It helps to know that the geniuses are also just human.
In a recent experiment, researchers from Columbia University found that students who learned about the academic failures and personal struggles of some of the greatest scientists in history, like Einstein and Marie Curie, got significantly better grades than the students who only learned about their accomplishments.
"In our culture we always say you don’t want to intimidate kids, you don’t want to tell them how hard the work is. We think kids are so fragile," lead researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler told Jenny Anderson at Quartz. “Tell them the truth. They are resilient."
Lin-Siegler and co-researchers recruited 402 students in 9th and 10th grade at four New York City high schools in low-income areas of the Bronx and Harlem. They divided the students into three groups.
First, there was a control group, which read typical science textbook descriptions about the impressive accomplishments of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday, an English scientist who contributed to the fields of electrochemistry and electromagnetism.
The next group learned about the scientists’ personal struggles, like fleeing from Nazi Germany for being Jewish or being banned from university for being a woman.
Finally, the last group learned about the scientists’ academic failures and intellectual struggles, like Curie’s numerous failed experiments and Einstein’s problems convincing his peers that gravity could actually bend light. They also learned about how the scientists overcame these struggles.
Lin-Siegler told Quartz that the experiment could have gone two ways — learning about the struggles of some of the greatest geniuses of our time could have disheartened the students, leaving them with the attitude of, “if Einstein can’t do it, then I certainly can’t either.” Or on the other hand, it could have inspired them by illuminating that even the most famous brainiacs went through personal and academic struggles.
It was the latter that ended up happening, and Lin-Siegler admitted that the study results, published in the Journal of Education Psychology, surprised her.
The students who learned about the struggles of the scientists ended up outperforming the control group that only learned of their achievements, and the lowest performing students in both “struggle” groups ended up displaying the greatest gains in their grades.
Interestingly, the control group actually ended up performing worse than they did before they participated in the experiment. Instead of seeing the scientists as regular human beings, they thought they were innately gifted, which in turn discouraged them from their own work.
“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up," Lin-Siegler explained in a press release. "Many students don't realise that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way."
A huge takeaway from this study is that our intellect is malleable — through our own personal experiences, struggles, and academic achievements, we’re able to build on our intelligence.
Even if you’re not a science student like the teens in this study, it’s important to keep this message in mind when it comes to learning any new things, whether it be how to play the guitar or how to speak French. Just keep in mind that if Einstein had given up when the going got tough, we might not have the general theory of relativity.