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“I’m just not good at art.” How many of us have said, thought, or heard that at some point in our lives?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of visiting three art classes. I watched students in first-year visual art working on contour drawings of simple objects stacked on their tables. A dozen ninth graders in introductory drama each performed simple movements of their choice, which their classmates analyzed using the Laban Principles of movement. And the Jazz Band worked on one of its first pieces of the year, “Duke’s Place,” where each member took a turn to solo; those solos ranged from one-note experiments to virtuosity, but they were all done with gusto!

Particularly in art, but also in math and athletics, we sometimes fall into a trap: assuming that either you have it or you don’t. The art classes I visited embraced the opposite (and accurate) philosophy: while we start in different places, skill in the arts comes from practice and study.

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck explored this idea in her book Mindset. She described two viewpoints. Somebody with a fixed mindset tends to assume that skills, habits, and aptitude — like intelligence or artistic ability — are innate and immutable. Those with a growth mindset believe that those things can be developed over time. The fascinating central insight in Dweck’s work is that, controlling for other factors, one’s mindset actually impacts performance. If you think academic ability, for example, is innate, a low grade means that you are in some way deficient; it exposes you, leads to insecurity, and often discourages effort. Having a growth mindset makes it more likely that you will learn from a setback, hear feedback, stay motivated, and keep learning. That is what we want for our students, and that is the attitude we try to foster in the arts and all around campus.

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