In recounting the story of her colleague Scott Kaufman, who was originally identified as a disabled learner but went on to have a stellar academic career, Dr Duckworth identifies in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a clear turning point in his life.
At age 14, Kaufman had already been assigned to a special school for children with learning disabilities. While there, one of his special education teachers noticed something about him and asked him why he was not taking more challenging classes. Duckworth writes:
Until then, Scott had never questioned his intellectual status. Instead, he’d assumed that his lack of talent would put a very low ceiling on what he might do with his life. … [He] started wondering, for the very first time: Who am I? Am I a learning-disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?
This was a profoundly consequential intervention in Kaufman’s life. It was the questioning from his teacher that made him change how he thought about himself.
According to Duckworth:
“There’s a vast amount of research on what happens when we believe a student is especially talented. We begin to lavish extra attention on them and hold them to higher expectations. We expect them to excel, and that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
We’re moving again into the realm of Dr Carol Dweck’s research on fixed and growth mindsets. We’ll come back to this topic later in our other books on Dr Duckworth’s work.
In this post we see Scott Kaufman start school as a very slow tortoise whom no-one could imagine would ever win a race with a hare. Yet a few words from a teacher and this tortoise begins to think differently about himself. Does he start to see himself as a more hardworking or grittier tortoise? Or as more hare-like than he thought he could be?
Kaufman’s grit is obvious. His application to study cognitive science at Carnegie Mellon was rejected. So he auditioned for - and was accepted into - Carnegie Mellon's opera program which didn’t require high SAT scores. After taking on more and more psychology classes during his degree, he was able to eventually transfer to the psychology department and graduate from there.
Earlier when he was told by his high school’s psychologist that he was positioned on the left-hand side of the standardized bell curve in terms of potential, Kaufman had asked a profound question: “At what point does achievement trump potential?” He was beginning to see beyond the limiting assumptions around him and was demonstrating a much better grasp of the situation than his assessed intelligence would suggest possible.
Unlike his encounter with his special education teacher as a 14-year-old, these questions were originating from within Kaufman himself. They were self-generated. He was thinking for himself. And he was thinking like a Reformed Hare.
The Reformed Hare, as we discussed in the previous post, acknowledges and embraces their innate talents. At the same time, they recognize the value in - and the need for - the continuous development of those talents through effortful practice.
This self-generated, self-perpetuating thought process enlivened Kaufman to bigger possibilities. It raised his belief in himself and it fuelled his grit and determination.
This constructive thought process wouldn’t have started without those encouraging, life-changing words from his teacher. They transformed his self-concept from someone below average to someone capable of illustrious achievements. Kaufman’s story is therefore as much an illustration of how important it is that you define yourself as capable of achievement, as it is an uplifting tale of grit.
The obvious takeaway from Duckworth’s research on this point is don't call yourself slow or think of yourself as not naturally talented, which is to see yourself as a hopeless tortoise. At the same time, don’t go so far as to think you don’t need to develop anymore and that you can simply coast along and still win the race, that is, to be the hare in the traditional fable story.
Far better to think like a Reformed Hare. Or in Carol Dweck’s terminology, adopt a growth mindset, believe that you can improve, and envision how working towards achieving more is not just viable, but an essential ingredient for being successful.
It can be helpful to think about and reflect on the people around you, and on the feedback and encouragement they’ve given you.
I remember vividly one partner who, from day one, thought I was a hopeless lawyer. I’m not exactly sure why.
As often happens in these situations, I made things worse for myself - arguably because of her attitude, but not only for that reason - by on one occasion being too eager to give off-the-cuff advice to a major client.
In the middle of a meeting with this client, I had spoken positively about the likely application of a joint venture exception to the strict prohibition that would otherwise apply to – and block – their planned business deal with a competitor. In effect, I was giving them a greenlight to do what they wanted to do.
I can still see in my mind's eye how all of us were seated around a large boardroom table that early evening, and how a stunned look spread slowly across my partner's face as I finished sharing my thoughts. She could not believe what I had just done.
After the meeting, she berated me for speaking out of turn, and sent me out of her office to do the required research immediately so that we could follow up and give the client more considered advice. I went out of her office with my tail between my legs to wrestle with the minutiae of this admittedly complicated area of law.
After finishing my research at around 2am the next morning, I placed my memo of advice on the partner's desk and left the office to go back home for a few hours' sleep.
I was fortunate in the sense that my initial assessment, though provided prematurely during the meeting the day before, had been correct, or at the very least, strongly defensible. Even so, the partner in question never explicitly acknowledged I had been correct.
