Is it better to be smart or hard-working?

In preparing for an assignment to speak in church tomorrow on the assigned topic of “work”, I recalled a summary of research I read last year about “the secret to raising smart kids.” According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, we should praise effort rather than intelligence. In other words, when a child does well, it is better to say something like, “you must have worked really hard” rather than “you must be very smart.”

There are two views of intelligence. One is that intelligence is fixed. The other is that intelligence can improve with effort. When a child with a “fixed” mind-set solves a problem, then they are likely to attribute their success to their intelligence. Conversely, when the child cannot solve a problem, then they tend to get discouraged, give up and attribute their failure to their lack of intelligence and skill. In contrast, when a child has a “growth” or “mastery-oriented” mind-set, then they will learn that with effort they can solve any problem. Thus, difficult problems that might discourage a “fixed” mind-set child become challenges and opportunities for “mastery-oriented” children.

Interestingly, praising a child for their intelligence fosters the “fixed” mind-set, while praising a child for their hard work promotes a “mastery-oriented” mind-set. According to the article (linked above), “Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.”

So, is it better to be smart or hard-working? I don’t know. But if you’re going to compliment me, maybe you should acknowledge my effort rather than my intelligence.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

One thought on “Is it better to be smart or hard-working?”

  1. — rick here — being smart implies knowing the necessity of hard work — but it’s possible to work hard fruitlessly, not knowing what you’re doing and thereby accomplishing nothing, if you’re not working smart —


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