x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

You're amazing, gifted and successful. Why so insecure?

Why being hard working could be better than being talented.

I was once witness to a particularly unnerving tirade launched by a well-known person towards that person's considerably less-well-known assistant.

This happens a lot in Hollywood - and probably in every other business, too - and it's always gruesomely compelling, like driving past a particularly nasty traffic accident. It's awful, and disgusting, but you can't tear your eyes away from the wreckage.

Like most such events, this one blew over quickly. The tirade-thrower disappeared into his large movie-set trailer, the assistant raced off to correct whatever error it was - too much soy milk in the soy latte, the wrong size of Evian bottle, whatever - that unleashed the hounds of rage in the first place, and the rest of us were left on the set, stunned.

There's always someone on every movie set and every office who is there with a ready-made excuse for this kind of scene. There's always a court apologist around to excuse the inexcusable.

In this instance, it was the costume designer. She had worked with the star many times before, she told us, and the thing we needed to understand was he was "really, really, deep down, just really insecure".

That was the reason for his aggressively rude and thoughtless behaviour, apparently. He just didn't like himself enough.

At first glance, of course, "insecurity" doesn't really seem to be a problem in most of the entertainment business. Security - satisfied, confident, coddled security - seems to be the true cause of a lot of the bad stuff that happens around here, from scripts not getting fixed to assistants getting brutalised. And yet: the costume designer may have been on to something.

Recently, research psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller did a study at Columbia University that showed something interesting about praise, when it works and when it backfires.

And since we're at the start of the Hollywood awards season, when the town gears up for weekly awards shows - the SAG Awards and the Writers Guild Awards and the Golden Globes, just to mention a few - culminating in the Oscars, the most over the top praise orgy in the world, it seems timely to examine the idea of praise and how it might hurt the one it's supposed to puff up.

In the study, Dweck and Mueller took some 11-year-old children and gave them an easy maths test. The test was designed to be a breeze, and they all did very well.

After the results were given, half of the children were praised for being smart - emphasising their native ability - and the other half were praised for working hard - emphasising effort and concentration.

Then they were all given a really hard maths test - it doesn't sound like a fun day for those 11-year-olds, but whatever, this is science - and it was designed to be far beyond their abilities. So, naturally, they all failed at it.

Finally, the group was given another maths test - basically a repeat of the first test, but not quite so simple - to see how it all shook out, to measure how the initial praise might have coloured their reactions to the subsequent tests.

The results were fascinating. The kids who were praised for their innate smarts - their talent, in other words - did worse on the final easy test. And they felt worse about themselves, too. The kids who were praised for their work ethic and effort did better on the final easy test, and they felt better overall.

Praise, in other words, can make a person insecure. If you're told that you're smart and talented, apparently, you end up cautious and nervous - you avoid risk and duck a challenge. Your success, to you, is all magic and luck. It's not the product of hard work, it's just a bit of pixie dust that happened to fall onto you. And that makes you insecure. Which means, apparently, that you'll yell at your assistant.

If you're told, on the other hand, that your success is due to hard work - to diligence or practice or some kind of personal action that can be repeated and tested - you're more likely to see your world as a collection of opportunities that you can rise to, skills you can master. It's not about ability or talent or smarts. It's about putting in the time.

I'll be thinking about Dweck and Mueller's work during Awards Season this year. But I have to be honest: if I'm nominated for anything this year, I'd prefer to be praised for being naturally and innately talented. I don't care if it makes me insecure as a result. That's a small price for my assistant to pay.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood.