Former Secretary of State and Senator John Kerry once spoke in an interview many years ago about the importance of believing you’re smart.
This idea stayed with me.
The more I’ve thought about what he said, and the more I’ve experienced, the more I’ve realized the power in this simple idea: In many important ways, belief in your own intelligence is more powerful than “congenital” intelligence.
Consider how utterly impotent you become when you let the belief that you’re unintelligent take hold? You stop trying. You stop thinking you can.
There’s momentum behind belief. The strength it creates begets more strength.
The person who believes he can and will is far more likely to push through the difficulty of learning something new and foreign and complicated. We’ll never have the endurance to keep pushing our minds as much as we should if we stop believing in the ability of our minds to take us where we want to go.
This is why it’s important to make it a habit to tell people that they’re smart—or remind them. This small act can make a big difference and, at scale, will improve the productivity of the world!
Regardless of the person, telling a human he’s smart will never be a lie. We’re the most intelligent lifeforms on earth and we’re incredibly lucky to be homo sapiens.
Of course, encouraging someone who seems far of course isn’t helpful. You don’t want to embolden and help people grow confident in the wrong things or ideas but I think on a net basis, more are guided towards the truth and the light over time when they believe in their intelligence than toward bogus conspiracies and darkness.
I was reading about the ways coaches at this recent Olympics in Pyan Chang mentally prepare their athletes—especially in sports like figure skating when precision and consistency is more important than brute strength or endurance. In many cases the coaches play the role of the psychologist, telling skaters to remember “You’re the best. You’ve trained harder than anyone. You deserve this. You will not fail.” This is very much like telling someone he is smart and there are very real performance benefits to confidently reinforcing this in others.
I realize I just wrote about the importance of faith in success and this is quite similar but it’s important to be reminded about our duty to help others by elevating and increasing faith instead of diminishing it.
I admit that just as certain people seem to be born with stronger arms that let them throw faster and farther, there must be genetic variance in the same way with mental ability but even in the face of what appears to be a disparity in cognitive gifts I am reminded of Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
My Dad has this quote above his desk. It’s great.
Coolidge reinforces that talent is nothing without belief. If we stop stop believing we’re smart we’ll stop persisting to do the work required of us to improve our minds.
Our minds are malleable. We’re all smart.
And now I’m getting back to work.
UPDATE March 20, 2018:
One month on, my Aunt sent me this video about Thomas Edison and Edison’s mother that relates to the thoughts expressed in this post: