New Study Reveals Importance of Mindset in Career Success

Believing that talent is innate may hinder your chance of career success, a recent study suggests.

The study, published earlier this year the journal Science, had set out to discover why women and African Americans are underrepresented in certain academic fields such as philosophy, economics, music and math.

Drawing on data collected in a nationwide survey, the authors of the report found that this under-representation correlated with academic disciplines where practitioners believed that raw innate talent is the main requirement for success.

Myths about innate talent are particularly strong in philosophy, music, economics and math. By contrast, in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology, practitioners tend to hold the more accurate view that success is based on practice and hard work.

The authors of the study suggest that because women and ethnic minorities are generally less confident to begin with in America, and may even be stereotyped as not possessing innate talent, they gravitate towards disciplines not dominated by beliefs about field-specific ability. For example, in 2011, 54% of U.S. Ph.D.’s in molecular biology were women whereas only 31% in philosophy.

Reporting on this study in the Wall Street Journal last month, Alison Gopnik commented,

Did the fields with more men require more intelligence overall? No, the GRE scores weren’t different, and it seems unlikely that philosophers are smarter than biologists or neuroscientists. Did the fields with more men require more work? That didn’t make a difference either.

Was it because those fields really did require some special innate genius that just happened to be in short supply in women and African-Americans? From a scientific perspective, the very idea that something as complicated as philosophical success is the result of “innate talent” makes no sense….

But although scientists have abandoned the idea of innate talent, it’s still a tremendously seductive idea in everyday life, and it influences what people do. Psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford has shown in many studies, summarized in her book “Mindset,” that believing in innate academic talent has consequences, almost all bad. Women and minorities, who are generally less confident to begin with, tend to doubt whether they have that mythical magic brilliance, and that can discourage them from trying fields like math or philosophy. But the idea is even bad for the confident boy-genius types.

The solution is to start believing about ourselves what science has already proved to be true: success in any discipline comes from hard work and from a willingness to put yourself in situations where you will be stretched and challenged. As we explained in our earlier post, ‘The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift‘, success comes from adopting a “growth mindset” which accepts that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through effort. The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.

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