expect this to make everything magically easy.

Myth #5: It’s Important to Preplan and Choreograph Your Gestures

I’ve coached high-school and college level performers to choreograph gestures before, but it was because the stylized nature of that competitive environment demands it. When speaking coaches focus on gestures, it’s usually because they’re dealing with a beginner who’s hands are frozen by nervousness.

Once you get to the intermediate level, your hands will start talking for you. Sometimes out of nervousness or learned bad habits, a speaker will use their hands too much or to little, and a good speaking coach will catch that and tell you that you can tone it up or tone it down. But choreographed gesturing always comes off inauthentically. You know why? It’s not authentic.

Myth #6: Whatever You Do, Be Sure to Memorize / Not Memorize Your Speech

I’ve heard people say both of these. Most people say “don’t memorize,” because they’re working with beginners who can’t pull off a memorized speech. On the other hand, it takes a performer with pretty significant chops to memorize a speech completely and then deliver it with that first-time authenticity. Most pros I’ve seen can’t even do that.

When I deliver a speech, I’ve run it so many times that I know my word choice pretty well, like maybe 90%. The remaining 10% is just sentence formation flexibility. I don’t want to throw myself because I meant to say, “one and two” but I end up saying “one and also two”. The really short speeches (2-3 minutes) I’ll memorize unless I’m introducing someone. I’ll read introductions right off the card because the biggest sin is forgetting to mention something. Most people do the opposite: they have no idea what words they’re going to use and end up jabbering on five times as long as they should.

There is no one rule about memorization that covers every circumstance, but don’t use that as an excuse for lack of preparation. Know what you’re going to say, whatever that means to you.

Myth #7: Whatever You Do, Be Sure To / Please Don’t Try to Add Humor

I’ve heard this one both ways as well. Most advice blogs say to add some humor, especially at the beginning. Most coaches of beginners say not to try to be funny because you’ll never pull it off.

There is no right answer to this. Yes, speeches work better with some humor to connect to, especially in the beginning. Most speakers, when they hear this, go about it by writing a speech or presentation with no humor and then try to shoehorn jokes into the writing after the fact. Masterful speakers aren’t necessarily joke-writers, but they are so comfortable in their own voice that they can let their natural sense of humor come through in their writing.

If you take the risk and it bombs, it’s not the end of the world if you keep your energy going and move right on. I’ve done this. I usually bomb when I misjudge my audience. If the crowd is really all-business or you’re getting them at a time when they’re tense and not warmed up, it’s an uphill battle to make the humor work. If it’s a close call, I would advise you to work humor into the speech even at the risk of bombing, because you want to gain the experience.

Myth #8: Don’t Acknowledge Your Mistakes

I can see why this myth exists. When you’re a beginner and you’re all caught up in your nerves, mistakes can really throw you off your game. You haven’t yet gained experience on how to handle them.

First of all, what is a mistake? Some students that I’ve coached would get bent out of shape about accidentally leaving out two sentences somewhere, when their delivery and room chemistry was truly energizing. Other students would pat themselves on the back for making it through with no technical mistakes, when their delivery was flat and unconnected.

I know it’s hard to see mistakes as gifts, because up in front of people they can feel mortifying. That’s fine. We all make them. Pros make them. The panache is in the handling, which comes with the experience of having screwed up. If you trip over the mic cord and try to not acknowledge it, that will read as goofy. It happened. The pro keeps her composure and says, “Well, that happened.”

Don’t worry about mistakes. Don’t even worry about acknowledging them, if they’re obvious. Just keep your composure.

Myth #9: The Speech’s Length Should Be Under 20 min / 30 min / 40 min / However Long It Needs to Be.

There are a lot of differing opinions on how long you should go. Some coaches say to keep it under 30 minutes because of the average listener’s attention span. Peggy Noonan says to keep it under 20 minutes because Ronald Reagan never went over 20 minutes. I kid you not.

My point in this section is that the actual minute count is not the big deal (within reason). The big deal is that your speech, however long it is, is about twice as long as it needs to be.

We’ve become accustomed to writing for the filling of time, and it’s gotten us used to bloated speaking. It’s no wonder that people start pulling out their smartphones while we’re talking. Did you write a pitch presentation for a piece of creative business that goes for 30 minutes? It probably should be 15. Did you write a 20 minute graduation speech? It would probably be a better speech at 10 minutes. And your six minute Best Man speech will be much more effective at three minutes.

Don’t write to fill time. However much material you believe is appropriate, do enough refining to take out at least half. This is hard, time consuming work and absolutely necessary to mastery.

Myth #10: Start With Small Audiences and Work Up to Big Ones

I’m a big believer in gaining progressive experience. But remember that speaking for a small group of people whom you know and whose faces you can see might be more freaky that speaking in front of an auditorium full of strangers.

Progressive experience doesn’t necessarily mean increasing the audience size. It means increasing the stakes. You start in an environment where you feel safe. Maybe one-on-one with a coach. And then you bring in more relatively safe people. You should progress in a way where you feel scared, but not prohibitively so.


Do you find this subject interesting? If so, then please leave a comment. I’m trying to determine if there’s enough interest in public speaking mastery to expand further on it. I’ll make that determination based on the comments that you leave here, and the questions you have. Happy Speaking!

The Stoics and the Epicureans

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Stoics for the motivation and achievement, but the Epicureans for the style…

Seneca the Younger

I recently got onto Hellenist moral philosophy after reading The Obstacle Is The Way, one of the books recommended by Tim Ferriss. The book is a motivating entree into Stoic thought, and Ferriss himself is a devotee of Seneca, a famous Stoic philosopher.

Several hundred years before Christ, two post-Socratic schools of thought emerged as to the nature of the universe and how we should behave within it to live the optimum life. Many of the teachings these schools reverberate today.

The Epicureans are my sentimental favorite, and they were astonishingly ahead of their time in deducing how the universe actually works. They were adopters of Democritus‘ idea that objects are made of atoms, and that those atoms move through space. They did not know about how light works, but deduced that something traveled from the object to the eye. They came very close to articulating the conservation of mass theory, millennia before Einstein proved that matter and energy were interchangeable.

Epicureans did believe in the gods, but did not believe that they intervened in the actions of the earth. Therefore, they believed that they had nothing to fear from the gods, and therefore nothing to fear from death. Life was simply to be lived, and therefore they concluded that the optimum life was lived as pleasurably as possible. Happiness was the thing to be pursued, as Jefferson (himself an epicurean) pronounces in the Declaration of Independence.

This leads many people to equate epicureanism with hedonism. And, to be fair, if you know anyone today that you’d call “Epicurean”, they usually know where the best food and drink can be found. But epicureans meant “pleasure” mostly to mean freedom from anxiety. Under their moral code, for example, you would not want to steal from your neighbor – not because it’s intrinsically wrong but because it would result in anxiety from the theft and secrecy, and the potential consequences put your happiness at risk. Better to live simply, treat others well, and cultivate friendships. Don’t worry…be happy.

I love the Epicureans for an outlook on life so far from my own. If I were capable of doing away with my needless anxiety and absorbing myself in food, drink, thought and friendship, I’d be right there. I know people like this, and they’re the right people to chill with. As a matter of fact, Epicurean notions are still present today in modern psychotherapy, where a psychiatrist will try to allow a patient to let go of his or her idea of what the world “should” be, and accept it as it is.

The one place where epicurean thought is largely mute is having to do with concepts like achievement, motivation, and personal development. The ancient Greek epicureans did not seek to achieve greatly, instead they secluded themselves in a commune. Politics and industry brought about anxieties that were detrimental to the pleasures of a simply-lived life. For achievement and growth, you have to talk to the Stoics.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Visual Approximation)

Rather than a concept of the universe that was atomic and mostly random, the Stoics believed that the universe was created by the gods with a distinct universal order, and everything had a distinct purpose. The purpose (and the only purpose) of a horse, for example, was husbandry.

Remember Silence of the Lambs? When Lecter told Clarice to “read Marcus Aurelius” (another Stoic philosopher)? What did he say? He said that the emperor counsels simplicity. Of each thing, ask, what is it’s nature? It’s purpose?

