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Intelligence vs. Effort

With less than 3 months left in the year, it’s crunch time. And I’ve got a LONG way to go to hit my goals for the year. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I haven’t met my annual goals… ever. Not even once since I started setting them. And that’s the way I like it.

I have a really weird relationship with failure, and I’ve kept it to myself to a significant degree because I didn’t know how to explain it. But a few months ago, I learned something that made it all make sense.

I learned about a study that was conducted that showed how children respond to two different types of feedback: intelligence-based versus effort-based.

As a little boy, I received constant praise for how smart I was. And I LOVED it. Whether that praise was deserved I can’t recall. But what I do recall is this: Because I thought I was smart, I thought I didn’t need to try. I thought everything was supposed to be easy for me. That led me to believe that praise was something I was entitled to by right of birth, rather than something to be earned.

The insidious part is that, when faced with a choice of the easy way or the right way, I would take the easy way. Why work harder when the praise is the same either way?

Even worse, when I was faced with something that was genuinely challenging, I would give up immediately. “Oh God,” my brain would think. “Something is happening that contradicts my belief that I’m smart. I need to avoid this thing to avoid an existential crisis.” And then I would go play StarCraft.

And that’s normal. That’s exactly what happens when you praise children for their intelligence. They stop feeling motivation to try.

Fortunately, I finally learned the correlation between effort and results. It happened gradually over several years, but I ultimately internalized the idea that growth isn’t about genetics, intelligence or skill… nearly as much as it’s about the constant application of force.

And I fell in love with that knowledge.

Even still, I haven’t stopped failing. Like I said, I haven’t met an annual goal for myself since I started setting them. But that no longer matters to me. I don’t expect to achieve my goals, because I know that when I have high expectations, I’m disappointed when they go unmet—and results are so often out of our control.

Instead of using my goals as a benchmark, I use them as a north star. The point is not to reach it; it’s just to use it to keep my course.

Instead of having expectations attached to my goals, I attach them to my effort.

When I have an objective of completing 3 two-hour deep work sessions in a day, it’s entirely my fault if I don’t meet it. It’s not because the market conditions weren’t right, or a crucial client left at the wrong time, or because a freak pandemic came out of nowhere and changed the face of the economy.

It’s ONLY because I didn’t do the work, and that gives me 100% control. I decide if I go to sleep feeling good about myself—nobody else decides it for me.

And at the end of the year, however much I may have missed my goals, I know that I put out above-average efforts, and the above-average results I want are coming. And all I have to do resist the urge to stop before they get here.

That way, the only way to fail is to not make an effort—and it’s a choice that I get to make every single day.

The same applies to you too.

P.S., here’s the link to a 5 minute video summarizing the effort vs. intelligence praise thing:

I'm John Kakuk.

I’m a brand designer, web developer and marketer working with architects, engineers and construction companies. My purpose is to help others achieve the best versions of their businesses and themselves.

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