Can you best reach your own potential by helping others reach theirs?
Undergrads who wrote letters of encouragement to “at-risk” middleschoolers advising them to persevere and that intelligence “is not a finite endowment but rather an expandabale capacity” became, themselves, happier and better in school for months afterward.
Truth is, there were no middleschoolers. Just writing the letters achieved these results.
Or consider another study, this one with American students at Stanford asked to serve as pen pals with “at-risk” middleschoolers. The college students were instructed to offer encouragements to the younger kids by explaining in their letters that they, too, had struggled at times in school but eventually persevered and found academic success. They were told to emphasize the idea that natural ability is overrated — that intelligence “is not a finite endowment but rather an expandabale capacity.”
Did these letters help the middle school students bounce back from adversity? It’s impossible to say — the letters were never delivered. But the mere experience of writing them had a lasting impact on the college students themselves. Months later, the letter writers were still reporting greater enjoyment of school than were other Stanford undergrads. Their grade point averages were higher, too, by a full third of a point on a four-point scale.
What’s interesting to me is that this study ties together many things we’ve explored on the blog prior, all of which may be contributing the incredible results of this study:
- Fixed vs incremental beliefs: Believing that intelligence and potential are not fixed has huge effects on how we see the world and what we are able to achieve.
- Overconfidence: I’m never going to be in the NBA. Potential in some areas is fixed or limited but being overconfident despite this increases performance. And in many areas we don’t know how fixed capactiy is, so it pays to believe in yourself.
- Writing: Writing things down has powerful effects beyong those of the spoken word.