To the Stoics, everything literally had one defined nature and purpose. The nature and purpose of the human, being the only animal that reasons, is to live its life using his natural capacity for reason. This meant living in accordance with nature, natural order, and therefore the reason allows us to understand what the natural order of the world actually is. With me so far?

The optimum way for a Stoic to live is therefore as virtuously as possible. One must try and become a paragon of virtue, because our sense of logic and reason tells us that it best serves the natural order of the universe for us to do so.

You can see that this concept of morality is 180 degrees apart from the epicurean philosophy. One is sensory, visceral, pleasure-seeking, deemphasizes ambition, reclusive, and seeks a mental framework that avoids anxiety by doing away with the concept of “should”. The other is top-down, orderly, reasoning, taming, and harbors ambition to achieve a highly virtuous and logical life. One looks at obstacles and says, “Don’t worry about it.” The other looks at obstacles and says, “Overcoming this obstacle will lead to further development.”

For us simple folk, we probably unwittingly live somewhere in between these two extremes. But you notice that neither one of these great philosophies looks at obstacles and says, “I must whine for sympathy and feel like I’m doomed.” Nor does either school think that the optimum life is lived by creating maximum anxiety in order to compete for wealth, status, and the purchasing of insignificant stuff. Each philosophy is a study in self discipline and mental conditioning, just in opposing directions.

It was useful for me, and it might be useful for you, to look at the anxieties in your own life and ask, “Am I doing this for a purpose that makes sense, or am I just reaching higher?” And if we find that we are constantly making unreasoned, half-asleep choices about achievement and attitude, how might these models serve as something to strive for?

PeopleTriggers Wants to Hear from You!

September 28, 2014 3 comments

Just a short solicitation this month.

Most of the past articles on PeopleTriggers came from whatever fascinating quirk of human nature had my attention in that moment. Many are inspired by books or articles that I was reading at the time. Now, I’d like to put more thought into the topics, lists or how-tos that might be most helpful or valuable to you. I don’t yet do the greatest job of actually asking people what they would like to read, or framing that knowledge in the form of solving a specific problem. I want to get better at that.

As a first step, I’d like to take a few requests.

Are you fascinated by any one particular aspect of psychology, like developmental or educational? Do you want to see articles that are simple explorations (like most that I do now), or do you like the Top 10’s and the 5 Things You Can Do Right Now?

You’ve paid me a lot of kindness, viewing and following this blog. I’d like to see how I can make this experience even more valuable for you. If you’ve been curious about any element of psychology, sociology, motivation, performance or acting, please let me know your thoughts.

Let’s light up the comments field below! Looking forward to hearing from you!

The Five “People-triggers” Discoveries That Most Changed My Life

August 29, 2014 1 comment

Screenshot 2014-08-29 15.31.58I’ve been writing the People-triggers blog since 2010.  After all that time, I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding why we do what we do, and why we get out of bed in the morning.

Psychology feels like it’s nipping around the edges of this question. Like the moment anyone gets close to an insight, they stop studying, write a book and start trying to teach everyone how to stay motivated and influence others. In the 70’s, we were sure that Transactional Analysis was a scientific approach to relationships. In the 80’s, we were sure that we needed to praise our children regardless of result because self-esteem correlates with success.

Think of what we’re sure about today. Working from home achieves higher productivity. No wait, it kills collaboration. Group brainstorming produces better outcomes than individual reflection. No wait, it shouts down the introverts and encourages rule-by-volume.

In psychology, today’s bestseller is tomorrow’s bullshit.

That all being said, I’ve looked back at the readings and writings I’ve done over the past four plus years and I’ve found five discoveries-five core principles-that I’m willing to bet will stand the test of time. More than that, they changed my life because I was able to 1) become more effective in producing output, and 2) stop wasting energy worrying about certain things. So, here they are: Read more…

Swarm Intelligence and Capitalism

Recently I revisited an article that I posted once upon a time on Swarm Theory (Decentralized Problem-Solving). This is the notion that a self-governed network of entities operating on simple heuristics (e.g. bees in a hive, ants in a colony) can solve certain problems more effectively than central authority. I received a comment from the CEO of a software company in Finland that harnesses Swarm Theory within specially designed social networks to solve problems.

