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Your IQ Doesn’t Matter & Other Lessons About Creativity From Children

After studying how children best succeed, author and journalist Paul Tough determined the character traits that most often lead to happy adult lives.

From 1962 to 1967 researchers selected students with low-income and low-I.Q. parents at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan and divided them into two groups. One group received a special high-quality education, while the control group used the school’s normal curriculum.

The students that received the high-quality education showed short-term gains in I.Q. but by the third grade, they were again even with the control group. The experiment was seen as failure – until the researchers followed back up with the students later in their lives.

The students that received the high-quality education were more likely to graduate high school, more likely to be employed at age 27, and more likely have a salary over $40,000 at age 40. If the gains in I.Q. didn’t stick, then what happened to make the students more successful?

The path to success that has been preached for decades, get good grades, ace the S.A.T., and then get into a good college, is being turned on its head. In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough leans on a new generation of educators and researchers to argue that our success as adults is better measured by certain character traits than by our G.P.A. as children.  While the gains made by the Perry students in I.Q. eventually petered out, as a side effect they picked up characteristics like determination and motivation that led to their success later in life.

Tough reasons that “non-cognitive” traits like optimism, zest, gratitude, and grit make children (and adults) more likely to succeed. I chatted with him about what that means for our children’s creativity and how we can apply his findings to our working lives as adults.

Our success as adults is better measured by certain character traits than by our G.P.A.

Why focus on children?

My background as a reporter was writing about kids and education. Doing my first book about the Harlem Children’s Zone left me with some questions about how kids succeed. The other thing that happened is my wife and I had our first child three years ago. He was totally my experimental subject.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was that though an affluent family has more resources at its disposal, money wasn’t a cure-all for producing children with the characteristics you described.

Moderate amounts of adversity are really good for kids. Some kids in poverty are experiencing way too much adversity and that’s damaging them in all sorts of ways. And then we have kids who aren’t experiencing enough, and that’s hurting them as well. I think of it as an “adversity gap.” Negative trauma certainly has a negative impact but on the other hand we have helicopter parents that don’t let our children fail.

How does anyone judge what is the “right” amount of adversity? I’m sure you struggle with this with your own son.

There are these moments during a child’s life where he’s trying to learn something new, and I have to let him do it on his own and pull back, even though I don’t want to. When he falls, it means literally not helping him back up and letting him get up on his own. There are lots of little choices parents make when it comes down to protecting their kids or letting them figure it out for themselves.

Another part of your book quotes researchers that think our modern school system stifles creativity by creating “excessively contained” children and, eventually, adults.

I don’t totally buy it. I think the evidence is really strong that self-discipline is important for anyone. Being a really creative person without any discipline to direct that creativity is not so good. If kids don’t have self-regulation or self discipline it can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes. But just coloring inside the lines won’t help you succeed. More esoteric character strengths like optimism and zest are things that can be taught and are also predictive of success.

How can people be taught any of these character traits?

I think one thing that all the educators in the book stress is that, in adolescence and early adulthood, just reflecting on these skills and thinking about them as something you can change is an important process in changing them. There’s a psychologist from Columbia in the book, Carol Dweck, who discovered that when kids think they can change their I.Q. they work harder.

Just coloring inside the lines won’t help you succeed.

We think of these character traits as fixed: you’re either outgoing or you’re not. There’s such a thing as temperament, but I think its useful to think of character as something you can change. I think that, in some ways, it’s the only way you can do it. There is no “zest” curriculum out there.

As you wrote the book did you see any examples of kids changing their character?

Not in a way that I’ve seen measured with clear assessment, yet. There is this one organization in the book, OneGoal, that works with kids through high school and during their first year in college to help them succeed. They don’t talk about grit, but they talk about perseverance. So far the results seem really powerful. The cohort I followed has 85% of their kids going on to the second year of college. That’s good for any demographic, especially kids from the South Side of Chicago who are often the first in their families to go to college.

What can your learnings about children teach us as adults?

Thinking of these character strengths as malleable is really powerful. In the past I thought that I was either a good writer or I wasn’t. I thought it was a skill some people just had and that it couldn’t be taught.

When kids think they can change their I.Q. they work harder.

