The Riding School: Talent versus grit

Teaching gifted students comes with a fragile responsibility. This week, The Riding Instructor explores a paradox she describes as the “Talent Trap.”

From the Riding Instructor:

No one is ever going to accuse me of being a natural. If the Boyd Martins and Meredith Michaels Beerbaums of the world are the thoroughbreds, then I’m the Shetland pony: short and a little sturdy, well suited for slogging over the windswept moors of my ancestral Scotland, not so much for regally wrapping my legs around an aristocratic horse. Coordination of the aids is something I’ve struggled with for years and I don’t have the lightning fast reflexes of some of my fellow riders. But I work at it. I work hard. When I fall off, I get back on and try to do it better. I sentence myself to two point and no stirrups and I ride whatever’s available. And, 35 years later, I’m a pretty good rider. And most of you reading this are probably a lot like me.

But every once in a while, as instructors, we get some rare students who really are naturally talented. From the first time they sit in the saddle, they are in perfect balance: their shoulder, hip and heel line up beautifully, their heels sink down as their legs wrap lightly around the horse, the reins are strands of gossamer in their hands. They pick up posting on the first try, with none of the beginner’s bouncing arrhythmia, and the horses submit immediately to their will. We take a deep breath and realize that this student has it, whatever magical gift it is. And in our little instructor’s brains we visualize this student, years from now, standing in the winner’s circle at the Maclay finals or Rolex or the World Championships, and, of course, graciously thanking us for giving her such a wonderful foundation. Words of praise spring to our lips…

But we must never, ever let them out. Not for talent, anyway. For hard work and – my favorite – persistence, yes. For helping the little kids get tacked up or sweeping the barn aisle, yes. But never for talent.

Because talent is a trap. Talent is never enough. It is only when it is combined with the sweat of the brow that talent can ever amount to anything – 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, according to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. And when you let a kid know that she is talented, you run the risk of actually damaging her progress.

Case in point: Years ago, I had one of these rare students. From her first lesson, everything was perfect. And I made the mistake of telling her that she was gifted. More than once, I’m ashamed to say. But rather than encouraging her, this praise had a paralyzing effect on her. She began to refuse to try. I would ask the students to do something challenging, but perfectly within their abilities and with little to no risk involved – a figure 8 at the canter, say, with simple changes of lead. And she would just shut down. I could not get her to articulate what she thought could happen.

It was only years later that I came to understand what was going on. In the course of my work as an academic teacher, I read the pioneering work of educational psychologist Carol Dweck, whose main focus is how the perception of ability affects performance (Parents and fellow instructors: I highly recommend her book Mindset). Dweck found that students who conceive of intelligence (like talent) as something fixed – something you have, rather than something you cultivate and develop – tend to be much less persistent, much less willing to take risks, much less able to pick themselves up and get back on the horse, both literally and metaphorically. Failure, to these students, must mean you aren’t actually good at this thing for which you thought you had talent. If you can’t do that figure 8 on the first try, you aren’t as gifted a rider as the instructor said.

As a result of this realization, I now never tell a student they are naturally good at something. I praise the effort and dedication they’ve put in; I point out the hours and hours that Boyd and Meredith have spent in the saddle, not their long legs; I try to make sure that they understand that failure is just a learning opportunity, not a judgment. Because I now know that, if they are aiming for Rolex or the Maclay, they are much more likely to get there if, rather than talent, they have grit.

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