Why You Should Take "I'm Smart" Out of Your Vocabulary

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Last week, I wrote about being a retreat junkie, and that I had just returned from one in southern Mexico. At the end of that retreat, our facilitator, Caitlin, asked us to close our eyes and choose an essential oil bottle to take home from her fairly extensive collection.  I pulled out the one pictured here: "Smart and Sassy." Immediately, I blurted out jokingly "Oh how perfect for me! I am both of those things!" I felt a rush of pride that I had temporary let go a story I tell myself about being "not as smart as most people," and had outwardly acknowledged that I am actually pretty darned smart. But just as quickly as the pride came, it was replaced with "Remember, you're trying not to say that. Get 'I'm smart' out of your head!"  You see, I have been planning to write a blog for awhile about why I avoid calling myself smart and there I was calling myself exactly that! The inner tension of "gosh I am so proud I finally admitted I am smart" and "wait, you're not supposed to call yourself smart" has stayed with me since.

The tension reared its head again this week when a coach I highly admire sent me this message on Facebook Messenger: "You. Are. A. BRILLIANT. Human." My eyes lit up and my heart fluttered. My ego was fulled stoked reading her message.  "Gosh darn it, I am brilliant," I thought to myself.  I thanked the coach and noted that I need to embrace and embody my brilliance. We briefly exchanged messages about why it's hard for me to do so. Just as in Mexico, it was all about deeply engrained stories I have told myself about my abilities, the comparisons I have made between myself and others, and the journey I am on to be less self-deprecating. Yet even in this conversation, I couldn't let go of the opposite side of the coin -- that there are good reasons to not fully embrace "I'm smart."  Sure, sometimes I don't acknowledge my smarts because of self-esteem or self-confidence issues, but often it is because I know the science behind  "a fixed versus a growth mindset", which shows that saying "I'm smart" (or being told so by others) can foster a mindset that is detrimental to your self-beliefs, motivations, behaviors, and even overall wellbeing.  

A Sliver of the Science of 'Smarts'

Intelligence has been a huge topic in psychology since the late 1800s when Francis Galton introduced eugenics, the idea that intelligence could be measured based on physical traits like head size (note: eugenics theory has been thoroughly proven false). Quickly following the eugenics movement was the advent of intelligence tests, including the Stanford-Binet IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test, that assumed one was born with a certain amount of intelligence that could be quantified. These tests also assumed that IQ was stable over a lifetime. As IQ tests became more popular in the general public, so did popular belief that intelligence is fixed and that it can predict all kinds of life outcomes. If you got an IQ test as a child, your parents probably held onto that belief to some degree. Recent research, however, has shown that IQ can vary up or down over the course of a lifetime. Unfortunately, this recent science has not necessarily integrated into the public psyche.


Independent of the science of IQ, the research on mindset says that a person's belief that intelligence is fixed can be detrimental. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, all people fall somewhere on the spectrum between having a fixed and growth mindset, with nobody being 100% in either camp. People who lean towards a fixed mindset tend to believe their abilities are innate and unchanging across the course of their lifetime. With intelligence in particular, they tend to see themselves as either "smart" or "dumb" and avoid challenges because failure would affirm their "dumbness." Conversely, they find ways to stay within their comfort zone, so that they can be reaffirmed in their "smartness." People who lean towards a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that there are no limits to their intelligence and in order to be smarter, they just need to work hard. They often relish in trying new things or in taking on challenges, and when they fail, they see it as an opportunity to try harder or try differently.

Across decades of research, people that lean towards a growth mindset also show stronger belief in themselves to overcome challenges, more motivation to persevere when things get tough, and greater well being -- as they derive self-worth from both successes and failures. These positive outcomes have been so well-documented that several interventions have been designed to teach growth mindset as early as elementary school. Further, several major companies, including my former and current workplaces (Facebook and Microsoft), have incorporated growth mindset as integral to their work culture. Just this week the concept was front and center at Microsoft as I filled out my personal performance review for the last 6 months. The last text box on the review form explained growth mindset and then asked me to list what I am going to do to learn and grow in the coming 6 months.