Thinking about the non-cognitive side of my trade is huge. Getting up and getting my work done, bouncing back from a bad review, that’s all stuff that I can work on. It’s hard, but when people believe they can change, it’s remarkable what they can do. I don’t want to give the impression that all there is to it, though. The fact that you can just want to change isn’t enough. Anticipating the obstacles and planning for them is also important.

But kids don’t have decades of life experience, it’s easier for them to change. As adults, we have a lot of baggage, even if we know the psychology behind it all.

In lots of ways our brains may be less malleable but there’s lots of resources that we have that kids don’t. We’ve seen the effects of our choices over the years while it’s hard to get a kid to perceive the effects that their actions have on the future. But when you are in your twenties or thirties and beyond, you can make those connections much more clearly.

How About You?

Do you think character traits are malleable?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (36)
  • Julian Bowers-Brown

    A really interesting article that, alongside the book, will hopefully help to open educators eyes to the ‘non-cognitive’ factors that Paul Tough highlights in the work of Angela Duckworth and others. There is now a considerable body of evidence that deliberate practice and the development of constructive habits in pursuing your goals are just as much critical factors as the idea of natural talent. It can be useful to think of the brain very much the way in which we think about muscles and that, in much the same way, our abilities can be ‘built-up’. Moreover, as the work of Betty Edwards in ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ vividly makes clear, many of the traits and abilities we presume are purely god given can in fact be developed as skills.

    I work at a University in the UK as well as providing study coaching and online advice and the material in Paul Tough’s new book is something that I am using on a daily basis to help students both get better and grow in confidence. Here’s hoping its a message that continues to grow in impacting young people’s lives on a global scale.

  • Joe McCarthy

    The discussion about the “right” amount of adversity reminds me of the zones of comfort, growth and panic that have written about by others. I suspect the “right” amount lies mostly in the growth zone.

    NPR interviewed Sir Richard Branson this morning on his new book “Like a Virgin”, where the topic of his dyslexia came up. He, and many other people who have achieved high levels of financial & business success, appear to have many of the qualities championed by Paul Tough (at least with respect to optimism, zest and grit … the gratitude trait seems more highly variable).

    I enjoyed this article, and many others here on Fortunately, given that I know that Paul Tough’s book was recently published, I can estimate the publication date of this article. In general, though, I would find it very helpful and informative if would include dates in the articles posted here, as I find dates to be significant markers for credibility of a site (or article).

  • Russell Himelein

    Thought is the most powerful tool any human possesses. It seems ‘thinking something to be true’ is a significant factor in an outcome whether a character trait or physical. How many athletes visualize a good game before having one? How many studies have been released hinting that positive/optimistic thoughts may be a factor for healing (even in extreme cases of cancer)? Long story short, change only happens when one believe it can happen – for better or worse.

  • john tillman

    Yes, character traits are malleable. The curriculum I write for,, is focused on leadership traits, character traits that we believe will help kids reach their potential. It is from a Christian biblical perspective but we hope many families can use it to form these character traits early in their children’s lives.

  • Maris Olsen

    Very thought-provoking. I think it is important to distinguish between “skills acquisition” and “character traits”. As an adult, I like to model for my 4 grown children that you can learn/grow at any age. I quit a job in hi-tech and decided to start my own business at age 58. Now after 2 years, I have learned so many things about myself and running a business – it is wonderful! I like to challenge my assumptions about myself – and sometimes the results are very rewarding. For example, as a child I got the message from my mom that I had no musical talent, despite the fact that my dad’s family were all musicians, and my dad and brother were very musical. I decided to take voice lessons at age 55, and discovered I have a very nice voice and musical ability! Sometimes we get messages that we are “not enough” at an early age, and I think that training and practice can carry us a long ways – more than “inborn talent” does for many.

    I think “character traits” can definitely be changed/improved. One of my children is an introvert, but has learned plenty of coping skills to manage the social situations she needs to excel at to help grow her own business. If you value the outcome, you will be much more likely to put in the effort to change a characteristic that is holding you back.

