Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers


Excerpt from "Working Smarter, Not Just Harder: Three Sensible Strategies for Succeeding in College…and Life"

“Growth-minded people embrace effort as a means to learning and mastery.”

The reformed sharks in Walt Disney’s animated movie “Finding Nemo” had a memorable line: “Fish are friends, not food.” While I was in college, I similarly changed my views about effort:Effort is a friend, not an enemy.”

Effort has a negative reputation. First, it’s physically and emotionally painful, sometimes so much so that it makes you want to avoid it at all costs. When effort rears its head, the temptation to take the path of least resistance is strong. It’s no surprise then that subjects like math, majors like engineering or activities like exercising are avoided by so many of us because of the mental and emotional pain they inflict.

Others view effort as an indictment of their ability. If you work harder than someone else on the same task then you must not be as smart, or that’s the belief. So we mask our effort or give up trying when much of it is necessary, at our peril.

While fixed-mindset types see effort as an unwelcome reminder of their “deficiencies,” growth-minded thinkers know that it sometimes takes prodigious, concentrated effort to get to mastery — effort that has the power to transform them as a person.

Growth-minded people embrace effort as a means to learning and mastery. They thrive when they embrace challenge and when they begin to understand or do something they couldn’t before. They aren’t ashamed to lift more weights, ask questions or otherwise “look dumb,” because they keep the big picture in mind: growth and mastery. Effort is a processtoward proficiency, not just looking good or feeling smart.

So let me ask you: which mindset is more likely to lead to success?

When my youngest son was learning how to ride a bicycle without training wheels, I asked him whether he was willing to fall. He said he wasn’t. I told him I wouldn’t teach him to ride until he was. After two days of this back-and-forth dialogue, he finally saw my point and grudgingly told me he was willing to fall. He did, however, put on knee pads, gloves, a helmet and elbow pads before getting on the bike. Smart kid!

You can’t expect to learn unless you’re willing to risk failure.

Growth-mindset students don’t mind making mistakes. As my good friend Jeff Howard, Ph.D., founder of the Boston-based Efficacy Institute, states, mistakes, or any performance, for that matter, are simply “data” that people with growth mindsets use to shape more effective strategies. Missing a field goal doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — cause a kicker to avoid high-pressure situations. Rather, the growth-minded kicker watches videotape to find out what he did wrong and then works with the holder to improve his approach to the next kick.

Similarly, my infamous 38 in my first physical chemistry exam was simply data, not an indictment of my ability: data that I used to develop the new approach to learning that I’ve been sharing with you in this column.

I met Dr. Howard when I was a senior in college. He and his team introduced me to the growth mindset when I was contemplating running for national vice chair of NSBE. His workshop challenged me to question why I was running for vice chair and not for chair, a position that was also open. I was confronted with the reality that fear dictated my decision! It was fear of failure, fear of putting myself out there, wondering whether anyone could be promoted from vice president of my local student chapter at MIT to national chair without traversing the customary interim steps, such as chapter presidency or regional leadership. That was fixed-mindset thinking.

Instead, Dr. Howard’s workshop challenged me to wonder what I had to lose by aiming higher. I would learn an enormous amount about myself as a candidate and about the electoral process. Even if I lost, I would get exposed to a broader group of people if I aimed for the top spot instead of settling for second fiddle.

That weekend transformed me from a fixed- to a growth-mindset thinker. Eventually, I won the election as national chair and developed many of the skills and contacts I use today, more than 30 years later.

How do you view effort, as friend or foe? Embrace it! Be willing to fail to get stronger. The rewards will outweigh the temporary bumps and bruises. Just keep those kneepads close!

Change Your Attitude! Embrace Effort