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Education Trends, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Nov 12, 2023

The surprising research about how talent is developed

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The surprising research about how talent is developed

By Angela Watson

What if there was no such thing as innate talent?

That’s the argument my guest today is making: that talent is not a cause, but an outcome. It is cultivated, developed, and learned.

I’m talking with Dr. Rishi Sriram, who serves as Associate Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs for the Department of Educational Leadership at Baylor University. His research interests include the development of talent and college student retention, engagement, achievement, and learning, and he is currently working on a book about the development of talent.

Rishi has identified what he calls “The 5 Ms to Becoming Great” which we unpack in detail together:

  1. Mindset (what you believe)
  2. Myelin (how you learn)
  3. Mastery (what you do)
  4. Motivation (how much you care)
  5. Mentorship (how you are taught)

We also discuss the benefits of productive struggle and its impact on the brain, and how teachers can support students who resist tasks that require a lot of effort and concentration.

Additionally, Rishi offers advice for working with students who don’t appear to be interested in becoming great at anything or have tangible goals for themselves. He shares important information that educators can use to help students pursue greatness and be willing to put forth the effort to increase their talents.

Rishi is a fascinating guest who explains the research around talent in such an engaging, clear, practical way. Listen in to learn more about how to develop your own talents, and support students in becoming great at the things they want to do in life, too

Summary of key ideas

  • Dr. Rishi Sriram unveils talent as an outcome, not a cause, aligning seamlessly with the principles of growth mindset and neuroplasticity.
  • The evidence on intelligence rooted in genes appears weak, contrasting sharply with the robust evidence favoring environmental experiences as the true architects of intelligence.
  • The Five M’s of Talent Development:  Mindset, Myelin, Mastery, Motivation, and Mentorship.
  • With a fixed mindset, effort is seen as a weakness because of one’s belief in an innate talent. But with growth mindset, effort is considered a key to success.
  • Myelin, a fatty insulation that wraps itself around neurons, is the secret ingredient that helps us become better at skills over time through repeated thinking, feeling, and practice.
  • Mastery is the fusion of quantity and quality practice, or hours upon hours of dedicated training towards a skill.
  • Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important in developing talent but the latter is what drives an individual to invest years in mastering a craft.
  • There are three pillars of motivation that drive sustained effort towards developing a skill:  Competence — progress as a motivator; Choice — feeling in control over what they choose to do; and community — being part of something bigger.
  • From Einstein to the Venus sisters, to Michael Jordan, a common thread of exceptional mentors shapes the journeys of people whose talents we admire.

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ANGELA: So your newest book, Rishi, is called Talented, the Five M’s to Becoming Great. And in it you state there’s no such thing as innate talent. Talent is not a cause, but an outcome. Talent is cultivated, talent is developed, talent is learned. Most of that aligns with what I already understand about growth mindset and neuroplasticity. But I’m not familiar with the idea that there’s no such thing as innate talent. Can you say more about that?

RISHI: Sure. So let me begin by admitting that my stance is pretty radical. It is on one end of the spectrum. I think most people that you would speak with who study talent and expertise would say that it is some combination of innate giftedness, innate talent, plus a lot of work to refine those gifts. And I certainly think that this is an understandable perspective. However, in my own research and journey over the last 15 years, I just can’t justify that perspective.

Angela, I feel like when I first was confronted with Carol Dweck’s excellent work on mindset, I loved it. I was really attracted to it — I thought it was intriguing and well-researched. But what’s interesting about Dr. Dweck’s work is that it’s all about psychology. She doesn’t really deal with the question of if you can dramatically change your talent or your intelligence; she deals with what happens when you believe that you can versus when you don’t believe that you can.

So this sent me on a quest to learn everything that I could about intelligence. Is intelligence something that you are born with or is it something that is developed or is it both? And if intelligence is the ability to learn, can you learn how to learn? And while I certainly think it’s tempting and safe to argue that it’s both nature and nurture (and that certainly protects you from a lot of criticism), all the research that I was encountering I felt like was saying that it is not both nature and nurture.

