You're so smart you probably think this post is about you
February 13, 2007 7:15 AM   Subscribe

"You're really smart!" Psychologist Carol Dweck says that praising a child for being smart only teaches the kid to avoid any effort that might fail. "When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don't risk making mistakes." Malcolm Gladwell chimes in with his thoughts on the importance of being a smart kid, "What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement."
posted by revgeorge (218 comments total) 457 users marked this as a favorite

 
Werd to that fear of failure. My oldest son (now 8) has always been really good at math and we've always praised him for it. He already has a problem with perfectionism and the fear of seeming not as smart as the praise we've given him has made it worse.

Last night he was trying to figure out 7^2 and decided to do it "the easy way" by taking 10^2 - 3*7 (why he doesn't have 7*7 memorized I can't explain). He was quite adamant that this was a valid method despite my demonstration that it gave the wrong answer.

The revealing part: He was only open to criticism once I revealed that I too have always wanted to get one square from another by a simple subtraction of the difference (you can get there by subtraction, but not quite as easily as he hoped).
posted by DU at 7:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Well, my mom constantly told me I was smart when I was growing up, and while I ended up pretty lazy, I never tried to avoid academic failure. I mostly didn't care about grades at all. I would always take the most challenging classes I could, in high school and collage and then slack off and do an average job.

Frankly I think a lot of psychologists just make crap up off the top of their heads. There is definitely a lack of scientific rigor in the field. (And of course, it's an inherently difficult subject to work through in a purely scientific way, but that doesn't mean people should just make things up)
posted by delmoi at 7:32 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


This so completely mirrors my upbringing that I'm thinking about printing out the article and taking it to my therapist.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:32 AM on February 13, 2007 [19 favorites]


Needing a lot of praise etc. -> weakness. Pray that your kid doesn't have those genes, or that the environment prevents their expression.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 7:38 AM on February 13, 2007


That rings true to me; I was always told I was brilliant at math when I was growing up, and indeed it was easy for me... until it stopped being easy somewhere around sophomore year of college, at which point I lost interest and switched to languages. When I got into proofreading and then editing I knew I was in over my head at first and had to work hard to catch up with what I was supposed to know already, and I kept getting better because I didn't expect it to come easy. And this section resonates with everything I know about human nature:
Just as the research promised, this focused praise helped [the author's son] see strategies he could apply the next day. It was remarkable how noticeably effective this new form of praise was.

Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.
Fascinating article—thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


delmoi: I've begun to suspect that "didn't care about grades at all" and "slack off and do an average job" are really just excuses and methods for avoiding failure.

At previous jobs, I was generally at least as smart as my coworkers in the IS/programming department so I could just coast along in, say, third gear. But now I'm working at a research place where my boss is eleventy-twelve times smarter than I am and I've had to shift into overdrive just to keep up. That provides many opportunities, as they say, for failure. After looking like a moron up at the whiteboard more than once (and possibly more importantly, seeing other people look like a moron while you sit in the audience), you start to get over the fear of failure and just do the best you can.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on February 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


I've chewed on this question pretty much my whole life. School came pretty easy to me and I was always told I was smart. That never really jived with how I felt - I assumed I was lucky because I was curious and tested well. I felt (and still feel, to some extent) that I was gonna be "found out"- that I really didn't know shit from Shinola. I think my lazy and procrastinating streaks are probably a result.

I now have a 7 year old son who is experiencing the same sort of things DU described above. I'm trying to temper my praising of him - but he is smart, and I don't want him to squander it. Tough issue.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:41 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Some of the laziest people I know are the products of the gifted program here in Scarborough. The article certainly has some merit to it.
posted by chunking express at 7:41 AM on February 13, 2007


There are a couple of points the articles don't make (but, on preview, I see that other posters have made). One is that heaps of praise can lead to a pernicious imposter syndrome--if I try and fail, then everyone will know that I've been faking all along. If I appear to be simply apathetic, well, I'll be judged for that, but no one will think I've been faking intelligence, at least.

Another is that if all my achievements are chalked up to some sort of innate, in-born talent, then I'm not really getting any credit for my hard work, am I? I see that with professional athletes, as well--Michael Jordan was certainly born with a predilection for being very good at basketball, but he also worked very hard at it. Calling his accomplishments the result of pure talent reduces their value.

I think some folks deliberately credit others’ accomplishments to talent or intelligence as a way of lessening their own sense of inadequacy. I saw that in school, and I see that in athletics, too. I’m not as good as you (at writing, math, basketball) not because I don’t work as hard, but because you’re simply more talented, or smarter.

Defensive? Yeah, a little.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:46 AM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Also, the study they talked about compared two different complements: telling the students they were smart, and telling them that they were hard workers. It lacked a control of students who received no feedback. They also didn't try giving both complements. Why not give both? Perhaps giving the "effort" complement is the only thing that had any effect. It certainly doesn't show that calling kids smart has a negative effect, which is what the article is trying to say.

I mean all of the studies seemed to be testing for two different types of praise: For being smart, and for working hard with just two different groups. none of the test seem to use the four groups that would actually be required. None of the tests given in the article can show that praise for being smart could be harmful, just lack of praise for effort.

Personally, I think I suffered for a lack of praise for effort. I always felt, growing up, that since I was smart I didn't need to try hard or care. I certainly plan on telling my kids, if I ever have any, that working hard is important, and I was planning on doing that before reading this article.

But, nothing here shows that telling kids they are smart is a bad thing. I think the author was just trying to make the headline as controversial and eye-grabbing as possible. Facts be damned.
posted by delmoi at 7:50 AM on February 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, in his horrifying autobiographical novel Borderliners, talks about the pitfalls of praise; his idea is that value judgments are artifacts of the adult world, that during childhood curiosity rules. There are so new things to explore and make and want to do, and these experiences and ideas live outside the adult world of good or bad, right or wrong. So, according to Hoeg, even praise forces a child to see, during the initial period of childhood discovery, in adult terms of right or wrong, and unfairly forces a child into a mindset and a track based on an adult's judgment.

As a teacher (for three years in a Japanese junior high school) I tried to apply a relatively judgment-free approach to my students, in class and in conversation (with homework it was not as much an option; grades are grades). Instead of praising and criticizing my students, I made it a point to thank them, show appreciation whatever they did, and encourage them to do more. I had smart kids and they all aced their placement tests; I have few illusions that my decision not to praise or criticize made it so, but still, my classes were full of engaged and reactive students, and classes were more enjoyable for me because I didn't have to waste time and effort setting up hierarchies.

Peter Hoeg's ideas are probably based on an overly wonderful or innocent view of early childhood. He grew up in brutal Danish orphanages and was denied completely the childhood he longs to protect; a foster family eventually adopted him and he dedicated Borderliners to them. But I think he's right about being cautious with praise around children, and it's interesting to see how and why psychologists might concur, though in entirely different settings and for entirely different reasons. Thanks, revgeorge.
posted by breezeway at 7:51 AM on February 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


It's not that simple. Mozart is the archetypal prodigy, constantly told he was a genius and presented to the crowned heads of Europe from early childhood. Did it make him give up trying with music? There are many other factors at work.

I think it's best to let your kid know the truth about how good at things they are, smart or otherwise - and make sure you're not kidding yourself either. But it shouldn't be something you go on about all the time, or the kid is bound to feel pressurised, and suspect you only value their ability (or despise them for their lack of it). Calling your kids geniuses may be only slightly better than calling them morons.
posted by Phanx at 7:52 AM on February 13, 2007


This is me. Just sent the article to my still-somewhat-disappointed mom.
posted by everichon at 7:55 AM on February 13, 2007


I think the real issue here (and I have absolutely no idea how to achieve it) is that smart kids have to be challenged as students. They cannot learn that it's acceptable to excel at lowest-common-denominator academics. If you skate through school you just might get the impression that you can skate through life.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:56 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


This seems to be part of a larger pattern of using science to rediscover traditional wisdom which was previously dismissed as unscientific.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 7:59 AM on February 13, 2007 [9 favorites]


delmoi: I've begun to suspect that "didn't care about grades at all" and "slack off and do an average job" are really just excuses and methods for avoiding failure.

*rolls eyes* What is it with people trying to analyze lazyness. I'm lazy because I'm lazy. Even when it comes to things that I have absolutely no chance of fucking up, like cleaning or even simple tasks. I just put things off as long as possible, and then do them at the last minute, or not at all.

Obviously some people's experiences can be different. I think what might be different with me is that I was told I was smart not for doing particular things, but just in general. So it wasn't like I felt that I had to "prove" to anyone how smart I was. I certainly never worried that people would "catch on" that I wasn't really smart or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 8:03 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


The article in general rings true while still being surprising. That's quite a trick. One thing though is the reference to Nathaniel Branden and his work leading to the no criticism, no competition self esteem movement. Thing is, from what I've read of Branden, he seems pretty firmly in the camp that self esteem, while important, is not something that people are tricked into having. People have self esteem from being good at things. And by good at things, he ultimately means better than others at things. Branden was one of the big figures in Objectivsm as a soap opera, and a psuedo-socialist interpretation of lake wobegon self esteem seems at odds with everything I know about him.
posted by I Foody at 8:07 AM on February 13, 2007


I was a smart kid-- too smart for my own good, in many ways-- and almost always got good grades. But one thing that I distinctly remember is how much I loathed being praised for my effort. I hated getting a report card in grade school and seeing an "A" for results and another "A" for effort. It always felt like cheating, somehow. If I was going to be praised, I felt, it should be on my intrinsic merits, not just because I had "worked hard," whatever that meant. After all, anyone can apply time and concentration to a task. I would know I had achieved true academic success, I believed, when I received an "A" for results and a failing grade for effort.

I never did.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:07 AM on February 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


I'm smart and ever so lazy. I took non-honors classes in HS in english and social studies because I didnt want to have to make that extra effort. I could breeze through the classes with little effort and still get an A.

My friends in college hated me because the first few years, I could simply show up for class, take notes, come in and get an A on the test. No need to study or do any non-graded homework. Other people I knew would ask me how long I studied for and then I'd say that I didnt study at all, and then they got angry and frustrated. My last few years were more difficult, as the math and engineering classes became very hard.
posted by SirOmega at 8:08 AM on February 13, 2007


Eeh. That was slightly painful.

Yep. Gifted Program. Laziness. Apathy -- if I'm not trying, I'm not really failing am I? With my personal bit having parents who wanted to reassure me that I didn't have to get good grades, so if/when I'd take home great scores, they'd just say "That's nice. We love you no matter what" and it was infuriating. I wasn't sure why I should care if they didn't.

Glad to hear about your experience, breezeway. I'm at a Japanese high school now, and I had to stop and ask a teacher the other day: "If I put: 'I know you can do better!' on a test, is that encouraging or insulting?!" What I meant of course was that the student has more talent than was shown in this particular interview test. It was meant to be encouraging, but effort is so key here. To have great natural talent and to fail due to a lack of effort is to be seen here as the greatest possible failure. Whichever is healthier, the school board here has definitely decided that all focus should be on effort.

On preview: well in my case, delmoi, I can tell you that I didn't learn to work... I was going to say until first year university, but you know it may have been third year law school some 11 years later. Getting by (even with good grades) and learning to put yourself through the paces are completely different things, and I think that had I needed to study hard to make it into uni in the first place, that lesson would have stayed with me in other areas of life. I didn't have to learn it so I didn't. Self-discipline is built; you aren't born with it.
posted by dreamsign at 8:08 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


When I was in high school, I hung out w. a small crew of super-smart kids. We mostly “didn’t care” about grades, but at times we got a bit competitive. When we did, we always insisted, mostly not jokingly, that for the purposes of our competition, studying hard was a form of cheating. After all *anyone* could get a good grade if they worked hard for it...

It was a petty fucked up worldview that suffice it to say required some adjusting in adulthood.
posted by ManInSuit at 8:09 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


Wow. This article rings very true to me.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:11 AM on February 13, 2007


The disconnect between childhood and adulthood is that in childhood, success (at least in the context of the articles and much of the discussion here) is measured by how smart, bright, or curious the kid is. In adulthood, success is measured in terms of money. When Gladwell talks about a gifted adult, he is talking about one that makes money.

The two things are entirely different. You can be an idiot and make a lot of money by working extremely hard, and you can be a genius and not make any money because you lack the requisite social skills that would place you in a position to convert your intelligence into money. A lot of very smart people work at NASA, NIH, and DOE. Most of them don't make over $100,000 a year.

But there's a corollary to this - as an adult you are admonished for curiosity or intellectual breadth as indicators of lack of focus. You are supposed to be an expert as an adult - depth but no breadth.

The irony is that the really successful people, i.e. the people who have changed the world, are both intellectually curious and hard workers, but in a world of hard works, its their intellect that stands out.

But it's a lot harder to explain to people why they should learn a bit of history and philosophy and physics before they get an MBA then it is to tell them to "just focus on your goal" , which is invariably some dollar figure.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:12 AM on February 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


I'm saving the article to read later, but I have to say the title of the post made me laugh out loud.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:12 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


People have self esteem from being good at things. And by good at things, he ultimately means better than others at things.

I don't believe that for a moment.
If I run a half-marathon and do well despite lack of proper training, just through determination, I feel like I cheated. Sure, I made it, but I didn't train. I didn't become better. I just made myself do it.
Similarly, I remember a certain philsophy paper that I pulled out of my ass and scored an A. It didn't deserve an A. I certainly didn't put A-level effort into it. Did I keep the paper? No, it got tossed in the trash. Did getting that A build self-esteem? Far from it.

Pushing yourself builds self-esteem. Achievement, especially for those for whom it comes easily, is worth little, whether or not you do better than others.
posted by dreamsign at 8:12 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


For whatever anecdotal evidence is worth, this rings SO TRUE for me that it hurts. I've always been a know-it-all little smartypants, was an incredibly avid learner, excelled in school, excelled in graduating NYU (BA in psych no less) a year early and excelled at law school (3.5 GPA) with minimal effort and even less interest while concurrently working full time in finance. I am/was a parent praise factory.

The older I've gotten, the less likely I am to try something new and my cognitive experience is that my enjoyment of an activity is linked to my success as perceived and reported back by others, or winning, or perfect performance. I am incapable of internal, inherent standards and rely on external cues from others to judge my personal satisfaction with an experience. I'm not competitive, in fact I avoid competition except with those I love dearly and closely, for the pure fear of losing. I've always, always thought that these traits were to some degree inborn, but also linked to the degree to which I was valued as a child apparently based on my success at academics and advancement to high levels in performance-based hobbies. I'm now stagnant in my life, failing to develop my career, my interests (beyond passivity, i.e. I'm very interested in science but regularly fail to attend or participate in anything related), or to take initiative. This has made me perhaps a bit bitter, bored and really resentful, with few healthy outlets for stress and anxiety. The stress and anxiety makes me even less likely to try. Oh god it's depressing.

I think the suggestion that praise of a child be linked closely to the child's personal effort, interest, etc. is genius. But I also think there's more to life than just playing the game for fun - something less than "Good girl, you won!! You're a winner!" but more than "Good girl, you tried and had fun and that's enough." I definitely am happy my parents encouraged me to excel, but I also wish that I'd learned how to NOT excel as well, perhaps how to just BE, just play the damn company softball game even if I won't win, how to be able to poke fun at my own mistakes or have a sense of humour about my faults, etc. I utterly lack the ability to gracefully lose, etc.
posted by bunnycup at 8:18 AM on February 13, 2007 [31 favorites]


Pastabagel: Are you saying that the smart people at NASA, NIH and DOE are not gifted doers? I imagine they have all sorts of goals they need to accomplish and they can't just read MeFi all day. Hell, even Einstein needed to publish.

Money isn't the only criteria of success in the Gladwell article. The fact that "there were no people who were nationally known in their fields" is evidence that childhood prodigy wasn't indicative of adulthood super-stardom.
posted by revgeorge at 8:20 AM on February 13, 2007


I think we are going by extremes and making some confusion between receiving misproportional prise and measuring maternal/paternal appreciation by praise..

If I praise one for doing homework, he/she may conclude he is doing_enough_ and maybe can do something.

Yet if this effort is not sufficient to regularly (not always, but often) achieve some results (like not needing to read paper where 7*7 is written) then I am praising a behavior of doing less the needed.

That is likely to produce a misperception of the effort that is really needed.

At the opposite end, if I don't praise BUT for well above average homework and very high votes, then I am not recognizing the effort, so the person is likely to attribute the praise to the result, not to the effort as it more often not praised then praised.

So what's the point of working and developing skills, if I can cheat ? This, imho, is part of the learning process developing the attitude to give more weight to result and little to way of obtaining it. This has negative consequence such as making obstacles look as not conquerable or avoiding them altogheter, if there is a shortcut to a desiderable result.

So two opposites, too much praise for little effort and subpar results, too little praise for a big effort unless it brings excellent results...destroying the value of effort altogheter.

----

As for measuring parental affection with praise..that's some kind of terrible confusion. I can only imagine the pain of a child looking for a praise he shouldn't be "paying" for.
posted by elpapacito at 8:22 AM on February 13, 2007


Great article. Great FPP.

The kids who do well in later life are the ones who are given the emotional and psychological mechanisms to cope with set backs and failure and who are taught how to see (simple simple at first) things through. Kids have to be taught that their failures are as important, if not more so than their victories, but in this culture if you don't get out there early and distinguish yourself you're thought of as "not good enough". Kids and adults mature at different times. It's wrong for people to give up on themselves. This book: Your Own Worst Enemy is awesome if you want to break out of the adult underachievement cycle of misery. It's amazing the psychological traps and justifications people will construct. Anyhow don't think, for now, go do and first thing is to buy and read that book.
posted by Skygazer at 8:24 AM on February 13, 2007 [10 favorites]


I was consistently informed of my innate brilliance via the praise of peers, elders, and evident results of my sublime work from the first brimming diapers of infancy right on up to the mathematically perfect parking job I executed in the lot this am. Now watch this drive...
posted by docpops at 8:25 AM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


dreamsign : I don't believe that for a moment.

You can't go dismissing someone's academic research just because your own opinion or perceived experience doesn't fit nicely with their findings.

By all means study the field, conduct your own research and publish whatever you find.

The whole reason this is an intertesting study is that it flies in the face of accepted wisdom. Scepticism is a reasonable response - flat denial is not.
posted by popkinson at 8:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


Interesting post. (I'd like to see the original study documents though, because something seems off.)

