Some years ago I volunteered to coach a high school chess club. Let me share some observations about the team members’ attitudes toward talent and ability. My point will be illustrated well by the two top players, who I’ll call Player A and Player B. From the beginning, both players were solidly ahead of the others in terms of playing strength.
Player A liked to think of himself as “naturally gifted.” He loved to challenge much weaker players, and reveled in beating them soundly. Sometimes he would offer odds (i.e., concede a piece at the start of the game), or contest multiple games simultaneously, to underscore his dominance. On the other hand, he was utterly unteachable. If I offered some advice about tactics or strategy or clock management, he would try argue with me. And argue and argue. And then he would go back to playing for easy wins against totally outmatched opponents — always seeking to validate his view of being blessed with a gift of chess talent, and blocking any evidence otherwise. In the four years that I knew him, he didn’t improve even in the slightest.
Player B was was equally good, at first. At least, that is my considered view, having watched both A and B routinely dispatch their adversaries. They never played each other, though, because Player A always avoided it: a loss would have crushed his illusion of greatness. Player B, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream. If I told him about a better way to handle a game position, he would set up the board, and play that situation against me over and over, until the lesson was internalized. He had no problem losing. He didn’t lose often, but sometimes he did so to test an idea, try out a different plan, or teach himself a new technique. His strength increased rapidly, and by the end of one season he had clearly surpassed Player A. The difference was this: talent, to Player B, was something to be acquired by the steady investment of one’s efforts and energy, not a gift, to be sheltered and displayed like a precious jewel.
There is a lesson here for teachers and parents. When children succeed, we should praise them — perhaps not so much for their talent, but for their dedication and persistence. When they fail, we encourage them to try harder next time, and discourage the self-defeating attitude that they’re “no good at it.” Recognize them less for what they are, and more for what they have done. With our words, our actions, and our example, we thereby cultivate the mindset of a Player B.