We have belief systems around the ways in which certain abilities and accomplishments are achieved. Some things gain wide-spread acceptance as being the products of psychological strength and deliberate practice, others are so little understood that they might be seen to be summoned through arcane means.
Take sport for example; anything from routine exercise to athletic endeavour. We have a good collective knowledge of what this entails. What’s required to improve these skills is widely understood. There’s sweating, cursing, and stumbling. It’s physically tiring. Clearly, hard work.
You probably haven’t heard “Wow, you’re an athlete? You’re so lucky, being athletically talented!”
Yep, sounds silly to me, too. Certainly some people are more energetic, have more willpower, or a driving force behind their continued efforts. Their traits and personalities have an effect on how much they practice, but do not determine their skill level.
What happens when the skill is less widely understood? Artistic ability, for example?
“Wow, you’re an artist? You’re so lucky! I wish I could draw, I don’t have the talent.”
Suddenly doesn’t sound as silly, does it? Because it’s said all the time. I can personally attest to having heard this repeatedly. Although usually well-intentioned it’s not really a compliment since it implies that the art was created through magic rather than labour.
Why is artistic ability seen differently?
The training montage is a cultural trope. We see people exercising all the time. In advertisements, films, in streets and parks. Watching artists at work, on the other hand, is not an everyday occurrence.
If you’re interested in gaining more of an insight, the BBC commissioned a great series called What Do Artists Do All Day? which I highly recommend watching.
Translating the creative process (most of which is internal and invisible) into something tangible is no easy feat. If you consider that this process is also highly varied, you will quickly see why it’s less well understood.
To create something from nothing is a challenging undertaking in any domain. Honing artistic skill and cultivating creativity require dedication and directed practice over time. They are not fixed attributes, but the result of many many hours of hard work.
Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success – but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardise success.
One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.