As I walked down the long empty hallway I was terrified.
The first simulation results were due in two days, and I had barely managed to get the program to open up correctly.
A million thoughts flew through my head, as I nervously made my way towards the door with the number on the syllabus, room 088.
I’ve never said a word to this guy in class.
What’s he going to say to me? Will he even recognize me?
I haven’t been paying attention in the last few lectures… what if he asks me a question about Bernoulli’s equation or something and I have no idea what he’s talking about?
God it feels awkward knocking on this door. There’s literally no one around in this entire building…
I should have started this project three weeks ago. Shit. He’s going to think I’m an idiot. I wonder if he’ll even help me.
The most insidious thing about self-doubt is that, left to it’s own devices, it only builds on itself.
Wondering if you’re good enough.
Telling yourself you’re an idiot.
Wishing you could get yourself motivated to dive in to your coursework, but knowing it won’t happen.
Each time you run through the same set of thoughts in your head, it becomes more and more likely that they’ll crop up again. And you start to literally feel the pain of failure, before it even happens.
In many cases, it has never happened. We’ve never experienced failure. Our friends, and family, and teachers have helped to pave the path for us to succeed.
“Go do your homework!”
“You need to study. You’re smart and talented, but you need to get into a good school. Your junior year is the most important for college applications. Go study.”
“Okay right now I’m passing out a review sheet. This is what you will see on the test. Here’s what to do…”
It seems like a good thing. They all think they’re setting us up to achieve our best.
It’s the worst thing they could do.
Dr. Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University, who found something peculiar.
She and her research team were interested in the effect of praise on the performance of early adolescent students. First, they gave them a short non-verbal IQ test, followed by praise.
All students did fairly well. And all got praised.
The peculiar part?
Half the the students went on to confidently attempt more difficult problems when offered, considered all of the test problems “fun,” and maintained their original IQ scores in subsequent testing.
The other half’s performance proceeded to plummet, refusing to take on tougher problems, scoring much worse on the same type of questions from the original IQ test, and even lying about their scores afterwards.
The first half was praised based on their effort (a “growth” mindset):
“Wow, you got a great score. You must have really worked hard to learn that stuff.”
The second half was praised based on their ability (a “fixed” mindset):
“Wow, great score. You must be really smart.”
That small, almost imperceptible difference in the way in which those kids were given feedback on their test scores significantly impacted their future prospects for learning new material, scoring well on tests, and enjoying the process.
What that research team found is that our belief system truly does limit us in profound, and usually undetectable ways.
What we think about ourselves either leads us down the road of self-doubt, closed-mindedness, and disappointment, or paves the way for astounding increases in performance.
The reason you did poorly on your physics final isn’t that you didn’t take advantage of the TA’s help during office hours, it’s that you weren’t open to going to office hours in the first place. You weren’t willing to accept criticism, or hear that you didn’t actually understand something like you thought you did.
And even if you did go because that’s what everyone tells you to do, you probably didn’t ask about the questions you really had no clue on. You’re great at projectile motion problems and probably came up with one small thing to ask about (“What’s the best way to set up my position equations so I don’t have to do a lot of algebra?”), knowing that you could figure it out on the spot and show the TA how smart you are. But under the surface, you know you really have absolutely no clue what you’re doing on harmonic oscillation problems and are just praying to god that it won’t show up on the exam.
Because it hurts.
It hurts to admit that you don’t immediately understand everything. That you’re not living up to the brilliance your parents have been telling your aunts and uncles about all these years.
And it only hurts because of how you were conditioned. How you view yourself and your relationship to learning.
Think about this for a minute:
Would you expect a two-year-old to understand how to solve for the vertical acceleration equation of a pendulum?
What about a five-year-old?
What about a high-schooler?
How about your roommate, an english major who earned a full ride based on academic merit?
Does this mean they’re not smart? They’re not good at physics?
When do you become good at physics? How?
According to the fixed mindset view, you’re either dumb or smart. Bad at physics or good at physics. The five-year-old is dumb. So is your roommate.
There’s clearly some missing logic here. If you’re “smart” and already know everything, what’s the point of learning? Why not just test out of all of your classes without studying?
The learning has to happen somewhere. There has to be a process of not understanding at first, but then understanding later.
This is all to say that our mistake here is not a mistake of character, it’s a mistake of strategy. The questions we should be asking ourselves are NOT:
“Am I good enough?”
“Am I smart?”
“Do I have a natural ability for engineering?”
“What’s my GPA and class rank?”
The questions that we should be asking, which will maximize how much we learn and how much we develop throughout college are:
“Did I put in the effort?”
“Have I been making progress?”
“Am I working on the right things and asking the right questions in my classes?”
“Am I engaged during lecture, or simply going through the motions?”
In the fixed mindset case you’re focused on results (sometimes out of your control), and in the growth mindset case you’re focused on process (always under your control).
And that shift in mindset means the difference between being terrified to hear what your professor has to say about your understanding of fluid mechanics, and being determined to get as much information and feedback possible from an expert who you have paid for access to.
I think Dweck puts it best (from her bestseller, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success):
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of the ones who will also challenge you to grow?”
As I made the 15-minute walk back to the dorms, I couldn’t help feeling like I had been worrying about nothing all along. Creating a false narrative in my head about everything that might go wrong by going in there.
He was glad that I made the effort to come in (although I thought I caught a slight hint of contempt).
The TA was actually holding a help-session in the computer lab later that afternoon. Everyone was having trouble. I wasn’t alone. All I had to do was show up, and put in the effort, and everything would be okay.
(Featured photo credit: Clemens v. Vogelsang)