Why I Never Tell My Daughter She Is Smart

Rob May
6 min readDec 7, 2020

Before you trash everything I write in this, please read the whole thing so you don’t miss the nuance…

When I ran my first company I used to give these mini talks at our all-hands meetings every month. The goal was to expose the team to a new idea or perspective, and the second most controversial talk I ever gave was called “Why I Never Tell My Daughter She Is Smart.” It’s based on the research of Carol Dweck.

But before we get into that I want to tell you about my proudest moment as a parent. When my daughter started middle school, my ex and I went to our first parent teach conference and they let the kids attend at that age, and the teach says to my daughter “there is a lot of drama in the 6th grade, isn’t there?” My daughter just nods. Then he says “particularly for the girls.” Again, she nods yes. Then he says “you don’t seem to get too sucked into that.” She says “no, I try to avoid it.” To which the teacher responds “well that is something we can’t teach, but I hope it stays with you forever because it’s a wonderful life skill.” I was proud of her, but, I can’t help but think maybe you can teach it. It goes back to Carol Dweck.

The general idea behind Dweck’s research is that if you tell someone over and over, “you are so smart” when they do something right, instead of “you must have worked so hard,” they tend not to try hard when they are challenged. Why? Because “smart” is an intrinsic quality — part of your identity. You are born with it. If something is challenging for you and you are failing, you must not be smart. That challenges your identity, so you back away or make excuses. It’s as painful as saying “you can’t solve this because you are a woman” or whatever. People don’t like to be criticized for their identity traits.

On the other hand, people who are told “You did great! You must have worked so hard” internalize a message of hard work. When they fail at something they assume it wasn’t personal, they just didn’t work hard enough. So they try harder. It’s important to be careful which messages we tell people, because they often internalize them.

Dweck has come under some criticism that her research is difficult to replicate. But that aside, it still makes sense that we internalize messages we hear a lot. For years I would get my daughter out of bed each day by saying “good morning pretty girl.” Until she was 3 years old, and I heard her one day in the other room asking her mother “why does Daddy always call me pretty girl?” I realized I was going to give her a complex if I kept it up. I realized she would associate love and acceptance with how she looks, so I stopped. I thought a lot about what messages I wanted her to internalize. And every day after that I woke her up with a different message. I said “good morning happy girl.”

Years later, when life got hard — several moves in a few short years, a dad who traveled too much for work, a brother born early and in the NICU, her parents’ divorce, and then COVID, my daughter would tell people, when asked about her many life challenges “yes, but that’s ok, I try to stay happy because I’m just a happy person.” She had internalized that daily message. Her identity is that she’s happy.

And in case you are curious, the “work hard” message stuck too. When I say “wow, how did you do that” about some piece of her school work, she just says “I worked hard” or “I’ve been practicing a lot.”

I talked about this to my team years ago because I wanted them to understand how the words they used impacted each other. But I didn’t mean it the way you probably think. I didn’t want them to sanitize their language and make sure no one was ever offended. Instead, I wanted them to flip this around and use it to be a little tougher, and less offended. How? I’ll go back to my daughter to give you an example.

There is definitely bias in the world. But how much bias you see depends a bit on what you are told to see. As a CEO, I often had people in my office complaining about something someone said to them, followed up by a statement like “he only said that to me because I’m a woman, and he hates women.” Except that then I would sometimes say “no, he’s actually just an asshole and treats men that way too.” And then the person who was the asshole would normally be fired.

When we preach that bias is everywhere, then when someone who is equally bad to everybody and just needs to be fired says something dumb, women, minorities, and every other group assume this person is biased against them. Why? Because that’s the language we use to describe these things.

When someone says something mean to my daughter and she talks to me about it, I usually say “that’s unfortunate, they probably didn’t mean it, they were probably just having a bad day.”

After years of that, how does she deal with criticism? With confidence and poise. When someone treats her poorly, she blows it off. It doesn’t ruin her day. It doesn’t distract her. She doesn’t stew for hours. She doesn’t internalize it and get angry and wonder what is wrong with her. She feels sorry for the person that they are having a bad day, has some compassion for them, and blows off their statement. Her teachers tell me they love having her in class because she gets along with everybody.

She gets along with everybody.

Let me say that again. She gets along with everybody.

Do you know what the key to this is? The key to getting along with everybody is not to believe the world is filled with systematic -isms. Going through life thinking everyone is out to get you because they are racist and sexist and phobic and hate people like you, is a life that really sucks. Maybe those people really are that way — I have no doubt some are — but probably not as many as you think. And life is easier if you just don’t have to worry about all that.

Now you could argue that somehow this is a bad thing. That she’s not fighting the fight to correct all the bad behavior in the world and make sure people get lessons in how to be politically correct all the time. I’d argue that she’s happier, and that people will stop saying stupid shit to her when they learn it doesn’t bother her and give them an edge in the conversation. She will be more effective in getting to know them, and that leads to more understanding and acceptance. She’s fighting it bottoms up, which is way easier and more efficient than fighting it tops down.

I remember I had a boss once who was a big yeller. People were terrified of him. But when he would yell at me I would just say “ok, yeah keep going, get it out, you will feel better.” He eventually stopped yelling because it never worked. It didn’t rattle me.

I look around at this political climate and I can’t help but think that we don’t get along very well anymore, but we can if we aren’t so easily offended. It’s not about understanding each other better. It’s not about appreciating each other’s differences. It’s just about not being so offended when people disagree. The world is big and expansive and it’s good that there are all kinds of people out there, and I’m not a believer that it should be all kumbaya. I like the diversity of opinion. I like the debate. I think it’s good to be mildly offended sometimes and remember the world isn’t sterile and safe. I think teaching people that all our problems are systemic rather than individual is a bad thing. I think there are other ways to deal with it. I think people are more than their politics. And I think you can lean on the ideas of Carol Dweck. The key to getting along isn’t not to argue. It’s to not assume it’s personal.



Rob May

CTO/Founder at Dianthus, Author of a Machine Intelligence newsletter at inside.com/ai, former CEO at Talla and Backupify.