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On Being Smart

date Nov 12, 2019
authors Nabil H. Mustafa
reading time 2 mins
category paper

2 requirements for succeeding in grad school

i) a minimum of intelligence, such as what everyone reading this article has, is sufficient for succeeding in any graduate school, ii) it is … hard work.

If being smart is important, then you don’t attempt problems that take a long time, more challenging and possibly with no solutions

students who consider being smart important become more conservative in the length and hardness of problems they attempt, which is a reasonable risk-averse way of preserving their image. This approach works for undergraduates, especially under the diseased quarter system since the material covered is relatively shallow and easy. However, once one starts graduate studies and begins to think about problems where its not even clear if a solution is possible, the habit of following the risk-averse strategy just doesn’t cut it.

Avoiding working on a hard problem for a prolonged period of time (persistence)

Students not used to prolonged thinking on a single problem start off well. However, soon they find motivation and inspiration leaving them, and they start dreading working on the problem as failure would lead them to question something they (by now) crucially identify with: “smartness”. Procrastination kicks in, and soon the student is busy in a diverse set of academic (but non-research!) activities to hide the reality of not working, like writing complicated scripts to automate their soon-to-be-coming publication phase, optimizing their daily vitamin B12 intake, getting heavily involved with political and religious movements and so on.

False thinking in problem solving: if they are not able to solve a problem quickly, they are not smart

Few students are able to critically introspect, which is reasonable since society has informed them that smartness is what matters, and if they are unable to solve the problem quickly, the logical conclusion is that they are not smart. In this world-view, it is hard to even consider the suggestion that smartness matters fairly little in such matters and most fall prey to heavy depression.

Ingredient for mastery

extended deliberate practice” is the true, if banal, key to success. “Nothing shows that innate factors are a necessary prerequisite for expert level mastery in most fields

What seems effortless

an enormous amount of hard work is what makes a prodigy’s performance look so effortless.

Praising smartness or effort

After the exam, the first group was told ‘you must have really worked hard’, while the second group of children were rewarded by saying ‘you must be smart at this’. For the second round, both groups were given the same choice: either take another easy exam, or a much harder exam. Here’s the punchline: over 90% of students in the first group chose the harder exam, while the majority of children in the second group chose the easier exam. In the third round, everyone had to do the harder exam…