Skip prodigal talent, praise the effort

First an apology – it is almost 2 weeks since i posted anything on my blog. I have had a brutal schedule for the past 2 weeks, no time to even check the comments on my blog. Sorry if you commented and i didn’t respond.
I had linked to this insightful article – the myth of prodigy a while ago. It is a great article, but at that time it seemed that it was simply trying to deconstruct prodigies.  But the key idea i took note of was that Mozart’s genius is more hard work than pure talent which i am sure he had aplenty as well. 2 weeks ago Sujatha Manivasagam sent me the link to this brilliant article titled “How not to talk to your kids” by Po Branson.  It is a long 5 page article but the key insight is this:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and
her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of
praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a
series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade
classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the
classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of
puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well.
Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his
score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into
groups, some were praised for their
intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One
choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the
researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the
puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test,
just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent
chose the
harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

The last line is the clincher – the kids praised for their effort work harder and the kids praised for smarts take it easy. So you can see how the kids identified as prodigies lose their motivation and in the long run may not live up to their promise. I don’t have to give you examples of  prodigies that have fallen by the wayside. The other aspect that is key is to understand how expertise is gained. Po Branson doesn’t give adequate attention to this. I had covered this topic in my post a while ago titled “what is that makes an expert, an expert“.  You can see from that post that it is practice with ongoing feedback that is the key to expertise. Why is feedback, or in this context, praise so important? We have covered that in the ABC Theory post earlier. Praise is the Positive Immediate Consequence (PIC) that the brain likes so much. In sum, try to spot talent in your child if you can, but focus more on praising the effort than talent. Once in a while you do need to praise talent to show that there is something innate, but focus more on  giving constant feedback and praise for the effort. On the other hand, don’t despair if your child does not have prodigal talent, maybe s/he is a late bloomer genius as David Galenson has shown. Happy parenting!


  1. Anonymous said March 16, 2007, 11:29 pm:

    Nice post, Sukumar. Very insightful.

    But I was thinking what would make me more happy; being praised for my intelligence or hardwork. I think it would be the former, what do you think?

    This logic definitely seems to make sense for kids, do you think it would work for adults too?

  2. Anonymous said March 17, 2007, 3:21 am:

    Thanks Archana. I don’t think there is going to be an universal answer. In my case, i can say i am happier when my work is appreciated than my intelligence per se. But the purpose of my post is to show that we should not be praising their innate capaabilities too much but rather praise their effort. I also think this is why the typical “gifted children” program fails to achieve much. When you tell the child that s/he is gifted it tends to make them work less or from what i have seen atleast not learn stuff either the child doesn’t like or things that don’t come naturally. the articles i linked to cover some examples of these and i have observed this in some gifted children i have come across.

  3. Anonymous said April 11, 2007, 7:07 am:


    Very interesting article. Just came to know about your blog and was reading through your past postings.

    I think you will be perceived intelligent, if you put your effort to gain knowledge and utilize that knowledge to achieve something great. I think intelligence is something virtual, but the effort that you put is tangible. So it does make sense to get praised for your effort than being intelligent. It needs effort to crack a hard puzzle and in this case, the kids who were praised on effort got motivated to put more hard work and hence they chose the toughest puzzle 2nd time. But that was not the case for the ones that got praised for intelligence. How can you get motivated to be more intelligent?

  4. Anonymous said April 11, 2007, 7:55 am:

    Thanks Harish. Interesting perspective – you are saying actually effort enriches your knowledge and thereby increases the possibility of being seen as intelligent. I think that is a great point. Since this article is mainly about children (some what true for adults also), there is a certain population of children who are innately very intelligent. The point to be borne in mind if you believe this article, is to keep appreciating the effort and over time the effect that you correctly pointed out – acquiring enough knowledge through constant effort so as to be perceived as more intelligent.

  5. Anonymous said April 17, 2007, 11:25 am:

    Great Post Sukumar. Just catching up on the last couple of weeks.
    I can understand the logic behind the article. My read on it is – “Fear of Failure”. When we appreciate intelligence, we seem to be introducing a “fear of failure” that makes the kids think that if they take on a hard task, they might fail and not look intelligent enough.
    When we appreciate hard work, we are lowering/removing that barrier as we are appreciating the effort. In this case, the kid is encouraged to try more harder tasks.
    I am not sure if this has to do anything with “wanting to please” factor that kids have or purely “fear of failure” barrier.
    Drawing analogy from this to the corporate world, I can see the “Effort” vs. “Talent” that is often used to measure individual’s performance. I can think of a few situations where an individual is appreciated for their talent/intelligence only to see their performance dip a few years later. Maybe, this has to do with the “fear of failure” factor that sets complacency on the part of the individual.
    Connecting this with your other post on Indian Cricket team, we appreciate Sachin, Ganguly, Sehwag et al for their talent and we appreciate Yuvraj, Kaif, Dravid etc for their effort in the field. That’s probably why the talented ones in the Indian team don’t put any effort and have the ‘fear of failure’ riding with them all the time. The ones that are appreciated for their effort, keep putting more effort to improve themselves.
    I wonder if creativity also gets stifled when we appreciate “talent” and not effort! Very very interesting post. It has made me do more research on this in multiple different directions already.