Can you fix stupid?
This is a key question, the answer to which has widespread implications for how we should respond to challenges in our lives and how challenging our futures might be if we are unlucky enough to be born into the “permanently stupid” category. Luckily for those of us that would be born into the “unchangeably dimwitted” category, you can, in fact, fix stupid.
Doctor Carol S. Dweck has spent a lot of her life researching this question of whether or not our intelligence can be improved upon. She even wrote the book on it. A few of the conclusions she has drawn from the findings of her body of research are: people can be placed along a scale in regards to their views on intelligence, with one extreme being a “fixed mindset,” believing intelligence is based on innate ability and therefore fixed, and the other extreme being a “growth mindset,” believing intelligence is based on effort and learning; people with a “growth mindset” are more likely to work through obstacles when it comes to learning; and people with a “growth mindset” are less likely to fear failure or obstacles as they believe their performance can be improved.
Now imagine the ramifications for a person if they come up against an obstacle, such as long division, and are led to believe that they cannot improve upon their ability to do math as it is at a fixed level and was decided at birth. The likelihood is that, instead of concluding they simply can’t do long division currently but will be able to in the future if they keep persisting in trying to learn how to do it, the person will simply give up and conclude that it’s too hard for them and that they simply can’t do it. Dr Dweck has shown such ramifications of a child possessing a “fixed mindset” as she has carried out a number of studies in which a class of children, that are very low achievers, are taught to possess a “growth mindset” and then go on to score top marks on tests, all because instead of giving up when they came up against an obstacle, as they would if they had a “fixed mindset”, they persevered and managed to move past the obstacle.
This research really does bring into question how correct we are anytime we say we will never be able to do something. People with a “fixed mindset” are sure they will never be able to improve their intelligence but the research suggests they are mistaken so what about all the other times we say we can’t improve something about ourselves, we say we can’t improve our performance of a certain task, or we say we just outright can’t do something ever. Do we say this because we truly can never do whatever it is we are being asked to do? Or do we say this because we cannot do it at the moment and we believe that if we can’t figure out how to do something the first few times we try it then we can never do it? Are we trying to teach a goldfish how to breathe out of water or how to play football?
Given the evidence, the best course of action to take when we come up against an obstacle, when attempting to achieve a goal, is surely to doubt everything we are doing but to not doubt our ability to achieve our goal. The reasoning behind this conclusion is that there are clear issues with doubting ourselves but not doubting ourselves could also lead to problems if there is no critical analysis of our actions.
There are two main reasons for why we shouldn’t doubt ourselves. One is that it could lead to us quitting too early in our attempt to achieve a goal because we believe that we are unable to do it, instead of believing that we simply can’t do it now but we will be able to. However, even in the event that doubting ourselves doesn’t completely prevent us from achieving our goal, but just acts as a detour and we eventually get back to it, the doubt is still a problem. The reason being is, in this capacity, it acts as little more than a distraction and leeches the strength and resolve you will need to achieve your goal. It is not necessary to experience this sort of paralysing doubt every time we attempt to achieve something, in fact it is detrimental to achievement because we will begin to avoid trying to achieve anything as then we will avoid the debilitating self doubt that comes along with it. However, people will sometimes stop there and completely try to rid doubt from all aspects of their life but that is not what I am trying to argue, doubt should, of course, have a place in our lives but we should focus on doubting what we do not doubting what we can do.
The reason we should doubt what we do is that without doing so we would never grow. It would lead to the same outcome as doubting ourselves. Not doubting what we do would prevent ourselves from correcting mistakes and lead to us blaming everything on the actions of other people as if it couldn’t possibly be our fault, as we do everything perfectly, then who else could be at fault? Doubting our actions allows us to improve whatever it is we are doing and it also allows us to figure out if we should be doing what we are doing at all. It also allows us to blame things on others with greater certainty when it is, in fact, their fault.
It appears, then, that doubting everything we do but never doubting ourselves gives us the best of both worlds. We neither waste our energy on paralysing self doubt nor do we prevent any change in our behaviour in an attempt to improve upon it. However, people might be skeptical of this idea, and to those people I simply say to try it out for themselves.
If you’re trying to write something, be it a book or simply a blog post, and you come across an obstacle in your path, test the idea out then. Maybe it’ll be that you can’t get yourself to focus enough to write the next paragraph or that you’re not sure if that comma should really go there. Well if that happens, instead of spiralling into a pit of despair about your lack of focus or wasting time by questioning how you could possibly write a book if you can’t even use proper grammar, simply keep your doubt to the level of what it is you are actually doing. Can’t focus? Question what might be stopping you from focusing. It might be the open tabs in your web browser or perhaps you’re just not feeling it, in which case the best thing to do is take a break as just because you aren’t in the mood right now that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to focus later on. Can’t figure out where a comma should go? Google it. If there is a gap in your knowledge, fix it. That’s all that is necessary, any extra despair and self loathing is entirely optional.
It isn’t even necessary to try out this idea with anything major, say you just can’t understand how to do long division. Well instead of giving up on it or freaking out because now you can’t finish your homework, start looking for tutorials online about how to do long division, if you cannot do something, for the most part, it will be due to a lack of learning, insufficient learning, or a misunderstanding of how to perform the task. So, if we experience trouble doing long division then we should go through that checklist. Do I know how to do it in the first place? If so, do I have a strong enough grasp on it? And if so, am I making mistakes in my application of what I’ve learned?
Like I’ve said before, I really do consider doubting everything we do but never doubting ourselves to give us the best of both worlds when it comes to doubt. The reason I believe in it so strongly is because it frees us from the anxiety that comes along with self doubt, it stops us giving up sooner than is necessary, and it keeps us improving and growing. It really is a very powerful idea to me. “I am not the problem, my behaviour is, but that can be changed.”