Walter Mischel was nine years old when he started kindergarten. It wasn’t that his parents had been negligent in his schooling. It was just that the boy couldn’t speak English. It was 1940 and the Mischels had just arrived in Brooklyn; they’d been one of the few Jewish families lucky enough to escape Vienna in the wake of the Nazi take-over in the spring of 1938. The reason had as much to do with luck as with foresight: they had discovered a certificate of U.S. citizenship from a long-since-dead maternal grandfather. Apparently, he had obtained it while working in New York City around 1900, before returning once more to Europe.

But ask Dr. Mischel to recall his earliest memories, and chances are that the first thing he will speak of is not of how the Hitler Youths stepped on his new shoes on the sidewalks of Vienna. Nor will it be of how his father and other Jewish men were dragged from their apartments and forced to march in the streets in their pajamas while holding branches in their hands, in a makeshift “parade” staged by the Nazis in parody of the Jewish tradition of welcoming spring. (His father had polio. He couldn’t walk without his cane. And so the young Mischel had to watch as he jerked from side to side in the procession). Nor will it be of the trip from Vienna, the time spent in London in an uncle’s spare room, the journey to the United States at the outbreak of war.

Instead, it will be of the earliest days in that kindergarten classroom, when little Walter, speaking hardly a word of English, was given an IQ test. It should hardly come as a surprise that he did not fare well. He was in an alien culture and taking a test in an alien language. And yet—his teacher was surprised. Or so she told him. She also told him how disappointed she was. Weren’t foreigners supposed to be smart? She’d expected more from him.

Carol Dweck was on the opposite side of the story. When she was in sixth grade—also, incidentally, in Brooklyn—she, too, was given an intelligence test, along with the rest of her class. The teacher then proceeded to do something that would today raise many an eyebrow but back then, was hardly uncommon: she arranged the students in order of score. The “smart” students were seated closest to the teacher. And the less fortunate, further and further away. The order was immutable—and those students who had fared less than well weren’t even allowed to perform such basic classroom duties as washing the blackboard or carrying the flag to the school assembly. They were to be reminded constantly that their IQ was simply not up to par.

Dweck herself was one of the lucky ones. Her seat: number one. She had scored highest of all her classmates. And yet, something wasn’t quite right. She knew that all it would take was another test to make her less smart. And could it be that it was as simple as all that—a score, and then your intelligence was marked for good?

Years later, Walter Mischel and Carol Dweck both found themselves on the faculty of Columbia University. (As of this writing, Mischel is still there and Dweck has moved to Stanford.) Both had become key players in social and personality psychology research (though Mischel the 16-years-senior one)—and both credit that early test to their subsequent career trajectories, their desire to conduct research into such supposedly fixed things as personality traits and intelligence, things that could be measured with a simple test—and in that measurement, determine your future.

It was easy enough to see how Dweck had gotten to that pinnacle of academic achievement. She was, after all, the smartest. But what of Mischel? How could someone whose IQ would have placed him squarely in the back of Dweck’s classroom have gone on to become one of the leading figures in psychology of the twentieth century, he of the famous marshmallow studies of self-control and of an entirely new approach to looking at personality and its measurement? Something wasn’t quite right – and the fault certainly wasn’t with Mischel’s intelligence or his stratospheric career trajectory.

For many years, Carol Dweck has been researching exactly what that “not quite right” thing may be. Her research has been guided by two main assumptions: IQ cannot be the only way to measure intelligence, and there might be more to that very concept of intelligence than meets the eye.

I’ve written before about Dweck’s theories of intelligence, but let me briefly reiterate the concept here. According to Dweck, you can believe that intelligence is either incremental or that it is a fixed entity. If you are an incremental theorist, you believe that intelligence is fluid and can be changed. In other words, you think that Walter Mischel’s original IQ score is not only something that should not be a cause for disappointment, but that it has little bearing on his actual ability and later performance. Not only is he starting from a much higher base than what was captured by a test he could not have possibly been expected to understand, but his performance on other intelligence-related measures can improve with work, with application, with motivated dedication. Or, to put it in terms of that classroom, being put in the last seat doesn’t mean much except that you didn’t do so hot on a single test. As for the future, it can be far brighter—and far closer to the proverbial front of the room.

If, on the other hand, you are an entity theorist, you believe that intelligence cannot be changed, that it is given at birth and remains constant throughout life. This was the position of Dweck’s sixth-grade teacher—and of Mischel’s kindergarten one. It means that once in the back, you’re stuck in the back. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry, buddy, luck of the draw.

In the course of her research, Dweck has repeatedly found that a person’s performance depends in large part on which of the two beliefs he espouses. If you believe yourself to be capable of improvement, believe that your mind can learn, can become better, can overcome setbacks, you are setting yourself—and your brain—up for exactly that path. And if you don’t? You may find yourself living in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, where you prove those elementary school teachers right simply by believing that what they say is the way things are—instead of, like Mischel and Dweck, challenging the very assumption at its core.