This seems oddly appropriate because of the fact that I just found a bunch of my parents old files concerning my brother who is very smart, but never "applied himself" and dropped out of HS in 9th grade. But give him an engine of some variety and it'll be awesome. In ES, I was told that I was G&T, but only in reading/writing, not math so they couldn't do anything with me because I wasn't good at all the stuff. Fucking school.
posted by sperose at 8:27 AM on February 13, 2007


Whichever is healthier, the school board here has definitely decided that all focus should be on effort.

I have a problem with this view also. I understand that children need self-discipline, but it's wrong to turn them into achievement machines. At some point you want them to have some degree of insight to ask why they are doing what they are doing. If a child who loves to write is struggling with math, is it better to force that child to spend hours struggling with math or to spend hours writing?

In a lot of ways I'm sort of the opposite of some of you here. I didn't coast. I did every piece of homework that was ever assigned as well as I could. And in the process I never did the things I was interested in doing because there wasn't any time and because there would be no way to measure the accomplishment. I never shot off a model rocket, never learned how to draw, and those are some things that I wanted to do then, but I kept putting off (not this weekend, paper due, not that weekend, studying for tests, etc).

I would have been much better off with slightly worse grades but with the memory of all those experiences that never were. It probably would have taken a lot more effort to learn to draw, I'm just not sure it would have seemed like "effort".
posted by Pastabagel at 8:29 AM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


You can't go dismissing someone's academic research just because your own opinion or perceived experience doesn't fit nicely with their findings.

I said their research was bunk? Flawed? Did not account for variables -- what? I thought I stated a contrary belief. Sorry. My prerogative.

it's wrong to turn them into achievement machines

That's an easy interpretation of the Japanese system, but for the most part I don't see that. When someone does their best, that's it. That's what was asked of them. You don't have to "win". But not doing your best, win or lose, is seen as a pretty big loss. I found this out the hard way, and doing your best, all the time is bloody tiresome and I'm not used to it!
posted by dreamsign at 8:36 AM on February 13, 2007


Skygazer - That book looks phenomenal, personally am going to take your advice and give it a read.

This FPP and the comments have highlighted my biggest issue with my life, the thing causing me distress that I probably most want to change. Thanks all involved, for highlighting it and for making the issue seem changeable, approachable, and "not just me".
posted by bunnycup at 8:36 AM on February 13, 2007


>This seems to be part of a larger pattern of using science to rediscover traditional wisdom which was previously dismissed as unscientific.

No its not. Traditional wisdom is feeding kids insert-local-superstition-here makes them smart and healthy. Traditional wisdom is that the harder the beating the better the result. Traditional wisdom is logic makes you unspiritual and out of touch with the common man. Tradition wisdom is that book-smarts are for useless eggheads.

Traditional wisdom is pretty much anything you want it to be considering how broad the term is, but I really am tired of hearing the typical comments from the granola crowd everytime theres a study that might suggest that an old fashioned method produces results. Or if a newer method isn't as great as everyone assumed. Using a study like this for a backhanded insult against the entire scientific community and its methology is really just being silly.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:39 AM on February 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


Saw this article in print- very interesting. Makes me glad I was turned down from the "gifted and talented" program back in the 4th grade.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:40 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel: Are you saying that the smart people at NASA, NIH and DOE are not gifted doers? I imagine they have all sorts of goals they need to accomplish and they can't just read MeFi all day. Hell, even Einstein needed to publish.


Not at all. They are not what most people would generally call "successful", however.

I can understand the idea that praising the process is more helpful, but I wonder if that's because it forces the kid to be more self-aware than he otherwise would be. To praise the process is to force the kids to recognize the process and be aware of it when it works and more importantly when it doesn't, and then prepares the kid for the much more complex task or deconstructing and modifying the process, and then internalizing the modified one.

When smart-praised kids fail, maybe they think "I'm not smart at this thing I failed at" so they don't do it anymore.

But praising process is not the same as mandating effort for efforts sake. You sort of have to teach the kid how to learn to do things he doesn't know how to do without having to be taught it, and that requires insight (sight into oneself, not a spark of inspiration). For every task there is a person who can accomplish it with considerably less effort than you'd think, only because they have learned how to think about the task in a certain way that you don't.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:40 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Interesting articles and discussions - very relevant to this household as we have two very clearly bright boys to raise this sort of thing concerns me.

I can already see that being boys in today's society will be an issue because of the whole trend where "manliness" is defined by your ability to belch loudly and work with your hands... (note: I don't believe this and neither does my husband, but you can see images like this in the media and it's not encouraging.)

So the question is how do you promote/praise intellectual effort in bright young guys? I want them to feel like being smart is okay and in fact valued for men, but I don't want them to be overpraised and never challenge themselves?

Genuinely interested in what people have to say about this here.
posted by Zinger at 8:41 AM on February 13, 2007


Pastabagel:

I agree with you wholeheartedly.

There's a kind of schizophrenia when it comes to education: one school (the No Child Left Behind approach) sees education as a means to an end, and the other school (the Sane approach- is my bias showing?) sees education as an end in itself. IMHO, kids need to learn how to learn, not necessarily what to learn. That gives them something to draw on no matter what they encounter in life.

If you can impress on a student that what they are learning is the critical process as much as the material, then they can understand that the effort is more important than the result. Not that the result is umportant, though.

Man, this is like peeling an onion.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:44 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Uh, unimportant.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:46 AM on February 13, 2007


Forgot to add, re: Pastabagel's comments, I think the disconnect between childhood and adulthood is not so much the money aspect, but the fact that suddenly, you're not a phenomenon anymore. A kid doing robotics research at age sixteen is interesting from society's point of view. Someone 35 is not so much.

When you're an adult, there's not as much importance attached to accomplishments versus age, ie., there's not as much difference between age 22 and age 25 as there is between 14 and 17. You've got to work much harder to be "as impressive" as you were as a kid.
posted by Zinger at 8:47 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


delmoi: I mean all of the studies seemed to be testing for two different types of praise: For being smart, and for working hard with just two different groups.

There's an important difference, though: one praises the child's state of being (you are smart), and one praises the child's actions (your efforts are excellent). As pointed out in the linked articles, the difference between complimenting identity and complimenting actions can bear very different fruit.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:52 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also, Pastabagel:

You sort of have to teach the kid how to learn to do things he doesn't know how to do without having to be taught it

This is the goal of every great teacher I've ever encountered, be they parent, schoolteacher, professor, boss, whoever. And the people I know who learned that fundamental skill, to be able to teach themselves, are consistently the most successful people I know.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:55 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


I was one of these gifted kids who received a lot of praise and had everyone making big predictions about me. I never needed to have anything explained by a teacher until high school. It seemed my dad really resented this, and he agressively took every opportunity to undo all of that ego-building. The problem is he took it too far and it took me a long time to feel I really deserved to have any success, happiness, or pride. Fortunately I was smart enough to eventually even break the shackles of my own ambition, and now my goal for life is to live at the optimal intersection of free time with material comfort.
posted by autodidact at 8:56 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Some of the laziest people I know are the products of the gifted program here in Scarborough. The article certainly has some merit to it.

I agree. I went through a "gifted" program that put me and my friends in college by the age of 15. We had all been fed praise from elementary school. Ten years later, I think almost every one of us is afraid of failure and none of us "push the envelope" in our career paths--well except the one guy who left Microsoft to become an actor.
posted by reformedjerk at 8:59 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


The closest I every came to precocious was to be pretty cautious.
posted by srboisvert at 9:02 AM on February 13, 2007


Huh. I've never thought about this before. I had one parent (Mom) that was a praiser and one (Dad) that wasn't, except in extreme circumstances. Maybe that was a good combination, b/c I've never been afraid to try new things that challenge my brain like switching careers, running a home business (that dissolved after a year), going back to grad school in mechanical engineering to get a Ph.D after 5 years working (and even though my undergrad was in materials science). I'm not saying it has made me into a world-changer, but I don't feel lazy or lost.

There is an opportunity for high school students to be gifted doers, it's called odyssey of the mind (OM). It was the greatest thing that happened to me, still donate money to the program at my old high school every year. Any parent of a "gifted" child reading this thread should look into it (and all you gifted children out there, too)
posted by Eringatang at 9:03 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Woo, this hits close to home. Very interesting read.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:05 AM on February 13, 2007


From the Po Bronson article:

Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

Aaaand, there we have it. It's always seemed so silly to me that people need to get their kids into the absolute tip-top pre-school programs, let alone elementary and high school... as if it's really more related to the parents' self-perception than any actual reflection on the child.
posted by rkent at 9:07 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Sorry, correction, OM isn't just for high-schoolers, it's for all grade levels, and it was previously discussed somewhat here.
posted by Eringatang at 9:07 AM on February 13, 2007


This is pretty much what happened to me but I got both the "You're a really smart kid" and the "You're Peter's little brother? Then we'll expect alot from you."

Suckers, they got nothing. Of course, I screwed myself in the end by rebelling but I wholeheartedly agree that telling kids they are really smart isn't a great motivator.
posted by fenriq at 9:13 AM on February 13, 2007


It is time now to talk about The Wheel.

Growing up, my parents had obviously read all the studies about praise and punishment and their effect on a developing child. My father came from a distant, reserved family and was the middle of three brothers. My mother grew up in a close-knit, church going family as an older sister. He went to gradschool for plasma physics and she was the secretary that typed up his thesis.

They obviously disagreed on how to praise and punish me and my little sister. Too much praise led to inflated egos, too little led to dejection, and an imbalance between praising parents could lead to favoritism. The literature at the time was all over the place, what were they to do? How could they raise children who were prepared for the hurly-burly of the real world, where good actions do not always generate praise and bad deeds go unpunished?

Enter The Wheel. The Wheel was first developed by Dr. Benjamin Adler who was an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. He had befriended my father over lunches in the school cafeteria and games of tennis. Dr. Adler (or “Adder” as my sister and I came to call him – he was a tall, skinny dude with big black eyes magnified by thick glasses) did not have children of his own, but he studied kids as part of his research. My dad, being a Man of Science then finishing up his post-doc, mentioned the quandary he and his wife were in when it came to molding my sister and me into real people, and asked Adder for his advice.

His advice was The Wheel. Dr. Adler said that praise/punishment was a major, driving motivation for a child’s behavior. The problem came when praise/punishment was shown to be fickle or imbalanced. Praising one child’s good report card more than the other’s similar report card was praised the year before frustrated the child and created tension between siblings. Praising the wrong thing (in the case of this post, intelligence over diligence) could lead to a disaster down the road. Already the symptoms were showing – I had been praised as being really smart for reading so many books and was in the process of failing fifth grade because I would skip doing homework in favor of reading. My sister, meanwhile, was praised for getting all her work done, but struggled to maintain a reading level on par with her class.

I still remember the night when The Wheel came home. It was a big, wooden thing, although looking back now at its charred remains, it seems much smaller, far too small to have the sort of impact that it did on our lives. The Wheel was similar to the wheel from Wheel of Fortune or that “pick a random beer” wheel you see in some bars with large selections. It had ten sections, six marked A, two B, one C, and one the dreaded D. Whenever my sister or I did anything that would warrant praise or punishment, my parents would Spin The Wheel then consult The Chart.

The Chart had a list of common praise or punish scenarios taken from Dr. Adler’s research. Stuff like “Minor Discipline Infraction” meant my sister and I fought in the car or I came home 15 minutes after curfew or something. “Major Academic Success” meant my sister got straight As or something. There was a giant list of these scenarios with more being added as my sister and I came up with new and more interesting ways to fail/succeed. Along with each scenario there was a response scaled to our age. So for “Minor Discipline Infraction” the standard, A Response was “No dessert”. B Response was a scaled up version of A, “Straight to bed with no dinner”. C Response was neutral and despite the scenario always read “Nothing happens”. D was the worst, the dreaded Flip Response that could turn punishment to praise and vice versa, so that teasing a sibling could suddenly grant the teaser the privilege of staying up an extra hour to watch TV before bed. It could also mean that, as in once instance, an almost-straight A report card got my sister grounded for a month.

The point of The Wheel, I guess, was to show that Real Life was fickle, that you shouldn’t expect praise for every good deed and that many bad deeds go unpunished. My sister and I learned that well. We knew that anything we did wrong had a 20% chance of being ignored, maybe even rewarded while anything good we did could land us in hot water or reward us more than we expected. We even received an allowance of “re-spins” that we could use to try to avoid some of The Wheel’s more chaotic results. I’m pretty sure that the re-spins were my Mom’s idea, a compromise thrown in to prevent some of the excesses that we’d soon be subject to. I don’t recall Dr. Adler being too fond of them, but he came up with a chart where a certain number of re-spins would have to be spent to get a do-over for a certain level of scenario.

Slowly, The Wheel took over our lives. Every little action netted a spin. It was pretty easy on my parents, who no longer had to discuss between themselves in order to mete out punishment. They even started carrying around a ten-sided die as a traveling surrogate for The Wheel. I learned pretty quickly what all kids learn eventually – “hide everything from your parents”. I would not tell them of my successes in hopes of saving up my re-spins to get me out of trouble for my failures. On the other hand, Shelly told them everything in hopes of netting that 20% chance of a better-than-expected response. The only problem was that though my sister and I were pretty similar kids, I was by far luckier than her. I got out of so much punishment that my Dad had to check The Wheel for signs of tampering. Shelly was not so lucky. Every time she spun, up would come the dreaded D, turning a minor victory on her part into a punishment and causing her to spend some re-spins. I remember one night after she did well at a solo viola concert that she and my folks were up late, Shelly crying a spending re-spin after re-spin to avoid being grounded for a week and therefore missing her first middle school dance. My parents felt sorry for her, they even upped the B response into paying for her new dress for the dance, but no matter what she did or how much she spun, D always came up. No dress, no dance, no luck.

Don’t get me wrong, I got burned by The Wheel too. I lost the right to ever, ever own a Super Nintendo after it came to light that I had been blowing off study for video games. I could have used my re-spins, but opted not to as I had just discovered smoking and knew that would be Bad News once that got out. It did, but my re-spin bankroll was so large at the time that I was able to take it and the arrest that came from shoplifting cigarettes in stride. In fact, I think I ended up getting a carton of Camels out of that. I traded them to my friend Jerry for pot which, when found, got me free gas for a week thanks to a good spin.

By the time I made it to college (state school – my grades were purposefully average, a great boon in a house with The Wheel, not so much when it came to applications), we didn’t really think too much about The Wheel. It had become just another part of our lives, something to laugh and joke and cry about around the dinner table.

I had learned to work Dr. Adler’s system for everything I could, so if anything, The Wheel taught me to be self-reliant, to not expect too much from the world around me, to blend in. That’s what I was doing – blending in – though my sophomore year at college when I got the call that I had to come home right away.

Shelly, always down on her luck, maybe even addicted to The Wheel like some sort of gambling addict, was in jail. She had set fire to the house one night after getting accepted to Princeton. The Wheel told her that she couldn’t go. It was a pretty bad fire, spreading quickly up the walls through the house. By the time the firefighters arrived, my Dad was pretty hurt from smoke inhalation and Mom was dead.

Shelly had to go to an institution, I don’t think the government would have let her spin The Wheel to see if she could get off, no matter how many re-spins I would have loaned her for it. I still visit her occasionally when she’s not on suicide watch. When I go, though, I have to empty my pockets of all coins, the ten-sider I carry around, and any pictures of my family. Shelly has been under orders to avoid all anything random like a die-roll or a coin flip since the one time Dad visited her and she asked him for forgiveness and to pick a number. He said yes, he forgave her and four, which I guess was the B response on Shelly’s chart so she tried to slit her wrists with a pen.

Now that I’m a husband and father, I’m nearing the same stage my parents where in when they first brought home The Wheel. I know now how damaging The Wheel can be, so there’s no way I’m letting something like that in my home. Being worried about the right praise/punishment response is one thing, but limiting those responses to a simple spin of a ten-option wheel is not the right answer. Life is much more complex than A, B, C, or Ds, especially now when you consider the algorithms and random number generators we have available to us. My “Wheel” will be a computer program, likely a Palm applet for ease of portability, and I think it will truly solve all my family’s problems before they even begin. I’ve been in touch with Dr. Adler, who is retired now, and he’s working on a more modern, viable Parenting Matrix.

I'm looking forward to seeing it.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:15 AM on February 13, 2007 [925 favorites]


I'm a sophomore at a reasonably prestigious liberal arts college and I've had major issues with fear of failure every semester I've been here. I nearly failed a final exam last semester because I was too unwilling to commit to any real answers, instead giving vague (but superficially well-written) gestural answers that hinted at, that evoked what the professor wanted. Needless to say, that wasn't enough. I truly believe that the core cause of this was my fear of being wrong overriding my desire to give it my best. I won't identify myself as a victim of the kind of circumstances described in the articles (I was a gifted kid, but I also had a pretty good and well-rounded childhood), but I will say that no matter how good I was when I was younger, I'm still okay at best when put in a context like my college. I'm actually really relieved to read an article like this - over the past while, I've been feeling incredibly stupid (or maybe just mediocre), and while this doesn't explain everything I've gone through, it does give some perspective.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:18 AM on February 13, 2007


This just in: a story about underachiving brainiacs strikes a chord with Internet smartypants who ought to be working right now.


No, seriously, this article describes me very well.

This is a true story: in my gifted program, when I was about ten or eleven, I had one class in which they showed us a chart and said, "here are you guys compared to people with average IQs. Here are average people compared to the profoundly retarded." The distances were equal. Even at that tender age I thought, "why on Earth would you tell somebody that?"

I'm still struggling to learn to work hard.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:22 AM on February 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


robocop:

Wow. Just wow. I laughed. I cried. I'm scarred.

Wow.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:23 AM on February 13, 2007


robocop is bleeding:

If this is true, I feel terrible for being so entertained by your life.
posted by smackwich at 9:26 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm disappointed jonmc hasn't hit this thread yet. Let me see if I can't say what he would.

If you skate through school you just might get the impression that you can skate through life.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:56 AM PST on February 13 [+]
[!]


I assure you that you can very easily skate through life. I agree wholeheartedly with the article and like many others here it mirrors my experience, and I have begun to recognize over the past few months how harmful, in its own way, the praise and recognition I received was. However, I don't see the path it has led me down as negative. Why shouldn't you skate through life? How is that a failure of the education system?

Others above are entirely right when they observe that there are two competing visions of the education system. Some would look at me, deranged MMORPG'er, part time chef, and claim I am wasted potential and a failure of the education system. I would point to a incredibly successful but unhappy individual and claim THAT is a failure of the education system.

