Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Requiem for a Slacker, Part One

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.
--Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck

The most e-mailed article on New York Magazine's website today is called "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise." Every parent and teacher should read the whole thing (and everyone should take a look at the hilarious photo on the opening page), as well as anyone interested in psychology, or anyone who thinks that not keeping track of goals in kids' soccer games is total bullshit.

Basically, a growing body of research shows that telling a kid he's smart will result in anxiety, self-consciousness, and ultimately underperformance. The evidence indicates that if a kid believes that intelligence and ability are innate, she'll give up too easily on things that require effort. "I'm no good at [insert school subject or sport], so why bother trying?" Besides, hard work is for dumb people.

The research challenges the conventional wisdom that pumping up a kid's self-esteem ("You're special! You're smart! You're amazing!") will make him happier and higher-achieving. In fact, kids labeled "smart" have such a fear of looking stupid that it's easier for them to just cop out.

That doesn't mean you should never praise kids, but that praise should be sincere, specific and for effort, not for any natural ability. Besides, after about the age of 7, kids get really good at sniffing out patronizing praise:
“Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” [NYU professor of psychiatry Judith Brook] says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

What's really exciting is that the ability to be persistent isn't just a matter of will, it's a matter of brain wiring. There's a circuit in the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex that switches on in the event of failure, telling the brain, "Don't give up." This circuit will lose its activity if rewards are constant and assured, i.e., through overpraising.

BUT--and this is the exciting part--it can also be reactivated. I use myself as a case in point.

I was told I was Really Smart from age 3. I excelled in elementary school because classes focused on skills with short-term results and rewards (adding fractions, spelling words), along with rote memorization of facts. Easy stuff that made me feel good.

Middle school was a little harder because there were "projects." Long-term endeavors requiring planning and organization and (gasp!) hard work. I either faked my way through (yes, I invented the data on every science project) or simply didn't do them and only managed to avoid failing classes by acing tests.

Things were worse in my gifted program, SLP (the smug acronym for "Superior Learners Program," which the other kids rightfully derided as "Smart Little People"). Once we had to build a theme park. A theme park! I couldn't build a straight wall with Legos, and I was expected to conceive and construct my own amusement park. Nope. It was hard (and, frankly, stupid), so I just didn't do it.

I managed a B average in high school and college by doing well on tests and short papers, which offset the F's on term papers and other multi-day projects. Physics I failed--or rather, gave up on, which amounted to the same thing. Because I "couldn't do physics," (it was hard!! Waaah!), I couldn't get a biology degree, which to this day ranks as one of my biggest regrets. I wish just one person in my life had said, "Keep trying," instead of, "Yeah, an English major suits your strengths better."

Then somewhere in my mid-twenties, on my own, I decided I didn't want to be an underachiever anymore. Because a smart slacker is still a slacker, going nowhere fast.

I took night classes. I even took Physics, which, it turned out, was still really hard (damn! You think they would've fixed that). But since I was paying the tuition, I studied my brain out and even bought extra books to help me understand the concepts. Lo and behold, I got a B. I was prouder of that B than any 99th percentile score on some meaningless standardized test.

I wrote a novel. A whole novel, even when I had to start over with a new plot. Then I wrote another one, writing one page a day for nine months to complete it before entering grad school.

Ah, grad school. I had the best incentive of all for doing well there: money. Meaning, if I didn't get mostly A's I wouldn't get another fellowship and would have to either pay the second year's tuition (nope) or leave school and go back to work in an office (yeah, right).

So I worked my butt off every moment of those two years. What do I have to show for it? A certificate that says I had the highest GPA of my graduating class (not a 4.0--I stumbled across the finish line with one B because I had three papers due in the last three days).

Big deal, a certificate. But more importantly I learned the most valuable lesson of my life. I learned that whatever innate intelligence I have or don't have, it really doesn't matter, because if I don't work hard, I fail. If I work hard, I do brilliantly (and for me, a B in Physics is brilliant, downright retina-blasting).

For the record, I work REALLY hard on my books. More on hard work, praise, and the writing life tomorrow in Part 2.

In the meantime, what do you think? Are kids overpraised? How will that affect their ability to participate in the workplace? How important is self-esteem, anyway? Should everyone on the team get a trophy?