But here’s the thing: mindset isn’t predetermined, just as intelligence isn’t a monolithic Thing that is preset from birth. We can learn, we can improve, and we can change our habitual approach to the world. Take the example of stereotype threat, an instance where others’ perception of us—or what we think that perception is—influences how we in turn act, and does so on the same subconscious level as all primes. Being a token member of a group—for example, a single woman among men—can increase self-consciousness and negatively impact performance. Having to write down your ethnicity or gender before taking a test has a negative impact on math scores for females and overall scores for minorities. On the GREs, having race made salient lowers black students’ performance. Asian women perform better on math tests when their Asian identity is made salient—and worse when their female identity is. White men perform worse on athletic tasks when they think performance is based on natural ability—and black men, when they are told it is based on athletic intelligence. In other words, how we think others see us influences how we subsequently perform.

But that performance isn’t the end of the story. Just as our mindset can hold us back, it can move us forward. Our mindset can change, and with it, our self-perception and our subsequent ability to take on various tasks. Women who are given examples of females successful in scientific and technical fields don’t experience the negative performance effects on math tests. College students exposed to Dweck’s theories of intelligence—specifically, the incremental theory—have higher grades and identify more with the academic process at the end of the semester. In one study, minority students who wrote about the personal significance of a self-defining value (such as family relationships or musical interests) three to five times during the school year had a GPA that was 0.24 grade points higher over the course of two years than those who wrote about neutral topics—and low-achieving African Americans showed improvements of 0.41 points, on average. Moreover, the rate of remediation dropped from 18% to 5%.

Intelligence, or IQ, is just one piece of the puzzle – and Dweck’s incremental-entity divide just one instance of a far broader phenomenon: mindset may begin in the head, but its repercussions are far wider. And as we change our thinking, so too are we changing our performance and, in a very real way, our abilities.

Our brains never stop learning, never stop changing, never stop growing new connections and pruning unused ones. And they never stop growing stronger in those areas where we reinforce them, like a muscle that keeps strengthening with use (but atrophies with disuse), that can be trained to perform feats of strength we’d never before thought possible—indeed, that we’d never even thought to imagine.

Take the case of the artist Ofey. When Ofey first started to paint, he was a middle-aged physicist who hadn’t drawn a day in his life. He wasn’t sure he’d ever learn how. But learn he did, going on to have his own one-man show and to sell his art to collectors all over the world.

Ofey, of course, is not your typical case. He wasn’t just any physicist. He happens to have been the Nobel-Prize winning Richard Feynman, a man of uncommon genius in nearly all of his pursuits. Feynman had created Ofey as a pseudonym to ensure that his art was valued on its own terms and not on those of his laurels elsewhere. (The name itself is a play on words, from the French au fait, which usually means ‘by the way’ or ‘informed’ but was used by Feynman in the sense, ‘it is done.’) And yet there are multiple other cases. While Feynman may be unique in his contributions to physics, he certainly is not in representing the brain’s ability to change—and to change in profound ways—late in life.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses—better known as Grandma Moses—did not begin to paint until she was 75. She went on to be compared to Peter Bruegel in her artistic talent. In 2006, her painting Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million. Vaclav Havel was a playwright and writer—until he became the center of the Czech opposition movement and then, the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia, at the age of 53. Harlan David Sanders—better known as Colonel Sanders—didn’t start his Kentucky Fried Chicken company until the age of 65—but went on to become one of the most successful businessmen of his generation. The Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn competed in his first Olympic games in 1908, when he was sixty years old. He won two gold and one bronze medals—and when he turned 72, became not only the oldest Olympian ever, but the oldest medalist in history after his bronze-winning performance at the 1920 games.

And just think of the countless examples in literature. Richard Adams did not publish Watership Down until he was 52. He’d never even thought of himself as a writer. The book that was to sell over 50 million copies (and counting) was born out of a story that he told to his daughters. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t published until he was 50. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, his first novel, just before he turned 60. Karen von Blixen-Finecke, better known by her pen name of Isak Dinesen, didn’t write her first book until she was 49. Raymond Chandler—one of my all-time favorites—didn’t write his first story until he was 45 – and it wasn’t until six years later that The Big Sleep introduced Philip Marlowe to the world. The list is long, the examples varied, the accomplishments all over the map. (Take a look at the New York Times from April 1, 2012, detailing the story of Kathy Martin.)

And yes, there are those to whom talent seems to come effortlessly. But though the talent is real, the effortlessness is an illusion. Nothing just happens out of the blue. We have to work for it. And how can we work at something if we don’t believe it can happen in the first place? It all begins with a deceptively simple thing. A mindset.

Not only is intelligence not fixed, but neither are any number of abilities that we may think we either have or don’t have, be they as straightforward-seeming as math skills or as complex as musicality. Walter Mischel and Carol Dweck may have been labeled when young, but at the end, it was their attitude towards those labels and not the labels themselves that ended up determining the course of their lives.

It is a remarkable thing, the human brain.


This post is adapted from a draft of my forthcoming book on Sherlock Holmes, to be published by Viking in 2013.

Dweck, C. (2008). Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (6), 391-394 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00612.x

Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52 (6), 613-629 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.52.6.613