The evidence I was seeing on intelligence coming from genes or anything innate is shockingly weak. And at the same time, the evidence that I’ve encountered about intelligence coming from environmental experience was shockingly strong. So I kind of shifted and realized that when I’m studying intelligence and I’m studying learning, I’m really studying talent because everything that we comes from our brain, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions.

And so it dawned on me that this is really talent that I’m interested in. And so I came to this conclusion based upon all the research that I was encountering, that innate talent isn’t there. I cannot find it in the research. People can’t define it. We’ve never found a gene that can predict anything. It’s sort of this mythical thing that brilliant researchers smarter than I am have tricked themselves, I think, into believing it exists when it doesn’t.

And so that’s when I started to really develop this theory that talent is completely and entirely cultivated, developed, learned, earned, that talent is not a cause, it’s an outcome, and that we as human beings are not born with talent, but we are born with this beautiful, magnificent capacity to develop talent.

I can see that in my own life, for example, with writing. I’ve become a better writer over the years as I have cultivated that. But I feel like it was something that I was naturally interested in as a child versus something like athletics, say playing basketball which never really interested me. Does the research imply then that if I had really dedicated myself to learning how to play basketball as a child, I would be as good at that as I am at writing?

So the way you phrase that question is deceptively sophisticated because I didn’t hear you say that you are naturally good at it. I heard you say that you are naturally interested in writing and as we’ll talk about momentarily. I think motivation is one of the most fascinating aspects of talent development.

And what interests people or does not interest people is something that I don’t pretend to completely understand, but I do at least believe with great confidence that it is vitally important to talent development. So in one way, I would say yes, that is what I’m saying, that you take a particular sport and you could have been incredible at that sport instead of writing? Absolutely. I have no doubt except would you have devoted yourself in the way that you needed to from a motivational standpoint as you would writing?

That’s kind of the catch to what I’m saying is that we can’t fake this, especially when we’re talking about really high-end expertise. When we’re talking about the best of the best, these are people who have a really fascinating phenomenon of deep desire to constantly improve and get better at their craft. I don’t think you can randomly select a craft and have that level of motivation, but ultimately I do think that the skills, the things that are involved with becoming exceptional are developed.

Yeah, that makes sense. And that’s part of what you talk about in your book. You identify the Five M’s to becoming great, and this is sort of your framework for understanding what matters in the development of talent. So the Five M’s are: Mindset — what you believe; Myelin — how you learn; Mastery — what you do; Motivation — how much you care; and, Mentorship — how you’re taught. Can you give us a broad overview of the role of each of these five things and the role that they play in the development of talent?

I would love to. So let’s start with mindset. Mindset is the belief that you have about your ability to develop talent. This of course was launched by Carol Dweck, who’s a Stanford psychologist and wrote a bestselling book called Mindset with decades of research. She and others have determined that there are basically these two mindsets. Now you can have a mindset, a particular mindset about let’s say writing, and a different mindset about athletic talent.

But the two categories are a fixed mindset, which is the belief that you have what you have and that’s that your talent for the most part is a fixed entity, something that you were born with, something that you were granted. On the other end of the spectrum is the growth mindset, which is the belief that you can substantively, meaningfully improve your talent, your intelligence, your ability. The reason Dr. Dweck has spent decades researching a concept that is so simple is because the consequences are quite profound. Those with a fixed mindset, if you believe that your talent is basically fixed, then you’ll tend to avoid challenges because challenges become pretty scary.

Universal judgments of your talent. When you experience setbacks, you tend to universalize them or see them as permanent rather than speaking things like, “I failed,” or, “You feel like I am a failure.” Really important, helpful things for improving, such as feedback from teachers and mentors, tend to be ignored from a fixed mindset because if you don’t really believe that you can change in significant ways, then feedback becomes just a veiled form of further criticism.

And I think my greatest concern is that those with a fixed mindset actually tend to view effort as a sign of weakness because they believe that if they’ve been gifted or granted these innate abilities, then the tasks at hand should come relatively easy. So they tend to actually not put forth their full effort because they think doing so ironically and wrongly would be a sign that they’re not as talented as they would hope to be.

