Academic success is a muscle
I've just read "Leadership is a Muscle," an article by Chip and Dan Heath in the July 2007 issue of Fast Company Magazine. They review a book by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, who has just published a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
The findings of her research are fascinating to me. Her research with children has shown that if you train them to think of intelligence as something that can be built up with practice, they will perform better on tests in areas such as mathematics.
If the same can be said of academics, then this would put the lie to the "either ya' got it or ya' don't" attitude that many have ascribed to in the past. In other words, if each professor or grad student could tackle her work with the idea that she will continue to get better and better at it each day, it will help with the constant feeling of failure that so many people struggle with. Sure the writing you did today may suck, but it will be that much better tomorrow for having tried.
Few of us go to the gym, try to lift 100 pounds, find it too difficult, then say, "I'm not cut out for the gym." Even the most self-critical perfectionists would start with lower weights, build up slowly, and expect some days to be harder than the next. Yet it is so difficult to have the same attitude with anything that has to do with one's intelligence.
In a professor coaching group yesterday, we discussed the idea of seeing oneself as a brave explorer who was courageous, who faced dangers every day. One prof brought up the fact that it was rarely discussed in academia that you get better and better at what you do. Privately, people looked at something that they wrote in the past and feel chagrined. Instead, the message should be, "Take heart! Your writing will improve! Keep flexing that muscle!"
As the Heaths point out, don't look at today's performance as an exact sample of your intelligence level. Think of your scholarly ability as something that will grow and change, and the very fact that you can see it that way will enhance your academic success.