How old were you when you decided that you weren’t any good at sport? Or that you couldn’t sing?

When did you decide that you weren’t a maths person or that you couldn’t draw to save your life?

Was it last week? In your late 30s? Early 20s? Late teens? Early teens? In primary school perhaps?

When I ask rooms full of adults these questions – after we’ve all publicly outed ourselves as not being smart, sporty or arty – most of us agree that we made these decisions, if not by the time we started High School, then certainly not long after.

I argue that these decisions that we make in our early teens then shape the decisions we make for the rest of our life.

And I’m not sure that that is an ideal scenario.

You see, if you believe that you aren’t genetically capable of improving, how inclined are you to try?

My guess is – not very. And so, as a result you don’t get any better at sport, maths, art or singing. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Given that most of us make these decisions early on in life, it is worth observing why. Many of our decisions as youngsters are influenced by the adults who surround us. The way parents and teachers recognise ability, talk about success or failure has an impact on our understanding of those issues. And in turn this impacts our mindset.

Carol Dweck talks of a fixed and growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which we tell ourselves we are simply not a maths person and not much can change this – in fact it doesn’t matter what we try – maths just isn’t our thing.

Recently a fairly well known maths educator, Jo Boaler indicated she thought that some teachers teach as though students are either capable at maths or not. It’s in their DNA or it isn’t. They have “maths brain” or they don’t.

Perhaps some teachers do believe this, I don’t know.

But what I do know is that a great deal of adults believe this about themselves – I only need to look at the amount of hands that go up in my workshops – and I wonder how this plays out when they talk to the young people in their life.

I’m going to explore this a bit more in coming columns. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.


Author: Dan Haesler is a teacher, consultant and speaker at the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People seminars. His website is: and he tweets at @danhaesler