Why we shouldn’t tell people they’re smart

Opinion by Lisa Hao
July 15, 2015, 2:41 p.m.

Growing up, I longed for people to view me as intelligent. I loved being associated with the adjective smart, and I, in turn, also complimented others’ intelligences freely. It wasn’t until later that I realized how damaging and invalidating that simple praise could be.

When I was younger, I would try to take the hardest class of any subject I was remotely interested in, sacrifice time with friends and family to study and stay up late to get the grade I desired. I wanted people to instantly think of “smart” when they thought of me.

As I got older, however, being called smart no longer made me feel accomplished, but rather seemed to degrade all my hard work and effort. Although it was meant as a compliment, “smart” became an excuse that described how I achieved my successes.

“Of course you got an A,” people said about my high school AP U.S. History class. “You’re smart.” With that sentence, they discredited all the nights that I only got four hours of sleep because I was studying. Instead, they attributed my grade to a single trait.

Smart wasn’t just an excuse for my successes, but also became an attempted condolence when I failed. People would say “It’s okay; you’re smart” every time I became anxious or didn’t do well on tests. Though I would thank them out loud, the intended compliment was so easy to refute in my head.

Sometimes, I wouldn’t even try new things because I became too scared of ruining my intelligent image. I was scared that I would fail and people would realize that I was not solely genetically smart but had to work hard for my achievements. Academics came so easily for everyone else at Gunn — my high school in Palo Alto, where the acceptance rate to Stanford is 17.3 percent — and I was scared that I wouldn’t measure up.

Although I knew that my personal academic prowess came mostly from hard work, everyone else’s intelligence turned into inherent qualities. Grades became reflections of natural abilities and I valued end results rather than my learning process. I stopped enjoying school and started concentrating on getting the grades needed for a top-tier college. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I started experiencing mental breakdowns about not being able to live up to the pressure.

Following Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research on motivation and mindset, the difference between praise for effort and praise for ability is significant. People who are used to their abilities being praised usually experience lower task persistence and enjoyment. They also experience increased negative self-affect and self-cognition.

On the other hand, praise for effort increases task enjoyment and performance. The praised demonstrate greater persistence in face of failure. Improving is more plausible when intelligence is viewed as malleable rather than fixed.

I ended up achieving my goal of being viewed as “intelligent” but at the cost of my passion for knowledge and self-image. Being known as “smart” no longer flattered me, but rather added on to the pressure I felt.

Now, I much rather prefer acknowledgement of my effort to the simple, yet destructive, adjective “smart.”


Contact Lisa Hao at lisa.hao13 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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