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SMITH: ‘I think, therefore I can’ key to success

Published: Monday, July 14, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT

If you ever have the time, read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,’’ by Carol Dweck. Actually, if you don’t have the time, try to make it. Because trying to do things you think you can’t do is the whole point of “Mindset.’’

There’s a belief out there that Americans don’t try as hard at things as they used to – that we used to persevere and hustle and have grit, but now we coast on our natural abilities and quit when the going gets tough. I’m not sure how to check if this is true, but Carol Dweck – a Stanford psychologist whose life work has been to study this sort of thing – agrees. Whether Americans are getting wimpier and more entitled, Dweck’s message is an absolutely crucial one. She’s truly a thinker for our age.

Dweck’s message, in a nutshell, is this: If you think you can’t improve, you won’t. If you think you can improve, you probably will, and you will be happier along the way. People with a “fixed mindset” live in constant fear of failing at things, because failure represents proof that their natural ability is low; they also don’t try hard, because they think it’s all in the genes. People with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, enjoy a challenge and relish hard work, so they end up getting better and better.

Many of us stumble on that idea independently. In October 2013, I co-authored an article about math education with my doctoral adviser Miles Kimball, which turned out to be the most popular thing either of us had ever written. Our article was about how people who think they are bad at math – that is, most Americans – end up not making the effort required to actually become good at math. We cited one of Dweck’s papers, but we had no idea how sweeping her vision was.

The book comes at a very important time in U.S. history. There are two faddish intellectual currents driving American thinking about success, and both have a gaping hole where Dweck’s insight should be.

The first of the two new American worldviews is nature-ism, which holds that life outcomes are basically frozen from birth. This idea is popular among libertarians, as well as some more extreme elements of the political right. Racism, of course, is steeped in nature-ism, but so is the idea that education is valuable only as a signal of inborn ability. Economist Bryan Caplan – who, I should mention, is a personal friend of mine – has been a champion of this idea.

On the political left, a more popular idea is nurture-ism, which holds that societal and parental influences can mold a child into any desired shape. This is the premise of Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,’’ in which she advocates an aggressive, controlling style of parenting. Another strain of nurture-ism blames society for any individual outcome, and puts too much emphasis on privilege.

I’m sad to see these two views gaining such currency in the United States. They remind me uncomfortably of our two great opponents in the ideological contests of the 20th century – fascism, which held that superior races would come to dominate inferior ones, and communism, which held that social engineering was the key to national greatness.

• Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications. He maintains a personal blog, called Noahpinion.

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