1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Intelligence can be grown through concentrated attention and changing our underlying beliefs about what we can achieve.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Work on your mindset by telling yourself that you can become more intelligent by focusing on this subject. 
  • Explore how you learn best (e.g., finding the right teacher, discovering new technologies to help you learn).

3 Questions to Ask

  • Do I have a fixed or a growth mindset?
  • What are some of the ways in which I learn best?
  • What teachers or tools exist that could help me learn better?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Can labeling children as intelligent actually deter their learning ability? (3:51)
  • Carol Dweck and growth mindset (7:55)
  • Applying growth mindset (10:34)
  • How you can accelerate your learning (16:32)
  • Change your mindset (21:05)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode


Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I am the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism, and I’m here with you on this journey to discover how we can operate at our highest point of contribution. Have you ever felt that there are some subjects that you just can’t master? Have you ever imagined what would be possible if you could get more intelligent? What would happen if you got 1% more intelligent every single day? Think of it. Today, I just want to have a conversation with you. I’ll include an inspiring counterintuitive story, an article that was life-changing for me, along with some immediately actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to increase your intelligence, figure things out faster, absorb knowledge more quickly, and even learn what you once struggled with. Let’s begin

And remember to teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening. 

This story comes from the New York magazine and an article by Po Bronson. 

What do we make of a boy like Thomas? Thomas, his middle name, is a fifth grader at the highly competitive PS 334, The Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy blonde hair cut short to look like James Bond. He took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber. Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a t-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes, Frank Zapper. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are the smart kids. Thomas is one of them, and he likes belonging. Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart, not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child.

When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top 1% of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top 1%. He scored in the top 1% of the top 1%. But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be success at, his father says. Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, Nah, I’m not good at this. With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two, things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t. For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’ father tried to reason with him. ‘Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put in some effort.’ Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father. Why does this child who is measurably at the very top of the chart lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone, according to Po Bronson. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students, those who score in the top 10% on aptitude tests, severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent. 

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by the Columbia University, 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their children they’re smart in and around the New York area. According to Bronson’s admittedly non-scientific poll, the number is more like a hundred percent. Everyone does it habitually, and the constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talent short. But a growing body of research and a new study from the trenches of the New York Public School system strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of smart does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

For the past many years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia, although she’s now at Stanford, and that’s when I parenthetically got to know her, studied the effect of praise on students on a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work, a series of experiments on 400 5th graders, paints the picture most clearly. Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles, puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into two groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, well, you must be smart. The others were praised for their effort. You must have really tried. 

Why just a single line of praise.? Dweck says, “We wanted to see how sensitive children were. We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.” So then, the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice Dweck’s team explained was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles. In other words, planting the idea that they could get more intelligent one time was enough to get them to materially change their approach to greater learning challenges. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The smart kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? Dweck explains, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart. Don’t risk making mistakes. That’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.” And so this marvelous article goes on. It’s called The Power and Peril of Praising Your Kids. You may have seen it before; it went viral at one time, but nevertheless, whether you’ve read it before or not, now might be a great time to read it again.

 It certainly has had a disproportionate impact on me. I first read this article when I was attending Stanford Business School, suddenly surrounded by an exceptionally bright group of peers and studying subjects that for me at least, I had never studied in my life and learning, or at least with the requirement to learn at an accelerated pace, and I found it totally overwhelming. In the midst of this sensation of this imposter syndrome, so to speak, my wife Anna gave me this article. Its effect for me was instant. It shifted a deep-set mindset, a deep belief that I had about intelligence I didn’t even know I had. The idea that intelligence was fixed, that you either were smart or you weren’t smart. You were either very smart or not very smart. Something that I had picked up even as a child that intelligence was something fixed to compete about had actually kept me from learning, from growing, from getting smarter for how long, I don’t know. But certainly, it was having an effect upon me right then. From the moment I read that article, or more importantly, from the moment I understood that intelligence could be grown through concentrated attention, I was able to take on any subject. Subjects that I’d never seen before, subjects that I was in a sense behind on. It didn’t matter. I could do something I simply couldn’t do before. It was, to me, a little like a superpower to discover this ability. 