A-Z Update: "Angel Band" by the Stanley Brothers, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack


Monday, February 26, 2007


That was the sound of my head exploding.

According to an AC Nielsen Internet-based survey, 13% of Americans have never heard of global warming. Compare that to only 4% of Latin Americans, and 9% of people worldwide.

I--I can't--I can't even BEGIN to think of something to say that wouldn't get me arrested.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Next appearance

This Saturday I'm doing something a little different from the usual booksigning.

The manager of PetSage holistic pet supply store in Alexandria, Virginia, invited me to come and discuss not just Eyes of Crow, but also the concepts of animal spirits and shamanism behind the book. I'll also probably talk about my work with Tails of Hope and have a scrapbook of all the cute dogs we've fostered.

Reservations are required, but registration is free. So come on out: it's bound to be more fun than last-minute catching up on all the depressing thought-provoking Oscar-nominated films.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

From A to Z

I've decided to sort all 3,768 clips in RealPlayer alphabetically and play them straight through. Originally I was going to do it in concert with Bad Company revisions, but my due date has been pushed back to June, so I'm back to working on Crow books (as you can see from the sidebar).

I liked the A to Z idea so much, I didn't want to wait. I even bought new ear buds. And while my creative rhythms may be in thrall to my publishers' schedules, they can't dictate my listening habits*.

I'll start today with "#34" by the Dave Matthews Band (from Under the Table and Dreaming) and ending someday with "Zurna Tabl Naqqare" by Iraqi Tradtional Group (from the soundtrack to Three Kings).

Maybe I'll set Easter as the goal date, making this a sort of Lenten project. Sure beats giving up chocolate.

The miracle will be if I can get through all 3,768 clips with the same set of ear buds. Will I lose them? Will they be chewed by a dog or cat? Permanently borrowed by my husband? Stay tuned.

*They sort of can't. I'll have another post soon on how radically different my lifestyle becomes depending on which series I'm working on.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Well, that was odd

My apology post seems to have fixed the blog.

It's a magic elixir! Feel free to copy and post to fix any problem you might have, including:
  • Weird blog margins*
  • Sluggish CPU
  • Broken snow blower
  • That funny smell in your fridge
  • Shingles

*the only FDA-approved use


Apologies if this blog page looks totally bollocksed. I imported a YouTube video and ignored an HTML error. Boom! Deleted the post, to no avail. My webmaster's going to kill me.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Lilly Belle, Part Two

Meadow has her teddy bear back. When I cross the room, no one jumps up to watch my every move. A slobber-covered ball hasn't been dropped in my lap in over an hour.

This can only mean one thing.

Lilly Belle has left the building.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

That's why they call them "dead"lines

In 1999 I had a summer internship with a federal agency (I won't name names but if you shouted the acronym it would sound like "Eee-PA!").

My office computer at the agency was underpowered, but it served me well for the first two months, as long as I didn't run too many programs simultaneously*. But by August the hard drive would often freeze, as if in pain, at seemingly random times during the day. I learned to save early, save often.

The last two weeks of my internship, that poor little computer trudged bravely on, stumbling (i.e., shutting down) every few hours. The day I left, just after I pulled off all my files and handed them to my supervisor, that sucker died. It was landfill-bound (though maybe because it was Eee-PA!, it would at least be recycled).

After this last month of 10-, 12-, 14-hour days in front of the laptop, or hunched over a manuscript, revising Voice of Crow, my body feels like that old government computer. It's whimpering for a massage, a yoga session, and normal personal hygiene. All its parts hurt and have to be taught how to live again.

So that's where I've been the last two weeks, in the Rewrite Cave. Today and yesterday, recovering, letting my eyes adjust to the light. Normal blogging resumes tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.

* "too many" = 3


Friday, February 02, 2007

Happy Groundhog Day

Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.
--Phil, Groundhog Day, 1993; screenplay, Harold Ramis

Cue annual pitch for my favorite film.

Roger Ebert named it one of his Great Movies. Transparency Now has a wonderful essay on it entitled "Breakthrough to the Real Self."

In short: Bill Murray + spiritual existentialism + large rodent = Cinematic Bliss.

It gets better every year.

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Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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