What if talent didn’t determine where your life would take you? What if there was no such thing as failure? What if those who believed they were brilliant actually struggled more than those for whom learning was a challenge? According to Dr Carol S. Dweck in her book ” Mindset” that is quite possibly the case.
I was told I was talented when I was young. I soaked up compliments about my acting ability and my general cleverness but as I did something strange happened. After a while these compliments, rather than being encouragement, became suffocating. I started to worry about not receiving top marks or distinctions, concerned that every time I stumbled I would be discovered as not really talented at all. And when I did well, if I’d worked for it that was proof I wasn’t really talented, because the talented don’t have to work, and if I hadn’t worked then it wasn’t me anyway it was simply my “gift” that had made it possible.
Thankfully I had a number of teachers who put more store on hard work and craft than on innate talent. My drama teacher, Miss Pattison, was a hard task mistress. She only took on people with some ability and then that was taken for granted. What mattered was the work. She would correct my pronunciation, let me know every time I missed a comma and rarely gave out praise. It was only by talking to other people at her school that I found out she did actually enjoy my performances and on the one occasion she told me I’d moved her to tears I felt as if I’d won an Oscar.
Instinctively I was drawn to those who would challenge me and help me learn. More than being perfect or thought to be fabulous, intelligent or talented, I wanted to learn. I still do. I want to learn and I want to grow. It is perhaps my only consistent characteristic. One teacher remarked in my report that I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I liked that as it recognised the will to learn as being important, more important than the existing achievement because, after all, that has already happened, what matters is now and what will come.
Now I find myself with my own children and their learning I struggle to know, particularly at this time of year with grades and reports,how to talk to them about where they are, what they have done so far and what it means for their future efforts. Mindset has given me a way that works for them and for me as I am constantly and wonderfully challenged by growing my voiceover business and committing to a new career.
The book identifies two mindsets, the fixed and the growth. The fixed mindset is obsessed with talent, believing that where you start is where you will finish, no room for late bloomers or determined workers in this scenario. The growth mindset, however, recognises that some will find their first forays into a new skill easier than others but, more importantly, that everyone can learn and develop from the talent they have at the start, however minimal. This has been tested with mathematics, historically thought to be something you either could or couldn’t do, discovering that everyone can improve and reach new levels of skill with the right kind of practice.
The right kind of practice is the type that stretches the elastic of our capability without breaking it, setting us a challenge just beyond our comfort zone so we can expand into it. Repeating this, we incrementally move closer towards expert levels of performance in anything, whether it is sport, writing, mathematics, science or music. What matters is not some overriding idea of who we are but a recognition that we are the raw materials and we can mould ourselves to be better. And just as an expert sculptor will not hack indiscriminately at a piece of marble an expert learner will move gradually closer to their goal, step by step, one chip of the chisel at a time.
This has been tremendously helpful to me in talking to my children, particularly my daughter. My children’s learning is exemplified in their lego building. If my son feels challenged he asks for help and if that help means he has to unwind what he has done and start again he expresses his irritation briefly then sets about doing it better this time, working until he has it right. My daughter, however, when faced with an error that means she has to start again becomes irate, first annoyed with the lego and then with herself, declaring herself a terrible person and a failure. This sets me the challenge of allowing her to be frustrated but making sure she knows that she is not the problem, the lego is. Lego is a puzzle to be solved and it comes as easy to split bricks because it knows that children and grown-ups alike learn by making errors and putting them right.
The same is true of school work. Any exam mark is an indication of how that person was doing on that day, no more and no less than that. It is not immutable and it is not a definition of a person as a whole. When looked at that way we can talk about results and achievements, grades and comments, understanding what was done well and why then identifying the areas of challenge and breaking them down so we have a strategy for how to move forward, how to be better, one incremental step at a time.
It is also important to me that the children don’t think they are the only ones learning. I am still trying to slake that thirst for knowledge identified when I was ten and thankfully the universe is an interesting enough place to ensure I will never be satisfied. Because the journey of discovery and learning is so much fun, why would I want only my children to play? Starting and building a voiceover business that I have pride in has been an immense learning journey for me. To start with I believed that my “talent” would mean I would either sink or swim. But that is only a very small part of the story. People without talent rarely try to build such a business or quickly realise it is not going to make them a living.
So I am left with trying to be better, constantly and consistently there is something to learn and something to improve, whether it is in sound production, acting, understanding text, marketing, brand awareness or letting go and seeing what happens. So far this journey has taken me from my first faltering attempts at making a voice reel to the proud owner of my own home studio with clients around the globe and plenty more challenges left to explore.