Jim Kwik, who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, says it this way. He says, “All behavior is driven by belief. So before we address how to learn, we must first address the underlying beliefs we hold about what is possible. If you believe that IQ is fixed, you behave in such a way that reinforces that belief.” 

Perhaps you struggled like I did with learning languages in high school, or perhaps it was mathematics for you. Maybe it was a statistics course or an accounting course in university. Maybe it was university altogether. Perhaps you reached a point, a certain place where you plateaued in your progress, in your learning journey because of an unseen belief about your intelligence. 

I have coached people like this that I was coaching, and in every way, when he spoke with me, he was so capable, so alert. He comprehended immediately the concepts and ideas we were discussing. I thought I’m really speaking to somebody who gets it. But when I talked to him about his formal educational experience, he had not performed up to the standards that certainly I would’ve expected him to. As we explored, as I listened to him, as we asked questions and tried to make it safe to discover, we found hiding underneath this idea that intelligence is fixed. As it turns out, his father was exceptionally smart and a professor too, and he somehow was in this competition in comparison with him; nobody’s fault, just something he’d picked up, something he believed that no longer served him well. And he became released from it, almost in that moment. Just to discover what you really believe at the subconscious level can be enormously enabling, powerful, and it’s allowed him to be able to lean into education and take more education on than he otherwise would’ve done.

This is exactly what this idea has done for me. I’m thinking about it more right now. In fact, I’m going back to the article precisely because I am taking on a new educational challenge. Some people, when they have their midlife crisis, decide that they need to go and get a Porsche or something, but for me, it has led me to pursue a lifelong desire, but one that I thought had passed many years ago, to get a doctorate at Cambridge University. Nevertheless, in the process of preparing to begin these classes right now, I have been assigned summer reading, classes I’m not familiar with new material, and it’s a challenge, but the big challenge is not the work itself, but the belief lurking underneath. Oh, what if you fail? What if you can’t learn this? What if you’re behind? And what I have found is that that belief is like a bottleneck for developing greater knowledge, competence, and intelligence. Because as soon as you think that way, you start to feel worried. You start to feel stressed. All of your abilities, all of your capabilities are now being focused on the wrong thing, used up in the worry, used up in the stress. 

As you shift past it, as you get back to this idea, intelligence can grow. You can get smarter. That very thought allows you to relax. Well, then, I’m going to get into it. I’m going to learn, and I am learning in the process all sorts of things that one can do. Let me share a couple of the things that I’ve learned recently in no particular order. 

First, if you want to learn anything, you simply have to find the right teacher. And that doesn’t mean literally searching out the name of a professor in some university. We live in an age of extraordinary knowledge availability. And so, for one of my classes, econometrics, which I haven’t touched for many years and never really mastered when I did touch it, I found a YouTube channel specifically focused on helping people to learn fast new ideas. 

The course I took was Crash Course Statistics. 44 classes, 10 to 15 minutes long each. Just access all of it as fast as you can. Just get it all uploaded. Don’t worry about comprehending every single specific line; that gets in the way of my learning often. Just get yourself access to the ideas. 

One of my favorite terms from my MBA days was the concept of absorptive capacity. When you are learning something new, you need to be able to get some kind of access to a subject and just start to get less unfamiliar. You’re not even really learning it at first. You’re just giving yourself exposure. That’s the word, exposure. And with every exposure, the subject becomes less scary. It’s a bit like eating sushi for the first time. You must expose yourself to it once, twice, a few times. 

Sometimes with our own children, when they were young, we would insist that they try food multiple times, a few times. They couldn’t just conclude, no, no, I don’t like it. I just want to eat hamburgers and fries forever. No, you’re going to taste this. You have to gain a taste for this. And the same is true for learning. So a rapid exposure from a highly skilled teacher without worrying too much about comprehending every single thing can accelerate your entry into a subject. 

A second thing I’ve been learning is to learn about how you learn. That’s not a new idea. But even here, after years of writing and years of studying formally and informally, I’m having a breakthrough about that to discover that I learn in an optimal way by listening and listening very quickly to content.