As I was searching around for more information on Swarm Theory, I came across this quote on a blog: “SWARM OR HIVE INTELLIGENCE: Communism Without The Corruption! […] Individual Capitalism Vs. The Collective! One Thing Is Certain: Capitalism Cannot Be The End Result For Humanity Or We And Very Likely Earth Itself Are Doomed!”

Interesting perspective.

But at the same time, there’s an interesting point to be made: this quote has its logic exactly backwards. Sure, a leaderless structure like an ant colony brings to mind the visual idea of a commune. But Communism as we’ve experienced it (and Socialism for that matter) are associated with central planning, which is the opposite of Swarm Theory. If you want to look at the economic system that bears the closest resemblance to Swarm Theory, you’ll be looking at good old Capitalism.

The Invisible Hand = Early Crowdsourcing


Since Adam Smith described the “Invisible Hand” in 1776, arch-capitalists have ascribed a magic, almost religious quality to the economic distributions within a free market. As supply lowers, prices rise. How does the system know? How does wealth accumulate with those who are meeting a strong demand? How is investment capital finding its way to the most promising opportunities? Is it God’s will that it be so?

The “invisible hand” is an instance of Swarm Theory, nothing more. The motivation to provide value in exchange for monetary reward is a simple heuristic and economic participants (workers, owners, investors, etc) are the automatons who follow it. Therefore the strengths and weaknesses of the various Capitalist systems of the world can be understood by how effectively they replicate a basic swarm system.

In his book Business Stripped Bare, Richard Branson coins the term Gaia Capitalism to describe the more environmentally and globally aware form of Capitalism to which he subscribes. This promotes the idea that there are many manifestations of Capitalism that have varying degrees of concern for long-term thinking or preservation of common goods. Should a Capitalist system have rules? Should it be transparent? Should it reward individual actors? Do regulations always make it less efficient? We can understand these questions by understanding how they apply to swarm systems.

So let’s revisit the characteristics of an effective swarm system:

  1. It is self-organized
  2. Its actors follow simple heuristics, though different classes of actors may follow different instruction sets (foragers vs patrollers, etc.)
  3. Actors must act in a diverse fashion (i.e. bees don’t search for a new home be all flying in the same direction)
  4. There is a communication mechanism by which information is shared with all actors
  5. Actions must be self determined, without imitation, cohesion or fad-following

It also must be understood that the collective result will not be perfect, but it will be ever-improving. Just because bees agree on a location for a new hive doesn’t mean that the resulting location is perfect. The quality of the new location depends on the terrain that was explored (i.e. luck), and the system that has evolved to determine consensus. Notice that it does depend on the outsized reconnaissance skills of any one super-star bee.

Notice also that Swarm Theory works to solve the problems of the collective, e.g. how to propagate and defend an ant colony, or how to allocate wealth to the providers of value and quality investment. They do not exist for the purpose of enriching individual actors at the expense of others. To be sure, there are often status hierarchies within swarm systems, and individual actors are motivated to act by their own survival, but the nature and essence of the system is to propagate the entire community.

Answering Hard Questions on Capitalism


Now, assuming the analogy between a swarm system and a Capitalist one, and also that our goal is to make the most productive system that we can, lets draw some conclusions.

Should Capitalist systems have anti-trust laws, and how vehemently should those laws be enforced? Well, are swarms more effective when actors are acting diversely or in concert? Diversely. Acting in concert through collusion or anti-competitive measures weakens the system by limiting the diversity of opportunity. The dynamic becomes indistinguishable from central planning.

In healthy Capitalist systems, should all trades take place on transparent exchanges (i.e. removing the dark pools of investment banks). Well, are swarms more effective or less effective with transparent communication? They’re more effective. In fact, they depend on the systemic aggregation of collective information so all actors can make informed decisions. Keeping information secret for private advantage weakens the system by disallowing all the actors from making effective decisions.

Do central regulations always make a Capitalist system less efficient? This one is harder to demonstrate with analogy, and it also depends on the time frame that one is talking about. I interpret “regulations” as rules and safeguards. As part of its heuristic logic, a forager ant will not leave the colony to forage for food unless it come into contact with at least four patroller ants within the space of ten seconds. This lets the ant know that it’s safe to forage. It might be more efficient for the colony in the short term if the forager ant would search for food immediately, without this safety procedure. In the short term, the chances of running into food might be higher then the chances of running into an anteater. But the colony will pay a heavier cost (population count) every time this gamble doesn’t work out.

