On being a ‘try hard’ and learning the growth mindset.

I used to have a very strong fixed mindset. Which means that I believe that everyone was born with a set of intelligence that was unchangeable and if you can’t master something effortlessly, then it is better to not try at all. Why waste your energy when there are other things which you are good at and it doesn’t require much effort? From the beginning of my life as a student in kindergarten, and then in primary school, my mom and relatives always praised my sister and I for being intelligent. My mom also always said that I was also a very lazy person. In my mind the equation was since I could get great grades while putting in literally, zero effort, then what is the point in trying. I’m still ahead of other people in my class.

After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised? Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment.

The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.
― Carol S. Dweck

And then came secondary school, where I realised that effort might count. However, I was completely unused to that routine of practicing and sitting down to study. One example was a guzheng competition in secondary two, my tutor sent three of us to take part in a competition that had two rounds. The first round was a set piece that everyone had to play, the second round would be two pieces of your own choice. I don’t remember practicing the instrument much for CCA pieces and I am quite sure I did not practice enough to justify the cost of the weekly lessons, because I trusted my skills to sight-read and not slave away for hours.

My tutor told me that I had limber fingers and the sounds I produced was better than the sound of the girl who was technically competent, had trained herself to have perfect pitch, but was not good with producing music that flows. It reinforced my mindset that I’m already naturally talented (to a small extent), and hence there was no need to practise, and anyway no one could tell that I was a lazy sloth. After all, my friend practised but yet still got asked to put in more emotion, she also did not pass the first round of the competition despite being technically perfect. I had that little nugget of pride within me that made think of ways to maintain that bit of talent I had, without doing anything that might reveal me as being actually terrible at music. I wanted it to seem effortless and natural.

The tests in secondary school also required practice- especially math. The system in secondary school is that projects and common quizzes make up a lot of the grade, and the actual final exam is something like 45%. But I still never sat down to study properly, and I scraped by with mediocre grades in everything. Looking back at my report card from secondary 4 I realised that amongst all the As, there are 2 Bs. For math. But I was still thinking, hey I’m already good enough to be average in an elite school (everyone else was getting As too), what’s the point of doing all these studying if I forget everything afterwards anyway. I started skipping classes more often, going to the doctors for medical chits to excuse myself from this and that and completely missing out on the whole point of learning in one of the best schools in Singapore. (That said, I devoted my time to other things I was interested in.) What would I have tried if I wasn’t afraid of failure and seeming stupid?

Becoming is better than being.
― Carol S. Dweck

It is interesting that the two words a language arts teacher chose to teach during a lesson was ‘plebeian’ and ‘nonchalant’.

Nonchalant: Feeling or appearing casually calm and relaxed; not displaying anxiety, interest, or enthusiasm.

Plebeian: a commoner, a characteristic of the lower class.

That was what I was. I appeared nonchalant, while being quite afraid that someone would identify me as the commoner I was. I didn’t want to be what my mom called a ‘try hard’, someone who tries very hard because she has zero talent, but that’s all she can ever be, she’ll never be as good as others. I would rather act like I didn’t care, than care and then fail miserably at something new. The ‘try hards’ are the people who swot away at assessment books. Try hards were the PSLE kids, having to work at every stage of their life, whereas I belonged to the natural ones were streamed when they were in primary four. Being a ‘try hard’ to my mom meant that I was second class, and I was not used to being labelled as a second-class citizen.

I have wasted quite a few days in the past. But I have also made my peace with the past and the hope that my parents had, that I would be smart because they wanted me to be successful, they didn’t want me to have to go through the hardships that they experienced. Do I regret my past- I don’t think so. Because I am pleased that I managed to work quite hard in the past few years, working with the limitations that I had. Because of my past I am now able to recognise things and people better. It really does help in HR. The results that I have now- relationships, career, school, skills- it is through putting in effort and sitting still for long hours, it is not because I coasted by thinking that I would be good at things without practice. I do not pretend to be who I am not. Case in point: I write blog posts at one go, without any edits at all. It is not because I have any sort of talent in writing, it is because I have two library cards- my dad’s and mine- and I am a loyal customer of Book Depository.

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.
― Carol S. Dweck

My LinkedIn headline is now ‘practicing the growth mindset’. A mindset where I see new challenges as opportunities to learn, and I am not afraid to appear stupid or even completely untalented. Still now, I have bosses who comment that I think very fast, or “you are really smart”. The difference between me in secondary school was that I would have seen that word as something I have to maintain effortlessly, which was quite anxiety-inducing, whereas I now acknowledge that I am only able to think fast and produce work because I have indeed been working hard. I have the declarative knowledge to offer my opinions on things and I have the natural inquisitiveness that makes me ask questions. It is a cycle of training my thinking muscles with every project and assignment.

The growth mindset really helps to frame the search for a job as a challenge/opportunity because every interview is not a test of your external shell, that social veneer that says “I’m naturally fantastic”, but rather it is a test of how you react at that interview. In the past I was worried that I would apply for jobs and not get any replies, because what if I am indeed average? What if the interviewer can see through my shell? I didn’t want any information that would change how I see myself. But now I am not worried about what other people think of me- their evaluation is just temporary, my character and experience will change in the future, I don’t have to take their word as a final judgement- I am willing to just turn up and try. Because I am not ‘losing’ any part of me by failing to impress somebody else. 

Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people…change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth take plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.
― Carol S. Dweck

Being ‘smart’ is no longer a compliment, it is just a perception that other people have of me.  I don’t know if I am ‘smart’ or ‘smarter’ than other people, I don’t think it matters anymore. I want to be a ‘try hard’, because if there is a shame in life, it is choosing to remain ignorant when there are opportunities for me to learn. I would be ashamed of myself if I was continuously described as being a ‘high potential’ and never as ‘someone who used all her abilities and failed sometimes’. The fixed mindset was the mindset that I grew up with, and I am glad that I finally managed to understand the feeling of the growth mindset, in my last semesters of my university education

This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most.

-Carol Dweck