Well, you flip it to the other end of the spectrum, the growth mindset, and you have very different reactions and responses. Those with a growth mindset aren’t afraid to embrace challenges. They don’t like to fail, but they see failure as temporary. They see it maybe even as part of the process. They seek out feedback, they want to learn from feedback, they want to learn what they need to do differently to improve.

And they see effort as the key to improvement, as the key to mastery rather than as a sign of weakness. And whether you have a growth or a fixed mindset can be both from your own upbringing, your parents, your teachers, your coaches.

Our environment is constantly giving us feedback and signs and cues as to what we’re good at and what we’re not good at. And so even somewhat innocent praises from parents such as, “You are so smart,” can end up pushing people to a fixed mindset because they believe that they’re innately smart. And then when they struggle, when they don’t do well in a test, it has the opposite effect where they’re like, “Well, if I was so smart when I was doing so well, then I now must be so dumb or so bad at this because I’m not getting the results that I want.”

And so it can have a really horrible effect on people when they fail. I mean, I think failure becomes the real test of what our mindset is. Nobody again likes to fail. Nobody is supposed to think that failure is a fun thing, but does that failure push you to improve your strategies, improve your effort, and improve the help that you get? Or does it cause you to tuck tail and run out of fear and insecurity? So mindset really becomes a foundation to talent development because it has to start with what you really believe about your capacity to change.

Yeah, that totally makes sense. And I remember hearing as a child, “You’re such a good reader,” or, “You’re such a good writer.” And I didn’t hear that same phrase about my athletic ability, and I did assume when I was younger, I’m just not good at that. It took me a long time to start questioning, and it wasn’t until really in the last 10 years or so that I realized actually I can develop that a little bit more. I’m not as bad as I thought I was, but I did have a fixed mindset about that. And it’s just interesting to think about it in the realm of talent development and what I chose to focus on becoming better at.

And so that starts with the psychology. But one of the most fascinating parts of my study of talent has been not just the psychology but the biology. And so we learn at a pretty young age that we have a brain and we learn in grade school that our brain is made up of neurons that we pretty much think of as brain cells, even though they do exist elsewhere, such as the spinal cord.

And we might learn that, hey, when you learn something, it’s because these neurons are connecting together and they don’t actually touch the connections have these gaps, and we call those gaps synapses. And learning occurs in the synapses, learning occurs in the gaps. And that’s probably, at least if your listeners are anything like me, about as far as my schooling went regarding the brain.

And I’m guessing that many of those listening were never taught about myelin. So I was really surprised to learn that neurons make up only half of our brain cells. The other brain cells, the other half of our brain basically is made up of glial cells, which is the Latin for glue. Glial cells have a really interesting role every time we think, every time we do, and every time we feel we’re sending electrical and chemical signals through our brain that reach our bodies and allow us to think, feel, and do well. Glial cells have this really important role where they detect when signals are being fired frequently, and when the brain signals the same signals are being fired over and over again, glial cells come over, so to speak, grab onto the neuron and start to build this white fatty insulation called myelin. Myelin is something in our brains that we’re not born with.

We’re essentially born with no myelin. But when we build myelin from repeatedly thinking, feeling, and doing in particular ways. It allows those brain signals to travel faster, to travel stronger, and to be overall better. So the more we activate those signals, the more they get this insulation, this myelin, and the more myelin, the better the signal. Well, why does that matter? Because we call people with myelinated brain signals talented.

In some respects, I believe that talent is myelin from a biological neurological perspective, we’ve been able to measure this. Well, myelinated brain signals travel more than a hundred times faster than unmyelinated ones. Myelination can increase the brain’s total information processing capacity by over 3000 fold. And this becomes so important because everything that we do in life is from our brains. We use the term muscle memory, but our muscles are quite stupid … no offense.

Our muscles do not learn. So when we can play that song on the piano while creating our grocery list or when we can drive and be tempted to also be on our phones, it’s because those signals, those brain signals have been so well myelinated that it no longer require our direct proactive attention to do those things. However, they’re still being driven by our brains. This was so important for me because it’s one thing to say that you can get better at skills, you can get better at basketball, or you can get better at the violin, or you can get better at math, which is something in our society that people greatly fear. But until you understand what is changing biologically, neurologically in a person that actually makes them better, I think it can all feel fluffy. It can all feel like motivational talk, right?

