The importance of stupidity

I’m guessing that when you were growing up, you were praised for your intelligence. (Just a wild hunch!) And while I’m sure that you are, indeed, very bright, I don’t think you should dwell on it.

Today’s post is about “the importance of stupidity in scientific research“, to quote from a wonderful, highly recommended 1-page essay by Martin Schwartz from the University of Virginia. Schwartz observes that “[f]ocusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right.”

Indeed, most of us get to graduate school after having aced school and college, and don’t have much experience with failure – at least, not in the academic arena. So it’s no surprise that our morale takes a nose-dive when our first experiment in grad school doesn’t work out, or when a paper or application for funding is rejected. That’s only natural if too much of our self-esteem has been built around our intellect.

Carol Dweck and her lab at Stanford have found that children who are praised for their intelligence are less willing to try their hand at something that they might not be good at than those who are praised for their hard work. This and other findings have led her to propose an important distinction between ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets, which you can read all about in Dweck’s important book, Mindset, or in this review.

Something to ponder: Are you comfortable revealing your ignorance? Do you rebound quickly after a setback in your research?

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About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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