It IS about you…

“I looked always outside of myself to see what I could make the world give me instead of looking within myself to see what was there.”  ~Belle Livingstone


Have you ever been out in the world, going somewhere, sure of the direction you’re headed when in a flash you realize that you’re actually headed in the opposite direction? It’s such an odd and sudden shift of perspective, as if the entire world suddenly snaps to a new orientation. But it’s not the world that shifts, it’s you. Every now and then I get that same feeling from something I read. It could be the first time I read a new author (Bradbury, O’Connor, Vonnegut), or some piece of research, like a study by Carol Dweck, the subject of this post.

Last week I discussed how ego goals (proving your worth/ability or seeking to avoid disproving your worth/ability) are less productive and less helpful than task goals (focusing on a specific task to be completed/learned). Although the evidence is pretty clear that focusing on yourself isn’t the way to go, it’s also good to take Plato‘s advice: “Know thyself.” In this sense, it’s kind of a personal inventory. What you think and believe about intelligence (and music) has a profound effect on how you learn, and even whether you learn. Do you think your intelligence is fixed? Is your IQ a number that doesn’t change? How about talent? Do you think some are simply more talented than others? It turns out that your answers influence whether you tend to adopt ego goals or task goals as discussed last week. Did I mention motivation was a complex issue? Sheesh, we’re only scratching the surface here!

Anyway, Dweck’s article is all about the implicit (that is to say unspoken–even unconscious) ideas you hold about intelligence (and, as Smith (2005) points out for music, “talent”). Your ideas about what intelligence is has a profound impact on the way you learn. In a 1986 paper (the one that had such a powerful impact on me a few years ago), Dweck identified two systems of belief about intelligence: entity theory, and incremental theory. In  entity theory, the basic idea is that you believe intelligence is fixed. Immutable. A stable entity. The smarts you have are the only smarts you get. This is a pretty common belief and it’s reinforced by our culture and by labels such as “IQ scores,” or even the words “smart” or “stupid.” If you hold an incremental theory to be true however, this means you believe that intelligence is NOT fixed, that you get smarter the more you learn.

As with any theory, it helps to separate things out with clear distinctions, but in messy reality, we are a jumbled mix of all these things and more. And depending on the situation, or the teacher you’re with, or the people you hang around, these can shift and change. Again, Plato’s advice to “know thyself,” is really the only answer. You’ve got to figure these tendencies for yourself. So, what does it mean to hold either entity or incremental theories of intelligence?

Turns out that if you believe intelligence is fixed, you tend to adopt ego-oriented goals, and remember from last week that these goals aren’t very conducive to deeper learning. Ego is the focus because you’re identified with the label “smart” or “not smart” and because you believe that’s a fixed thing, it becomes part of your identity. Nobody wants to appear dumb, and those of us who hold this orientation (probably all of us to some degree or other) seek out situations that prove our intelligence (or our musical “talent”), and we seek to avoid situations which show us as “dumb” (or musically “untalented”).

However, if you believe that intelligence/talent is mutable, that you can get smarter/more “talented”, then you tend to adopt task goals. You tend to persist longer, and especially after failure, because with this orientation, failure is not a reflection of your ability or lack thereof, but an indication that you need to know more. Like James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

It’s a good idea to take something you don’t understand not as a sign that you’re dumb, but as a sign that you haven’t learned enough yet, and seek out that new knowledge. This is a HUGE difference in worldview! It caused a radical shift in my orientation: I became much more aware of the areas where I seemed to hold an entity theory. I’ve seen a gradual change into an even broader incremental theory in myself, both in thinking about my intelligence (and others’–very important for teachers out there!) and about musical “talent.” Subsequent studies have more or less confirmed that the implicit theories we hold and have a significant impact on our behavior and how we learn. The good news is that evidence has also shown that one’s implicit theories can and do change. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the woman herself talking about these ideas:

So, your implicit theories about “talent” will likely have an impact on the goal orientation you adopt (task or ego), and that will have an impact on how you practice. Talent is a myth! Talent is little more than accumulated practice time. Talent is learned ability. Those who show “talent” in music usually have had significant exposure from a very early age, even from within the womb! All this musical experience adds up, so those who get their exposure and practice at an earlier age seem to have some magical, God-given “talent” when in fact they’re simply showing the incremental nature of skill acquisition.

John Sloboda, an important musical psychologist, quoted by Smith (2005), said that Sloboda looked at the relevant research literature and “eloquently deconstructed what he calls the ‘talent account’ of musical ability–however, his conclusion that there is little or no evidence of any measurable aspect of function that could be interpreted as ‘talent’ is a message that has yet to resonate in the culture as a whole” (p. 51). Yep. Still a true story. Smith quotes another researcher immediately afterward and it’s a good quote so I’ll do the same:

“Americans generally accept the premise that the most common way, if not the only way, to acquire artistic talent is to have it bestowed upon you at birth, rather than through the successive influence of nurturing individuals and environments over time” (Austin, 1997, p. 168). Don’t forget that one of those “nurturing individuals is yourself!”

Talent as some magical thing you’re gifted with is a myth. Talent can be earned through work. You can get smarter, and better over time. Want to be talented? Go practice!

Have fun. Good luck.


Austin, J. R. (1997). Conceptions of music ability in American society: The influence of competition and other sociocultural factors. In R. Rideout (ed.) On the Sociology of Music Education, pp. 166-179. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma School of Music.

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048.

Sloboda, J. (1996). The acquisition of musical performance expertise: Deconstructing the talent account of individual differences in musical expressivity. In K. A. Ericsson (ed.) The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, pp. 107-126. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), pp. 36-57.


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