Self-help kind of language and teaching. But when you understand that there’s actually a process of you actually changing in a physical way when I become more talented, I think it becomes much more believable, understandable, and useful for why practice is so important. And a particular type of practice is so important. And I think it also helps us to understand why, for example, children who are under the age of seven can learn a language in a way that people after the age of seven can never learn at the same capacity, with the same accents and tones.

Our brains go through these critical periods of brain development, that soak up skills, that soak up learning, that soak up information. So in some ways, myelin helps to explain how we change and why we change. But I also think it helps to explain why age is such a factor in talent development and how, while I do think, Angela, that you can become great at a sport, it would’ve helped for you to have started at three or four rather than 24, 34, 64.

Our brains can always change. Our brains are always growing, but they do slow down as we age. So age becomes a real talent amplifier for those who have the privilege of starting a craft relatively young.

This is fascinating. Okay, so we’ve gotten through the first two of the five m’s for becoming great. We’ve talked about mindset, what you believe, and the role of that. We’ve talked about myelin and how you learn the third M is mastery about what you do. Tell us about that.

I think it’s so fascinating, Angela, that we have never in the history of the world, which is always a dramatic way to begin a statement, found someone that we admired for their talent and expertise that did not go through thousands of hours of practice … never. It’s really interesting that we have all these myths about prodigies, child prodigies.

Let’s just take Mozart for example, I’ve spent a lot of time studying Mozart because for better or worse, he gets blamed as being a child prodigy more than anyone else I know in history, Mozart went through the same level of practice as anyone that we admire for their musical talent. What’s fascinating about Mozart is that he was born to a composer. His father was a composer who was obsessed with having a son who would be a composer.

So with Mozart in the 1700s, there was no compulsory public education. You studied at home, and so what did Mozart do? He started playing the piano, learning music. Mozart had a piano in his home when the piano had barely been invented, and Mozart actually had an older sister who was formative for him as a teacher and role model. And so Mozart is an incredible person to admire because by the time he was six years old, he was touring Europe to do these concerts and perform.

But it wasn’t that he skipped over the process, it’s that he started the process at such an incredibly young age and developed that practice over time. Long story short, there is this weird pattern that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice before somebody becomes truly admired for their world-class expertise or talent. Now, the person who really did a lot of the research behind the 10,000 hours really hated people talking about it that way.

So like Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers many years ago — which was a bestseller — he talks about the 10,000 hour rule. Well, the researcher behind the 10,000 hours research was always afraid that people would think that it was some kind of hard and fast number, right? Of course, people achieve expert status maybe at 8,000 hours, maybe it takes them 12,000 hours.

And more importantly than the amount of time is the quality of that practice. So in the research, they call it deliberate practice. In my own work, I’ve kind of used the colloquial term difficult practice. If it’s not difficult, if it’s not challenging, if it’s not stretching your current abilities, then it doesn’t count towards your thousands of hours.

So those are really the two things that comprise mastery, quantity of practice, and we’re talking thousands of hours and quality of practice, and we’re talking about this difficult pushing the limits of your ability type of practice.

And what we’ve found is that, again, let me repeat: no one in any craft, whether we’re talking about math or art or athletics, skips over the quantity and quality of practice in order to become great. Nobody does. It is there in every single person that we’ve admired. And when we study those that we deemed to be at the highest level in any respected field or discipline, it is consistently there. So mastery is just owning that quantity and quality are vitally important to the development of talent.

The Mozart example is a really good one because you’re right, we always think about him as a child prodigy and the fact that his dad was a composer who worked with him. When you really learn about his life, it gives you a lot more insight into it. And I also think about the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena and how they had a dad who trained them in tennis from, I think age two or three years old. They were very, very young.