In hindsight, I shouldn't have put her in that situation. My rookie mistake was a sign of my immaturity. Nevertheless, her assessment of me as my supervisor took a toll on my confidence and on my development as a competition lawyer.
Contrast that situation with another one just a couple of years later involving the partner who headed up the Banking and Finance department of a different law firm. With only a small exaggeration, he literally thought I could do no wrong. It was nerve-wracking at times to be given so much leeway and to be presented as an adviser on major matters as if I was much a more senior lawyer than I actually was. But perhaps that was the counterbalance I needed.
Suffice it to say, I performed to an appropriately high standard on every project on which I worked with that partner. And those experiences made me realise I was more capable and had greater potential than I might otherwise have believed.
I was able to think of myself again as a Reformed Hare, and not as a slow and bumbling tortoise. I recognised my natural talent and understood I needed to be more disciplined. I had started the process of reframing how I thought of myself, and I never looked back.
If you’re helping someone else achieve their full potential, then as Duckworth's anecdotes and my own experience show, you can intervene to help them to embrace their natural talent and think more like a Reformed Hare. And if you need to change your own thinking, you can start that process now from the inside and create your own self-fulfilling prophecy of reformed haredom.
1. Scott Kaufman began to think differently about himself, and in particular to question his assigned status as a learning-disabled kid, because of:
a. His increasing maturity and self-awareness.
b. Something his teacher said to him.
c. Something his high-school psychologist said to him.
d. His experience as an opera student at Carnegie Mellon.
e. What he read in Dr Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.
2. In your career to date, how important have other people’s perceptions of your natural or innate talent been to you?
3. In your current role, do you have opportunities to influence how one or more of your colleagues think about their own talents and abilities?
A. I have no such opportunities.
B. I have some such opportunities.
C. I have many such opportunities.
4. How do you see your own (Reformed) Hare / Tortoise profile as a professional at this point in your career?
0% Hare / 100% Tortoise
20% Hare / 80% Tortoise
40% Hare / 60% Tortoise
60% Hare / 40% Tortoise
80% Hare / 20% Tortoise
100% Hare / 0% Tortoise
Scott Kaufman's inspiring story illustrates the power of labels, as it shows how certain diagnostic descriptions, such as 'learning disabled kid', can hold someone back from becoming a success. The psychologist Raymond Bergner underscores this point using an example from a Charlie Brown cartoon:
“Sociological statuses such as 'military general', 'boss' or 'father' are clear examples of statuses that carry with them behavior potential. Less clear is the fact that personal attribute labels, which are usually understood as referring to attributes inhering [existing permanently] 'in' persons, also designate such statuses. Charles Schultz, however, in a Charlie Brown cartoon many years ago, appreciated this fact very well. In this cartoon, we find Charlie Brown lamenting that, because he is 'Nothing' and a much-desired little red-haired girl is a 'Something' he can't go over and have lunch with her. Charlie understands that his self-assigned label 'Nothing' is not merely the name of some attribute of his but is also a status. This label places or locates him somewhere in the scheme of things. In this instance, it is in a place of tremendous ineligibility to relate to others he deems worthy.”
PART A - To what degree do you believe that you have internalised a self-limiting label that has hindered you in your career? For example, have you described your abilities in a way that has made you unintentionally ineligible for greater advancement?
PART B - Can you think of any time in your life, whether when young or more recently, when you felt you were inaccurately or unfairly labelled as less capable than you believe yourself to be?
PART C - Do you consciously try to avoid labelling others regarding their abilities or their potential within your area of work? Or do you find yourself occasionally assessing these things and expressing your views on how skilled someone is or is likely to be in the future?
TAKE THE NEXT STEP
This post was from our book, You Don’t Know Grit! What Every Professional Needs to Know About the Science of Talent, Passion and Perseverance.
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In the meantime, feel free to email me your queries and comments.
About the Author
Dr Peter Macmillan began his legal career in 1992 and ultimately became Head of Competition Law at an international law firm in Hong Kong. Today, Peter is the CEO of Meisterline Analytics, an international pioneer in the science of professional expertise and a leading provider of professional expertise metrics for law firms and their clients. He is also the author of 8 books, including the seminal reference book, Unlocking the Secrets of Legal Genius: Measuring Specialist Legal Expertise Through Think-Aloud Verbal Protocol Analysis, The KUJI Handbook and The 21 Secrets Of Gritty Professionals. Peter has a Master’s Degree in Competition Law and a PhD in Cognitive Science.
In 2022, Peter founded his own unique law firm in Melbourne, which specializes in signature witnessing, document certification and the formal authentication of documents for every legal and official use within Australia and internationally. For more information about the unimaginatively named Peter Macmillan & Associates, please visit pmaca.com.au/about.