Stop Calling People “Talented”

“selective focus photography of man playing grand piano in crowd” by Josh Appel on Unsplash

They’ll Stop Trying New Levels In Age Of Empires

countless hours wasted, countless more to come

There’s this game called Age of Empires III which involves picking a map, building one’s empire, and destroying the opponents’ with our armies. Now, once I start playing this game, it will take a miracle for me to stop in less than six hours. This is a demonstrated fact, and has often been a source of colossal frustration to my parents in the past. They’re not against gaming, it’s just that I don’t eat when I’m playing — something which never makes a GI tract happy.

Multiply that with a few months and you’ll see why I’d become a fucking AOE virtuoso, kicking three asses at a time with nobody on my team but me. However, shudder, all the adult responsibilities knocking at my door were becoming increasingly hard to ignore. So I uninstalled the game. This was a few years ago.

Couple months ago, the game was back in my life. I inculcated AOE into my reward-and-punishment system that I use to daddy my productivity. After a massively productive week, I booted the game up after a long time — excited out of my wits. I picked a map — Amazonia (a huge river running between two expanses of land, your team on one side, enemy team on the other) — and I played that map repeatedly. By morning, I was able to handle four enemies at the “Hard” difficulty level, alone.

Somewhat accurate representation of the Amazonia map

I’d developed this strategy of quickly gathering resources for building multiple docks (which help build ships). I would then mass-produce ships before the enemies could get started, destroy their docks, and park my ships all along their coast. In this way, they’d never be able to build docks — and hence — attack my land.

While they’d be wasting resources trying to take down my fully-upgraded ships, I’d be patiently focusing on a booming economy, not having to waste resources on training soldiers (because there was no enemy to defend my land from). Once I got bored, I’d build ridiculously large armies using the insane amount of resources I’d have gathered during all of this slacking time, and then wreak havoc upon my enemies at will.

This was a brilliant strategy. So brilliant that I could just repeat it over and over and win every single time. I thought to myself “Hey, that’s pretty smart. I must be really talented at this game or something.” High on this confidence, I tried a new map — Bayou.

Now, Bayou is nothing like Amazonia. It is a whole new beast, which requires completely different strategies. But I still wanted to win, so I employed my good old strategy of choking areas crucial to entry while focusing on economy and not producing a lot of soldiers.

I lost miserably.

Now you’d think I’d just say “meh” and tried new strategies until I found the one that worked — but that’s not remotely what happened. Instead, I had some chilled coffee and went back to mercilessly dominating enemies on Amazonia. I’d begun to fear the idea of playing any other map — and just kept playing on this one, burying myself in self-inflicted monotony.


After a dozen consecutive wins on the map, I’d managed to prop up a precious little label for myself — “I’m talented at this. I’m smart. I want to keep feeling smart.”

And ever since I built that fragile little glass sculpture of myself, I was too afraid to break it. I was afraid to take up new challenges in the form of new maps. I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of the possibility of losing. I wanted to mitigate — nay — remove the chances of me losing. I was smart. I didn’t want to lose that label.

The result? I plateaued. I didn’t grow. I remained terrible at all the other maps and became a one-trick pony who was too afraid of new challenges. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such an attitude doesn’t lead people to good stations in life.

While reading the book “make it stick” (amazing read, btw — I recommend this to every person I talk about books to) I came across a study which, very accurately, explained my experience. A study by Stanford professor Carol Dweck demonstrated how adolescents who who were praised for being “smart” focused on their performance (trying to maintain their levels), whereas those praised for their “effort” focused on their learning (trying to learn more, fail more, and grow more).

The underlying principle here is the famous dichotomy of fixed vs. growth mindsets. Simply put, with a fixed mindset, one tries to maintain what one already has without trying to grow. But with a growth mindset, one constantly pushes oneself to see how far one can go — more risk-taking, less resting on (and defending) laurels.

This underlying principle and its ramifications are all-pervasive. A fixed mindset is why celebrities often lose relevance. A fixed mindset is why, thousands of years ago, kings employed overly defensive strategies and lose their kingdoms because of such choices.

So I tried to forget my past achievements in Age of Empires, started the game up, picked a whole new map — The Great Plains — and started playing. I lost again, but I learned much more in one game that I’d learned in the previous ten games playing the same map.

I traded “smart” for “resilient” and “good learner” and conquered every other map in the game, some even better than I conquered Amazonia.

Easily the best deal of my life.

Stop Calling People “Talented” was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.