And how that mentorship played a role in there and thinking about the mile in thinking about how young they were and how easy it is to learn something at that age, you also tend to have the mindset. You believe that it’s possible because you haven’t yet learned that some things are hard for you or that you can’t do certain things. You’re really motivated. You’ve got your dad giving you all this attention for playing tennis and everything, and then you put in the work for the mastery for becoming a composer in Mozart’s case or in playing tennis in the case of Serena Williams and Venus Williams. I see how those five really all fit together rather than some just innate thing that just was going to be there no matter what without these factors. And I can see how those five factors would be there in each of their lives.

Yeah, I think the Williams sisters are a phenomenal example.

So the fourth M to becoming great is motivation: how much you care. Talk to us about that.

Well, that was one of the first things that you mentioned in this interview. And yeah, I’d like to just dig a little bit deeper into that.

My son who’s in college has taken up golf. I have never in my life played golf. And so he comes home and he says, “Dad, let’s go to Top Golf.” And so this is my first time to ever swing a club, and I walk out of Top Golf feeling so proud of myself because I was so much better than what I was expecting in the sense that I could sometimes hit the ball and on rare occasion, I could hit it the direction I wanted to go. And a few times it even went decently far rather than just rolling. It actually caught air, right? And so I was so motivated because when you are really, really bad at something, it is so easy and dramatic to improve.

You see the sense of gratification, the sense of progress. It’s just really easy to be proud of yourself when you’ve gone from I was absolutely horrible, and now I am slightly better than absolutely horrible. And I think that that carries forward on a continuum where the better you get, the less you get that sense of satisfaction,

The less you get that sense of, “Wow, I could see how much better I got in that last hour. In fact, people at the top of their game have to live with the fact that they are so good at their craft. They cannot but help but backtrack from time to time that they have to keep on it so much. Just to maintain that same level that takes so much drive, it takes so much determination. It’s almost like you have a calling toward a particular craft.

I mean, why people are willing to put in thousands of hours toward any given craft, I think, is an excellent question that we are not done exploring. We talk about these two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when satisfaction comes from the activity itself that you’re almost internally driven to perform and do well and keep at it.

Extrinsic motivation is when satisfaction is either coming from the results or it’s coming from the environment. Maybe you’re doing it to please your parents or your coaches, or this is how people compliment you. And so it kind of becomes this extrinsic thing. Both can be useful, don’t get me wrong, but intrinsic is what’s really needed. It’s certainly more important than extrinsic when it comes to developing your talent over years and over thousands of hours of practice.

If you’re basically working at a craft full-time, it’s going to take you about 10 years to really put in those 10,000 hours. I mean, my goodness, I think about all the things that I’ve tried and decided, “No, this isn’t for me,” or, “I’m bored of this,” or, “I’m not really getting better as quickly as I want to, and so I’m just going to give up on it.”

Well, the people that really become talented, for whatever reason, they don’t, and we do know that there are ways that we can help motivate others. I think about the three C’s of motivation — competence, progress is the best motivator. When you can demonstrate that someone is progressing in their competence and their skills when they can see, especially somewhat objectively that they’re getting better, that helps with intrinsic motivation.

Choice is the second C, when people have a choice in what they do, how they do it, when they feel in control, autonomous regarding their development, that improves intrinsic motivation.

Then community is the third C, when there’s a sense of purpose that comes from relating to others being a part of something bigger than yourself, that is intrinsically motivating.

So we know that there are ways that we can positively influence anyone’s motivation, but what I don’t pretend to understand is why ultimately one person chooses to remain motivated, stick through the challenges, stick through the plateaus, stick through the periods of actually backtracking and feeling like you’re getting worse no matter the time that you’re putting in and pressing through those moments to continue to develop their talent.

So it almost sounds like if there’s any innateness here, it’s in the motivation, it’s your innate, what would you innately care about or what you’re drawn to? Do you think that’s true?

I think there might be something to it. If you were to really press me and say, Is there anywhere where I could give some credit to the possibility of innate things, then motivation would be the place where I would feel most vulnerable. I don’t want to overlook the fact though that the reason I don’t think we will ever have another Mozart is because in the 1700’s, Mozart was in an environment where classical music is what professional sports are today. It was the thing. It’s what made you a celebrity beloved by others.

