Last night, I convinced my partner to watch the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, a look at the life of Aaron Swartz (an inventor and Internet activist). I’d seen the film before, but figured she’d appreciate it. As films like this one tend to, it got me all worked up. I spent the rest of the evening going on a Swartz-spree; downloading copies of his Raw Nerve series to my Kindle.
Laying in bed reading, I came to the second essay in the series Believe You Can Change. In it, Aaron discusses the research done by Carol Dweck which she solidified in the book Mindset. One of the stories—a tale about two groups of children either failing or succeeding to complete a set of puzzles—illuminated Dweck’s thesis that the successful kids had a “growth” mindset, while the unsuccessful kids had a “fixed” mindset. The kids who believed they would eventually find a solution through hard work would, while the kids who thought they were “just too stupid” would not.
This story triggered a few memories in my own head. Back in high school I—for all intents and purposes—looked like a burnout. I had terrible grades, dreadlocks, wore truckloads of black, hung out with pale kids, and adored death metal (still do!). In my heart I knew I was just having fun, but for spectators I was “not going very far.” Reading Aaron’s essay, I remembered two distinct interactions with teachers in my school who attempted to shoehorn me into a fixed mindset.
The first was my psychology teacher. I was by no means a star student in his class, but always tried to be engaged as the subject interested me. Around the time we had to select classes for the following semester or year (I don’t recall which), I remember my teacher pulling me aside before class. I’d registered for his AP (advanced placement) course, to which he took some “concern.”
Like a football coach telling the fat kid “maybe next year, son,” he suggested that I may not be prepared for that class. I was let down as I really was looking forward to it. What struck me about the situation, though, is that my teacher didn’t ask “why does this kid who doesn’t have the best grades want to be in my AP class?” Instead, he—lord I hope unwittingly—forced a fixed mindset onto me, suggesting I try something else.
The final straw with this—same school, around the same time—was during an encounter with my guidance counselor. In an effort to “guide” students into a track after high school, students in the senior class were given mandatory appointments with a counselor. In the appointment, the goal was to see what your aspirations were after high school and offer up suggestions on the best path forward.
Hellishly aware of my bad grades, I decided to have some fun and put down a handful of top-tier universities like MIT and the University of Michigan. Sure enough, juxtaposed with my GPA these choices made the guidance counselor raise an eyebrow. What disappointed me, though, was her response to my selections: “why don’t you aim a little lower.” Yep. Same story, different person. On paper I looked like a lost cause. Still, I was blown away that I wasn’t asked “why did you pick MIT?” Even if I didn’t have the credentials to get in, it seemed odd that “an idiot” would even think to put that on his list.
At this point I accepted my path forward would be different. Instead of being driven by the traditional system, I’d have to rely on myself and my own desires to move forward. Grades be damned, I knew what I was capable of; it’s a shame my teachers didn’t investigate. When I think about what I’m up to now, I always look back at that time and wonder what might have happened had I just accepted my teacher’s diagnosis.
All of this reminded me to always be encouraging to kids, adults, and everyone in between. Never underestimate someone’s ability to achieve something. Never throttle them. If they’re sharp enough to show interest, there’s a good chance all they need is you to throw some proverbial gas on the fire. Nurture, don’t neglect.
If you come across someone in a position of power over young minds that isn’t listening: straighten out their antennas. Remind them that they should never hold back a curious mind from challenging itself. To the best of their abilities they should help it to find what it’s after, or at least, point it in the right direction.