When I read at my own speed and devices, I often read exceptionally slowly, and that is because I’m so intrigued and interested in every particular word and its meaning. The first phrase I come across that I’m not familiar with or I’m intrigued by, I want to go deep on it or go and search about that, go and read the Wikipedia article, go find an encyclopedia. And so I’ve hardly gone through the first three paragraphs, and I’ve invested half an hour or more. 

So it’s not that I don’t comprehend well when I’m reading; it’s just that I get distracted by the learning itself, in a sense. And something I have found really useful and practical is an app I’d never used before, but it’s called Speechify. Speechify will allow you to take any text online whatsoever and listen to it. You can listen to it in any kind of accent that you want, all of that sort of thing. And it still sounds a little computerized when you’re listening to it, but it’s really not too bad. And so again, when you are dealing with new subjects, and you just want to install like let’s call it release one of your comprehension of new content, being able to just have somebody read it to you at a fast pace so that you get exposure to it is proving enormously helpful for me. 

So within all of that is actionable advice. First, work on your mindset. Even say it to yourself explicitly. You can become more intelligent by focusing on this subject. Think of what that means. There’s an article called simply A Collection of Definitions of Intelligence. In it, the researchers identify, if I remember right, 50 different definitions across many different academic disciplines. But just by any definition, think of what it means if you could increase these abilities, the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge. Imagine if you could increase your capacity to do that.

What about the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions that are based on reason? What if you could increase your ability to learn to understand? Encarta World English Dictionary defines it this way, the ability to learn facts and skills and apply them, especially when this ability is highly developed. What would it be if you could have an even higher developed ability to learn facts and skills and apply them? The World Book Encyclopedia says the ability to adapt to the environment. What if you could do that better? To adapt faster and more intelligently to figure things out, whatever you are dealing with. The ability to learn and understand or deal with problems. What would happen if you could increase that ability? 

So just to affirm to yourself that your intelligence is not fixed. Whatever you have previously been taught about IQ, your intelligence can grow. What would it mean if that ability were effectively limitless? Imagine, to combine now, a few different ideas from a few different thinkers, if you could get 1% more intelligent per day. Think of where you’d be down the road. Think of what used to be closed to you that could be open to you. What subjects do you believe are simply just beyond you? What pursuits do you shy away from, but another part of you is being pulled towards them? What if, armed with that new mindset, you could apply some of these tools that we’ve been talking about, immediately, to upgrade your mind, to upgrade your intelligence, to upgrade your capacities to learn? 

Let me leave you on a thought that I can’t fully unpack right now, but has itself the power to deepen the conversation we are having. This is from John Taylor Gatto in a book called The Underground History of American Education, in which, in his author’s note, he observes the following.

“The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition. The mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of. It isn’t real.” 

Let me try to connect the dots there. It may just be that your beliefs about your intelligence, how much you have in what areas, and whether it’s fixed or can grow, grows out of an assumption buried so deeply into the educational institutions that you have gone through that you didn’t even notice that was being shared with you. What if the beliefs you have about your limitations just aren’t real? 

Gatto goes on in this way. He says, “Our official assumptions about the nature of modern childhood are dead, wrong. Children allowed to take responsibility and given a serious part in the larger world are always superior to those merely permitted to play and be passive. At the age of 12, Admiral Farragut got his first command. I was in fifth grade.” He says, “When I learned of this, had Farragut gone to my school, he would’ve been in seventh.” 

So put these together and see what it doesn’t mean for you. What would happen if you really believed that your intelligence could grow? What would happen if you really believe that these subjects you’ve struggled with in the past could be resolved by changing the mindset and then finding better ways uniquely for you to learn what you want to understand faster than before? Whether that’s from finding the right online YouTube teacher that’s specifically targeted to the way that you learn, or whether it’s discovering a particular mechanism of learning, as in with Speechify that I’ve been talking about, or in some other mechanism. For my part, I want this to be true. I need this to be true because I want to discover a higher point of contribution, and I am sure, as sure as I can be, that you have a higher contribution inside of you. 

If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first three people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Share one idea from this podcast with someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. Maybe it’s Kwik’s idea that all behavior is driven by belief, so before we address how to learn, we must address the underlying beliefs we hold about what is possible. Or perhaps it’s Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Have that conversation so that you can start a movement around you where you are helped and help others to operate at their highest point of contribution.