And now that over time and in different societies and in different environments, that’s shifted. Right? And I think that there’s a reason why people in Texas where I’m from aren’t intrinsically motivated to become professional hockey players.

It’s not just this innate thing. It’s because they’re not watching that much hockey. They’re not playing that much hockey. Their fathers, their mothers, and their brothers aren’t talking hockey all the time. What are we talking about in Texas? We’re talking football, we’re talking basketball, we’re talking baseball. And that’s where you see us develop professional athletes.

So I think it’s so interesting that we make this case for innate talent, particularly when it comes to athleticism. When you can actually regionalize where athletic talent comes from, and it’s the areas that play and love hockey that develop the hockey players, and it’s the areas that love baseball that develop the baseball players. So there is this environmental aspect to it, but also ultimately, the individual has to decide.

And whether that to what extent that’s innate or developed, I can’t say that I know. I just know that that motivation has to be there.

That leads us really very nicely into the last of the five m’s, which is mentorship — how you’re taught. I’m guessing that the environment and who’s encouraging you and supporting you plays a big role in this.

It really does. I think in the United States, in comparison to maybe some other countries around the world, we are much more obsessed with the student than we are with the teacher.

We’re in a place where we just love to give the students the credit. We love the mythology of the innate superstar, the prodigy. Whereas I think in other societies, there’s more deference to the importance of teaching. But when you study talent, oh my goodness, it is just incredible to me how important teachers are and how much teachers vary in their ability to teach, to teach well, and to get their students to perform at the highest level.

When you enter into a particular craft, it’s really interesting to me how it’s almost like a secret society, like the people within that craft, they know who the great teachers are, and they will do anything to get their students to encounter those great teachers. Let’s go back to your example with the Williams sisters, right? Not only did their father teach them tennis at a young age, but he also knew that he had to hand them off to the best of the best teachers.

The stories are fascinating as to what he did and how far he would go to get his daughters the best teachers. And sure enough, by the time they are young teenagers, 12, 13 years old, maybe it was even earlier than that, they are moving their entire family to Florida to play tennis, basically 24/7, all to get the best mentorship possible. This is true of every craft. When I look at people like Mozart, we talked about his father being a composer, but his father also connected him with teachers who were even better than him.

Let’s talk about Michael Jordan. We love to talk about Michael Jordan. What we don’t hear as much are legendary coaches like Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, and Phil Jackson. Those are three Hall of Fame coaches that Michael Jordan just happened to all have. I mean, it’s just amazing.

Or even someone like Albert Einstein. There’s a really interesting story where Albert Einstein applied to college at a young age, and sure enough, he passed the entrance exams in the areas related to science, but he did not pass in the other areas where Einstein wasn’t spending his time developing his talent.

So the college actually offered to Einstein, you can still come and audit classes and we’ll work on getting you properly admitted in the future. But the admissions director of this college, Zurich Polytechnic, told Einstein, I don’t think that’s what you should do. He said, “I think you should go to this small town, the small village that’s not too far from here, and I want you to live in this particular house with this particular teacher and get him to develop you in the areas that are weaknesses for you, and for reasons I cannot explain,” and Einstein said, “Okay.”

He turned down his dream to go to Zurich Polytechnic. He went to this no-name town, this no-name village to live in the house of this no-name teacher who was a phenomenal influence on Einstein, taught Einstein to think about philosophy as well as science and math. And so much of what Einstein learned about how he dealt with physics and how he developed his theories, he himself would attribute to the year or so that he spent in this village where he studied under this professor.

I don’t even remember this professor’s name, because we don’t give the teachers the credit, but every single person who becomes extremely talented has these great teachers. And by great, I don’t necessarily mean they’re nice. I don’t necessarily mean they’re extroverted. I don’t mean that they’re charismatic. I mean, they’re obsessed with getting their students to perform. They’re obsessed with giving their students actionable feedback on how to improve their performance. And they are obsessed with measuring progress, not by what is taught, but by what their students learned.

So they will not move forward no matter how much they’ve taught, no matter how much they’ve repeated themselves, they will not move forward until they’ve seen the learning occur in their students. And these master teachers, as I like to call them, are pivotal to every talented person that we admire.