I was reading a brochure for a local private school the other day, and it boasted that all of its graduates went on to post-secondary education. This upset me. Did all of these students want to go on to post-secondary education? Maybe some of them wanted to be plumbers, or cops, or work in the restuarant industry, or...

An education system that demands performance degrades and insults us. Our studends should be guided, not pressured; failure, instead of being feared, should no longer exist.
posted by mek at 9:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


The whole reason this is an intertesting study is that it flies in the face of accepted wisdom.

Is it really accepted wisdom that showering kids with praise for some trait that they didn't work for will churn out well rounded adults? I mean, take a cute little girl and tell her how pretty she is every single day, all the time, and I think most people would instinctively feel she'd grow up to be a woman with some sort of weird baggage tying her worth to her attractiveness. Why should intelligence be any different?
posted by 23skidoo at 9:28 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


One of the only things I really, really remember from growing up is my Dad saying, after I would mention a test, or a soccer game, etc., "Did you try your hardest?". He never really told me I was smart, unless I needed to hear it to motivate me. We never got praise for getting good grades, or into good schools. I think they would have liked to, but more than anything we were always told to try our hardest, and if the outcome sucked, move on. I think it was a really smart lesson.
posted by docpops at 9:28 AM on February 13, 2007


Is everyone on MeFi a closet member of Mensa?

"When I was a kid..."

"I was so smart..."

"... great grades..."

"...didn't have to work very hard..."

blah, blah, blah.

Hell, I was going to jump in and post my own story of unfulfilled potential but I think I'll just get back to work. Luckily for me, I've been able to make the transition from gifted learner to gifted doer.
posted by C.Batt at 9:28 AM on February 13, 2007


Oh my Lord, that story was intense robocop. And I thought my family had trauma. Wow. I don't even know what to say...
posted by miss lynnster at 9:28 AM on February 13, 2007


C.Batt it seems to me a site like Metafilter would attract smarter, self-learning types... check my screen name.
posted by autodidact at 9:33 AM on February 13, 2007


Benny Andajetz wrote "I felt (and still feel, to some extent) that I was gonna be 'found out'- that I really didn't know shit from Shinola. I think my lazy and procrastinating streaks are probably a result."

Quit reading my mind. It freaks me out.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:34 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


robocop is bleeding- that was coolest story I've heard in a while.
posted by horsemuth at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2007


And as for me, everyone said I was super smart but I saw how my sister was expected to get As all the time so I pretended I wasn't good at stuff. Made life easier most of the time. I was in all of the advanced classes but I got Cs in everything except writing & art. Always was good at anything creative. And then of course when I went to art school people decided it was because I was too lazy to get a job... so I got all kinds of grief for being an underachieving loser.

And now I make more money than them and they all tell me how they "always knew I could do it!" Riiiiiight.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:38 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Why shouldn't you skate through life? How is that a failure of the education system?

Some clarification. I've got nothing against skating through life - I've been doing it for 46 years. I just think it chews at some people; wasted potential, and all that. Judging from the comments, it seems to be an impediment to at least a few people.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:40 AM on February 13, 2007


Is everyone on MeFi a closet member of Mensa?

Another unexamined downside of the Praise culture: everyone thinks they're extra smart, even when they aren't. (No, but I really AM smart!!! I got good grades and I didn't even try!!! I went to college!!! I have a job!!!)
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:47 AM on February 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


I thought the Gladwell piece was even more interesting.

Particularly the "gifted learner" vs. "gifted doer".

I've work in education and learning for 9 years, mostly with adults in learning very complex hard and soft skills (social workers, police officers, sales, leadership, therapists, design, you name it). The single thing that shines through all of these experiences is that our culture equates knowing with learning. In fact it is ALL about DO-ing.

Knowing or learning something means precious little in almost any context outside of a classroom. Yet, we continue to focus on this. For those bright kids (yep, I was one too) it is easy to get 'lazy' or tune out or focus on a teacher's praise or a parent's because the actual act of learning what is taught in most shcools IS incredibly boring. It means nothing and kids figure out this game very early on.

Geometry is meanignless. Building a bridge that people have to walk on can be fascinating and has inherent meaning - someone could actually be hurt if you screw up.

Writing a report on the Civil War is just an act with an arbitrary set of rules that someone thought up in the late 1800s. Telling someone about your parent's divorce and and the effect it had on you and listening to their similar story can be a life-changing experience.

As an example of the contrast, imagine if high school students graduated with skills insted of knowledge (knowledge they will very quickly forget, might I add). Suppose in order to grauate you had to be able to do the following at a medium-high level of skill:

- drive
- cook
- dance
- prepare your monthly finances and do a budget
- articulately express your emotions
- listen and empathize
- manage a project (balancing budget, time and quality)
- make a fire kit from scratch (i.e. bow drill) and start a fire
- (add a few of your own)

and the way they learned these skills was not by reading about automobiles in america or by writing reports about the history of dance. The skills are learned by doing them over and over - and failing and getting better and being successful and getting critiques and more practice and so on.

I think we would have a bunch of 18 year olds who would actually be interested in learning, wouldn't think it was arbitrary and many of the skills would stay with them a long, long time.

Plus "smart" kids would stay challenged, because when we say "smart" in the sense of the articles in the post we really only are talking about two forms of "smart" - math and language, but a well rounded skill-based education would be much, much more than just those two incredibly narrow slices of intelligence.
posted by django_z at 9:48 AM on February 13, 2007 [29 favorites]


Re: Pink's comment.

As a psych major, I remember my psych 101 prof engaging in a demonstration of a well-known experiment. Have the entire room close their eyes, and ask "Who believes they are smarter than average?" "Nicer than average?" "More attractive than average?".

Almost everyone will raise their hand - EVERYONE thinks they are better than average. As my further psych education taught me, the exception is depressed people, who tend to rate themselves as well below average in all areas. Thinking you're better than you are is in part an element of psychological/emotional health, at least as it was then theorized.

I don't keep up sadly so things may have changed...But I also think MeFi is not a random sample, I do think the average MeFite is smarter than the average Joe.
posted by bunnycup at 9:51 AM on February 13, 2007


Almost everyone will raise their hand - EVERYONE thinks they are better than average.

Yup.

I do think the average MeFite is smarter than the average Joe.

I think this is true, although, a, I'm biased, and b, we probably define "smart" differently than the average Joe ( there are people in the world who think talking to people you don't know over computers is STUPID).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:53 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow, that Wheel story is amazing, in a horrific way. I think that just made my morning. This is a great topic that obviously a lot of us can relate to. When put on a pedestal it's a long way to fall.
posted by sweetmarie at 9:56 AM on February 13, 2007


Robocop - that was a beautiful piece of fiction. Truly.

If you haven't already, you should work it into a complete short story and get it to McSweeney's or something of that caliber.
posted by django_z at 9:57 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Excellent post and article. Thanks revgeorge.

As a person who was in childhood manipulated by praise and perfectionism, I find as an adult that Oops is my favorite four-letter word.

Some kids may have fear of success because their parents co-opt the success in order to garner attention and praise for themselves. In that case the success of the child's endeavors, or the child being pedestalised, is less about the child and more about the narcissistic needs of the adult/s around the child.

And some kids may have fear of failure because it's taken for granted by society that ability in any particular area shows up early on and to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success. Again, this is the adult/s around the child, imposing/projecting their fear and demonising, that the child will "amount to nothing" unless they 'succeed'.

The success/failure pretzel can be a double bind, no-win quandary.

Books that come to mind about the double binds children survive are: the Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, Scripts People Live by Calude Steiner and Soul Murder by Leonard Shengold.

Carol S. Dweck has written a lot of interesting papers, especially on learned helplessness.

On the flip side of learned helplessness, I would like to see more written about healthy motivation, what works.
posted by nickyskye at 10:03 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


I was a math wizard in elementary school, praised and encouraged and sent up to my room to soldier through "homework" in math textbook after math textbook far above my grade level, textbooks my parents had arranged with my teachers for me to study. My brother, two years older, was a model student, particularly in math, and I "showed even more aptitude" than he did, and was accelerated even more than he was. Teachers all remembered what a bright and good kid he was, found him a joy to teach, and expected the same of me. Problem was, I was a cutup, using my smarts to orchestrate the fifth-grade "pencil-drop" incident and other highly subversive acts. I liked the other kids, and they liked me.

And I heard from my brother about how, in middle school, if you were three grade levels ahead in math, you had to go to the high school for math class, and how he felt like a jerk being a 12 year-old around 16 year-olds; he was pretty cool about it, and to his credit, didn't care one way or another: it was only school.

Well, I was five grades ahead, and good in other classes, too, and I saw the writing on the wall. So for the sixth grade math placement exam, a scan-tron multiple-choice test, I quickly penciled in a pattern of answers: A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A, B, etc., all down the line.

They placed me in a general math class for slow kids, where it was clear I didn't belong, then moved me to an advanced class with the top students of my age group. I never liked math class through high school, always tried my best to get C's and not A's, and avoided the subject as much as possible in college.

As an adult, I love math. I love the logic, I read books by mathematicians, I love the more mathy parts of science. I even started working in investment banking pushing numbers around, and coincidentally, along with Michael Lewis' tremendous book Liar's Poker, much of my inspiration to work in this field came from a great and wild novel called Bombardiers, by Po Bronson, the author of the first linked article in the FPP.

The real treat for me, working with derivatives, is not finding that I love pushing numbers around, but finding that it thrills me to find out that I like pushing numbers around. It's a thrill-of-discovery thing. It's like stumbling on a secret about myself that I buried for some reason or another, and when I unearthed it, I found that I had a whole lot left to learn about myself.

This is a great thread, and my contributions have been a bit tangential, but I guess that's the intersection of psychology and personal experience. I got a lot out of reading everything here, thanks.
posted by breezeway at 10:06 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


ThePinkSuperhero: Another unexamined downside of the Praise culture: everyone thinks they're extra smart, even when they aren't. But see, the really insidious thing about all this is that the highly-praised-as-smart kid has no way of knowing for sure if he or she really IS all that damn smart. I know that my parents and teachers told me I was "gifted"; but because I was so averse to risking my "gifted" self-image by actually attempting difficult tasks at which I might fail, I've never gained a real, bone-deep belief in my own intelligence or competence. Maybe I *am* extra-smart, maybe not; there's no way you could actually prove it by anything I've achieved. So when I handwave all the more vigorously in the direction of some random bit of credentialling (GRE 800s, hah!) as evidence of braininess, it's with a concomitant sense of bogosity and general fraudulence.
posted by Kat Allison at 10:07 AM on February 13, 2007 [16 favorites]


>everyone thinks they're extra smart, even when they aren't.

I think thats true. Afterall, gradeschool is supposed to be easy. Everyone is supposed to pass. Everyone is usually very nice. The system doesnt allow for too much competition just yet. Its only in college that these 'gifted' egomanaics fail, blame the system, and end up blaming their parents.

Who doesnt think theyre gifted when they are a child? The real question is why do so many people carry that smug label into later stages of life and then refuse to drop it when all the evidence points to them as being pretty medoicre.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:08 AM on February 13, 2007




Is everyone on MeFi a closet member of Mensa?

Naw. That would take too much effort. You got to sign up and everything.
posted by juv3nal at 10:11 AM on February 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


holy shit robocop is bleeding, your Wheel story was mind-blowing. Wow.
posted by nickyskye at 10:12 AM on February 13, 2007


I wonder if all these people who fail because they were praised too much also suffer from self-diagnosed Asperger's.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2007 [11 favorites]


imagine if high school students graduated with skills insted of knowledge (knowledge they will very quickly forget, might I add). Suppose in order to grauate you had to be able to do the following at a medium-high level of skill:

- drive
- cook
- dance
- prepare your monthly finanes and do a budget
- articulately express your emotions
- listen and empathize
- manage a project (balancing budget, time and quality)
- make a fire kit from scratch (i.e. bow drill) and start a fire
- (add a few of your own)


Wow. I think that's the worst idea I've ever heard.
posted by washburn at 10:14 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


What TPS, bunnycup and to some extent damn dirty ape are saying is true, but just a show of hands of those who were, for better or worse, selected (not self-selected) for the "gifted program" has so far been interesting if only as an indicator of school experiences. Wherever they really fit into the spectrum of ability or potential, the segregation, attention, and praise all likely have effects -- largely negative from what I've seen.

I just think it chews at some people; wasted potential, and all that

Yeah, considering a third career jump (after three very successful but unfulfilling ones), and that's pretty much the whole kettle of fish in one comment.
posted by dreamsign at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2007


Wow. I think that's the worst idea I've ever heard.

I don't think it's a bad idea, but I don't think it would work. First, you'd have to teach all the teachers first (I'm sure there are plenty of teachers who can't dance, cook, balance their checkbooks, etc). Second, someone would have to decide what's important, and everyone would have different opinions on that (me? I think learning how to build a fire is a totally pointless waste of time).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:20 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why would knowing how to build a fire a waste of time? Sounds like a very valuable skill to me. I agree that school should be MORE about teaching valuable life skills (I think it's criminal that kids can leave high school without a class on finances) but I don't think abandoning traditional history/math/english/etc. is the answer either.
posted by agregoli at 10:25 AM on February 13, 2007


I don't think its about whether learning how to build a fire is a critical skill in adulthood - the point, as I understood it (and please do correct me if I am mistaken) is that LEARNING how to learn how to do any new task is critical. Writing better and better outlines of the same dumbed-down textbook analysis of the causes of the Civil War does not prepare you to think on your feet, creatively approach tasks, time manage, prioritize, etc., which are the skills arguably most in demand in the workforce. It reminds me of the controversial self-directed learning method, where kids explore whatever they want (don't like math? do something else) because it's not WHAT they learn that's important, but that they LEARN to learn something new for themselves.

I'm not necessarily endorsing those views, my jury is still out, but that's the way I understood it.
posted by bunnycup at 10:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


That was brilliant, robocop. How hard did you work on it?

This link and the discussion leaves me pretty cold. It seems very alien to my own experience but not in a few others. So it ends up feeling largely alien, but I think my own experience is a bit unconventional and more in the pathological families end of things.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why would knowing how to build a fire a waste of time? Sounds like a very valuable skill to me.

Valuable how? When does the average person NEED to know how to build a fire from scratch? You don't! Totally pointless.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Valuable how? When does the average person NEED to know how to build a fire from scratch? You don't! Totally pointless.

Talk to me when the oil runs out.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:28 AM on February 13, 2007


Teaching kids how to change the oil? THAT'S a skill worth knowing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:29 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


So far: telling average kids they're smart is bad because it's part of the "praise culture". Telling smart kids they're smart is bad because then they'll think they don't have to work hard. Putting smart kids in gifted classes where they'll be more average and have to work hard may sound good, but it's actually bad because it will reinforce the idea that they're smart and therefore don't have to work hard. Having high expectations for smart kids is bad because they might be upset if they can't live up to them, but having low expectations is bad because they'll think they can coast through life.

There are already a lot of people who want to take smart kids down a notch (what else do you call suggesting that high school graduation should be contingent on being able to dance well and build a fire?) The ideas expressed in these articles aren't new. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that devaluing the intelligence of smart kids is good for society at large; I just wish that people would stop pretending that it's good for the kids themselves.
posted by transona5 at 10:29 AM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Pink - I think I've needed to know how to build a fire from scratch exactly as often as I've needed to understand the subtext of the novel "Shane" (8th grade), do a quadratic equation (9th grade) or understand Papua New Guinean ritual cannablism as expressed in 20th century western hemisphere documentary film (college). All equally pointless, to me, unless I got something different, something deeper from all of that learning - for example how to think in the abstract. FWIW, a little learning on how to learn concrete real world skills might make me more confident and useful.
posted by bunnycup at 10:32 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


All good points; I'm just bitter about being involved in programs that equate camping-related skills with "real-life" and being closer to God, blah blah blah.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Valuable how? When does the average person NEED to know how to build a fire from scratch? You don't! Totally pointless.

I really doubt you'd think it was pointless if you were lost in the woods on a cold night. Or any other life-saving situation. What on earth could be considered pointless about basic survival skills? Life doesn't always stay comfy.
posted by agregoli at 10:34 AM on February 13, 2007


(Furthermore, I think that CPR and first aid should be a part of every high school program).
posted by agregoli at 10:35 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


All good points; I'm just bitter about being involved in programs that equate camping-related skills with "real-life" and being closer to God, blah blah blah.

Pretty damn smug knocking other people's skills, especially when you're willing to be the benefactor of them. Or do you think ground beef grows on styrofoam plates? Or your stove lights itself by magic?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:36 AM on February 13, 2007


"Perhaps there's an argument to be made that devaluing the intelligence of smart kids is good for society at large; I just wish that people would stop pretending that it's good for the kids themselves."

It's good for the kids themselves because being "smart" in the way that we're talking about isn't all that much more actually valuable than being good at athletics. It's just not that important. It should be "devalued" because it isn't actually valuable. The sooner kids learn that, the better.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:36 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I really doubt you'd think it was pointless if you were lost in the woods on a cold night.

I will never get lost in the woods on a cold night. I will never get lost in the woods on a cold day. I will never get lost in the woods on a warm day, a warm night, or any day or night. I will never get lost in the woods, because I never go to "the woods". I don't even think New York City has "the woods", and if it did, I'm sure I wouldn't go.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:36 AM on February 13, 2007 [11 favorites]


I'm so glad I got to the sob-story thread in time!

My cousin and I were the same age and were close friends as children. I tested as "gifted" in kindergarten, she was completely, decently average. Our family made all the worst mistakes, banking on my sure success and encouraging her to be more like me. By fourth grade I was so overwhelmed by the expectations of our school's ad hoc "gifted" program that I had a nervous breakdown. Afterward my grades got worse every single year. I barely graduated from high school, and by then my family had mostly stopped counting on my success. Meanwhile, my cousin passed through the grades at an average pace with increasingly below-average results. No matter how badly I continued to fail, I was still held over her head as the ideal to be strived toward.

My cousin and I went to the same high school, but it was basically assured by then that we could never be friends. She graduated high school with a higher GPA than I did, which the family ignored in favor of scrambling to make sure I got accepted into some college SOMEWHERE, no matter what.

Dropping out of college and scorching the earth of my family's expectations was the best thing that could ever have happened to me, and I have worked hard enough to wind up with a professional career on my own terms all the same, and ironically am considered a "success" by my family's weasly standards. My cousin is in bad shape, and has never wound up being able to provide for herself, and has black-sheep status in our family, and I am overwhelmed with guilt on the rare occasions when she and I speak. I know I personally didn't do anything that contributed to the misery and abuse she experienced, but I am a handy symbol of it, which has cheated us out of enjoying each other as family, perhaps forever.

