Be Bad At Something...Until You're Not

Recently, I've been reading the book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Social Psychologist and Associate Director of Columbia Business School's Motivation and Science Center Heidi Grant Halvorson. The book is full of interesting thoughts and sage advice, but I've been focusing on one chapter in particular as it relates to my current crop of second semester students.

The chapter is titled, "Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good," and it speaks to the thoroughly debunked yet pervasive notion that our aptitudes, personalities, and personal strengths and weakness are fixed. How many times have you heard someone say (and perhaps this someone is you): "I'm just bad at math." Or, "I'm a slow reader." I do this all the time even as an adult. "I'm good with faces," I say to the person whose name I've forgotten again, "but so bad with names."

While of course people's brains think in different ways, and while we are usually "naturally" better at some things than others, this is no way means that we cannot get better at the things at which we struggle. A large and growing body of research has shown that abilities are, in fact, profoundly malleable. In the words of Halvorson: "embracing the fact that you can change can lead you to make better choices and reach your full potential." While I agree with almost all of this statement, I'd like to take a moment to disagree with the idea of "full potential." The phrase "full potential" insinuates an end point, a point at which we could not get better or go further if we tried for a million years. It seems to indicate a finite universe in which limits of time, space, and energy exist. For better or worse, I do not believe in such limits. It's the blessing and the curse of being human. We cannot possibly achieve it all (a reality that can frustrate us and at times make it seem as if all of our striving is for naught), and we cannot possibly achieve it all (the absolute best thing there is, for it leaves another adventure always beyond the next horizon!). However, Halvorson's main point is that we can change even the things about ourselves we believe to be fixed, and that the first step to enacting change is understanding that it is possible.

With my students, I first try to take them back in time. "When you were two years old," I ask some of my athletes, "were you good at basketball?" They laugh. The question is absurd. "Of course not!" Then I ask, "when you were in 7th grade, were you better at basketball than you were when you were two years old?" Now it's starting to make sense. "But when you were in 7th grade, did you think that you were the best you would ever be at basketball just because you were better than you were when you were two?" The answer to this question is a universal no.

I also remind them of something they already know because they are experiencing it: when you are inexperienced or new at something, the odds of making mistakes are naturally higher. Learning something new- whether it's a killer jumpshot or string theory or the art of time management- can be hard. It doesn't feel good to be bad at something. It feels bad! It can be frustrating and intimidating and at times overwhelming. But you have a choice. You can take those feelings for what they feel like- a sign that a certain skill or concept is unlearnable or simply not for you- or you can take them for what they are- the natural but temporary discomfort that comes with being a rookie.

I've had students who find themselves in a course that is much more difficult than anything they ever experienced in high school. They don't understand the lectures. They don't understand the reading. They're scared and intimidated and they feel like giving up. So we talk about "getting better rather than being good." Perhaps next class they get a handle on one of the concepts being discussed. Better! Perhaps they schedule a meeting with the professor or a tutor to go over the material. Better! The pressure to get it right the first time often results in many more mistakes and a far inferior performance than allowing yourself to be bad at something until, well, you're not so bad at it anymore.

And you know what? The message is being received. Since 2007, the success coach program at my university has seen over 700 students walk through our doors. And every year, more and more former students and upperclassmen spread the word to freshman as well as older students who find themselves struggling. All of my students this semester knew about the program before our first meeting. They knew friends, classmates, or teammates who had worked with a success coach in the past, and this kind of word-of-mouth support for the program has basically erased any and all stigma that could be attached to needing academic help. Students entering the program now see it for the tool that it is: a headlamp, a compass, a rope thrown down to the bottom of the well.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.