I think everyone listening to this wants to be that mentor for students, wants to help them develop that greatness. And I’d like to spend the rest of our time together talking about what that might look like and some of the obstacles that teachers might come across. We’ve talked about how talent is something that develops over a long period of time and requires a lot of what is often called productive struggle. And you’ve done a lot of research around the benefits of productive struggle and its impact on the brain and learning. And I wonder how this can help students who struggle with the hard work of learning. What’s a good approach for teachers when their students are resisting tasks that require a lot of effort and concentration?

I think our society is really inundated with this belief that talent is innate. Therefore, at a very young age, we begin, we learn to begin to question ourselves about, am I talented? Am I good enough? What if I’m not talented? Do I just fake it till I make it? It becomes this real identity crisis at an unbelievably young age. And so we’re spending so much of our time and energy worrying about whether we’re talented or not, that that’s energy and that’s time that can and should be used toward actually developing our talent.

So I think when teachers encounter students who are not putting forth as much effort as they want, I would go straight to mindset. I would wonder whether that student really believes that they can be great, whether they really believe that they can improve, prove at a remarkable level, and become as excellent in their craft as they want to become, as they can choose to become.

Until that wall is broken down, everything that we try to teach our students is going to be filtered through, but I can’t really change in meaningful ways. So I’m going to reserve my effort so that I’m not embarrassed, so that I can always say, ‘Well, I wasn’t even trying.” I can always have these excuses to fall back on. Rather than putting it all out there and failing and believing that that’s part of the process and to say, “Okay, I failed. What do I need to do differently next time to show improvement?”

That’s just a different world for some students. So you can have students in the same classroom being taught by the same teacher who in my opinion, would be almost like they’re on different planets. One is engaging in a craft in order to improve and get better at it. The other is trying to hold on to their identity, trying to not look stupid, trying to get through it with as little embarrassment and humiliation as possible.

They’re going to do a lot of the same behaviors. They’re going to go through a lot of the same exercises, but ultimately underneath the surface what’s happening is quite different. So again, I would say as teachers, let’s not assume that anyone has a growth mindset. In fact, let’s assume that everyone has bought into this fixed mindset, and let’s talk about it. Let’s lay it out on the table. Let’s tell stories about what successful people go through in order to become successful. Let’s give exercises.

We talk about high-stakes testing. We talk about tests like the SAT and the ACT, and how they can be so damaging because they’re so high stakes. Well, I for one think the SAT and ACT are excellent tests that are developed by incredibly intelligent people. What’s wrong with the SAT and the ACT is that they are high stakes. It’s like this one-and-done sort of thing that is a judgment on how smart you are rather than, “Hey, these are testing particular skills related to reading, relating to math.”

Let’s take SAT tests, not junior year or senior year of high school, but how about eighth grade? And use it as a way of gauging, “Hey, how are you doing in these particular areas?”

“Oh, okay. These are the questions that you tend to struggle with. Well, let’s really learn and spend time studying those areas. And then let’s see your progress, whether it be SAT or any standardized tests.”

I think that these standardized tests are vital to the development of people. If they’re used in low-stakes environments, if they’re given frequently, if they’re given with the expectation of, we’re giving this to you, just to let you know where you stand today right now, so that we can help you develop the skills that you need to do better next time, and look at how you’ve progressed and you can actually see it. We’re not faking it.

We’re not giving you educational fluff. We’re showing you hard line, the progress that you’re making through the efforts and the strategies that you’re putting forth, and where we as your teachers are here to support you to get as good as you want to become. I mean, I feel like that is education at its finest, right?

It’s education that’s filled with hope. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be outstanding at everything. In no way do I think that’s possible. We’re still going to have people who come from environments where things are really difficult and they’re getting poor messaging, or they’re having to deal with basic needs and food insecurity and housing insecurity. But we’re also going to see people really shine and develop in ways that maybe quite surprise us.