Ultimately I think the danger of praise is not only in how questionably deserved it may be, but who else is around to hear it and what effect it has on them in the long run. The fact that such Darwinian meddling and gambling takes place in children's lives is pitiful. The fact that it is institutionalized so haphazardly is criminal.
posted by hermitosis at 10:42 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


So much for being a unique and special snowflake, I guess.

This so completely mirrors my upbringing that I'm thinking about printing out the article and taking it to my therapist.

Oh yeah, me too.
posted by briank at 10:43 AM on February 13, 2007


I didn't understand the article. Fuck this.
posted by sfts2 at 10:48 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Holy balls, robocop is bleeding, don't take this the wrong way, but you're gifted. Subtle and gifted.

My favorite part? Dollars to donuts some of the gifted kids are furiously googling for matrix recipes at this very moment.
posted by melissa may at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


robocop, if that isn't actually a Stephen King short story, it should be. (Or better yet, one of your own.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:56 AM on February 13, 2007


I love how everyone is huddled around this thread like a campfire in the big scary dumb dark.
posted by hermitosis at 10:59 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


This so completely mirrors my upbringing that I'm thinking about printing out the article and taking it to my therapist.

Frankly I think mathowie should just send a $75/hour invoice to everyone who posted here.

Metafilter: For All the Unrealized Geniuses Who Are Too Smart to Need Actual Therapy
posted by pineapple at 11:05 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yup, sounds like my life. Gifted program, skipped grades, top .5%, blah blah blah. Now, I get by on as little effort as possible, and never bothered with university.

However, I find I am competitive, but honestly I only like to play when I know I can win. I've always been that way. I also don't recall a whole lot of praise as a kid.

Maybe I'm just lazy.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 11:06 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I do think the average MeFite is smarter than the average Joe.

MetaFilter: where all the children are above average.
posted by cenoxo at 11:07 AM on February 13, 2007


I couldn't relate to this at all.

I wasn't praised for any of my achievements when I was young even though by th age of 8 I was having heated arguments with my math instructor about transcendental numbers and Group theory. My parents thought: What use is this?

As a result I grew up feeling outside of the world. By 8th grade, I was getting D's and F's and my counselor was worried I wouldnt make it through junior high school. I got an F in my Computer Science class even though I was spending my spare time writing Assembler code and trying to get a small game software company off the ground (this was in 1980) with a friend of mine.

No praise, no praise. I was praise-starved. So when a recruiter from Harvard showed up at my high school, walked right past all the A students, and wanted to know more about the kid who was scoring perfect scores on all his Math and Verbal tests, well, I was shocked.

Obviously there's a lot more to tell but I figured it was worth a couple paragraphs to throw an alternate voice out there....
posted by vacapinta at 11:08 AM on February 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'm surprised so many people are praising this article, I thought it badly misinterpreted the evidence from the studies. It's not praise that is bad it's false praise. Even in the first study, horribly designed, lacking controls and I suspect it was not double blind, they praised every kid as being intelligent just for finishing a simple test, the kids would be able to tell this was bullshit. Since the kids probably did try hard at the test, being praised for working hard was not taken as false. In all the other studies in the article were praise was harmful, the praise was used in a very broad brush that would mean that it was probably bullshit most of the time as well.

I was able to coast through school pretty easily, but when I stopped trying hard was when I started figuring out so many things that were taught to me in school were bullshit; drugs, sex, religion, whatever. False praise is just one part of the recognition that adolescents have of the falseness of the adult world, and I doubt it is the most important. I guess I am more comfortable blaming my apathy on the blatant hypocrisy of the modern world than on my parents praising me too much.
posted by afu at 11:09 AM on February 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


I can build a fire, but I REFUSE to articulately express my emotions!

Or prepare my finances. Or get out of your dumpster.
posted by hermitosis at 11:14 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Talk to me when the oil runs out.
-- posted by Benny Andajetz

Teaching kids how to change the oil? THAT'S a skill worth knowing.
-- posted by ThePinkSuperhero

There's a gorgeous (unintentional?) double-entendre in those adjacent comments. We all need to learn how to change the oil.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:19 AM on February 13, 2007


Ewww. Go away!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:25 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh my Lord, that story was intense robocop. And I thought my family had trauma. Wow. I don't even know what to say...

Oh, miss lynnster, honey, you didn't think that was real, did you?
posted by languagehat at 11:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

Bingo! Hence my inability to add or subtract to this day.
posted by jokeefe at 11:28 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Okay, okay, one more complaint to add to the pile: Praise was in fairly short supply when I was growing up, though the sentence "All you want to do is sit around and read!" is burned into my brain. Fair enough, really, to this day, I have to say.
posted by jokeefe at 11:31 AM on February 13, 2007


Also, ThePinkSuperhero is quite correct: knowing how to build a fire and gut a deer and all those other "survival skills" are meaningless for most of us, far more meaningless than, say, spelling and grammar (which have kept my rent paid for years). You fire-building types remind me of those bomb-shelter people who were so smug half a century ago: "Go on, wear your suits and drink your martinis and live your pathetic so-called civilized lives—when the bombs drop you'll be scrabbling at our bomb-shelter doors, and we won't let you in!" For all I know, some of them still maintain their stocks of canned beans and water, waiting for the apocalypse to prove to the rest of us that we've wasted our lives and they were right, right, right all along.
posted by languagehat at 11:31 AM on February 13, 2007


It's good for the kids themselves because being "smart" in the way that we're talking about isn't all that much more actually valuable than being good at athletics.

Apart from whether ability at math and reading is worthless in later life, kids who are good at athletics are praised for their abilities and allowed to explore their talents without any of the handwringing we're seeing here.
posted by transona5 at 11:31 AM on February 13, 2007


I'm late to the thread, and I haven't read it, but I was just telling my GF last night that probably the worst thing my parents ever did to me was tell me I was telling me I was "gifted and talented" in the 1st grade.

Don't tell a kid they're smarter than everyone else. It only makes them insufferable know-it-alls.
posted by empath at 11:32 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


And I heard from my brother about how, in middle school, if you were three grade levels ahead in math, you had to go to the high school for math class, and how he felt like a jerk being a 12 year-old around 16 year-olds; he was pretty cool about it, and to his credit, didn't care one way or another: it was only school.

Well, I was five grades ahead, and good in other classes, too, and I saw the writing on the wall. So for the sixth grade math placement exam, a scan-tron multiple-choice test, I quickly penciled in a pattern of answers: A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A, B, etc., all down the line.


The school system as it's arranged in many places can actually discourage "gifted" children from learning to be "doers" and provides little opportunity for them to learn to work hard - actively discourages it, sometimes, and if there's no family (or other) support from outside, that's that.

I saw kids in breezeway's brother's position picked on and mocked and bullied; I got quite a bit of the same thing myself in elementary school but had learned to keep my head down by my teens. If you can do everything that's required for class and do perfectly on the test, in most places, that's all there is to do, and being a good learner means you catch on to what happens to people who go above and beyond what's required for class. The schools do not often have the resources to provide for extra work, if that's what's needed when everything else just comes easily.

Oh, and someone else already said this, and the article on praise does discuss it, but when I was praised for (presumed) effort that I hadn't made at all, I don't think I reacted well. That did make me feel like a fraud, and left some contempt for whomever made the comment. Praise has to have some grounding in reality to have a positive effect, and it's much more difficult to assess someone's process to find something to praise than to just praise a result or an overall trait.

I wonder how many of us bothered to read the articles before commenting, though.
posted by dilettante at 11:33 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Is everyone on MeFi a closet member of Mensa?

Not me. I'm a 'tard, actually. But they sent me to school with a buncha high-acheving rich kids and a little bit of that rubbed off on me.

Suppose in order to grauate you had to be able to do the following at a medium-high level of skill:

- articulately express your emotions


"Jason, I find myself quite shocked and dismayed that you chose to pass gas just now. The odor is not at all pleasant and the loud BRAPPPING sound interfered with my ability to learn today's lesson. When you do things like that, Jason, I feel hurt because you are not demonstrating a proper level of respect to me as a classmate and, to be frank, I've noticed that this seems to be a pattern with you, which makes me concerned about the future of our friendship."
posted by jason's_planet at 11:39 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


From the second article: Yet the fate of its child-geniuses was, well, “simply okay.” Thirty years down the road, the Hunter alums in the study were all doing pretty well, were reasonably well adjusted and happy, and most had good jobs and many had graduate degrees. But Gladwell was struck by what he called the “disappointed tone of the book”: None of the Hunter alums were superstars or Nobel- or Pulitzer-prize winners; there were no people who were nationally known in their fields. “These were genius kids but they were not genius adults.”

How many people think you're doing pretty damned good to be "doing pretty well, [...] reasonably well adjusted and happy"?

Maybe they figured something out that Gladwell hasn't; maybe they feel no need to prove themselves. Geez.
posted by dilettante at 11:39 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


But what would Christopher Michael Langan have to say about all this?
posted by washburn at 11:45 AM on February 13, 2007


I think the disconnect between childhood and adulthood is not so much the money aspect, but the fact that suddenly, you're not a phenomenon anymore.

That is so true for me... The biggest part of my identity as a child was tied to being "so smart, and so mature"... My homelife was a wreck, but at least I was "smart and mature" and I would go places in life... But, I got tired (and bored) of those labels once I hit my teen years, and my form of rebellion was to quit highschool (and to subsequently quit three colleges)...

Once I became an adult, I discovered that being intelligent wasn't "special" anymore (particularly since I didn't have anything to show for it) and that realization created a bit of an identity crisis...

Now, I very much enjoy being smart (and I regret the opportunities that I wasted by being apathetic and unmotivated for so long), but I find that my intelligence means very little in terms of measureable success or happiness.
posted by amyms at 11:46 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Apart from whether ability at math and reading is worthless in later life, kids who are good at athletics are praised for their abilities and allowed to explore their talents without any of the handwringing we're seeing here.

Really? I know two "failed" ballerinas and one "failed" baseball star -- that one brings it up in every other conversation. Again, the notion of wasted potential.
posted by dreamsign at 11:49 AM on February 13, 2007


Apart from whether ability at math and reading is worthless in later life, kids who are good at athletics are praised for their abilities and allowed to explore their talents without any of the handwringing we're seeing here.

If you think this is "handwringing" about how we should squash down the drives of smart kids, and not actually about how the ways we are suppossed to encouarge it healthily in ways that do not lead to cul-de-sacs of frustration and fear of failure, as well as testimony from people who feel that this is what happenned to to them (myself among them,) I fear you have not been reading succesfully.

No one says that reading and math skills are useless, (although I'm not sure why you focus on only those two metrics,) but, (speaking for myself) simpy having aptitude in something, especially when it short-circuts other life skills, such as ability to apply one's self or have not have an unreasonable fear of failure, it can be more of a detriment.

On preview:amyms, your life, as you describe it, seems very similar to mine. (Only two colleges tho, and kicked out for not going to class, not quit, but really, is there much of a difference?)
posted by Snyder at 11:51 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I saw kids in breezeway's brother's position picked on and mocked and bullied; I got quite a bit of the same thing myself in elementary school but had learned to keep my head down by my teens.

I think this explains a lot of the hostility toward smart kids at places like Metafilter; it's almost a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. "I was an insufferable know-it-all." Well, sure; most people were insufferable in one way or another as kids. Most people weren't, however, made social outcasts for it. But there's a need to find some kind of justification for the way you were treated.
posted by transona5 at 11:52 AM on February 13, 2007


Thank God my working class parents never told me anything but, "get a fucking job, you bum."
posted by The Straightener at 11:53 AM on February 13, 2007


That is so true for me... The biggest part of my identity as a child was tied to being "so smart, and so mature"... My homelife was a wreck, but at least I was "smart and mature" and I would go places in life...

That's a pretty common pattern. Talented kids in messed-up families are often forced into pseudo-grownup roles for the sake of family pride and family stability and not allowed to have actual childhoods.

Or so I've heard.

I think I read about it in Esquire somewhere.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:55 AM on February 13, 2007


Ok, I was a bit unclear there. The aptitude alone did not short-ciruct life skills, but the reinforecment that it was not simply worth it to try beyond a certain token level didn't help.

I remember in middle school/junior high, I was given letter grades in achivement and number grades in effort, and I took a perverse pride in getting decent grades (B's and A's, although I didn't worry to much about getting an either, high grades "weren't important,") at the same time when I'd get slightly better effort grades, and worse letter grades, I'd feel, "Well, I tried and did ok, no reason to push myself to try harder, obviously I'm just not good at it."
posted by Snyder at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2007


This is me: constantly praised for my intelligence as a child, to the point where I believed that it was the only thing that made me desirable or lovable. My fear of failure has severely damaged my life as an adult. I have tried - and succeeded - at big things in life, but even those successes do not ease the fear. They also have not contributed to any ongoing success or security - financial or emotional. My adult life has been plagued by a lack of traction which is directly attributable to this fear. I appreciate this definition and clarification provided by this post.
posted by ljshapiro at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Great, great article.

One thing about the comments, though. There's no such thing as "lazy." There's afraid. There's conflicted. There're a million varieties of low self esteem and demotivated. But calling yourself or someone else "lazy" is just a sneaky way of calling them an asshole. It's just a pejorative, and as such, has no place in a real discussion.
posted by facetious at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


Awfully mean-spirited, robocop-- I hope you and 'Banjo' do some serious soul-searching before taking it any farther than rabbits.
posted by jamjam at 12:05 PM on February 13, 2007


If you think this is "handwringing" about how we should squash down the drives of smart kids, and not actually about how the ways we are suppossed to encouarge it healthily in ways that do not lead to cul-de-sacs of frustration and fear of failure, as well as testimony from people who feel that this is what happenned to to them (myself among them,) I fear you have not been reading succesfully.

As for the testimonies here, I'm reading a lot of stories of people who believe they were told they could coast by on intelligence alone and became disappointed when they found out this wasn't true. I'm also reading a lot of stories about people who were pressured too much to work hard and burned out. People are complaining both that smart kids are expected to shoulder adult responsibilities and told they can avoid adult responsibilities. The only common thread is the fact that intellectual ability is considered a positive thing.
posted by transona5 at 12:08 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to add that it's been very therapeutic reading this thread and seeing how many other people's experiences mirror my own... Not in a "pity party" way, just in a "wow, there are lots of members here with whom I can identify" way... It's a good feeling.

Okay, I'll stop being sappy now.
posted by amyms at 12:12 PM on February 13, 2007


"Don't tell a kid they're smarter than everyone else. It only makes them insufferable know-it-alls."

I resemble that remark!! *waves*

*sighs* :\
posted by zoogleplex at 12:26 PM on February 13, 2007


I remember moving when I was in 5th grade. My 2nd day of school, we had to take a reading test (SRA test if anyone remembers them) I will NEVER forget how mortified I was when the teacher annouced in front of the class that I had scored a 12th grade reading level. I felt about [] big. To this day, in my business life I try to keep quiet when fools are making mistakes. Its never been clear to me what value 'smart' was or what it even meant...I think there are a lot of different kinds of intelligence, and to me the ones most valuable relate to getting along with people and handling emotions. Math and verbal skills in day to day life are not even close. My high verbal IQ get me in trouble on a daily basis...at least as much as it helps. Another strange thing...as someone strong in language/verbal stuff I absolutely cannot remember verbal directions and the like - but a picture I will remember in great detail for 20 years. I know memory <> intelligence, but its still strange.
posted by sfts2 at 12:29 PM on February 13, 2007


As for the testimonies here, I'm reading a lot of stories of people who believe they were told they could coast by on intelligence alone and became disappointed when they found out this wasn't true. I'm also reading a lot of stories about people who were pressured too much to work hard and burned out.

I see them as two sides of the same coin. Basically, that being "smart" makes you superhuman, that you can do things other mortals cannot.

I still fail to see any hostility towards smart kids here, and I woner where you're getting it from.
posted by Snyder at 12:37 PM on February 13, 2007


Clicking through this article just made me end my daily two hours of procrastination an hour and forty-five minutes early.

Sweet.
posted by thecaddy at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2007


I see them as two sides of the same coin. Basically, that being "smart" makes you superhuman, that you can do things other mortals cannot.

That's what I'm trying to get at; that the only way of resolving these disparate complaints is to stop valuing intelligence, or smartness, or whatever you want to call the ability to do well at school subjects like math and writing, altogether. Because a good writer or math student can in fact do things that other students can't. So can a good runner or gymnast or violinist; I guess the "hostility" I'm seeing is due to the fact that no one is calling for a moratorium on praise for those abilities.
posted by transona5 at 12:46 PM on February 13, 2007


Because a good writer or math student can in fact do things that other students can't. So can a good runner or gymnast or violinist; I guess the "hostility" I'm seeing is due to the fact that no one is calling for a moratorium on praise for those abilities.

Because people don't mistake skill at athletics or musical instrument for general life skills, whereas "smartness" is generally thought of as not only skill and talent in an academic field, but also generall abilty not to fuck up in life. "Smart" people don't become heroin addicts living on the street, they don't join the military, (that's conventional wisdom among many people, at least, not that I agree,) they don't end up in souless, dead-end jobs, or in too much debt or whatever. However, people who were "smart" do do these things, and maybe being praised or pushed heedlessly is not the smart thing to do. No one is calling for a moratorium on praise, but maybe it's better to be more frugal with particular praise in order to benefit the child, unless you think the gold star is more important than actual achievement. (dreamsign makes a good point, too that this is not neccesairly limited to "smart" kids.)
posted by Snyder at 12:57 PM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


"Perhaps there's an argument to be made that devaluing the intelligence of smart kids is good for society at large; I just wish that people would stop pretending that it's good for the kids themselves."
Ethereal Bligh: It's good for the kids themselves because being "smart" in the way that we're talking about isn't all that much more actually valuable than being good at athletics. It's just not that important. It should be "devalued" because it isn't actually valuable. The sooner kids learn that, the better.
Well, that's just simply not true. Saying it may seem satisfying, EB, in a bitter and jealous "Smart isn't so important, now is it?" way, but there is such a thing as 'smart', and it does have a real value.

I do think intelligence is a near-impossible trait to measure in any meaningfully granular way (how much of the supposed difference between two people is in their mindset? approach? background? effort? etc?), but that doesn't mean I don't think some people think differently, and in interesting and useful ways. The internet that we are all communicating over took a great deal of effort, but also required the insights of some pretty smart people to create and define in ways that had the freedom to grow in such unexpected and collaborative ways. Some people just think quicker than others, and have brains that make new combinations of ideas much more rapidly and frequently than other people. And some of the best ideas that affect our lives, from the profound to the mundane, come from those new sparks.