You may be wondering while reading this, "Does it actually hurt if I say 'I'm smart' every now and then?"  Well, no. And that's why I could temporarily relish in saying I am smart at my retreat, or could be flattered when a friend called me brilliant. However, if I start to internalize "I'm smart" as a regular part of my vocabulary, or part of my identity, I risk falling into a fixed mindset, which I know I held very strongly throughout most of my educational years. Equally important to (mostly) avoiding "I'm smart", I also try to avoid saying "I'm dumb". Further, I practice strategies to foster a growth mindset in all aspects of my life. Here are 5 of them that you can incorporate into your life, no matter where you currently fall on the fixed vs. growth mindset spectrum.

5 Ways to foster a growth mindset

1. Acknowledge and embrace that you have weaknesses. Choose to work on ones that are important to you.
Acknowledging weaknesses allows you to identify areas where you can grow. But, you may also be tempted to work on ALL of the things you identify. After all, growth mindset says you can overcome anything, right? Well, yes, technically you can. But one of the downfalls of a growth mindset is that you can find yourself always in growth mode, and at some point constant failure can be depressing. Focusing only on areas that are important to you will build your motivation and resilience. After all, if you don't care about improving something, how will you continue to be motivated when things get hard?

2. Seek challenges rather than shying away.
Staying in your comfort zone reaffirms a fixed mindset around your ability, whereas seeking challenges outside of that comfort zone reaffirms your ability to grow. Seek challenges that are reasonably difficult, but not so far out of your wheelhouse that they are currently impossible. These challenges stretch your limits, and provide opportunities to fail and start again without sending you running back into your comfort zone.

3. Actively seek feedback, especially from people who will be honest with you AND that love you.
People who lean towards a growth mindset tend to see feedback as constructive, rather than as personal criticism. Those who are both honest and love you tend to give the best feedback, as it is unfiltered and comes from a place of good intention. Though it may be difficult to receive feedback at first, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Of course, it may still be tempting to internalize feedback as some unchanging quality you have. Allow yourself to acknowledge this temptation as a normal feeling, and then reframe by asking yourself "What can I do to improve this in the future?" For more tips on feedback, check out my earlier blog: Why criticism hurts so much and what you can do to soften the blow.

4. Reflect on your progress often. Or even better, document it!
The best way to convince yourself that your abilities aren't limited is to show yourself evidence of it! Reflecting on your journey is not only satisfying, but can also be great motivation to take on future challenges. Even better than reflection is documented evidence of your growth. Perhaps you can keep a journal, a log, or a scrapbook. Or if you take on a challenge that has multiple iterations (e.g., a project with several drafts), hang onto those iterations so you can see how things improved over the course of time. Personally, I can't wait to look back on some of these early blog entries as I hone my writing over the next several months!

5. Add the word "yet" to your vocabulary.
I'll admit, this one is my favorite. It's just so easy. Simply adding this one word to any of your sentences can immediately shift you from thinking about who you are (or aren't) to who you might become. Consider the difference between "I'm not smart in business" and "I'm not smart in business yet." The latter sentence I tell myself daily as I tackle the process of building a side gig. I also have whole host of other yets that regularly make it into my brain (e.g., I'm not physically strong...yet. I'm not a good blogger...yet. I don't understand product design [one of the disciplines I manage at Microsoft]...yet).

As I have been writing this, the "smart and sassy" oil has been diffusing in my living room. It might be the oil, or it might be the process of writing this blog, but the tension I felt the on the day I chose the oil -- wanting to both celebrate and reject "I'm smart" -- no longer exists. I have embraced a duality: I am smart, and it's okay that I say that every once in awhile, but I am also not limited by whatever level of smarts I currently have. I can learn anything I want to with motivation and effort. As Marie Forleo, a prominent entrepreneur, says "Everything is figure-out-able!"

Much love, Erin

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