What would you say to a teacher who’s hearing this and thinking, some of my students don’t appear to be interested in becoming great at anything. They don’t seem to have tangible goals for themselves. They’ll do what’s required, but they’re not really pursuing greatness on their own. They’re not really trying to get better in any area. What can we, as educators do to help students want to pursue greatness and to be willing to put forth the effort to increase their talents?

The first thing I would say to educators is it’s not all on you. We put so much on our educators, and they of course play a vital role. But I think as an educator myself, as a parent myself, I’ve had to accept that, well, one, I’m fallible. I’m flawed. I don’t do anything perfectly. And two, even when I do things well, there’s still so much beyond my control, such as my child’s or my students’ choices, their desires, life happens.

The first thing I’d want to do is encourage the educators listening that it’s not all on you. I do think that educators have a critical role to play in teaching students a growth mindset and helping them to believe that they can change in fundamental ways. I think the reason I’ve become so fascinated with myelin is because I’ve found that when people understand how they’re changing biologically, neurologically, it helps take out the fluff of the messaging and help them see, “Oh, wow, I really can get better.”

I think that educators can continue to provide, even though it’s so tiring and they’re underpaid and they’re overworked. We use the acronym SMART sometimes to talk about goals. Smart meaning specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely. I think I would encourage educators to give smart feedback, feedback that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely, to try to be obsessed with performance and feedback.

Get their students to do, do, do and follow the doing with, “Here’s what I’d like you to do differently next time. Here’s how you can improve.” Of course, some students will never take us up on that. They’re just going to say, thanks, but no thanks. But there will be students who say, oh, okay, I’ll try that out and see what happens. Wow, it worked. Okay. I’m developing some trust here. Tell me what to do. I want to see how far I can take this.

It’s not always going to be a hero story. It’s not always going to be a rags to riches in terms of learning and development. But if our educators will hang in there and realize that there are some psychological barriers, like a fixed mindset that educators can help overcome, and basically share this talent message that talent is developed, I don’t think educators have to agree with me that it’s a hundred percent developed, but at least maybe they could say, well, here’s somebody who seems to have studied it for a long time.

I mean, I’ve studied talent for more than 15 years, and I’m not saying that talent is entirely developed in order to exaggerate, to make a point, I really have come to this conclusion. I believe it’s a logical conclusion. And so to whatever extent educators choose to buy into this, to share that message with their students, and they might be the only person in their students’ lives who are sharing such a message.

Yeah, that’s really powerful. And I think one of the interesting things about the mindset piece is that it’s possible to have a growth mindset in some situations and a fixed mindset in another. It’s not a permanent state. Now I understand what growth mindset is, so now I just have it. And I think we have a lot of limiting beliefs sometimes about ourselves and our abilities. I think it’s possible to have a growth mindset about your ability to improve in certain tasks and not in others.

And I really like what you said about making sure that students have that belief in their own ability to build myelin, to learn to neurologically change the pathways in their brains as they learn new information, as they practice, as they get better at something. And that is true for all tasks, not just the tasks that they already have seen progress in, but they can actually get better and really anything that they want to do or anything that they’re being asked to do in class. And I’m just thinking about the power of recognizing that and celebrating that, helping students to see that growth and how much I think that impacts the motivation levels.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Absolutely.

I want to close out the show with a takeaway truth: something that you wish every teacher understood about supporting their students in developing talent and becoming great at the things they want to do in life.

I think it’s interesting that humans are the only mammals who are born with our brains, mostly undeveloped. Every other mammal, for whatever reason, as soon as they’re born, their brain is mostly developed, and they can do things that human babies could never do. Humans are exceptionally weak and helpless when we’re born, but what we have are these brains that have this capacity to learn beyond anything we could ever imagine.

I truly believe that we are born geniuses, that our capacity to learn is the highest in our entire lives when we’re born. And those first 10 years especially, we are geniuses. These children that we’re surrounded with that seem so silly sometimes, so dumb sometimes, are geniuses who are soaking up information at rates that we never could as adults.

So my message is that these are our children who are born to develop talent. Talent is not a cause. It is an outcome, and we need teachers, parents, neighbors, society to help, to cultivate, to help, to develop, to help one another, to reach our goals and dreams and make wonderful contributions to a better society.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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