Growing up, I was always pretty good at math. When I moved from Georgia to Southern California in the 6th grade my placement test put me in the honors class 2 grades above. I sat there as this tiny, oddly dressed kid for about two weeks before I told my parents it was overwhelming and weird and that I wanted to go back down to honors math with kids my age (I mostly hated being so relatively small). When I moved to the Bay Area a couple of years later, I was also placed at a high level, but this time there was a group of 3 other kids that also walked across a giant field from junior high to the high school math class.
I distinctly remember one day sitting in high school Statistics class and being the only person who scored 100% on a test. While people looked at their grades they all looked at one of the problems and figured out that the grading key was wrong, and that I had made the same exact mistake as our Stats teacher. I got heckled all throughout class that day, but I didn’t really care. It wasn’t just because my grade in the class was already more than 100%. It was also because I had an opportunity to fix my mistake and get better.
When I arrived for my Freshman year of college I felt pretty stupid. I was surrounded by high achieving students that were legitimately smart and students from other countries with actual education systems that worked like crazy to get great grades. By the end of the year I found myself on academic probation because Electrical Engineering, as it turns out, is really hard.
Psychologist Carol Dweck describes the “fixed mindset” vs “the growth mindset” in her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success. Her studies show that it’s more important to credit effort and hard work rather than natural talent and praising children as “smart”. Most of my high school classmates at my extremely competitive high school considered me a “math person”. This led me to having a fixed mindset in which I didn’t know how to respond to not being at the top of my class. Buried in the depths of his wisdom, my dad somehow waited until college to tell me that “there will always be someone better than you”. I think it was from this point on that I embraced a growth mindset.
The idea of a fixed mindset, in which people are smart or not smart, stands in contrast to a growth mindset, in which people become intelligent and knowledgeable through practice.
Since I’ve left college having actually earned that Engineering degree, I’ve continued to embrace being really really awfully terrible at things. It has helped me change careers without fear of failure, knowing that I could put the effort in that I need to get by. It has driven me to be a voracious reader and tinkerer that cannot stop trying to make things work. It has, much to my wife’s chagrin, provided me with a rich life of dabbling in dozens of things that bring me joy, even if I’m not all that good at them. And perhaps most importantly, it has taught me that we all have to start somewhere and we should never pass up an opportunity to learn.
Be terrible, my friends. It’s a good life.