Entity Versus Incremental Theory of Intelligence

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Meet Jonathan Lim:

Jonathan Lim is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the UC Riverside School of Business, where he teaches classes in Advertising, Consumer Behavior, and Marketing Research. If you’d like to chat about business, tech, sports, sneakers, pop culture, or anything in-between, feel free to find him on LinkedIn or to reach him at jonathan.lim@ucr.edu

Jonathan’s failure story:

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I taught an Introduction to Business class at a different school, which would be the first class I ever taught. I was brought in two weeks before the class started because they needed another instructor. The first thing I underestimated was how much work actually goes into preparing a class. As I prepped the class, I thought about everything – what the exam and midterm would look like, how can I manage the class so there’s a good classroom environment, how I would get the students to participate… the list goes on.

It was a 16 week class and I had 20 students. The students seemed to like me, because I would consider myself to be an outgoing and friendly person. I remember thinking to myself that I’m doing just fine, for teaching my first class on such short notice. So around the time we got our instructor evaluations at the end of the quarter, I was feeling really good about the responses I would get back. I thought, what could go wrong; I knew my students’ names, they were responsive in class, they laughed at my jokes – everything seemed to be going well.

Lo and behold, I remember getting back the evaluations and seeing students writing about how they didn’t learn anything in class. They were basically ripping me apart! I felt like I had failed them. I remember sitting in the car reading these evaluations and feeling like such a failure because it felt like the thing that I was put on this Earth to do, I couldn’t even do it. It’d be different if they mentioned that they didn’t like the look of the slides or how I dressed or something; those things I could easily fix. But instead, the comments were getting down to the core of my teaching ability, the very core of who I was.

It crushed my ego. I remember ranting to my friend because I was so mad because the students don’t see the work that gets put into teaching a class.

I eventually got over it, but it really made me stop and reevaluate myself. When you think about failure from that perspective, in terms of critical failure in my own ability to teach, it made me rethink a lot of things, even if I should even continue to pursue this career. However, this failure was also instrumental, teaching me a lot of important lessons that I still carry to this day.

Advice on failure:

The first lesson this failure taught me was to never take success for granted. Oftentimes we think, I have a degree, I have all these skills and talents, and I am outgoing. People tell us that and it puffs us up. We take for granted that success is a result of a lot of hard work. When you look at success stories, they don’t show you all the long hours and sleepless nights that the person put in. Success is not granted to anyone; it’s earned. It taught me that I need to work hard for this, so when I went back to teach the class for a second time, I reconfigured what I needed to do to shore up my weaknesses and work hard to give these students a great experience.

The second lesson I learned is that if we believe that we don’t have the right skills and talents, we often can let that stop us from trying. We let ourselves believe that we can’t do it. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t teach because these students didn’t like my class and maybe I just don’t have the ability or talent.

However, there’s a concept in developmental psychology I learned in my undergraduate studies, which basically defines how people measure intelligence. Some people have an Entity Theory of Intelligence. Such individuals believe that you’re either smart or not, you have either a high IQ or low IQ. On the flipside, there’s another set of people who hold to an Incremental Theory of Intelligence, where the belief is that you can actually grow your intelligence. You can incrementally build your IQ with hard work and effort. That predicts a lot of things. If you believe that intelligence is finite, you will stop trying the moment you don’t do well. Alternatively, if you have an incremental view of intelligence, you will want to continue to try harder with each new failure.

It’s the same for effort and work. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that they’re not smart enough, not talented enough, or not a great public speaker. They immediately conclude that they can’t succeed in life. What they fail to realize is that success is often achieved by putting in the hard work and time to develop those skills. While Michael Jordan may have the natural talents to be a great basketball player, it was his time in the gym, day after day, that honed him into the best version of himself that he could be. From my own failure, I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be a teacher because the students seemed to hate my teaching ability. But I realized that this dream of mine was still worth pursuing – I would just have to find new ways to innovate, and work to improve my skills. If I can do that, then I can make up for whatever deficiencies I have.

As a bonus learning lesson, when success does happen, enjoy it and be appreciative of it because it’s never guaranteed. When you do achieve it, be thankful and realize that it was never assumed; it was a result of hard work and maybe a bit of good fortune. It doesn’t happen for everyone, so when it does happen to you, be appreciative of it for what it is, and enjoy it.

How it led to where I am today:

This failure provided me with an important perspective that I still carry today. To this day, my experience teaching this class reminds me of the importance of humility and hard work, two qualities that I constantly try to implement in my own life. Without these two traits, any success you achieve will only be temporary. They are constant reminders that I’ve never fully made it to the mountaintop – there’s always a little higher to climb, a little more to achieve, and a better version of myself to become. As a result, I’m always thinking of how I can continue to grow into the best version of myself – both as a professor, and as a person. And while this pursuit of perfection will be a race I will probably never finish, if I keep at it, I take joy in the fact that I’ll be further along tomorrow than I am today.

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