Yet, this procedure evolved organically. It was not enforced from a central authority. It’s hard to find analogies to central rule enforcement within natural swarm systems. These systems, by definition, have no central authorities. Instead, this might be a question for digital automatons in labs.

Still, we can see from this demonstration that the strongest, most effective Capitalist systems are not necessarily the ones that provide the greatest enrichment to individual members. They will more likely be the ones to harvest most effectively the wisdom of the swarm.

The Psychology of Enron

June 29, 2014 2 comments

Cover of

“Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio. (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.)” –Petrarch

One of the most striking scenes in Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s Enron expose The Smartest Guys in the Room details the courtroom testimony of Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling during their criminal trial. You would expect that the people responsible for scandal that defrauded thousands of stockholders and pension plan investors to do their fair share of finger pointing and legalistic arguing, but Lay and Skilling went further than that.

They seemed in a different reality altogether. It was though they actually still believed, even after the bankruptcy, that Enron was a fundamentally healthy company that was the victim of bad luck, a fickle press and the vindictiveness of Wall Street analysts. Far from trying to obfuscate and spin their criminal behavior, they seemed to believe — actually believe in their hearts — that they had done nothing wrong.

Now, Skilling and Lay never raised an insanity defense; they never contested the notion that they knew exactly what they were doing. They simply never saw any wrongfulness in their actions. Those actions involved hiding billions of dollars of debt from their balance sheet (The Enron SPE’s), personally profiting ownership stakes in Enron business partner companies (Again, the SPE’s), and lying  to stockholders about the very nature of their business (maintaining a facade as a “logistics” company while making most of its profits from energy future speculation).

Much of this denial of the belief of wrongdoing is reminiscent of the banking crash of 2008. Defendants seemed to believe in their hearts not only that they were following the law, but that they were in fact innovating new financial markets. The blindness to the big picture corruption of the sub-prime mortgage market and the disguising of bad debt is eerily reminiscent. In fact, some of the very vehicles that Enron used to hide its debt from shareholders (off-balance sheet SPE’s) factored heavily into the 2008 banking crisis.

I’m not interested in the moral question of what makes us elect unethical behavior. From this writer’s perspective, men are apes with iPhones. But I am interested in what goes on in our brain to make us believe we are acting ethically when in fact we are grossly transgressing boundaries that would be clear to any reasonable man. Read more…

Do We Become Smarter? – Entity vs Incremental Intelligence

May 28, 2014 4 comments
Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford University

Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford University

I’d like to introduce what is probably the most important concept I’ve every learned. In a way, I’m frustrated that I didn’t latch onto this insight until I was 35 years old, but by the same token, I’m relieved that I learned this in time to make better parenting decisions when the appropriate time comes.

Does Intelligence Remain Fixed?

Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University who has spent her life studying a key difference in the way people conceive of themselves and their respective abilities. Depending on a number of environmental factors, people tend to believe one of two distinct hypotheses about their own intelligence. Some people believe that intelligence is a fixed and uncontrollable trait (entity learning hypothesis). Other people believe that intelligence is a malleable, controllable ability to be cultivated (incremental learning hypothesis). This difference in mentality creates enormous performance, motivational and cognitive contrasts between the two groups.

In her research, Dweck tests grade school and middle school age children by evaluating their performance at tasks of increasing difficulty. The test groups feature a mix of kids who subscribe to either the entity (e.g. “People don’t generally become much smarter than they already are.”) or incremental (e.g. “I can make myself as smart as I want to be.”) hypotheses.

Before significant obstacles are introduced, both sets of children tend to perform equally well at tasks. In the face of obstacles, however, we start to see distinct behavioral changes. The entity hypothesis children (the ones who view intelligence as a fixed trait) will tend to back down from challenges. They tend to view task failures as personal limitations, and so running into an obstacle denotes a limit in their personal abilities. Faced with failure, the children adopt negative conditions, and blame their own personal inadequacy for the failure.

