Why 'gifted' is overrated

Science bears out that success does not lie in passion or interest, but in how you view passion

Maria Isabel Garcia

3:0:0am July 15, 2018

11:59:2am July 14, 2018

We always think that success comes with having passion. And when we say we have the passion or seething interest for something, we often associate it with something that has been there from the start versus something we develop. But how does this bear out in reality? Science has been "stalking" passion to find out how, and it came out with a very interesting answer that may just surprise you.

We love the term "passion" and carry it as the "key" that unlocks the story of why we do what we do and succeed in it. Passion is being interested in something with an energy that can burst stars. But passion or interest is viewed by most people as something they have been seeded with, i.e., they are gifts, and people just intuitively know if something excites their interest. But if you think of interest or passion this way, how does that affect how you approach learning in terms of what you are interested in, how open you are to other interests, how you get motivated, and how you sustain that interest when experiencing obstacles?

A recently published study by researchers from Yale and the National University of Singapore revealed that how we learn and how much we learn depend on what we think passion or interest is. Their findings can be collapsed into 2 main points:

People who think passions or interests are a given, i.e., something we are born with which we just have to feel within us as we go along. These are people who are less interested in things that they did not have "interest at first sight" encounters with. They are also less inclined to be open to new interests compared to those who think that passions can grow by being cultivated.

People who view passion or interest as an oil reserve that when struck, would provide seemingly unlimited amounts of motivation to pursue it deeply, get more discouraged by difficulties than those who view passion as akin to hardwork and thus, would naturally come with obstacles to hurdle.

This study further strengthens and supports previous studies done and led by psychologist Carol Dweck. She so eloquently described this dilemma we have about passion or interest as "the tyranny of the now" versus "the power of the not yet." It has to do with how we think about passion or interest. She and others have called it the "fixed" and the "growth" mindsets, respectively.

In the scientific stories she narrated in her Ted Talk, she demonstrated how grading kids with "not yet" instead of a failing grade could transform kids' way of viewing what interest is – that it is a process that they themselves have the power to engage in and maximize. It transformed communities of learning to the extent that schools who embraced this went from the bottom of the pile in ranking to the top layer.

In terms of being open to challenges, she also narrated stories about testing the effect of these two kinds of thinking in learning among 10-year-old students who were made to confront problems that were a little harder for their level. Those who had a "fixed" mindset largely thought that the ways to get out of it were to cheat, to run away from the problem and – what I found was the worse – to put someone down so they could feel superior. This was in stark contrast to the 10- year-olds who had a "growth" mindset. These kids reacted by saying things like "they love a challenge!" They already approach the next space in their lives by recognizing that it is a door they can open.

The story above also supports the second finding from the study. In the study, they asked people who were interested in blackholes, and at first, a lot were. But as soon as detailed articles and math were assigned in order to learn more about blackholes, interest in blackholes declined. While this seems like a common observation to you, what will surprise you is that those who were discouraged were the ones who had a "fixed" mindset. They thought that motivation just came naturally, and that if they struggle with it – as in the case when confronted with difficulties – then it must not be for them, so they opted out.

In my experience, I have observed that news headlines, including that of Rappler's, appeal to people's "fixed" mindsets. A few columns ago, the title I submitted for a column on gay dysphoria was "This may make you out come out of the closet." I was asked to reconsider the headline given the sensitivity of the topic. I told my editor that if people read the column, they will know that I am not referring to the "closet" that most people think it is, and that my using "closet" was deliberate to shatter pre-conceived notions. I ended up submitting another title. People like headlines, but when they get to read the story and learn that it is more complicated than they originally thought the headlines meant, then they stop reading. But that is how you learn – by discovering that life is nuanced in multi-splendored bits and shards.

The recent study also has big implications in the way we teach young ones in our families. The researchers said that we can start by slanting our reactions to children's good works by telling them "that's great work!" instead of telling them how "gifted" they are. "Gifted" implies that something was given to you at the very start, and that it will be an unlimited spring of motivation and of even more gifts that will get you further in life. "Gifted" also implies that others may not have "gifts," and that is not true. We can learn and improve – everyone can, at different slants and rates – but we will never know how and to what extent if we do not try. It is one of those things your parents, teachers, gurus, and even Google cannot answer – they cannot tell you what you would end up learning and be interested in. You just have to learn and be open.

Most of all, this has implications on our educational system. Could ranking sections according to "gifted ones" starting from the "gifted" and then to others, in descending order, be erasing any gains that we could be making in other aspects of our school system? How about the overemphasis on grades as the way to motivate students?

I found out that "passion" comes from the word in late Latin "passio," from the earlier Latin "pati," which means "to suffer." Passion, in human language, was born with hardwork already as its twin. It did not come with a notion of set gifts and limits. It just meant for us to go try and be prepared to work hard for it, and even suffer or at the very least, be frustrated and disappointed.

Science bears out that success does not lie in passion or interest, but in how you view passion. Forget being "gifted." Rummage through the toils and labors of others, too, and be interested in them long enough to see where it gets you. Do not be easily discouraged by the difficult details that it requires, because that is where the meaty stuff is! Go beyond the catchy phrases of subjects and headlines to deeply understand content. That is how you succeed, and even more, why success will matter. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.