Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
There is a myth lurking in our daily lives that is hurting our children’s ability to reach their potential and bounce back after failure. It’s called the “talent myth.” You could also call it the “gifted myth.” It goes something like this: Most people are average and will achieve average levels of competence in whatever they choose to pursue. But, there are some individuals who have an innate talent or giftedness. This “natural” ability enables them to potentially achieve things far more easily and usually beyond the reach of the average person. For example, an exceptionally talented child might excel at sports, read at an early age, or show prodigy-like qualities in music.
So, what’s the problem?
First, I’m not suggesting that every person is equal in their physical, intellectual or artistic abilities. It is clear that some individuals do have an advantageous starting point over others. The problem is that many people think that unless that label of “naturally talented” or “gifted” applies to them, they will never be able transcend the dreaded “average” level of competence. And, if they don’t see themselves as having natural talent, many of these young people will not even try to improve their skills or knowledge in certain areas.
A recent conversation with a mom illustrates this resignation. The mom was telling me that her teenage daughter is struggling with academics and as she enters her senior year is not even considering college as an option. When the mother asked her why, she said, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.” In other words, this teen makes an incorrect but common association: that because schoolwork seems more challenging for her than for her college-bound peers, she is not as smart as those friends. So, why try to do something you are not innately equipped (in this case intellectually) to accomplish. But, what this teen doesn’t understand is that good grades are not a result of high intellect but come from working hard to learn the material. Sure, it comes easier to some than others but it typically takes hard work to achieve high scores.
A pervasive illusion
Many of today’s youth are following an illusion: that if you are naturally good at something, it should come easily. And failure is to be avoided at all costs. In fact, failure is a confirmation that you are not working in an area of natural talent or giftedness. But, young people seem to be largely unaware that developing competency is a process. This process begins with little to no knowledge about the subject or task at hand. It is only by digging in, breaking the learning process down into smaller pieces, adding to your knowledge base and practicing the skills that competency can be achieved. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to master algebra, skiing or public speaking; you become better at something the more you engage in deliberate practice. It is not innate ability that enables you to develop mastery of a skill but repeated and sustained practice. And failure, rather than a statement of your limited intellect or skill level is actually a necessary part of building competency. But it requires resiliency to bounce back from perceived failure. Ask any successful musician, artist, salesperson, athlete or business owner. They’ve embraced their failures as learning opportunities to help them improve.
Takeaways for parents
So, what is your child’s understanding of how to achieve mastery in some chosen area? Is it the result of hard work, persistence and practice or do they unconsciously subscribe to the talent myth?
Here are some suggestions of how you can build resiliency in your child to stay with a task, even amid perceived failure. It is one of the most important life lessons you can teach.
- Help your child set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them. Make the goals challenging but achievable.
- Break the larger goal into smaller tasks. Sidestep the possible feeling of overwhelm by breaking the larger goal into smaller tasks. Show your child how the accomplishment of one task naturally builds on the next one.
- Foster an optimistic, can-do-attitude. Show that you believe in your child’s abilities. This increases their perception that they can in fact go beyond what they thought they were capable of doing.
- Encourage persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties. The need to do something multiple times can be seen either as failure or practice. Emphasize the latter toward skill mastery.
- Nurture resilience in the face of failure. Help your child anticipate adversity and what to do when they encounter it. Encourage them to find solutions to this adversity instead of quitting or drawing the premature conclusion that they aren’t able to overcome the challenge.