Interestingly, may of them take to diversionary and compensatory verbalizations about how much better they are in other areas, or the interesting things their family owns. Most notably, their problem-solving skills and strategies tend to crumble under initial failure. Future attempts to solve the difficult task regress to the strategies of younger age groups. Dweck calls this the “helpless” behavior pattern.

The incremental hypothesis children, on the other hand, (the ones who view intelligence as something they can improve) confront these same challenges head on and have a much higher success rate. They tend to attribute their success not to themselves but to their effort (e.g. “I will get this.” or “If you can do it once you can do it again.”). They have much more positive self-cognitions and their problem-solving abilities stay strong in the face of obstacles. Dweck calls this the “mastery-oriented” behavior pattern.

Intelligence Conception is Destiny

Helpless and mastery-oriented children develop different overarching goals that shape their development. Mastery-oriented children, who believe that their realm of mastery is expanded and improved through effort and stretching, develop learning-related goals. They seek to improve their competence. The children who exhibit helpless behaviors, on the other hand, develop validation-oriented goals. They would like to show their trait competence in its best light and receive a favorable judgement for it. One group becomes accomplishment-oriented, the other group becomes validation-oriented.

I remember reading about this research a year or two ago but it didn’t hit home until I read Josh Waitzkin‘s book The Art of Learning. Waitzkin is the chess prodigy on whom the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based. He talks about competing against grade school chess champions when he was starting out, and sensing an incredible difference between the kids who were praised for their effort and accomplishment and those who were praised for their innate talent and abilities. Those kids who felt like chess talent was a fixed, innate trait would buckle much more easily under pressure. When they encountered challenge, they perceived that challenge as a statement of their own personal deficiency, and would crumble.

Believing that intelligence is malleable, in addition to unlocking performance potential, might also actually be closer to the truth. We’ve all grown up believing that IQ tests measure our innate intelligence, but in fact the inventor of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, was an incremental theorist. He believed that an IQ measurement was a present snapshot of an evolving trait. It was society that then turned the instrument into a measurement of status and destiny.

Other Domains Beyond IQ

This insight couldn’t be more important to motivation, outlook, self-confidence, achievement, social intelligence, mentoring and parenting. Understanding the world in terms of growth as opposed to innate talent is like flipping an internal switch for achievement. The problem is that this hypothesis is so fundamental and developed so early in our childhood that it’s difficult to adjust when one becomes an adult.

Those of us who’ve learned incorrect theories of growth and achievement have to spend a lot of time rewiring out beliefs. We have to let go of the desire to show ourselves off and be recognized for our talent. We have to instead start with the assumption that accomplishment in anything is the fundamental result of massive, focused acquisition of skill. We then see that the chief virtues of success are discipline, persistence, objective evaluation, efficiency, deliberate goal-setting, and a fundamental understanding that obstacles are the gateway to mastery.

In the seventies, psychologists took notice of a correlation between self-esteem and achievement. Without understanding the causal relationship, they started encouraging parents to boost self-esteem however possible, believing that would lead to greater achievement in children. They invented the infamous “A for effort.” Everyone started receiving participation awards. Parents stopped keeping score at little league games. Kids were taught that they were special by virtue of their innate identity, and developed massive notions of entitlement as a result.

Dweck’s research helps us understand what we did wrong, and how to do better. Instead of self-esteem leading to accomplishment, it’s actually accomplishment that leads to self-esteem. Kids need to achieve. So it is harmful to remove the competition (the obstacles) and announce that “everyone is a winner.” We must instill competition, but we must attribute success and failure to the right things. When a child experiences an accomplishment, do we tell them how smart they are? How talented they are? How good-looking, charming, or funny they are?

Or rather, do we acknowledge how their hard work is paying off? How they worked effectively and grew as a result?

This is number one on my list of things that I wish I “would have known then.” I would have spent much less time asking whether or not I was talented enough to make my goals and pursuits worthwhile. I would have spent much more time asking myself how to most efficiently and effectively develop the skills and traits I needed in order to overcome the inevitable obstacles that came along. That seemingly slight change in mentality creates a night-and-day difference.


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