By Scott Goddard

“I’M just not good with numbers.” Most of us have a weak spot and have long written off our ability to improve in that area. We probably formed this opinion in school days and carry it with us to this day. If you’re a parent, you might have encountered this can’t-do attitude more recently and found yourself consoling a despondent teenager after not doing so well in prelims.

It’s very common to put difficulties down to a lack of inherent ability. Looking back to my own struggle through school, and then university in the 1990s, I vividly remember being intimidated by others who appeared to be “naturally gifted”, not only in certain subjects but at studying in general.

The idea that we’re either good at something or we’re not is a widely held belief which was challenged by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. She studied a group of students’ attitudes to failure and distinguished between those with a fixed view of their intelligence – “a fixed mindset” – and those who believed they could improve their performance through a combination of hard work, time, trying alternative strategies and asking for help. This latter outlook, “the growth mindset”, was shown to be critical to success.

This research has had huge ramifications across the world, including here in Scotland (it’s unusual to find a Scottish school that doesn’t recognise the importance of growth mindset in improving standards in education). It’s also had a big impact on me.

For the last 15 years I’ve been working with young people, parents, teachers and businesses explaining the concept and encouraging them to view their capabilities differently.

It stands to reason that if you think you can get better at something, motivation levels increase, as does the effort you put into mastering a task. Abilities, it turns out, are not set in stone. Although natural talent undoubtedly exists, this is just the starting point. We all know people who are talented but we also know that doesn’t mean they will reach their full potential.

A few years ago I returned to my old university to speak to 200 enthusiastic law students about to embark on their degree. Over a number of years the university had experienced a high dropout rate in the first-year law course which tended to be full of students who had sailed through secondary education and achieved straight As at Higher. Suddenly they found things difficult and assumed they had reached the peak of their ability. They did not have the skills and outlook needed to deal with failure.

As a parent, I am very conscious that the feedback I offer enables my daughters to understand that difficulty does not mean defeat. What we say to our children influences their mindset. If you praise the outcome alone, youngsters equate success with being clever and failure with being stupid. Making a point of praising the process by celebrating time spent, perseverance and hard work means that next time they are faced with a challenge, they value these qualities and have an incentive to stick in and get better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking here about having blind optimism or positivity. However, realising ability is not determined irrevocably from birth means we can all punch through the false ceilings we create and nudge ourselves forward. Why not try a growth mindset – you’ll be surprised at the results.

Scott Goddard is director of training provider Live-N-Learn