A dangerous myth about talent and potential

life plant

The most important message we can send to all children is that

intelligence and talent are not something you are born with or not –

these are things that can be grown, and evolved with effort and practice.



The most dangerous myth we allow children to think
is that we either have talent and potential or not,

and that there isn’t much we can do if ‘we don’t have it’.

  • It’s a message that perpetuates unevolved, primitive thinking
    about certain communities of people – whether this is class or color based
    – being ‘born better’ than others.
  • It’s a message that damages children in spiritual and emotional ways and
    prevents them from believing in themselves and persevering in the face of failure.
  • It also happens to be scientifically inaccurate.


Brain studies are proving over and over again that the brain responds to effort and intention
– and will grow like a muscle when we push ourselves to learn and evolve in deliberate ways.



Students who learn that the brain is
‘like a muscle’ and grows with use
(as opposed to you’re either ‘smart’ or not)
– stay in school longer,
have better attendance,
and are more likely to attend college

For example, in one study, two groups of college students were shown videos of older students at the same college.

  • One group (the treatment group) was shown a video of older students at the same university
    talking about their difficulties in college. They also made a point to talk about how their
    GPA improved over time, even though they had these difficulties at first.
  • The other group (the control group) saw a video of the same group of older students,
    but with no talk about their grades or performance.


What they found:

  • One week after the video screenings, the treatment group got much higher scores than the control group on practice GRE questions.
  • One year later, the treatment group also had higher GPAs
  • The treatment group was also 80 percent less likely to have dropped out of college than the control group.

There are many other studies like this.  Go to the University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research to see some of this research (and see below for references).


Talent is not so much about the ‘successes’ as it is our ability and desire
to get up after we fall and show the world what we’re made of.


One key thing we can do as adults:
praise effort and process, not intelligence.

“I love how hard you worked on that!”
“It looks like you put so much effort into that!”

As opposed to “you’re so smart!  You’re a genius!”

We need to stop allowing ourselves and young people to continue
the inaccurate belief that if you’re not reaching your highest level of talent and potential,
it’s because ‘you don’t have what it takes’.

We all have what it takes – but sometimes a young person needs to hear this consistently
from the adults (who truly believe this message)
in order for that young person to believe it for themselves.



University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research

Wilson, T.D. and Linville, P.W. (1982) Improving the academic performance of college freshmen: Attribution theory revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 367-376

Wilson, T.D., and Linville, P.W. (1985). Improving the performance of college freshmen with attributional techniques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 287-293




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6 thoughts on “A dangerous myth about talent and potential

  • Aileen,

    Thank you for sharing that. I completely agree – we are all born with different talents and different passions. It’s what makes each of us one-of-a-kind and allows for our eternal expansion. I LOVE that you speak about passion… yes, when the passion is there, there are no obstacles too great to achieve greatness. There is a zen saying that ‘a motivated student requires no teacher’ – that when we have that drive, we will find ways to learn and expand, even without anyone external driving us.

    Another saying I love says something like, our life purpose is the intersection of where our greatest joy meets the world’s needs.

    And you point to a passion for learning – yes! When we fall in love with the feeling of learning, expanding and growing, it helps us stay motivated to keep going even in the face of obstacles.

    On my own personal roadmap – I make it my goal to ‘extract the juice’ from every single experience into something that helps me become more loving, more expansive and strong… When I know that I can turn even my mistakes into nuggets of wisdom, it allows me to live life more courageously because in that sense there is no such thing as failure.

    I appreciate you for sharing a personal experience with us. xoxo

  • When you are in a group or with family and you see that any task takes you so much effort and energy and others will do it in a flash and without really thinking much about it you can’t deny the facts. That happen to me in my childhood, as I struggle with grammar and English it made sense and came effortless to others specially my older sister that only have to look at a vocabulary list once and she will memorized instantly while I have to write them several times and still will have some wrong in the quizzes. The only things that save me is the passion for learning. I do believe we are not created equal and we have not the same talents, but what you are passionate about you persist to do it. As a child what do you do if you don’t find that passion and motivation for keep trying even if is so obvious that for you is so much harder than others.

  • Hi Lesa,
    What a great example – when praise is generic like that and not about the process, it feels more superficial, doesn’t it? When someone says, ‘great job’, or ‘you were great’, it feels less ‘true’ than when someone says ‘I can see how hard you worked on X’, or ‘I relate to that thing you said about…’ or ‘that idea about X got me thinking..’.

    A lot of research shows that when children are simply given feedback about what they are doing ‘you are drawing a green line’ instead of ‘you’re such a good drawer!’ they persist in the task longer (I worked at the Child Study Center for NYU, and that was part of their research http://www.aboutourkids.org). I’ve actually tried that on many of the children I’ve worked with (just describing what they’re doing, saying ‘oh look! a blue circle, now you’re using red, etc.), I have to say – they will just keep going and going – in contrast to when I don’t describe what they’re doing or just say ‘good job!’

    Thanks for sharing, Lesa xoxo

  • Thank you for sharing this, Michael. I love that you are re-framing it into what you now want to create… being more involved in team sports/activities and to organize more external meetings.

    I can relate to your fears about what others will think about you – it can be really scary to put yourself out there. I used to be scared of sharing my voice – part of it is that many of us believe we only have value when we do something that others approve of. Something that helped me get over those fears was to make an intention to start tuning in to what feels really true and good in my heart. By doing meditations each day and reading texts such as Conversations with God (Neale Donald Walsch) and Ask and it is Given (Esther & Jerry Hicks), I started to see that the only approval I can rely on is my own. That gave me courage to do more things – even if there was a chance that I could be criticized or rejected. I also started visualizing regularly about scenarios where I was performing exactly how I wanted to perform in each moment. I got really clear on how I wanted to feel, and then did a visualization or ‘feelingization’ about it. The most liberating and powerful feelings I have had come from times where I just take that leap of faith on myself – jump with both feet in and trust that no matter what happens – even if people reject or laugh at me – I will survive it and get stronger because of it.

  • I love the emphasis on effort and process…when I was in high school, I took a few art classes. My family told me I was “really good” and should pursue (whatever that means) my art. I never did. I just wonder if they had told me they saw some improvement since before high school I think I might have believed in myself more. And I would have had faith in their opinion as I didn’t really believe them…they had no proof I was “good”.

  • I can relate to this. My issues were not so much with school as they were with outside of school activities such as sports, which were a problem area for me growing. I use to always here that I was just uncoordinated and sports were not my thing. I started to believe it and eventually did believe it and have not played any organized sports or pick me up games with friends in about 20 years.

    I’m in my 30’s so my body is starting to slowly fall apart on me:) but it would be beneficial for me to get more involved in team sports/activities.

    Something else I need to work on that would help my sales/retention at work is trying to organize more external meetings with brokers. I am always afraid to do this since I am afraid my presentations will not be good enough or I will run out of things to say.

    This is an area I would like to improve on this year also.

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