It is valid to suggest school, and early school especially, does not identify the different types of abilities people can have well, and that perspiration is a critical element in anyone's success- there was for example an article I read that noted the difference between success in the highest levels and failure wasn't talent, so much as the mindset of always trying something you were bad at. That great pianists, for example, practiced the scales they found hardest, while the almost-great just practiced what they knew well- because it was safe, easier, and more directly rewarding in the short term. But the differences showed up because the people who simply focused on those areas they were weakest at showed the most overall ability. That seems, in a roundabout way, to be the gist of the original post: that praising effort can encourage people to tackle the areas they are weakest in with renewed vigor, which with the already gifted can yield even bigger results for them and those whose lives they affect.

But I don't think you can suggest that being 'smart' is equal to being 'athletic'. 10000+ years ago, athleticism had direct measurable survival and prosperity benefits, but now? Now, it's entertainment only. The betterment of our lives as a society is contingent upon the contents of our minds, and our minds alone. Our insight, our beauty, our wisdom, our technological prowess, and our humanity all stem from there, and not our muscles.
posted by hincandenza at 1:01 PM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Because a good writer or math student can in fact do things that other students can't. So can a good runner or gymnast or violinist; I guess the "hostility" I'm seeing is due to the fact that no one is calling for a moratorium on praise for those abilities.

Personally, the issue of praising kids for being smart versus praising their efforts aside, I think we need to value these abilities as a society more. I always thought it was unfair that our high school hosted a big banquet and handed out big shiny trophies for athletic accomplishments, while the awards ceremony for academic achievement was a dowdy, boring affair involving certificates and dictionaries as prizes
posted by Zinger at 1:05 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Valuable how? When does the average person NEED to know how to build a fire from scratch?

JESUS. Have you people NEVER watched Survivor?
So, to answer the above question: when becoming a humiliated ball of pathetic on worldwide television.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:22 PM on February 13, 2007


Touche.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:27 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


One interesting aspect of the original articles was the way the researchers lied to the kids without batting an eyelid.
posted by Idcoytco at 1:31 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who has time to watch Survivor when you're busy being a genius?
posted by bunnycup at 1:37 PM on February 13, 2007


Just want to be another to chime in on how closely this article (and the experiences others have posted) mirrors my own life.

Between the fear of being an impostor, the fear of failing, the overwhelming desire to please my mother and my teachers and everyone else who said I was smart, the alienation from classmates (by their actions, the teacher's actions, and my own) because I was the "smart kid", the tension from the inevitable competition that followed that label, the belief that I didn't have anything else in the world besides my brain and if that failed me it would be over . . . It made for a difficult childhood and reading these articles has been surprisingly painful.

And fuck you bastards who think this is a underhanded attempt to brag about how smart I am. I have no fucking clue if I'm smart or not. I have never been taught to value my achievements for the effort I put into them or for the enjoyment they brought me. My mother's insistence on putting me in gifted programs and her constant bragging to me and everyone else about my supposed smarts has been one of the greatest negative forces in my life.
posted by schroedinger at 1:38 PM on February 13, 2007 [11 favorites]


I decided early to coast based on feedback I received about being "gifted" or whatever you want to call it. That decision had a bunch of negative ramifications for me, starting pretty early. I can't really blame anyone but myself, though--it's not as though the adults in my life were acting on bad faith. None of them told me explicitly "You're exceptional such that you need never really exert yourself or reach outside your comfort bubble."--I made that leap myself.

I don't think any of the linked articles should be swallowed wholesale, but I am glad that they represent increasing sophistication in dealing with these matters.
posted by everichon at 1:52 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Did I happen to mention how fantastically smart I am?

My older brother is smarter, though. We've got this whole Sherlock/Mycroft thing going on.

Anecdotally, and mildly apropos, when I passed the Mensa test (I was 25 and wanted to see how much damage the beer and vodka had done), my dad said "Mensa? That's for insecure people."

No shit, Sherlock.
posted by Sparx at 1:54 PM on February 13, 2007


Bindweed

Intelligence does help, sometimes;
the bindweed doesn't know
when it begins to climb a wand of grass
that this is no tree and will shortly bend
its flourishing dependent back to earth.

But bindweed has a trick: self-
stiffening, entwining two- or three-ply,
to boost itself up, into the lilac.

Without much forethought it manages
to imitate the lilac leaves and lose
itself to all but the avidest clippers.

To spy it out, to clip near the root
and unwind the climbing tight spiral
with a motion the reverse of its own
feels like treachery - death to a plotter
whose intelligence mirrors ours, twist for twist.

John Updike
posted by vronsky at 2:11 PM on February 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


My oldest sister was Mensa.

She's now an aging Fundamentalist Christian hausfrau with no social skills whatsoever, secluded away on a little Waco compound-style farm with her chickens & Jesus.

Ahhh yes... genius & insanity... such close neighbors they are.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:18 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


“Well, that's just simply not true. Saying it may seem satisfying, EB, in a bitter and jealous 'Smart isn't so important,now is it?' way, but there is such a thing as 'smart', and it does have a real value.”

It is true. (I think you meant “envious” and not “jealous”.) I've been around these parts for a while—surely you know me well enough to suspect that it's unlikely that I'd ever be envious of anyone else's supposed high intelligence. Maybe someone else would devalue “smartness” with such motivations; I certainly wasn't.

I've said before here that I do think that there's some real meaning in our gut sense of “general intelligence”and the common assessments we make of this every day. But I've also said that I think this is of limited utility and probably more misleading in any particular context than it is helpful.

Furthermore, I chose specific wording in my argument to indicate that I'm talking about this folksy assessment of general intelligence that, using the IQ score as a metric as an example,would probably cover the range of, say, 110 through 150 or so. My argument is that even if it's meaningful to say that there is such a thing as general intelligence and that being “smart”means being in this range, then if we look at how people live their lives and think about things like professional achievement and personal happiness, possessing this attribute of “being smart” correlates relatively very poorly when compared to a large number of other characteristics such as childhood socioeconomic history, an ethic of hard work, and even regional and national socioeconomic conditions. Being “smart”is a lot like being athletic, if we consider that athleticism probably correlates to a greater level of physical health and that you're better off with regard to these outcomes we're truly interested in if you are in better health. But not so much better off that it makes sense to put a very large emphasis on it.

Yet we do put a very large emphasis on being smart. Far more than is in proportion to the effect it has on life outcomes.

From where I'm standing, the few of you that are up in arms protesting what you see as some sort of persecution of “smartness” might be the insecure people here. Some of us are debunking the idea of the value of “smartness” not because we envy others for what we don't have, but because we have it in spades and know that it ain't worth jackshit.

Not only that, but I think a lot of people confuse anti-intellectualism with a bigotry against intelligent people. Both things exist—and they are related— but the latter is really the weak complement to (and backlash against) the much greater praising cult of “smartness” that pervades our culture. Anti-intellectualism in our culture is partly driven by this excess, too, and more's the pity because it's a serious cultural problem while anti-smartness bigotry isn't. If our culture wasn't constantly praising couch potatoes who once scored highly on a sixth-grade standardized test, maybe it would value actual intellectual achievement more than it does. And maybe those couch potatoes would be happier today if they had long ago realized that scoring highly on a standardized test isn't worth anything and doesn't deserve praise while, in contrast, getting off their butts and actually creating something and offering it to the world is worth a great deal and deserves praise. It may help to be“smart” to do such things, but it's not a requirement.

Some people here will no doubt retort that our culture doesn't value “smartness” greatly. But of course it does. If it didn't, then no one here would worry about a backlash against declaring themselves very “smart”. The truth of the matter is that buried deep in our culture's ethos is the idea that being “smart” means that in some sense you're better than other people. That idea is deep and pervasive and it creates a hugely distorting dynamic all out of proportion to whatever real meaning this whole idea of “smartness” really has. Children are infected with this idea at an early age and that's why so many of the stories in this thread involve evaluations of core self-worth. This notion of general intelligence should be no more greatly involved in one's overall sense of self-worth than athleticism is. A particular intellectual ability may well be very valuable and capable of producing very valuable things. That sort of thing should factor into self-esteem. General intelligence? Even if it does exist and is meaningful, we all might be better off if we just discarded this notion.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:36 PM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


As a relevant aside, I'm middle-aged and I've yet to work within or observe a professional field dominated by smart people where native intelligence didn't matter far, far less than hard work and social skills and networking. This includes academic research sciences and the software industry and various other fields.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:43 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I was always told I was smarter than the other kids when I was in grade school, and like EB I always thought of it *exactly* like having athletic ability. As in - so what? It means you're good at doing one kind of thing, it doesnt say anything at all about you as a person, or about your ability in any other area of your life.
posted by supercrayon at 2:47 PM on February 13, 2007


When I was in elementary school (British Columbia) around fifteen to twenty years ago, they were at the beginning of their experimental classrooms. In grade two, I was in a sixty-student, two-teacher split class of grade twos, threes, and fours.

Socially, it was an extremely interesting dynamic: as a grade two I had good friends in grades ahead of me, which, as most of you are probably aware, is the coolest fuckin' thing when you're eight or whatever; there's nothing quite like being picked for soccer at lunch before all the other little squirts.

Educationally, it was even more interesting. They split the three mathgroups (really grade two, three, and four math) into three colours based on the colour of the text book. Slower grade fours could work with the grade three textbook, and more gifted grade twos could work with grade threes or fours (I did a bit of both). The system was completely organic, so if someone started to improve they'd move up a group.

At any rate, in grade three I was in the same class with 70% of the same students and a new batch of grade twos. I did exclusively grade four math that year, felt challenged, and enjoyed myself. In grade four I had a new classroom and they scrapped the "math ahead of your grade" process and I was stuck doing the same grade four math textbook for the third year in a row. That was the end of my enjoyment of math, even though I continued to find it fairly routine until the end of highschool (upon which time I jettisoned mathematics out of the equivalent of my brain's airlock).

The rest of my academic experience has been somewhat similar, I suppose. I've often thought my laziness is a product of the fear mentioned in the article, but how strongly I believe this changes. Even in university I had relatively high marks, more A+ papers than most people I knew, and I wrote almost everything the day before it was due. In hindsight I'd always know I could have written a paper that was much, much better than what I'd written, but I never really did. I was always vaguely uncomfortable when papers I'd written were recommended for submission to the school's essay competition because, even if they were good, I felt like I didn't deserve accolades for something I put only a short burst of intense energy into.

Perhaps more than anything else though--and I don't see anyone talking about this--is that I've always been blessed/cursed with an intense dislike of authority. I had run-ins with teachers from grade two onward. In fact, in grade two (the aforementioned 2-3-4 split class) we had a teacher that used the old negative reinforcement trope. Everytime someone in class acted up, they were forced to walk to the front of the class and put a chalk-mark in the corner. Once a certain number was reached, the entire class had detention. I disliked the methodology with a fierce passion that I didn't understand very well at such an early age, and the whole incident ended up with a parents + teacher meeting. Of course, I was reticent to mention this in front of the teacher, but when I told my parents later they were understanding. Interestingly, the next year the teacher used the opposite approach: marks on the chalkboard when we behaved well and rewards (little gifts, longer breaks, etc.) when a certain number was reached. Things went much better for everyone involved, of course.

At any rate, this continued through highschool: yelling matches with teachers I perceived were treating either myself or someone else unfairly, walking out of a classroom with four other students in protest of a teacher, etc. The point of all this general meandering is that I'm not certain it's necessarily just a fear of failure; I think, on some level, I've always resented being told what to do if--and this is an important if--I don't have enough respect for the person that's telling me to do it. Teachers, even university professors, that are asking me to do abjectly idiotic projects/exercises quickly put me in this mindset, despite my best efforts to curb it. However, if a professor earns my respect--and, more importantly, admiration--for their academic rigor, well, I'm on board and ready to go, for the most part, though I do still procrastinate.
posted by The God Complex at 2:48 PM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


we have it in spades and know that it ain't worth jackshit.

I don't understand this. EB, you can't possibly think that intelligence "ain't worth jackshit." Would you accept a lobotomy, or even a procedure guaranteed to bring you down to "average smartness"? I thought not. Intelligence is worth a great deal in terms of understanding and (at least for me, and I suspect for you) enjoyment; it just doesn't enable you to run things (companies, countries, whatever). I don't really understand why people want to run things anyway.

If our culture wasn't constantly praising couch potatoes who once scored highly on a sixth-grade standardized test


Now, that's just nuts. Once again you've argued yourself into a position that makes no sense. But that is one of the downsides of intelligence...
posted by languagehat at 3:09 PM on February 13, 2007


I think the comment about high schoolers graduating with life skills is brilliant. For many people, high school is as much schooling as they get...and yet we don't prepare people for life, at all, in high school.

Many people take pride in not knowing certain things. "Oh, I don't know anything about cars" or "I wouldn't know about history." These people aren't saying "this subject doesn't interest me" they're saying "this subject is beneath me."

Smarts come in all sorts of guises. A successful farmer knows as much of his vocation as a successful theoretical physicist knows of his. Both are valuable to society. Both benefit from being open to new ideas and learning new things, perhaps reading Hawking for the former or tending a garden for the latter.
posted by maxwelton at 3:11 PM on February 13, 2007


or perhaps more clearly =

A Pear Like A Potato

Was it worms, having once bitten
and then wilted away, or some canker
known only to nurserymen? Whatever the reason, the pear
fresh-plucked from my tree where it leans and struggles
in the garden's dappled corner
is a heavy dwarf-head whose faceless face
puckers and frowns around a multitude of old problems,
its furrowed brow and evil squint and pursy mouth
and pinched-in reptilian ear rescrambling,
feature for feature, as I rotate
this weight in my hand, this
friendly knot of fruit-flesh, this
pear like a potato.

It wanted to grow,and did. It
had a shape in mind, and if that shape
in transit was waylaid by scars, by cells that turned
too obdurate to join in with the general swelling
and stalled instead, leaving dents between bulges
like quilt-buttons, well, it kept on going
and rests here in my hand ripe and ready,
sun-warmed, to be eaten

Not bad. The teeth must pick their spot,
between the potato-eyes. Sun's warmth
mingles sweetly with mine. Our brains
are like this, no doubt, having swelled
in spite of traumas, of languages
we never learned, of grudges never set aside but grown
around,
like parasites that died but forever snapped
the rhythm whereby cell links up to cell
to make up beauty's smoothness. Plato's
was a manner of speaking, perfection's
an idea there at the start, that
the body and soul make a run at

and, falling short, fill the world instead
with the lopsided jumble that is: the congregation
of the failed yet not uncheerful,
like this poor pear
that never would do at the supermarket,
bubble-wrapped with symmetrical brothers, but
has given me a snack,
a nibble here and there, on my own land,
here in the sun of a somewhat cloudy morning


John Updike
posted by vronsky at 3:41 PM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Hey, guys, it's not about smart vs. not smart, it's about the negative effect of handing smart kids the label "smart" or "special" without the right context. If the kids thusly labeled are smart, then they are certainly vulnerable to gaming the system to their own detriment.

It's hard when you're young not to react to constant praise by going to the extreme of "I am special and should be treated so" or the opposite extreme of "I don't deserve this and I'm going to retreat into my apathy defense". Neither avenue is particularly healthy, both cause pain, and smart kids,especially, are probably good at repressing that pain.

We need to value intelligence - we do value intelligence. But how do we nurture it without turning everybody angry and neurotic? It's clearly the responsibility of parents, teachers and mentors to keep things in perspective for their charges.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:07 PM on February 13, 2007


Robocop, you had me convinced it was realy right up until the end. Brilliantly done, and I sincerely hope you can get this published somewhere.

Huh. I've never thought about this before. I had one parent (Mom) that was a praiser and one (Dad) that wasn't, except in extreme circumstances. Maybe that was a good combination, b/c I've never been afraid to try new things that challenge my brain like switching careers, running a home business (that dissolved after a year), going back to grad school in mechanical engineering to get a Ph.D after 5 years working (and even though my undergrad was in materials science). I'm not saying it has made me into a world-changer, but I don't feel lazy or lost.

I grew up with a parent that was a bit of a praiser, and a parent that was the anti-praiser. I've never been afraid to try new things, as much as I've been unwilling to try new things unless I'm guaranteed a decent result -- nor have I been willing to put in unnecessary effort, which is why I never did my homework but aced all my tests in school.

Still, I'm sure there's an underlying fear there, but in my case it didn't come from my parent's praising; it simply came from my own abilities. When lots of things come easy, you don't bother with the things that don't, and so you never learn to take risks and fail. My parents may have contributed by failing to push me to take risks, certainly -- when nobody forces you (as a child) to try new things that you don't want to do, you'll simply do those things that you want to do, and those are generally the things that you can do without effort.

On the other hand, on those occasions where I've thrown myself into a new and risky endeavor, it has always borne immediate fruit. Over time, I'm learning to take risks because my track record is showing that this risk always pays off, even if I don't think it is going to. Of course, I have no idea what will happen if I try something and turn out to be lousy at it, but that hasn't happened in any significant way yet.
posted by davejay at 4:25 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


of course, typing "realy" instead of "real" is a small thing I just turned out to be lousy at. Horrors!
posted by davejay at 4:26 PM on February 13, 2007


From the first article: These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged

Ah, so they learned information . . .
. . . that they could use. Sometimes learning masses of information has a purpose too, but the student is much helped by having a purpose. Yet, often lessons seem to have no purpose. When I studied pedagogy, of course we were taught the purpose of everything, unlike lessons in high school, for which the purpose was unclear.

Afu, above, referred to false praise. That was my sense of the initial experiment, as well. Approval-seeking behaviour comes to mind. Also, careless monodimensional praise inappropriately placed makes me think of The One-Minute Manager. (Which I didn't read, but it conjures up an image.) On the other hand, telling the student they are very smart, when they are failing and being lazy, as a reminder that they can and should be doing better I find works like a charm almost all the time. Tone of voice and eye contact help, of course, a genuine connection with the student. Caring and empathy and understanding of motivation and purpose make various kinds of praise and encouragement powerful.
posted by Listener at 4:27 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't have kids yet, but I do have 5 nephews. One is very bright, govenor's school and early letters from Yale, etc... but also quite fanatical about playing HS football. Instead of overpraising him which can be a fault of mine, I asked him instead, what parts of the game are you NOT good at? He looked at me like he had never thought of it before, then went down the list. I told him to concentrate on improving those areas and his strengths would take care of themselves. He looked at me like I was his sensei or something. I didn't tell him that I had just read that this is what Michael Jordan's dad would say to him, and you know, he turned out ok. I just let him think I was smart and had thought it up on my own. Bad uncle.
posted by vronsky at 4:34 PM on February 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


This describes my life so closely it's disturbing.
posted by nightchrome at 4:37 PM on February 13, 2007


I'd say more in response to EB, but languagehat did so far more succinctly (that's why he's languagehat, I guess). Also, the jealous/envious thing was pedantic, dude (and wrong- jealous was a perfectly suitable word).