  • Karen Kilbane

    I feel that our character traits are the tools we are born with to interact in the world as a human. I feel that telling children they can change their character traits damages their personality development. When people are told they need to work on building their character then they become very disregulated and confused. I feel personality disorders, mental illness, the need to control one’s environment, addiction, and anxiety are mostly caused by this idea that people need to be taught how to change or improve their character traits in order to make themselves a more successful human being. I feel an alternative way of framing this discuss.sion is to simply keep the focus on skills needed for a particular endeavor, rather than character traits needed. Our character traits are like our organs. We don’t try to improve or change our organs. We might try to eat a great diet to help our stomach digest the best it can. In the same way, we might try to think positive thoughts to do well on a test, but I think this should be referred to as a test taking skill as opposed to a character builder. Building character implies we don’t have one, or what we have is inadequate. Receiving the message directly or indirectly that we can choose to learn how to change our character traits implies that we are likely inadequate the way we are, and this notion is quite damaging, I believe, to the human personality. The ideas presented here are great in many ways. I feel reframing them a bit might change the outcomes in surprising way

  • Rowan

    You don’t want a stronger heart? Brain? Better skin?

    I exercise so I can strengthen all of these things. And they are all organs.

    I definitely think we can change most things about ourselves. You can’t change who you are, but you can change how you react to things and how you talk to people. Both of which influence how people will interpret your character.

  • Sophie Calzada

    Very interesting article. Although to backtrack a bit, I wish there were more explanation on what “high quality” education actually consisted of in comparison with the normal curriculum. Kids learn most from their peers and their mentors, so I wonder if not only what and how they were taught affected them, but the personality and work ethic of their teachers.

    I’ll have to read Paul’s book!

  • Joshua Bull

    This helped me so much. Thank you.

  • Kevin Lee

    This was a great article. Thank you!

  • Lee Beckwith

    Adults can totally change their character. I don’t think it’s harder because our brains are “less malleable” per se, although that may be true on a broad level, but because we have stable lives. Children often have unstable lives, especially those around 18 or so who don’t have a lot of parental support, so it’s easier to convince them to change their life for the better. They have little to lose. But in my experience trying to encourage a middle-aged person to adopt an active lifestyle, they don’t want to start not because their brain is less sponge-y, but because they are stubborn and ultimately their lives are pretty stable the way they are. Even if they might have heart problems in a decade, adults who have stable lives would prefer to tell others the right and wrong way to do things than to admit that they still have things to learn, and that those things require actual lifestyle changes, not just intellectual acknowledgment.

  • Dp Jaysiah Doherty

    Interesting article.especially about creativity.I believe exposure plays a major role in molding young minds.The more you open them to new ways of life, new places, new experiences, the broader they are in their thinking.
    Also, the aspect of adversity is important.It reinforces other aspects of an individuals character such as perseverance, hard work and optimism, even faith!(religion).Its just like metal, continuous cycles of heat harden it.

  • Brett Dudo


  • Vicki Lee

    I believe that all human are able to do anything we want, however, the execution is the harder part. “The fact that you can just want to change isn’t enough. Anticipating the obstacles and planning for them is also important.” Just as Obama’s two campaign slogans “Change” and “Forward”.

  • BanjoAnnie

    Very encouraging article which should offer hope and inspiration to both young and old who struggle with less than ideal circumstances. It supports an increasing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that the physiology and neurochemistry of the brain can be gradually and permanently altered by our thoughts, habits and behaviour. This can have positive or negative outcomes depending on the chosen thought patterns etc. I think probably one of the most important messages emerging from the above book is that young people need to know that they are not at the mercy of their environment. They can choose (ideally with encouragement from mentoring adults) to practice positive behaviours which will help them transcend their difficult external circumstances and become successful in terms of fulfilling their human and spiritual potential. I look forward to reading the book.

  • Pearmain

    You have a lot of “I feel” statements, which tells me that you’re performing a thought experiment and are somewhat uninformed and/or are misinterpreting the article’s point. From the article above and the NY Times article, it appears that you can nurture different traits/points of view – and that it doesn’t damage their personality development, whatever that means.

    People try to improve and change their organs all the time. For example, skin is the human body’s largest organ. Beauty brands spend billions of dollars convincing people that they can improve their skin – and people then spends tons buying up various creams, ultrasonic devices, peels, etc. Medical device manufacturers and healthcare providers and patients spend tons of money promoting and undergoing elective procedures from breast augmentation to gastric bypass surgery. People spend lots of time trying to improve their brains, whether they do a sudoku or use a computer program.

    Building character doesn’t imply you don’t have character – it implies you do, that as human beings we are flexible, fluid, and complex. That we can change for the better and for the worse – that we’re not locked into a way of being. We can be who we are. And, we can change who we are.

