Editor’s note: See our last issue on self-efficacy, where we had originally intended to put this story.
As a young boy growing up in rural England, I was blessed with the somewhat unusual combination of truly terrible behavior and very high school grades. Every year my report card would have virtually the same comment from all of my teachers. It usually read something like this: “He is a gifted individual with a natural aptitude for learning. If only he would buckle down in class…” Well, why would I buckle down in class if I was “gifted” and had a “natural aptitude”? My teachers were telling me I was one of life’s born winners. What use does a natural talent have for hard work? None. None at all. As you might be imagining, I was a demon of a school boy. But did I care? Well, why would a child with infinite straight A’s, who is constantly told how gifted they are, care what anyone thought about their behavior?
As I became older, and subjects became more difficult, signs that my natural ability wasn’t quite as infallible as I had come to believe began to appear. I was able to get in to a good university with high grades, but several of my friends had better grades and went to even better universities. However, by this time my arrogance and inflated view of my own competence had grown to near-mythical proportions. “Hah! Look at those losers!” I thought, “working constantly just to get in to a slightly better university than me, who just played video games and relaxed at home. Losers!” Something had to give. It turned out that you couldn’t be successful at university without working, which I was only truly able to accept when I failed my first year. It’s difficult to overstate how incredibly shattering this was to my worldview and to my confidence (probably a good thing). Imagine waking up one morning to find that the sky is now green and you have some idea of how baffling the experience was. I changed subjects and, needless to say, changed my views and work ethic a little bit, allowing me to graduate with a decent degree. You might say I had begun to nurture the seeds of a gritty growth mindset.
Fast forward a year or two to my early twenties as a young eikaiwa [English conversation school] teacher in Nagoya, where I spent an inordinate amount of my free time listening to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast (known to true loyalists as Joe Rogan University) and watching TED Talks. I’d failed to get a good job after university, while most of my (in my mind, anyway) less intelligent but harder-working friends had become doctors, managers and stockbrokers. I became obsessed with self-improvement and eventually came across two fantastic TED Talks by professors Carol Dweck (2014) and Angela Lee Duckworth (2013). In her video, Professor Dweck talked about the importance of a growth mindset over a fixed one, and how it can help people to be confident and believe in their ability to become better at things. Professor Duckworth, in her video, explained how her research on the personalities of successful people showed that despite the huge range of personalities on display, they all had a common factor: a strong work ethic, which she called “grit.” These two videos were an absolute revelation and helped me to understand the two vital things which, as a child, I had been accidentally told by teachers were not important: hard work and belief in one’s ability to change. They are absolutely fundamental to success, whatever the goal may be.
Now, as a lecturer armed with the gritty growth mindset, I have the opportunity to pass on these key psychological tools to my students. Self-reflection and goal-setting are key components of all of my classes and have, I believe, led to many positive changes in how students view themselves. In the final class of last semester, one giddy student came to tell me how happy he was to discover that he could learn to speak English, because he had scored an F in high school and had come to believe that he had no language ability. May there be many more just like him!
Scott Bowyer originally came to Japan as a 23-year-old backpacker, hitch-hiking around the country and sleeping on the couches of kind strangers. Like many, he somehow forgot to leave. He is currently a lecturer in English at Nagoya Gakuin University. His research interests include Chaos/Complexity Theory and neuroscience in language learning.