Intelligence is valuable- it isn't everything, not by a long shot, but in my experience there's a strong correlation between people who have an internal moral compass and empathy that literally forces them to ponder the rightness of their actions and impact on their world, and those who happen to be overall 'smart'. And that, I think, matters.

Also, I think there is an uncanny valley of intelligence: people who know they're smart, but unlike running a 40-yard sprint or benching 300, there's not a good metric on that. There's a lot of insecurity in knowing that society expects you to "do something" with it, but also knowing that you're probably not smart enough to really matter.
vronsky: I asked him instead, what parts of the game are you NOT good at? He looked at me like he had never thought of it before, then went down the list. I told him to concentrate on improving those areas and his strengths would take care of themselves. He looked at me like I was his sensei or something.
Yeah, I mentioned that earlier- can't find it, but there was an interesting MeFi post I believe about this: about how most anyone could become world class at something, if they only had the patience, focus, and determination- and if they made sure to spend all their practice time focusing on the stuff they weren't good at. Most people, not just the 'gifted', will simply do the things they already know because it's safe and more immediately rewarding, and avoid new challenges or ideas- it's why when I was doing tech support years ago I could find myself talking to a heart surgeon who found the Windows 95 OS to be intimidating.

At heart, then, this is what the FPP was all about: praise used in the right way can focus people productively on constantly improving, or it can make them never want to push themselves to a place they aren't already comfortable.
posted by hincandenza at 4:59 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's weird how that article doesn't describe me. I got totally inconsistent praise, most of it too-positive, skated by for a long time, and I feel like I'm doing okay now. Somewhere along the way I collided with a decent work ethic.

Strangely, when I compare myself to my sibling and peers the major difference I see is my overabundance of arrogance. That part is a little discomfiting. I generally think that I redirect it productively (e.g., at problems rather than people), but I'm pretty sure the knife cuts both ways.
posted by spiderwire at 5:19 PM on February 13, 2007


Oh, and as long as I'm here -- w/r/t what EB said above, it's been long-established that while IQ discriminates between domains (i.e., average IQs in a profession), it doesn't discriminate within domains (i.e., IQ has almost no predictive value w/r/t success within the field).

Think about chess players becoming experts -- there's a certain predilection there, but all the grand masters play from memory.
posted by spiderwire at 5:22 PM on February 13, 2007


Sorry hincandenza - missed that. Me dumb bad.
posted by vronsky at 5:25 PM on February 13, 2007


Faint of Butt

I would know I had achieved true academic success, I believed, when I received an "A" for results and a failing grade for effort./

If you define true academic success as riding on intrinsic merits, then your statement holds.

But don't you think that's a rather sorry definition of achievement?

Isn't the process of learning and growing as important, if not moreso, than abilities which you never cultivate or work for?
posted by spacediver at 5:34 PM on February 13, 2007


If you define true academic success as riding on intrinsic merits, then your statement holds. But don't you think that's a rather sorry definition of achievement?

That was exactly his/her point, I thought.

The extent to which this thread defines the MeFi demographic is kinda scary
posted by spiderwire at 5:39 PM on February 13, 2007


that's not what i got out of the post - unless s/he was being sarcastic:

If I was going to be praised, I felt, it should be on my intrinsic merits, not just because I had "worked hard," whatever that meant.
posted by spacediver at 5:41 PM on February 13, 2007


I took the point to be that the benchmark for "true academic success" was meaningless, because it reflected a "rather sorry definition of achievement." Shrug. Hair-splitting, maybe. Or I might be missing your point.
posted by spiderwire at 5:44 PM on February 13, 2007


As a gifted child with a star-spangled academic history, I just want to add my 2c...

...but, y'know, I just can't be bothered.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:21 PM on February 13, 2007


Okay slight derail here for entirely selfish reasons, but I figure that with this many people involved in the thread who have similar circumstances, it may be worthwhile.

Talking about how events in our respective childhoods shaped us is all well and good, but many of us are saying we've turned out in ways we're not altogether pleased with. So my question is this: Does anyone know of any good ways to undo this way of thinking we've conditioned ourselves into?

In particular, what do we do about the fear of being an impostor, the fear of failing, the overwhelming desire to please, the reticence toward risk, and the "laziness" which is not really laziness? I coasted through school and into adult life and I've been coasting every since, by near-complete avoidance of any and all risk.

I personally developed an abject fear of failure which completely stops me from displaying and/or using any skill or knowledge I happen to have if there is a chance I might get something wrong or make a mistake. As a concrete example, I've learned foreign languages to considerably high levels and yet am incapable of speaking them for fear of not doing so perfectly. How does one fix things like that?

Okay, yeah, this sounds entirely whiny and pathetic on preview, but I'll hit post anyway.
posted by nightchrome at 6:34 PM on February 13, 2007 [10 favorites]


you know, I was going to write a comment on this thread all day, and finally I just gave up because nobody would understand it anyways.

As a kid, I experienced the encouragement from being gifted, and I also suffered as the articles describe, and yes, I have worked hard to overcome this history, especially in the last 3 or 4 years, to broaden myself, learn things I never even attempted as a kid. I wouldn't say I've learned how to accept failure, but rather learned to deal with it in ways other than paralyzing fear, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. Nowadays, if I haven't failed in a while, I start to think that I'm not pushing myself hard or far enough.

I don't know if anyone else ever felt this way, however I seriously suspected, during a large portion of my life, that I was mentally retarded and nobody ever told me, even though everybody around me knew. Looking back I think that was borderline pathological. But it came from people telling me I was intelligent, without me ever believing it or seeing how it was so, since I was quite obviously good at some things and horrendously bad at others. And what was intelligence? If I truly was intelligent, shouldn't I be good at everything? I had no ability to judge my own intelligence, nor does anyone else I think. Also since talking with a lot of people who were not labeled "intelligent", I could see that they were also intelligent, and I could never quite figure that out. So it appears that my thoughts were in fact quite natural given these inputs. Now, far from answering this question, I have learned to not care and take things as they come, intelligence matters but it's not something I can affect so lets forget about it. I also am not self conscious about my penis size either! I know that's hard to believe.

But I experienced the other side as well, not being terribly gifted at athletics. Even though I wanted to succeed or at least play along with everybody else, I was typically not passed to, picked for teams, etc etc. What is notable is that I don't ever remember having a problem with this when kids my own age were in charge, like lunch hour football games or after school basketball games, or whatever, because I knew I wasn't the greatest player. Among my peers, there seemed to be an inherent fairness and I was aware of my place, and also I felt empowered to change in that environment. People who were good got the passes, it was simple. I remember playing (american) football and just hoping for a pass. I was not particularly good at catching, but I could find my niche by struggling to get open and if things got bad for the quarterback, he could look to me as a last chance. And this would happen, not often, but regularly enough to keep me interested. And I knew if I could improve my catching or positioning I would receive more passes.

But the worst was on the community sports teams I was a part of, where it was the coaches intervening and preventing me from even trying things. I couldn't try a position I wanted to, I couldn't use the bat I wanted to, or hit the way I wanted to, etc. These were not extremely competitive teams, but the coaches always seemed to interfere and impose arbitrary rules, presumably for your own good and more importantly for the good of the team. Admonition from an authority figure results in believing the message they are telling you, because you think they know what they are doing, but in fact they don't really have any clue, nor do any of us really. When they wouldn't let me play 3rd base, I felt like I would never play third base, the decision had already been made, even though that's what I really wanted. And for other kids in the academic areas, perhaps they weren't allowed to do what they were interested in, or do things in ways that interested them because it was "wrong", and so lost interest and never escaped the label of average achiever.

I think that is the main point, teaching and coaching kids is about one thing, learning and in fact mainly learning social skills. The pressure to classify and sort out people might be the modus operandi of our societies, but we have such extended periods of childhood now, and the world is so diverse in occupations and activities, to begin so young when there is no real necessity seems barbaric. The reality is now as a 27 year old I can probably play your average sport as well as anybody else from my youth, just as they probably could do whatever math or logic work I might do at this age, but were tricked by the system into thinking they belonged in a specific place and didn't belong somewhere else.

Given the number of well-written responses in this thread, it's safe to say the authors have hit a nerve, and there is no doubt some element of truth to what is written there, even if their scientific methods are questionable. I don't think it's science, but more like evolution of common-sense ideas. Hopefully in 50 years people will look back and wonder how we could have seriously treated our kids in such ignorant and destructive ways. I say, bring on the science, even if it is a bit half-baked. Anything that forces people (parents, teachers, and choaches especially) to think about these things is a benefit. Just don't take any psychological theory as the gospel-truth and your kids will probably be fine.

This thread reeks of best-of-metafilter, fantastic! and robocop-blood-person, absolutely brilliant I love it (and I'm not british so I very rarely use that word). thanks revgeorge!
posted by ryanfou at 6:52 PM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


I've learned foreign languages to considerably high levels and yet am incapable of speaking them for fear of not doing so perfectly. How does one fix things like that?

I had at least one (Russian) professor who believed that the best way to deal with the confidence/perfectionism thing with foreign languages was to get a little drunk sometimes.

Otherwise? Arrogance helps. Not caring if you look foolish or silly or dumb....It's basically a an issue of self-confidence, isn't it? Making yourself try anyway is probably the only possibility. Maybe failing (or letting yourself fail) spectacularly on a couple of unimportant things to find out it's not really so horrible.
posted by dilettante at 7:03 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


dilettante: Your professor was right, because one of the only times I can speak without my brain freezing up is when I'm sufficiently loaded. Unfortunately I don't really consider that to be a reasonable solution to the problem.

Your comment about failure is interesting. I read something once, I forget where exactly, which recommended intentional failure as a learning exercise. You basically choose some activities at which you are guaranteed to fail, and force yourself to do them. Such as going into McDonalds and trying to order a steak. The basic premise was to build up over time a familiarity and/or immunity to the feelings that arise from failure. I thought it was an interesting idea at the time, but didn't try it. Perhaps I should.
posted by nightchrome at 7:13 PM on February 13, 2007


show of hands for me:

I think between my sister (who is two years younger than I am) and myself, (anecdotally) the results are a wash.

We were both placed into a gifted students program in elementary school- I underachieved and felt out of place and unmoored from the start, she went in the opposite direction and excelled to the point that she was offered a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter her sophomore year in high school. The "not wanting to try" and "feeling like a complete fraud" rings a bell with me. But how much of that could be chalked up to my not wanting to compete in a losing battle with her obviously higher IQ, and how much was not simply not wanting to fail to meet expectations of people other than my parents, is difficult to discern.

She has gone on to have a sterling academic and professional life, I have gone on to scrape by (barely) in creative fields. I am certain that most people would view my professional and intellectual path in life as a huge failure, and on my bleak days I do as well.

For some of the kids in these programs though, the kinds of disciplines they are intellectually drawn to aren't necessarily the ones that are ever going to lead them down a respectable and comfortable career path. Who's to say that it isn't a narrow definition of what building a successful lifestyle is, and what kinds of heavy responsibilities (math! science! physics! a nobel prize!) come implied with a high IQ.

Maybe it's not the fear of always having to meet precise expectations that is the problem, but the discord between one's own personal passions and expectations from oneself, and the rest of the world's definition of what a "smart" person should set out to contribute to the world at large.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:41 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Without having read the thread, I'll hazard a guess and say "what everybody else said", probably more or less.

A quick skim suggests a lot of talk of fear of failure etc, but I think there is another aspect at work, which is a bit different to being a "gifted doer".

People for whom high academic results have always come with an absolute minimum of effort also probably never really learned the habit of planning, putting in the required effort, and plodding away for success. Indeed, I always used to sneer at such 'plodders' (cue Rik voice): "you're such a girly swat & I studied bugger all..."

Being unaccustomed to having to actually struggle for anything tends to make us lazy in the adult world, always expecting everything for nothing. The plodders, OTOH, have exactly what it takes - a confirmed ability to grind away until a relative level of unspectacular success is reached.

/arrogant patronising
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:11 PM on February 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


For some of the kids in these programs though, the kinds of disciplines they are intellectually drawn to aren't necessarily the ones that are ever going to lead them down a respectable and comfortable career path.

FWIW, I haven't noticed any stellar achievements from any of my classmates from my "let's all speak in palindromes!" special primary school program.

The fact that I can't remember most of their names might be a factor, but I remember scanning the high school honours lists & finding, to my surprise, only one or two out of thirty in there...
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:14 PM on February 13, 2007


"I don't understand this. EB, you can't possibly think that intelligence 'ain't worth jackshit.'"

It's valuable to me. And on an absolute scale along with all other human characteristics, it's more valuable than not.

But I'm using hyperbole to make the point that it's not even remotely as valuable as it's thought to be because it's thought to be more valuable than almost all other human characteristics.

Note that Aristotle said that reason is what makes us human, not being a smartypants.

I have the sense that you and others are denying my assertion because you're like fish who cannot see the water they swim in. Being perceived as "smart" has profound and pervasive social consequences in our society. If it weren't highly valued, it wouldn't have such consequences.

And, again, yes, I value intelligence. That's because I'm very intelligent. Being an intellectual is my life mode. I communicate better with similar people and such people are more likely (but not necessarily) to share many of my values. But this sort of thing is true for other people with regard to many other characteristics, such as religious faith, or an active and athletic lifestyle, or extroversion, or wealth. The difference is that we don't commonly and unconsciously think of people who have an abundance of one of these other traits as somehow better and more valuable people. With "smartness", we do. And we shouldn't.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:57 PM on February 13, 2007


robocop is bleeding: great story, really well written! i make yet another mental note to put your entire back-catalogue onto my to-read list.

btw, have you read *the dice man*? woefully awful writing, but the basic premise is similar. i assumed that the 10-sided die in your story was a nod to that novel...?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:37 PM on February 13, 2007


"Also, the jealous/envious thing was pedantic, dude (and wrong- jealous was a perfectly suitable word)."

The two words have usefully very distinct meanings. That they have become synonymous in common language is a regrettable loss of utility. I'm pedantic about it because I'd like more people to be aware of the "correct" usage of jealousy because it's a useful distinction. Did you intend to make the argument that those of us taking this position on the value of intelligence are doing so out of a fear of the loss of intelligence (or a denial of it, which might be the same thing)? In that case, we'd be actively encouraging the realization of our fears. That would be an interesting argument, but I don't think it's the one you were making.

I keep making a comparison to athletic ability because I truly believe that with regard to major (vaguely defined) human characteristics, the relative value of intelligence is closer to that of athleticism than it is to a few which actually make large differences in quality of life and achievement. Things like self-discipline and an ethic of hard work. And of course there's so many things like childhood socioeconomic status, adequate nutrition, and all that which are so much more determinative.

We are aware of, talk about, and value perceived (and supposedly quantified and measured) general intelligence so greatly that a proportionate relationship to quality of life and achievement (of any sort) should be very direct and profound. But it isn't. Having an IQ of 130 is only slightly, if at all, predictive of quality of life and achievement when compared to an IQ of 100. In contrast, an IQ of 100 as compared to an IQ of 70 is quite predictive. Both are thirty points difference, but the relative value of being average as opposed to a moron is much greater than the relative value of being a near-genius as opposed to being average. I'm less inclined to argue that 160 is a similarly important jump, but it might be. My sense is that being "bright" and being a "commonplace genius" are almost completely unpredictive and only mildly predictive, respectively. Rare genius probably is about as valuable as we mistakenly think that being "smart" is valuable. But then, it's rare.

My argument is that this lower range of common above-average intelligence is vastly overvalued in our culture and because of this there's all sorts of social and personal pathologies that result. The pathologies arise because there's evidence all around us that it isn't very valuable at all. The "gifted" keep being told they're rich, they think themselves rich, and yet reality keeps demonstrating that they're paupers.

I've been around dumb people, average people, smart people and really smart people. And, for fuck's sake, I've spent a good portion of my life immersed in moral philosophy as explored by earnest and intelligent people. My observation is that intellectual ability is almost not predictive whatsoever of moral development while, in contrast, simply having the desire to be and do good, along with a large capacity for self-criticism, are highly predictive of substantial moral development. Whoever convinced you that being smart is a key to moral development was conning you. That person is probably yourself. This notion that intelligence—especially in the context of those who are "smart" as opposed to the average unwashed—is what enables a mature ethics and morality is itself morally repugnant. It's also proven false, over and over and over, by history.

To mention Aristotle a second time, it might be worthwhile for you to read Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle valued the contemplative life above all, yet a core principle of his moral philosophy is that action and habituation are the core of being a good person and that both rightly precede analysis and comprehension. Prior to reading this book, like yourself I highly valued the ability and practice of rational inquiry into morality, both general and specific, and believed that such analysis and insight were necessary first steps to moral development and right living. Like you, I probably thought that being intellectually gifted gave one a leg-up in this process. After reading the book, and a great deal of relentless and unforgiving self-criticism, I realized that more often than not (and certainly in my case) the extreme emphasis on the process of intellectual analysis of morality is a strategy of the weak-willed for avoiding actual right living while cultivating a false sense of virtue. It's smug, among other things, and it's a trap for everyone who finds it easier to talk about doing the right thing than actually doing the right thing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:56 PM on February 13, 2007


I have always been a little slow and the big words in this thread scare me.
posted by Poagao at 11:57 PM on February 13, 2007


Ah....so this is why i mysteriously stop doing things once i get a compliment......
posted by sgt.serenity at 12:50 AM on February 14, 2007


Hi, from a realy impossibly stupid 'smart' person. No, I didn't get the praise, nor did I often deserve it. For me, always, it was "you can do better!", or "You're not trying hard enough!".

If I may quote Tim Allen: "Ugh?"

They told me I was smart. Not impossibly so, not incredibly so. Didn't matter, I still couldn't spell. I still couldn't deal with repetitive exercises in math. And it didn't impart some magical ability to pay attention in class.

In juniorhigh, they decided I belonged in a gifted math class. Pity they had no gifted teachers. Just the same old burned-out husks. How boring can math be? Try my 'gifted' class to find out!