  • Jason t Faber

    This a great article. I certainly agree we can transform our character traits in a ways to become more effective in our relationships and our careers. Challenges, obstacles, and people are a major factor in our life, and how we react to, work with, and utilize all three will determine where we end up (or want to go) in life.

  • Ross Quintana

    I do of course. we need to get back to the renaissance type of thinking and develop ourselves more fully. In Outliers by Malcomb Gladwell, he discusses how people think talent is God given when in reality the 10,000 hour rule really dominates the results. I don’t think the title of this blog was accurate. In the groups the ones with the IQ spike did matter. IQ isn’t everything but it is changeable and important. Michael Gelb does great work with kids and the power of IQ and how you can grow it.

  • Agnete Winnje

    Do you think character traits are malleable?

    If you’re committed to change, you can. But you have to know what you want to change and be aware of this whenever you normal character trait would kick in.

    My character trait made me hold everything in. Never shared any failure. Never dared to show emotions. I`ve changes so much these past 5 years.

    Then again, I did move from the area I grew up and had a chance to start fresh, and be a ‘new’ version of myself. The version I never earlier where able to be, because of too much physical baggage. The new ‘version’ was restricted by myself, since I felt trapped in a box of how other people saw me.

    But, like you said ‘But kids don’t have decades of life experience, it’s easier for them to change. As adults, we have a lot of baggage, even if we know the psychology behind it all. ‘

    Do you think I was only able to change this much since i was still in my late adolscence?
    And I wonder myself, if I would be able to change that much if i stayed in the town i grew up in?

  • L. Harold Eger

    Humans have reached many new vistas from out from dire circumstances, to know ways of adapting to difficult changes or choices in positive can do personal persistence is not surprising. What is more crucial is to not as the role model to make ourselves redundant in our example but to foster new ideas that we will follow as a guide to what it takes to improve ourselves. I have to say as a parent less is often more for them when they need to explore for themselves coddling our self growth as a beacon. Funny how these ideas have been ruminating in my thoughts regarding my struggles with a mature but undisciplined son who has obvious talents but a lack of real consistency with making his mark build into more concrete long term objectives. But then i am only looking at this as a solid when i know it has to change and flow as natural events correct our assumptions.

  • Megan

    I hate anything involving I.Q. — I don’t say this as a bitter person. I actually tested extremely high and it made me feel l was smart my whole life when really I need to wise up and stop acting so entitled. It obviously discourages kids to think they are less than others, and it’s been proven to have numerous failings. Lets move beyond I.Q, shall we?

  • Lisa Hudson

    I believe that some adversity is necessary to build a strong person. One who pushes back, rather than allow him or herself to be pushed around. One who will think for themselves to solve problems before seeking help or giving in to failure.
    The joy of achievement is a wonderful reward, one everyone should experience at some level. Persistance is sometimes as good as a God given talent. The skills and abilities we practice are the ones we perfect.

  • Beth Greenapple

    For adults who would like to increase their resilience, build character, and learn (yes, I think these are traits that can be developed intentionally) an optimistic, zestful approach to life, I highly recommend a book by Mary J. Lore called Managing Thought. It is essentially a course (for adults, though it can be shared with children indirectly or directly), in directing one’s thoughts to achieve one’s goals, be they personal or professional. For parents who would like to be more effective parents and raise more resilient and self-disciplined children with the character traits that will empower them to succeed, I recommend The Parents’ Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting by Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay. I taught this textbook to parents from one end of the socio-economic spectrum to the other. I used it as a teacher in my classroom. It is by far the best constructed parenting guidance I’ve read or implemented as a parent, as a teacher, or as a parent/teacher trainer. Best of luck!

  • zucchero

    Hey guys.

    Is it possible to write these articles and interviews with simpler words?
    Almost every article on 99u is like specially trying to use wise words. And i’m having trouble with understand everything.

    Just my opinion.
    Thank you.

  • @kylereed

    There was a really really interesting interview done on an episode of This American Life that talked about the effects of trauma on kids and the classroom. For any kid that faces massive amounts of trauma they are more likely to fail. They have a Fight or Flight mentality that is exercised every time they face trauma at home, with friends, or in school. The researches stated that the reason most kids struggle is they see every situation as fight or flight.

    You can listen to the podcast episode here http://www.thisamericanlife.or

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