Why Smart People Fail: 3 Key Insights
April 30, 2015
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Churchill quote - success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasmPhoto Credit: Gareth Williams

Have you ever failed at a task despite your best efforts? If you’re like many of us, you may have found yourself doubting your abilities, and perhaps even yourself in general, as a result of this. However, psychologists have determined that many factors that affect success actually have little to do with our innate talents. Success has less to do with being conventionally “smart” and is more about cultivating different forms of intelligence and having the right mindset. In today’s post, I’ll review some of the reasons why smart people fail, and talk about how we can use our failures as learning opportunities.

1.) You may need to change your mindset. Do you think that we can’t really change our basic level of intelligence? Or do you think that we can improve our intellectual abilities through practice? Stanford professor and psychologist Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and success, has found that how people answer questions like this can have a significant impact on their success. People who say yes to the first question have what is known as a fixed mindset, while those who agree with the idea that intelligence can be increased have a growth mindset. In Dweck’s studies with students, roughly equal numbers of people have fixed and growth mindsets. If you’re interested in learning what your mindset is, take a short quiz here and then read on to learn what this mindset means for you.

When things are easy, both people with fixed and growth mindsets can do well. But as soon as people start facing harder challenges, having a fixed mindset becomes detrimental since it can prevent people from growing and thriving in the face of setbacks. In one study, Dweck and her colleagues followed students entering seventh grade. Over the course of the next two years, the academic grades of the two groups of students diverged: those with a growth mindset had better grades. Why was a growth mindset better? These students were more focused on learning (not just on getting good grades), believed their effort was more likely to pay off, and responded in more constructive ways when they failed (such as working harder or trying a new way of doing things). In another study, having a growth mindset predicted better grades in a difficult college class, and it helped students to recover if they received a bad grade earlier in the course.

So, if growth mindsets are associated with success, can we work to cultivate a growth mindset? Research suggests that we can. In one study, researchers developed an intervention to teach a growth mindset to seventh graders. Those who didn’t receive the intervention saw their grades decline, but for those in the intervention, their grades improved. In another study, college students learned about growth mindsets and practiced this mindset by teaching it to younger students. Later, these college students had a higher grade point average (GPA). If you’re struggling at school or work, you may want to take a moment to reflect on your mindset and work to develop a growth mindset. Additionally, if you are a parent or teacher, you may want to reflect on how you can cultivate a growth mindset in your children or students. For example, Dweck encourages praising children for their effort (as opposed to their intelligence) in order to cultivate a growth mindset.  In other words, failure may simply mean that we need to show more perseverance or grit before we ultimately succeed on a task.

2.) You may be acting in ways that are self-sabotaging. Psychologists who study self-handicapping have found that people sometimes act in ways to hinder their own success. They do this in order to be able to blame their failures on external causes (rather than having to make conclusions about their own ability if they fail). People can engage in two different types of self-sabotaging.  In behavioral self-handicapping, people actually act in a way to hinder themselves (for example, not spending much time preparing for a test or meeting).  In self-reported self-handicapping, people don’t actually do anything to hinder themselves, but they provide an excuse for any possible failure (for example, saying that you were too busy to study for a test). In one study on self-handicapping, participants were told that they had done well on a test and then offered “performance enhancing” or “performance impairing” drugs to take before a re-test (in actuality, the “drugs” participants took were actually placebos that did nothing). Some participants actually chose the “performance impairing” drug, presumably because they could then blame the drug if they failed in the task.

Although self-handicapping might sound like an unusual behavior, it’s actually quite common for people to engage in. For example, have you ever had a presentation at work where you told your colleagues that you might not do well because you hadn’t had enough time to prepare or hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before? Have you ever procrastinated on a work or school project so that you no longer had time to complete the project as well as you otherwise could have? If you have engaged in strategies such as this, it’s possible that you’re using self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping might be the more comfortable option in the short term (since it offers a convenient excuse if we fail), but in the long run it isn’t beneficial, since it sometimes causes us to fail at things we might otherwise have succeeded at. In fact, one study found that students who engaged in self-handicapping had lower academic achievement than those who didn’t.  It can be tempting to engage in self-handicapping because it allows us a way to protect our self-esteem, but it can end up preventing us from succeeding.  So if you think you might be engaging in self-handicapping, try to give yourself the time and resources you need to do a good job—odds are, you’ll end up doing better than you expect to!

3.) You haven’t been working to develop your emotional intelligence. Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as one’s purely cognitive abilities. However, the psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey have challenged this assumption by arguing for the importance of emotional intelligence (EI). According to Mayer and Salovey, EI refers to one’s ability to use emotions when solving problems. EI consists of four main components:

Psychologists have found that EI has several important benefits.  For example, people higher in EI have more supportive social networks and are better at avoiding arguments in their interpersonal relationships.  EI has benefits in the workplace as well: when supervisors have higher EI, their employees report greater job satisfaction.

Recently, schools have begun to teach EI as a skill, through programs of social and emotional learning (SEL). According to Daniel Goleman, who wrote about and helped to popularize the concept of EI, programs like these can help make us more successful in other areas of life as well. For example, in a review of over 600 studies of SEL programs, social-emotional learning was associated with improvement in scores on achievement tests and in students’ GPAs. The study also found that disciplinary actions at school decreased as well.

Interested in learning about your current level of EI? You can take a short quiz here that measures one type of emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize facial expressions of emotion.  (For a quiz on emotional intelligence in the workplace, click here.) If you’re interested in working to cultivate your EI, there are a variety of ways to do so, such as taking time to reflect on your emotions without judgment, finding connections between your emotions, and talking to others about your emotions (for more tips on ways to increase EI, click here).

If you fail at a task you care about, it’s normal to doubt your abilities. However, while there are a variety of factors that affect our success, many times, our failures have nothing to do with our innate talents and are instead things that we can overcome. By cultivating a growth mindset, giving ourselves the time and resources to succeed, and working to enhance our emotional intelligence, we can give ourselves the best possible chance at success!

Further Reading:

Carol Dweck: Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement

Steven Berglas & Edward Jones: Drug Choice as a Self-Handicapping Strategy in Response to Noncontingent Success

Mark Leary & James Shepperd: Behavioral Self-Handicaps Versus Self-Reported Handicaps: A Conceptual Note

Malte Schwinger, Linda Wirthwein, Gunnar Lemmer, & Ricarda Steinmayr: Academic Self-Handicapping and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis

John Mayer, Peter Salovey, David Caruso, & Gill Sitarenios: Emotional Intelligence as a Standard Intelligence

John Mayer: The Four Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence

John Mayer: Emotional Intelligence: Implications

Susan Krauss Whitbourne: Unlock Your Emotional Genius

Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence

Norman Rosenthal: 10 ways to Enhance Your Emotional Intelligence


  1. Excellent information presented here. Thank you, Elizabeth!

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