It didn't help that, internally, I had the visceral belief that I could do anything. Given that wide view of choice, I chose nothing. It could wait. Truth was, nearly everything interested me, so long as it wasn't mechanical.

Latter, when I was about 20, I took a general apptitude test. What do you know? I can do anything. Mechanics are just my worst, being only 1 standard deviation above 'normal'. No wonder I hate it. (some years latter, I discovered I was good at it, and didn't mind some stuff)

Yea, I was abused and neglected as a child. As an adolescent, I abused and neglected my family and myself both. I showed them...or not.

Effort? LOL! The one Big Lesson I learned from my dear parents: Work is life, and it sucks. Work is punishment. Oh really? Could that possibly be why I've never held a job long? Or why I am happiest when unemployed (and I'm very good at it).

Am I bitter? Why, whatever gave you that idea? I haven't said anything to indicate the source of bitterness, yet. Maybe it's because, in my 20's, I discovered it in myself that I could grasp stuff and run with it, with amazingly little effort. Running fast, but, for whatever reason, I could never see where to go. (my brain did something strange, then. From my view, it was like I'd been half asleep all my life. It was honestly frightening)

I'll be 50 this year. It's been an amazing journey getting where I am. But I've never accomplished anything special (not counting the other people I've managed to inspire and aid, something I enjoy and am fairly good at).

Part of my issue is simply that, once I figure out how to do something, I'm no longer interested in doing it. Today, the things that grab my interest the best are things which I have every reason to believe I am simply too old to undertake. The only reason I'm alive is because I'd hate to leave my partner alone.
posted by Goofyy at 4:10 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks to all for the feedback. The story is mostly false - my sister's name is not Shelly, she is not in an institution, nor did she get accepted to Princeton. The Wheel, however, did exist briefly for a summer, created by my physicist father and later removed by my non-dead mother. My sister, the real one, did have horrible luck and I really was a lucky sumbitch, which is what led to The Wheel's removal. There was no option D that turned victory to sorrow and neferious deeds to filthy lucre.

I have in recent months attempted to resuscitate The Wheel as a tool for training the pet rabbits. This has met with mixed results as rabbits, as a species, are not bright enough to associate punishment or reward with their behavior. Beef Wellington, the youngest, does enjoy going for a spin though. My wife has already vetoed any application for The Wheel on our own future children. Given the steely look in her eye whenever I mention it, I'm pretty sure the idea will always be a non-starter.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:24 AM on February 14, 2007 [17 favorites]


People for whom high academic results have always come with an absolute minimum of effort also probably never really learned the habit of planning, putting in the required effort, and plodding away for success.

UbuRoivas, as arrogant as that may sound, I can empathize. When I was in elementary school I was praised as a good student and stuck in the gifted and talented program. I don't think I was out of place -- I can hardly remember studying for any tests more than a day or two before the exam, if I ever studied at all. Advanced placement social studies class? I skimmed over all the chapters in the unit the night before the test.

What tripped me up, and had me convinced I was a failure (natural ability versus studying) were my math classes and orchestra. You see, I had (and to an extent, still don't have) any idea of how to practice things and felt that I should be able to be shown something and just... do it. It's completely illogical, but I think that's really how I felt. I'd rather fizzle out and fail by not competing (I quit violin lessons, and I just stopped doing my math homework) than try and not quite make it.

I don't think my parents were really responsible for that pressure. In fact, I really wish I had been pressured -- to work harder, to branch out, to fail and learn.
posted by mikeh at 7:13 AM on February 14, 2007 [6 favorites]


mikeh: I agree totally. To this day I have a strange fundamental belief that there are things I can just do and things I just can't and that no amount of effort can change that. The idea of learning how to do something seems kind of alien.
Logically I know it's ridiculous, but that doesn't make it go away.
posted by nightchrome at 7:22 AM on February 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ethereal Bligh: I communicate better with similar people and such people are more likely (but not necessarily) to share many of my values. But this sort of thing is true for other people with regard to many other characteristics, such as religious faith, or an active and athletic lifestyle, or extroversion, or wealth. The difference is that we don't commonly and unconsciously think of people who have an abundance of one of these other traits as somehow better and more valuable people. With "smartness", we do. And we shouldn't.
You've certainly made your case there- people who are wealthier, or have a particular regligious faith, or who are fitter and prettier... they never qualify themselves as more valuable than other people. Pish tosh!
Ethereal Bligh: I have the sense that you and others are denying my assertion because you're like fish who cannot see the water they swim in. Being perceived as "smart" has profound and pervasive social consequences in our society. If it weren't highly valued, it wouldn't have such consequences.
Well that's certainly... arrogant. You're kind of making a fool of yourself now, because you're seeming more and more like Langan- reasonably smart, but putting on airs and boasting of your intellectual superiority as a mechanism for making yourself seem smarter. And contrary to everything else you've typed, that seems to smack of a desperate need to sound and appear smarter than you fear you really are.
Ethereal Bligh: The two words [jealous and envious] have usefully very distinct meanings. That they have become synonymous in common language is a regrettable loss of utility. I'm pedantic about it because I'd like more people to be aware of the "correct" usage of jealousy because it's a useful distinction.
I keep checking reference materials, and fail to see the useful distinction- and yes, you're being pedantic (overly concerned with unimportant details), and no, that's not desirable. The fact is the term jealous has a common usage that's similar to envious, and you knew perfectly well what I mean, so throwing a little hissy fit about a term I used that makes perfect sense to everyone who reads it including yourself is rather silly. Language is a tool for communication, you understood what I meant to say-, so I guess I did everything that I needed to do.
Ethereal Bligh: Whoever convinced you that being smart is a key to moral development was conning you.
Jesus. Yes, I'm just some intellectual lightweight who was spoonfed notions like that. That, along with your other psuedo-intellectual blather, is ludicrous. You're just being an insufferable, pompous jackass at this point- and you're a maze of contradictions, my self-important friend. You prattle on and on about Aristotle and Nichomachean ethics, about your great voyage of self-discovery and how you're clearly operating at a level we mere fishies can't understand, yet you do so while trying to make the point that intelligence doesn't matter. You're acting in a way that's heavily reinforcing your own intellectual wankery, your own obsession with the life of the mind. Far from proving some kind of spiritual placidity or enlightment, you're simply buttressing everything you claim to be against. Sweet christ on a pogo stick- you're an even bigger mess than I am! :) Thanks for making me feel normal and well-adjusted for a change...
posted by hincandenza at 10:19 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


"You've certainly made your case there- people who are wealthier, or have a particular regligious faith, or who are fitter and prettier... they never qualify themselves as more valuable than other people. Pish tosh!"

They think themselves better for these characteristics—but a majority of other people do not. In the case of intelligence in our society, the majority of others do. So, yeah, I did make my case.

"Well that's certainly... arrogant. You're kind of making a fool of yourself now, because you're seeming more and more like Langan- reasonably smart, but putting on airs and boasting of your intellectual superiority as a mechanism for making yourself seem smarter. And contrary to everything else you've typed, that seems to smack of a desperate need to sound and appear smarter than you fear you really are."

Really? You ought to re-examine the evidence for your accusation of "boasting". The fact is, I've not boasted. That you are so quick to react as if I have validates my argument that intelligence is so highly over-valued in our culture that any individual self-assessment of being intelligent is inherently suspected of being a "boast". My own intellectual ability is, in my own eyes, something like being able to perform in a very particular and somewhat arcane track & field event at a NCAA record-setting level. Notable, yes. Relevant to my value as a person? Almost not at all.

This really is a prime example of what I'm describing in my argument. The claims against me you're making here are only comprehensible when one includes an awareness that intelligence is so highly valued in our culture, and so deeply involved in how we tend to think one person is "better" than another, that me simply saying that I'm unusually adept at any particular intellectual activity, or a claim that I, too, am one of the supposedly "smart" ones, is for many people and certainly yourself, necessarily some sort of "boast" that suggests the possibility of an underlying psychological pathology involving a deeper fear that I'm not, in truth, adept at that particular activity or that, in truth, I'm not one of the "smart" ones. But I'm no more insecure about either of those things than is a carpenter who states that he's one of the very best at making a certain kind of cabinet and that he's, um, a carpenter. He knows he is from experience. Why would anyone else feel challenged by such a claim? Why would it be perceived as "boasting"? Only if, for other people, such an ability was thought to be so important that it is tantamount to a claim of inherent superiority as a person. If you take it that way, then obviously you think intelligence is a very, very important thing. And thus, if you were to make a similar claim, it'd either be true and unseemly boasting, or false and posturing from insecurity. But if it's not that important to me, then it's not necessarily either of those things.

The fundamental stumbling block in our ability to productively have this argument is that you are unable to follow the argument without the inclusion of your tautological hypothetical. You appear to be incapable of considering the possibility that, no, intelligence isn't that valuable. You keep inserting the postulate that it does matter into my arguments and then calling my arguments self-contradictory. You're not demonstrating a facility with rigorous reasoning.

You say what I wrote sounds "arrogant". You then go on to make a claim about my arrogance that has nothing at all to do with what I wrote in what you quoted—but let's assume you intended that accusation in response to what you quoted. In that case, yes, my assertion is arrogant. It may nevertheless still be correct. And, anyway, it's not really all that arrogant. To say that you can't see how highly our culture values intelligence because this over-valuation is so pervasive it's like a fish noticing water...well, the arrogance might be that I can see what others cannot? But so what? Others see a great many things I cannot.

As for the jealous/envy thing: I lean towards the descriptivism side of things. But I've said before in this context that I will defend prescriptive normalization from descriptive normalization of usages where the prescriptive usage has notably greater utility. This is one case. Secondly, of course my pedantry was motivated by taking you down a peg because you were defending the virtues of intelligence from the heathens who denigrate it. In that context, I rather think you ought to avoid the sort of usage errors that those unintelligent heathens often commit.

"Jesus. Yes, I'm just some intellectual lightweight who was spoonfed notions like that."

Maybe you're not an intellectual lightweight and maybe you weren't spoonfed that notion. That doesn't mean it's less wrong or that it's less likely to be a sort of con. What's your point?

"That, along with your other psuedo-intellectual blather, is ludicrous."

You're using the term "pseudo-intellectual" and attackeding me with it? How unwittingly embarrassing for you.

"You prattle on and on about Aristotle and Nichomachean ethics, about your great voyage of self-discovery and how you're clearly operating at a level we mere fishies can't understand, yet you do so while trying to make the point that intelligence doesn't matter."

There's a boatload of unwarranted inference in your accusation. For example, I didn't imply that my recognition of the overvalue of intelligence in our culture makes me superior or that, in general, I'm "operating at a level [you] fishes can't understand". I understand something you don't. You understand, no doubt, a great many things I don't. That I'm right and you're wrong about this somehow means that I'm some intellectually superior person? Where do you get that? I'll tell you where: from this overvalue of intelligence. It's as if this arena of human affairs is the only one that really matters. My claim to a greater understanding in this area is a real affront to you because, for you, such a claim implicitly is an assertion of my greater value as a person. Which isn't truly the case, nor how I see myself, nor is it implicit in my argument.

"You're acting in a way that's heavily reinforcing your own intellectual wankery, your own obsession with the life of the mind. Far from proving some kind of spiritual placidity or enlightment, you're simply buttressing everything you claim to be against."

I am obsessed with the life of the mind. But there's no self-contradiction in what I've written. The contradiction only exists when you add to my argument your hypothesis that intellectual awareness and analysis is the only, or at least best, path to moral growth. I don't think this and the fact that intellectualism has played a large role in my own particular path to moral growth in no way "proves" that this is so for everyone. Of course it's important to me. Just as I responded to languagehat, I highly value intelligence but that doesn't mean that I believe that highly valuing intelligence should be normative. On the other hand, you and others here seem to think that your own particular talents should be normative for everyone else. That's where the real arrogance here is found.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:25 AM on February 14, 2007


They think themselves better for these characteristics—but a majority of other people do not. In the case of intelligence in our society, the majority of others do. So, yeah, I did make my case.

EB, I'm continually fascinated by how somebody as smart as you can paint himself into such ridiculous corners. You seem to be claiming—stop me if I'm wrong—that smart people are more highly regarded by American society at large than "people who are wealthier, or have a particular religious faith, or who are fitter and prettier." That's so absurdly counterfactual you've obviously been stewing in your own reasonings rather than actually confronting American society for a long time now. It's so absurd I don't even know where to begin trying to disabuse you of it. Open any magazine and look at the ads; open any People-style periodical or look at any Entertainment Tonight–style TV show. Who do you see featured there? Stephen Hawking, perhaps? Ronald K. Hoeflin? I don't think so. You see people who are fit, pretty, and/or rich as Croesus. The religious-faith thing is a criterion of a different color, but I'm quite sure that church-going Christians are culturally favored over high-IQ types by a wide margin. This is not even debatable; it's as if you were claiming the horse was culturally favored over the car as a means of transportation. I can only guess that you're so embittered by the fact that intelligence (your most outstanding quality, as you perhaps see it) is completely devalued in your country that you unconsciously invert the facts. Armchair psychoanalyzing? Sure, and probably complete bullshit. But I can't help trying to account for the bizarre claim you're making.

Me, I have no problem accepting all these facts at once: 1) I'm smart; 2) that doesn't make me particularly marketable, powerful, or admired by society at large; 3) it does, however, provide me with endless entertainment and keep me happy pretty consistently, since my happiness does not depend on interaction with the society around me. And I certainly do not think my own particular talents should be normative for everyone else (which would make for a dull world indeed, and one incapable of feeding itself), nor do I think anyone else here is making that claim. You're foisting invented arrogance on us all, for reasons unclear. But whatever makes you happy!

Oh, and hincandenza is right about jealous and envious. But you knew I'd say that.
posted by languagehat at 1:42 PM on February 14, 2007 [6 favorites]


Humblefilter:

I value intelligence. That's because I'm very intelligent.

You're using the term "pseudo-intellectual" and attackeding me with it? How unwittingly embarrassing for you.
posted by pwedza at 2:07 PM on February 14, 2007


EtherealBligh: Your point about societies overvaluing intelligence is a good one, however intelligence is an important survival trait, so its so-called over-valuation is at least understandable.

Let us make no mistake, you are exhibiting arrogance, whether we understand you or not, and whether you are being arrogant, or simply self-centered and insensitive. You are assuming a definition of intelligence as you apply it to yourself and then assigning fault to society for overvaluing something they don't understand (but that you actually do because of your intelligence)? It is appropriating a general term and claiming its exclusivity. Whether it's true or not, it comes across as arrogant.

But what do I know, I hang around with apple-bobbers and not intelligentsia.
posted by ryanfou at 2:37 PM on February 14, 2007


EB, there are many other reasons to normatively value intelligence that have nothing to do with hubris or arrogance your own personal history with same. You live in the US, so you must know that there are plenty of dogooders who try to be and do good every moment of their lives, who think themselves just as self-critical and aware as you do, but who bone things up for the rest of us rather spectacularly. Your chosen moral compass is as flawed an instrument as blind faith in intelligence.

You can't deny that the greatest social utility comes from goodness informed by intelligence. From Jane Goodall, not the sentimentalists who want to save animals as long as they're cute. From Margaret Sanger, not the dimly upright who want to prevent girls from understanding their own reproductive systems. Smart people doing good have always been the world's engine for social change.

Smugness is obviously something you struggle against, which is all well and good, but it seems you've given yourself weird permission to aim it at other smart people who you think are somehow all like you. Whereas I've known far more people who've looked in vain for support for their intellectual gifts from the dim and fearful people surrounding them than I have spoiled underachievers. For all your self-scouring, you don't seem to understand that your experience as a smart person is also not normative.

(On preview: languagehat, you brainy darling, stop saying what I want to say, only better. Or on second thought: please don't.)
posted by melissa may at 2:38 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems like there's a meta-phenomenon now:
People who read the article and attribute their current laziness to the fact that they were smart way back when.

(Possible implication: "and so there's nothing I can do about it now.")

Certainly this article is good for raising kids, though I wonder how many adults will use it as justification for sloth.

It's kind of like Notes From the Underground, take 2007: instead of being rendered inactive due to being "smart", we're now rendered into inactivity by thinking that used to be smart.
posted by ajshankar at 3:35 PM on February 14, 2007


mikeh & nightchrome: my experience, exactly, except in my case the things i just didn't 'get' (more or less instantly, without effort) were art (drawing / painting) & music. not that i didn't formally study maybe half a dozen different instruments & reach an intermediate kinda level in some of them. it's just that the lack of instant virtuosity & requirement to actually practice made it seem not worth it, on a cost-effort basis. art remains a lost cause still, due to that learned-from-childhood expectation that i should be able to excel at something straight away, courtesy of some kinda innate whatever.

maths tripped me up for a while as well, when we hit differential calculus & there were things you actually had to put some slight effort in to memorise, rather than just see once & intuitively understand. what a shock to the system - to be dropped into the second class, instead of hovering somewhere near top of the top class without particularly even trying. turned out to be a long-needed kick in the ass, and highest-level maths ended up as my best subject in the final high-school exams.

(however, having 'done' the hard, sciency stuff (maths, physics, chemistry, engineering science etc) it was time to switch to soft humanities at uni: sociology, philosophy & law. later, masters in a technical field. this is another side to things - having enough of a look into something to feel that it is understood, and could be mastered if necessary, but then feeling the need to move on to some totally different area. wonder if anybody else suffers from this...?)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:37 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems like there's a meta-phenomenon now:
People who read the article and attribute their current laziness to the fact that they were smart way back when.


cannot speak for others, but what the article describes is something i have been personally mulling over for years, now. the response to the article suggests that my experience is far from unique. just sayin'.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:41 PM on February 14, 2007


My parents always told me that I was smart, and that as a result, everything I did was a disappointment. They expected me to do better. But they ALWAYS expected me to do better, no matter how well I'd done. So I learned that even though I was theoretically smart, that I would never ever ever be able to please or impress my parents, and that nothing I'd ever do would ever be good enough.

It was a bad strategy for them to take.

When I was about 25, my Dad actually apologised for how misguided it was. He said that they thought that if they told me I'd done something well, that I'd never try to do better than that. So they decided to never praise me. It was an actual concious parenting decision.

I'm continually flabbergasted over that.
posted by Kololo at 4:02 PM on February 14, 2007


I don't know, I thought EB's arguments made hincandenza look kind of foolish. The others who are quick to point to EB's supposed arrogance are simply demonstrating his point. They wouldn't complain about his arrogance if they didn't value the thing he's supposedly arrogant about. If he claimed to be especially good at, say, color perception, no one would bat an eye because no one cares about one's facility with that sort of thing. But because he's talking about intelligence, the situation is different. Now, his point's validity might not extend to society at large, but it seems pretty obviously true of a certain subculture, of which MeFi is a part.

