Realism vs. fatalism, diligence vs. delusion.

I recently answered a wide-ranging reader survey for my current favourite blog, Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. One of the questions was whether I had more of a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset, as defined here. I had to follow the link to figure out what Alexander was asking – I thought maybe it had something to do with economics – but it turns out in this context, “fixed” and “growth” mindset refer to whether you think talents are things you’re naturally born with, or things you acquire through effort.

Obviously no-one believes 100% that they’re born with all the talent necessary to play professional basketball, say, or write prize-winning short stories. Some effort must be exerted. On the other hand, despite what they may say to the contrary, no-one really believes 100% that anyone can, with enough practice, play in the NBA or become an acclaimed writer. Some people have physical or mental handicaps that could never be overcome, no matter how much effort they put in. The rest of us fall on a continuum between “could never do it in a million years” and “with the slightest effort could excel”.

I placed myself right in the middle on the five-point sliding scale – because I believe that in most cases both natural aptitude and effort are necessary. But in retrospect, the survey wasn’t really asking “what do you believe, for the range of imaginable talents, is the overall ratio of natural aptitude to applied effort?” It was asking, “where do you stand on the ideological dispute between those who think talent is inborn and those who think anyone can, with sufficient effort and encouragement, become good at anything?” And since no-one – literally not one single person in the entire world – says that talent is 100% inborn, while millions proclaim – at least via their t-shirts and coffee mugs – that the reverse is true, I probably should have answered that, relative to the weighted average of those two positions, I’m on the side of the “fixed” mindset.

Each mindset comes with its own pitfalls. An extreme “fixeder” might conclude there’s no point putting effort into anything, since if he’s not already good at it, it can only be because he lacks the natural genius for it. While an extreme “growther” could squander her life pursuing some futile dream, in the belief that success was just a little more effort away, while neglecting more attainable goals.

The “growther” tragedy is more visible – we’ve all winced at some deluded fool stubbornly flailing away in a pursuit he’s manifestly unsuited for. But we can never know how many invisible “fixeder” tragedies are happening in our midst – how many of our apparently unremarkable friends might have dazzled the world if only they’d put in that extra bit of effort. If “growtherism” seems to be more zealously propagandized than common sense would dictate, it may be because most of us secretly suspect, and some of us with good reason, that if only we’d more diligently pursued our dreams, if we hadn’t been distracted by the need to keep gas in the car and our families fed, we too might have joined the immortals.

M.

Last year I used Scott Alexander’s parable about a time-travelling Know-Nothing as a launching point for this discursive post about immigration, Brave New World, and the end of history.

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