Happiness is an A for Effort

Caroline Peng, Stewart AM, Honorbound

Hours of research and writing may go into the creation of these blog posts, but our worth will be pinned only on the final letter grades we receive. Every academic achievement of an Ursuline student and any student in America is unfortunately a celebration of the ends of her work, rather than the means. This positive reinforcement, coined “person praise” as opposed to “process praise” by University of Chicago and Stanford researchers, pressures struggling students into giving up and becoming complacent, since they become convinced that every challenge and rejection is a denial of themselves and the full extent of their capacity.1 How many children have been praised for A’s, for talent, for how smart they are, for being a “natural”? How many rely so deeply in this kind of commendation and on inherent abilities only to fall when they hit psychological or academic walls without the foundational work habits and diversity of human capital that would allow them to overcome them?

Too many to be healthy, according to psychologist Carol Dweck, who confirms that emphasis on “[students’] hard effort, not their natural gifts, can and will allow them to succeed.”2 Our education currently supports the mindset of person over process, or results over effort. Grades are assigned, tests marked, and GPA calculated as easy evaluation of student performance, but they also reflect the focus on results that pervades student growth.  When the first thing most parents, teachers, and admissions officers see are the numerical scores and not the work that led to them, we tend to attribute students’ accomplishments to inherent intelligence. This leads to the restrictive and paralyzing mentalities that cause so much anxiety in perfectionists who might have done brilliantly when they were young and didn’t have to work so much in school, but found it harder to keep up with problems of increasing complexity while still fixated on the idea that what they could achieve was immutable, never developing intrinsic motivation for success. This situation parallels the problem of unemployment that Charles Wheelan raises in Naked Economics, specifically in the negative perception of creative destruction and the idea of a finite job market, which he explains doesn’t have to make the displaced worker worse off; if “they are more versatile in a fast-changing economy,” they are “more like to be left standing after a bout of creative destruction.”3

What we need to enable this versatility is the conviction that human capital is not fixed, and for that we need intrinsic motivation. Dr. Elizabeth Gundon, director of the University of Chicago study, says process praise improves self-motivation, persistence, and optimism.4 Encouraging effort doesn’t just increase children’s evaluation of their self-worth and their determination to work for something, it increases their willingness to work at all—if children believe that their abilities can change and their achievements come from effort, they are no longer scared to take up opportunities no matter how difficult they may be.5 The principle applies expansively to our life goals when we also take into account Aristotle’s assumption that “as at the Olympic games it is not the fairest and the strongest who receive the crown, but those who contend.”6 It describes the way we can achieve happiness—namely, that we never will if we are discouraged by fear from the opportunity to try.

1 Nick Collins, “Praise Children’s Effort, Not Their Intelligence,” The Telegraph, February 12, 2013, accessed June 26, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9862693/Praise-childrens-effort-not-their-intelligence.html.

2 “Reward Effort, Not Just Achievement,” Engaging Minds, January 8, 2015, accessed June 26, 2017, http://engagingmindsonline.com/blog/26-blog/249-reward-effort-not-just-achievement.

3 Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 134.

4 Collins, “Praise Children’s Effort.”

5 “Reward Effort.”

6 Aristotle, “The Nicomachean Ethics,” in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Bernardo Aparicio (Dallas: Ursuline Academy, 2017), Book I: Chapter 8.

Image Citation: Blackwell, Rebecca. “Simone Biles at Rio Olympics.” 2016. U.S. News. Accessed June 26, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/news/sports/articles/2016-12-26/simone-biles-soars-to-ap-female-athlete-of-the-year.


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