Smart people doing good have always been the world's engine for social change.

And smart people doing evil have always been the world's engine for atrocities. See, for example, al-Zawahiri. See? This statement is way too easy to assert. Aristotle was mentioned awhile back. You want to see a smart guy who's a not-so-great human being? And he's far more influential throughout history than practically anyone, with the exception of Jesus Christ. Moreover, Jesus Christ, while a good person, doesn't strike me as an especially intelligent person. I'm not at all convinced that intelligence is an important thing here.
posted by smorange at 4:50 PM on February 14, 2007


People who read the article and attribute their current laziness to the fact that they were smart way back when.

I think the article addresses this, albeit obliquely. It's a known fact that not exercising your brain has a negative effect on cognition. It's not as simple as "your brain is a muscle," but it's close enough. If the article is correct, smart people tend to skate by, and this makes them less mentally adept. Their capability drops to line up with their motivation/activity.

There's a difference between potential intelligence and available intelligence. I have plenty of brilliant friends who are stuck around in our hometown doing nothing -- and the fact that they're smart doesn't help them, because they're simply not intellectually nimble anymore, and they've to some extent lost the ability to turn it on and off. The cause and effect here are intertwined.
posted by spiderwire at 5:37 PM on February 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


The others who are quick to point to EB's supposed arrogance are simply demonstrating his point.

I don't think many people are "pointing to EB's supposed arrogance." I'm certainly not. I think most of the respondents simply think he's wrong.

They wouldn't complain about his arrogance if they didn't value the thing he's supposedly arrogant about.

Yes, people who comment on MeFi tend to value intelligence. You're surely not claiming they are a representative sample of the American public.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 PM on February 14, 2007


why American?
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:11 PM on February 14, 2007


Yes, people who comment on MeFi tend to value intelligence. You're surely not claiming they are a representative sample of the American public.

Nope. But I've heard way too many people talk about intelligence as if it's the greatest thing to have to think that EB's argument is ridiculous on its face.
posted by smorange at 6:29 PM on February 14, 2007


It's as if a whole bunch of you never stopped secretly reading Ayn Rand. Self-regarded Atlases, the lot of you.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:24 AM on February 15, 2007


I apologize for the previous comment. There's a lot of personal nastiness in this argument and I've contributed my share. People well-represented in the MeFi demographic have a lot of baggage about this, and that includes me. However, in my case, I settled most of this stuff long ago and it doesn't really much matter to me one way or another. If the armchair psychologizing in this thread about me were true, then I'd have been banging my drum about this for a long time. But I don't have a drum to bang about this and a visit to my comment history won't find other comments by me like those in this thread.

The biggest mistake I've made, I think, in this argument is to have repeatedly asserted that "intelligence is over-valued in our culture" instead of the more precise and less misleading "above-average (but not true genius level) intelligence is over-valued in our culture". I should have been more generous and repeatedly conceded that my claim is very counter-intuitive for most people.

But, you know, this is why I took my MeFi vacation and am not very much enjoying having returned. In order to actually have a productive argument here, one must really bend over backwards to defuse potential conflicts before they start. And there's no real defense against the armchair psychoanalysis—it's one of the smartpants's favorite varieties of the ad hominem argument. "Oh, you could only be taking such a ridiculous position because you're mentally ill". Yes, I've indulged myself in this in this thread. I didn't start it, but that's no excuse. And that's another thing I hate about it here (and elsewhere): how hard it is to resist throwing muck around when everyone else is doing it.

Those of you who are intent on psychoanalyzing me won't believe it, but the simple truth is that these days I'm quite at peace with my own intellectual talent and what that means in my life in the larger sense. I really do see it as just an isolated talent on par with a great many other talents that tell little, if nothing, about my character or virtue or value to society. It is just what it is. No more, no less. I'm proud of it because it's something to be proud of...within reason. And I simply don't think it's that terribly important when compared to a bunch of other characteristics of myself and others.

And maybe I'm wrong about my claim in the context of our culture as a whole. Maybe where it's really true is in that (still very large) portion of our culture that MeFi represents. The literate, high-school graduate, some college, white-collar swath. In that group there's a whole bunch of "above average" people with regard to intelligence, and within that group being "above-average in intelligence" is very poorly predictive of quality of life or achievement. But all those "above average" people almost obsess over this trait. Within that group, too, is where you find all these parents and relatives and teachers raving about how big of a deal it is and centering kids' whole lives on it.

Finally, in the realm of the broader claim I have seemed to be making about intelligence in toto—that it's over-valued—I do think there's at least some truth to this. I can say with certainty that I think that it's vastly overvalued by those who consider themselves intelligent. I've spent much of my life around highly intelligent people and I've spent much of my life reading the words of highly intelligent people as they struggle to understand the universe and themselves. And my observation after all these years is that intelligence just isn't as important as most intelligent people think it is. By that what I mean to say is that, of course, a minimal amount of intelligence is quite important. That was the point of my comment about Aristotle saying that Man is the Rational Animal. I think we are, I think it's our most important characteristic (though moral capacity may be its equal). But, basically, I think that pretty much every person has this capacity to sufficiency and the gradations we make above that, with the possible exception of the true and rare genius, are gradations infinitesimally close together on the scale of "how much it really matters in the end". If those IQ numbers mean anything—or, rather, let's just suppose they mean something so I can use the supposed quantification as an example in my argument—then the distinctions we make and the importance we attach to someone having an IQ of 120 as opposed to 100 are, in my opinion, laughable. That difference really doesn't matter at all in the long run. And yet this is the difference we find between a kid in the regular class and a kid in the "gifted" class. And just look at this thread for just how much that difference matters to all those people involved.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:37 AM on February 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've heard way too many people talk about intelligence as if it's the greatest thing

And your social circle is representative of the greater public, I'm sure. If I judged by mine, I'd be agreeing with you.

I apologize for the previous comment.

Jeez, and here I was thinking "Hey, a nice, funny comeback from EB -- well done!" And then you go getting all repentant and serious.

But seriously, I have no quarrel at all with your latest formulation; this in particular is exactly what I'm saying:
Maybe where it's really true is in that (still very large) portion of our culture that MeFi represents. The literate, high-school graduate, some college, white-collar swath. In that group there's a whole bunch of "above average" people with regard to intelligence, and within that group being "above-average in intelligence" is very poorly predictive of quality of life or achievement. But all those "above average" people almost obsess over this trait. Within that group, too, is where you find all these parents and relatives and teachers raving about how big of a deal it is and centering kids' whole lives on it.
I think the problem here is not that MeFi is mean and addicted to ad hominem arguments (though a case could be made for that) but that when one overstates one's argument a bit for rhetorical effect, others leap on the vulnerable overstatement, the original commenter gets defensive and clings to it, and things spiral downhill. When you say "bend over backwards to defuse potential conflicts before they start," what you're talking about is really just being careful to state one's argument in as accurate and defensible a way as possible, and that's a good thing. It's hard to do, and I frequently trip myself because it's such fun to make a sweeping statement, but it's very much worth it, because it enables discussion to proceed in a rational and effective manner.

Sorry about the armchair psychologizing, but I didn't mean it to be taken seriously (which is why I immediately categorized it as bullshit), it was just an expression of my bewilderment as to how you could believe something so contrary to fact. Now it turns out you don't actually believe it, and I am much relieved.
posted by languagehat at 6:04 AM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Now it turns out you don't actually believe it, and I am much relieved."

Don't I? Several different things have happened here that have confused the issue. One of them, for example, is that my claim that intelligence is overvalued was equated to a claim that intelligence isn't valuable. From that came various arguments about that value of intellectualism vis a vis things like science and whatnot. In my opinion, though, the two things are distinct and the value of intellectualism, as a whole, in the history of human affairs, is a whole 'nother conversation.

Anyway, I do think that general intelligence is overvalued in our society at large. I think this manifests in a dramatic overvaluation of "above average intelligence", but I do nevertheless think there's a general overvaluation of it insofar as we're discussing characteristics of individual people (and, again, not intelligence as an abstract thing indepedent of individuals).

Some above have tried to make the case that a defensiveness and the tendency to see someone saying they are intelligent as "gloating" is a subcultural thing, something found strongly in the MeFi subculture because, after all, the folks here are somewhat more intelligent than average and value intelligence highly. The thing is, though, that I challenge you to come up with more than a handful of social contexts where the statement "I'm quite intelligent" wouldn't be provocative, wouldn't be seen as boasting, wouldn't be seen as something dangerously close to "I'm a better person than other people". If intelligence weren't highly valued, if it were greatly undervalued as you and others have argued, then such a statement wouldn't receive such a response except in the exceptional subcultures where it is highly valued. But pretty much wherever you go, claiming that you're very smart will piss other people off. And that's because in a very deep and broad sense, our culture values intelligence very highly. That's why not just in smartypants subcultures like MeFi, calling someone a moron is deeply insulting and quite common.

The argument that things like wealth and beauty are demonstrably more highly valued than intelligence and therefore intelligence isn't highly valued is, obviously, very faulty. Such things could be more overvalued than intelligence is while nevertheless intelligence is still itself overvalued. People who are unusually intelligent will, of course, be very aware of how grossly overvalued wealth and beauty are and they will resent it. They may, and often do, make the mistake of thinking that therefore intelligence should be as highly valued as beauty and wealth are in our culture. But that would only make things even more disproportionate.

In sum, being "bright" is, in fact, highly valued in our culture and you can see the evidence for this in basic social dynamics, as well as things like the military using standard IQ tests and how a literate and well-spoken person almost always has a huge advantage over others in almost any job, regardless of their skill at the actual relevant tasks. This pervasive high valuation of being "bright", which is an overvaluation because it has little correlation to quality of life or achievement, causes a great many emotional problems for the people who are taught to value themselves very highly for possessing this quality. That's a shame, and it's on display in this thread.

And with that, I'm done. If you find that my argument upsets you, you might consider that attacking me personally isn't a very intelligent way of resolving the distress. It's common here on MeFi, though, so I suppose "when in Rome". I find I don't much like this version of Rome, myself.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:12 AM on February 15, 2007


If you find that my argument upsets you, you might consider that attacking me personally isn't a very intelligent way of resolving the distress.

Huh? I haven't attacked you personally, and have no intention of doing so—I like you personally. I thought you were wrong, and now I guess I do again, though I'm having a hard time figuring out how to reconcile various versions of your thoughts on the subject. It probably doesn't matter enough to bother going into further, anyway. But I'm sorry you're feeling dissed and down on MeFi; driving you away again is the last thing I want to do.
posted by languagehat at 7:49 AM on February 15, 2007


But, you know, this is why I took my MeFi vacation and am not very much enjoying having returned.

I take vacations all the time. Go read a few Fark threads and you'll feel a lot better about MeFi. :) Don't leave!

Seriously, though, I agree with EB:
Finally, in the realm of the broader claim I have seemed to be making about intelligence in toto—that it's over-valued—I do think there's at least some truth to this. I can say with certainty that I think that it's vastly overvalued by those who consider themselves intelligent. I've spent much of my life around highly intelligent people and I've spent much of my life reading the words of highly intelligent people as they struggle to understand the universe and themselves.
Your argument rings true with me in this way: I often struggle with being told that I'm intelligent. I usually just shrug -- I'm not too insecure about it -- but I find that's often taken as false modesty. Then, if I start talking about all the other important things that we obscure when we talk about "intelligence," that's often taken as an artful dodge.

But the fact is, I don't really care about it that much. But I think that you're right that among the "above average" (I would say: those who don't take their intelligence for granted) it's probably over-valued. These are the people who get most angry when I say -- in all honesty -- that I don't think it's that important. If I may -- I think that's what you're struggling with in this thread. (It's akin to positing any form of moral relativism: people feel like you're yanking the rug out from under them.)

And it's something that the linked article grapples with -- our culture puts you in a very difficult position when you try to talk about intelligence as just another attribute (like beauty, or athleticism), because there is a subtle insecurity about it, bubbling just beneath the surface. You can honestly say that it doesn't matter to you, but even that makes a lot of people uncomfortable -- they immediately ask, "OK, but I know it's valuable somehow, just how is it valuable?" It's the uncertainty that kills. There's no external test, like there is for athleticism or beauty. Ultimately, I'm not even certain that this is psychological -- it's just that our valuation of the thing is fundamentally skewed.

Does any of that make sense?
posted by spiderwire at 11:53 AM on February 15, 2007


Oh, and, for the love of god, you're arguing with someone whose username is taken from the main character of a fucking David Foster Wallace novel. And you're letting him rip you for being arrogant. C'mon now.

Maybe it would work better if you used footnotes
posted by spiderwire at 11:55 AM on February 15, 2007


"Huh? I haven't attacked you personally, and have no intention of doing so—I like you personally."

Sorry, that wasn't aimed at you. Careless writing on my part.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:46 AM on February 16, 2007


Sorry, that wasn't aimed at you. Careless writing on my part.

You know, I liked the Atlas comment better, too. I think you play too much defense -- although you're one of the best here at it. This thread has been a good example of that. ...You're sort of like the polar opposite of dios, who played great offense but never really bothered to defend anything. (Of course, you're also his opposite in some other ways not fit for print here.)

I got into this conversation too late, so now I'm just making metaconversation, I guess... anyway. My two cents. Not intended as an insult, of course.
posted by spiderwire at 10:49 AM on February 16, 2007


So, spiderwire, you're saying EB is Scotty Pippen and dios is... Flip Murray?

And EB, I'm much relieved. I was going to retract my entire argument if it would keep you around.
posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on February 16, 2007


I guess you read the comment on the other thread. It's a good idea.

Honestly, I was thinking Iverson -- I'm not sure I can see Murray. And I was actually going to say Pippen :)

I guess I'm not going to bait dios on this one, so I'll point out that I only mean the Iverson comparison as a compliment. Well, I mean, mostly.
posted by spiderwire at 2:30 PM on February 16, 2007


Who doesnt think theyre gifted when they are a child? The real question is why do so many people carry that smug label into later stages of life and then refuse to drop it when all the evidence points to them as being pretty medoicre.

This is me, actually: only recently admitting that though I've heard all my life how smart I was, there's really no evidence of it (especially in context of college, with people who speak a dozen languages and are a whiz with math and music to boot, or who major in biochemistry and philosophy and go on to teach at Ivy Leage schools). So these articles are actually a comfort since they point towards a way to be successful while also being less than gifted. It's an obvious message--stop being lazy--but it's also helpful to hear the obvious occasionally (at least for me. And I've already admitted I'm not very smart, so there you go).
posted by Tuwa at 8:06 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


In high school, we did get graded on effort. I only once got a "minimal" grade and that was in tennis my senior year. Yep. We even got graded on sports.

I don't know if it made any of us any smarter, but we were all working ourselves insane. Except those of us who really didn't give a shit if we were on the list of students not allowed to have fun on the weekend because our effort grades sucked.

(I went to a fascist dictatorship private boarding school.)

Anyhow, my problem as a child wasn't that my parents told me that I was smart, but rather that I knew I was smarter than my peers. Infamous was the day when, at six years old, I declared to my mother "I'm not going to school today. The other children are insipid."

Not homeschooling me is my mother's biggest regret. I hated being around stupid people, which was most of my classmates, and occasionally, my teachers. I wasn't one of those kids who was praised for their smarts - in high school, teachers would often remark that I had a terrible attitude and refused to pay attention, but that they couldn't not give me A's in their class because I worked my ass off and the work I did was better than that of my classmates.

My parents always told me that yes, I was smart, but could I please just stop trying to light the other kids on fire.

Now? I use my over-intelligence to serve coffee. I have yet to set customers on fire for using the term "mocha latte" - which is redundant.

(I'm also one of those obnoxiously self-disciplined people who will teach themselves how to do anything on the job that they don't already know how to do. Also, despite working full time and having a gallery opening for my artwork in a few weeks, I am always whining that I never do anything. I always think of myself as lazy, when really, I don't think anyone else in the world would think of me as anywhere near sloth-like.)

So, yeah, I was a real jerk as a smart kid, but as a reasonably intelligent adult, it seems to have worked out ok for me.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2007


I know I'm a bit late to this post but have to write anyway. Like so many others, I very strongly identify with the whole isn't he such a smart child thing. I was praised to the sky for my intelligence as a child and got drunk on the praise I guess. At the same time, I also felt that I didn't really do anything special; I was curious, enjoyed learning, worked hard and was good at it. I felt most people could be smarter if they changed their attitude and tried more. On some level, I think I just wanted to be left alone, encouraged but not be put on such a pedestal. I also went to a small school and so there was never any proper outside base of comparison. Further, just to complicate things more, my Dad was the exception to the praise party and always criticized me for the things I wasn't good at, because for him practical things were much more important.

I have slowly been becoming more and more aware of the damage that overpraise did to me. I know my teachers meant well but at the same time it made me feel sort of like the subject of a project or experiment, with enormous pressure. I know they were trying to build my self esteem but it's ironic that in the long term that may have caused as much damage as good. The only difference from what many others experienced is that I did not become lazy but I do have a tendency to go for the moment of brilliance and skip the details building up to it.

For years, my entire concept of myself was entirely based on my intelligence while at the same always wondering if I was really quite smart enough. Now I'm slowly learning to let it all go, realizing that there is more to life than merely trying to seek praise.

Anyway, I don't mean to blame or whine, just try to understand what happened. It's good to know there are so many similar stories. (New Metafilter support group?)

I just want to add, Ethereal Bligh, you rock. While your argument may sound a bit convoluted and contradictory perhaps, I understand what you mean and agree. Of course, you do realize there is some irony involved in using intelligence to argue against intelligence. And hats off to languagehat.
posted by blue shadows at 5:22 AM on February 18, 2007


My parents always told me and my sister that we were smart. They also heavily encouraged study and practice, as most parents do. I always had the feeling that I was of average intelligence. There were a whole lot of others that were much smarter, and that I couldn't coast in anything. Although I did coast a bit, not because I am smart, but because the material was too easy.

My parents always did well socially and have a very strong work ethic, and my sister and I followed suit. They also consistently told us how beautiful and pretty we were. Physical appearance wasn't the end all be all, but they always praised our looks in a healthy way. To this day I have a very positive attitude when it comes to my appearance. I think I'm attractive even if I look like hell. My sister has the same attitude.

My episodes of poor self-esteem come from thinking I'm not smart enough. Reality bites.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:05 AM on February 18, 2007


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