100% on your exam? I’m so sorry.

My daughter just got her best report card ever. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darn good, and she positively glowed as praise and hugs were heaped upon her 12-year-old head. Yet I wasn’t comfortable with telling her how proud those grades made me. I don’t want her to feel that my pride is based on getting As, because it really isn’t. I wasn’t comfortable with telling her how proud we are that she did so well, because that’s only a tiny part of the story.

I was, however, completely comfortable with telling her how proud I am of her improvement. Because I am. Good grades measure accomplishment, which may or may not be within your control. Improvement in grades measures effort, which generally is in your hands. We’re not a results-focussed family. We’re more interested in progress. As a fascinating article in The Atlantic this week by Josh Hamblin (“100% is Overrated”) points out, once you’ve reached top marks, where do you go from there? Do you really want to spend the rest of your life “holding position”? Is that territorial mentality constructive? Will is really foster the entrepreneurs and creative geniuses of the future?

by Joshua Sortino for unsplash

by Joshua Sortino for unsplash

That said, I don’t agree with the cited expert’s exhortation to not tell your kids they’re smart. Having seen my daughter hold herself back for so long because she was convinced that she wasn’t, I am so delighted to see her start to believe that maybe, just maybe, she is after all. Thinking that you’re smart gives you confidence to embark on daring learning projects, under the assumption that you’ll be able to keep up. Thinking that you’re smart doesn’t necessarily stop you from trying. Thinking that you’re not smart, would.

“When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood.” (from 100% is Overrated by Josh Hamblin)

For the same reason, I don’t agree with the assertion that smart or gifted kids are less likely to challenge themselves. Again, the confidence that you can probably learn anything you want would encourage challenges. My son was labelled “gifted” at 3 by his school, and went on to challenge himself in the most surprising ways, such as teaching himself French at 11, and Japanese at 14. Interestingly enough, his intelligence never translated into good exam grades, and I spent countless hours encouraging an anguished 15-year-old to forget about the grades and look at what else he’s done…

Action vs being. What you do says so much more about you than what you are. What you achieve speaks more to your character than your grades. And when it comes to being productive in the big wide world, good character trumps high innate intelligence any time. But that’s not to say that intelligence isn’t something to value and strive for. And that feeling smart isn’t something to cherish and appreciate, for the confidence it brings.

And here’s the thing: “smart” was never intended to be an absolute, a binary “you are or you aren’t” kind of thing. Everyone is good at something. Everyone can acquire new skills. Everyone can be smart in some way. And these days, there are so many ways to discover your ability, to use it and to promote it. The edtech scene is full of apps that gamify and measure and display, and the range is so vast, and growing all the time, that exposure to your niche is sooner or later going to happen. And once you find it, there are now so many ways to find others like you, to form or join a community, to improve your skill, connections and influence.

So, “smart” is nothing to be ashamed of. Telling people – your kids, your team, your friends – that they’re smart is not a motivation dampener, it’s actually encouraging. And I certainly don’t have the academic pedigree of the experts cited in the article, but I have seen up close the good that that confidence can do. I’m currently teaching myself Python programming. I launched myself into this without the slightest doubt that I’ll learn it, because, hey, I’m smart, right? It’s turning out to be a lot harder than I expected. Which makes it a lot more fun.

“What matters for improving performance is that a person is challenged, which requires a mindset that is receptive to being challenged—if not actively seeking out challenge and failure. And that may be the most important thing a teacher can impart.” (from 100% is Overrated by Josh Hamblin)

What I sincerely hope that I’ve managed to teach my kids is that being smart is not the goal. It’s a tool. Getting things done is the goal. Moving forward, mastering new skills, producing, creating, asking questions, finding answers, asking more questions… Getting good grades can be a worthwhile goal, too, as they do still open doors. The important thing is to know that good grades are no more than a measurement, they are not and should not be a defining characteristic, because once you’re out there in real life, good grades mean very little. Your attitude towards getting things done means a lot.

The article goes so far as to suggest that when our kids come home with perfect marks on a test, we offer them our condolences. “I’m sorry that you didn’t get the chance to learn.” Again, I respectfully disagree. Rather than paint high marks with the negative brush of lost opportunity, I propose that we praise the effort that went into it. “Brilliant! Well done! Clever you! Now what are you going to tackle?” In motivation, as in life, you need your failures and your struggles, but you also need your wins. And you need your confidence. And you need the knowledge, born of experience, that achievement feels good. Did you learn, did you improve? If the answer is yes, whether you get a C+ or an A+, a 60% or a 100%, whether you came first or second from last, you should be proud. You should be praised. And you should be encouraged to keep going.

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