Intelligence – Are You Holding Back Your Brain?

Is intelligence fluid or crystalline? Is it a function of nature or nurture? Are you born smart, or is the power of your brain under no one’s control but your own?

You might have cruised through classes at school, or you might have struggled and wondered how your peers managed to pass their classes so effortlessly. In the first case, perhaps you met your match at university when you found you were no longer at the top of the class. In the second, perhaps you had just spent your life assuming some people were born smarter than others. In both cases you are treating intelligence as if it were a static trait — you’re born with a fixed quantity of it, and that quantity never changes.

It’s a disheartening mindset to have. While successes are to be celebrated, failures – especially when they occur one after the other — begin to be regarded as inevitable. You might start to feel boxed in or imagine a glass ceiling is capping your intelligence while others whoosh past on a seemingly limitless supply of the stuff.

Caroline Dweck’s 2007 study has the potential to make you feel better. Her research uncovered that your performance as a student is not a function of your perceived intelligence levels. In fact, those so-called “intelligence levels” aren’t very level at all. Dweck’s research shows that those who are brought up to believe they can constantly work at developing their intelligence tend to do so, and as a result perform better in classes than those who believe there’s an upper limit on how smart they are.

The latter is characteristic of a “fixed mind-set” and you might have experienced it yourself when faced with a new task that requires some added effort on your part. It is likely to be exacerbated when an individual’s past experience has meant he or she has managed to overcome challenges easily, and without putting much work in. In the school or university scenario, this means that you may have been able to “naturally” perform well in a subject in the past, but when faced with a new, challenging task within that subject found yourself stuck. In this situation, you might find yourself confronted by thoughts of insecurity and self-doubt, and may imagine your belief in your own intelligence was unfounded. But take heart — that is simply not the case.

More likely what you are experiencing is not “stupidity” or a limited intelligence level — it’s unfamiliarity. Without the prior experience of what it’s like to actually put an effort into learning something new, you might find yourself taking a more taxing path. This path leads you to the false conclusion that if a task is too difficult to do using just your “innate” intelligence levels, you cannot do it at all. This is a disappointing misconception because the truth is that you are fully equipped with the skills to rise to the challenge — you just haven’t had to use them yet.

Consider adopting the opposite “growth mind-set.” This relatively humble intellectual state focuses on learning rather than intelligence. The adoption of such a mindset means you ask questions in class, turn to peers and professors for help when you don’t understand something, and don’t look at every new challenge as an obstacle or a hurdle. It’s an empowering mentality to cultivate, and with it you realise there is nothing holding you back from achieving what you want to achieve.


Dweck CS. The Perils and Promises of Praise. Early Intervention At Every Age. 2007;65(2):34-39.

Image via Vladimir Koletic / Shutterstock.

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.
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