There are no shortage of marketers and, let’s face it, parents, telling us that we’re not good enough. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but I’m here to tell you – you’re good enough, you’re talented enough, and, goshdarnit, people like you. You have everything you need to be successful right now and your hair is super shiny.
The Power of Your Words
People make definitive statements about others or themselves all the time. “I’m not creative.” “She’s not talented.” “He’s a failure.” It’s as if these were incontrovertible permanent proclamations akin to “The world is not flat” (sorry, Thomas Friedman) or “carbs are delicious.”
I pushed back on the “creative” comment when someone brought it up.
Me: What do you mean you’re not creative?
Uncreative: Well I can’t draw.
Me: Do you think creativity is just drawing?
Uncreative: Well no.
Me: And have you ever tried drawing?
Uncreative: Well, no. I never tried because I wasn’t good at it.
And that’s kinda how it goes. I’m not good at something, so I never tried it.
The Power of Your Actions
I hear these statements particularly when people discuss their lack of proficiency in foreign languages. People say they can’t learn a different language because they don’t have that talent. This despite the fact that millions of people of much lower intelligence can learn these languages as their native language as children. This despite the fact that their efforts to learn a foreign language are relegated to a few half-hearted attempts decades ago in a classroom.
Foreign language is not a high priority for them. And that’s fine. But it’s not fair to yourself to say you suck at something you never tried. Another person will say, I suck at French so I never tried speaking it. I say, I’m good at French, so I work at it.
So is the difference a lack of talent or is it a lack of work?
Is Mindset Total Crap?
Mindset gets a lot of crap for being lazy. But the mind is a powerful thing. Studies have shown that visualization can improve our performance, sometimes as much as concerted practice.
Mindset works because it precedes you putting in the work. If you think you’re good at something, or if other people think you’re good at something, you’ll work harder at it to meet those expectations. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why patients sometimes get better after taking sugar pills – because they believe it to be true, it becomes true.
If you think you can succeed, it’s more likely you do. But if you think you can’t succeed, and you don’t try, it’s not surprising that you fail.
How Mindset Changes Things
Susan Dweck discusses two kinds of views on learning in her book Mindset. The fixed mindset subscribes to the idea that abilities are mostly fixed and can’t be changed very much. Those with the growth mindset believe that you can improve at practically anything.
To be honest, I’ve traditionally been a fixed mindset type of person. I was told from an early age that I was gifted. Further, I have incredible beginner’s luck. For example, the first time I try a recipe, it usually turns out the best (it actually gets worse the more I make a recipe). Continuing to do something usually leads to worse results.
So if I didn’t do well in the beginning, I stopped trying when things got tough. What was the point? I had topped out on my talent. And the sad thing is, this attitude was much more of a factor in my lack of success than any lack of talent.
The Problem with Labels
Recently, my mom made a very insightful comment and I quipped that she was a pretty smart cookie. I considered it a joke because of course I think my mother is very smart. To me it was like calling a model pretty. And I’m just her daughter so I figured she wouldn’t take my comment very seriously.
But instead my mother took my comment very seriously. She continued refining her previous comments overnight and brought them up again the next day. It made me sad to see how my mother grabbed onto this compliment on her intelligence like a drowning woman to a life preserver. She was so starved for affirmation.
My mother didn’t have the advantages I did. It’s not that I was or am any smarter than my mother. But I was “smart” in a way that coincides with what our culture considers intelligent – IQ tests, standardized testing, English proficiency. And because others thought I was smart, my parents thought I was smart, and I thought I was smart. And of course, it made me try harder in school, because, of course, I knew I would do well. For those who were not “smart” in the traditional way, they probably didn’t try as hard, and had the self-fulfilling prophecy as a result.
The Importance of Grit
When people talk about “being good at” something, they often mean natural talent. Obviously the people who rise to the tippy top of the pyramid have a lot of talent, but 1) you don’t need to be at the tippy top to be successful; 2) you don’t necessarily need to be great to be successful; and 3) your talent isn’t always apparent from the first day.
When I started learning Mandarin, I was the only Chinese person in my beginner class and I was singled out for my bad accent. Now the likely reason for this is because my family speaks Cantonese. Cantonese and Mandarin sound similar and I likely was lazy and defaulted to a Cantonese pronunciation, which is like a person speaking Italian in French class – wrong.
But how embarrassing that I was behind my other classmates! I had to be tutored by my professor. But it was an inauspicious start. It was certainly enough for me to think, ok I have no talent. I’m a Chinese person who can’t even pronounce basic Chinese. I should just give up. But I persevered and now, my accent is fine. The important thing to remember is how you do in the beginning only predicts your end result if you give up.
How to Get Better at . . . Anything
I have great beginner’s luck, but most things I can do or have done has still taken a tremendous amount of work. I’ve scored in the 95th percentile of standardized tests since I was in second grade. So you might think I just used my talent and coasted my whole life on standardized tests? Well no, because I don’t keep taking the same second grade standardized test.
Because I knew I was good at testing, testing and test prep were fun for me. No, honestly, it kinda was fun. Because it’s fun when you’re good at something. Being good at test prep led to a virtuous cycle where I worked harder at it than if I were bad at it. I expected to do well and I worked to ensure that. So yes “talent’ was the spark, but I kept adding gas to my fire.
You Have to Work to Uncover Your Talent
Some of the best in the world were not recognized for their talent early on. Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity basketball team at first. Tom Brady was the backup quarterback on his junior varsity team, warmed the bench in college, and was only drafted to the NFL in the sixth round. Thomas Edison was told he was too stupid to learn anything.
Maybe you won’t become a noted scholar in French, but if you work at it, you should be able to speak conversationally in your travels. All you need to do is persevere. Further, if you work just a little bit, you’re already likely in the top 10%. Though I’m not a fluent French speaker, I’m far ahead of those who haven’t spoken French since high school. I’m not necessarily a great pianist, but even practicing once every few months puts me far ahead of the population. And from these humble beginnings, I have a foundation to become even better.
You won’t hear someone say “you play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ like a prodigy.” No, because you can only see talent when the task has some difficulty to it. And you only get to that point after sticking with it, which only comes after believing you can do it in the first place.
Conclusion – You’re Good Enough
A quote I think about often is “don’t believe everything you think.” Our minds have a built-in naysayer telling us we will never be enough. But just because your mind says it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Challenge the beliefs in your head. Challenge your beliefs about other people. Don’t limit yourself, don’t limit others, and see what happens.