When it comes to describing our abilities at various activities, the word “good” isn’t, well, very good.
In fact, it’s pretty bad. A better word is “skilled.”
Think about the following pairs of statements, and in particular, pay attention to the hidden meaning behind each one:
“I’m not good at math.” vs. “I’m not skilled at math.”
“I’m good at soccer.” vs. “I’m skilled at soccer.”
“I’m not good at drawing.” vs. “I’m not skilled at drawing.”
“I’m good at writing.” vs. “I’m skilled at writing.”
The “good” claims are all fixed-mindset statements, and the “skilled” claims are all growth-mindset statements. The reason is that “good” or “not good” reflects a character trait, while “skilled” or “not skilled” reflects an acquired ability. If you say you’re not good at drawing, it feels permanent. But if you say you’re not skilled at drawing, you’re subtly acknowledging that you could become skilled; drawing is something you could learn and practice.
“Good” is about innate ability. It’s about talent. It’s about genetics. It’s about whether or not you’re “gifted.” If you’re not good at something now, the logic goes, you’ll never be good at it. That’s the essence of a fixed mindset.
“Skilled” is about acquired ability. It’s about learning, studying, and practice. It’s about what you have done and what you could do. You might not be skilled at something now, but with time and effort, you can become skilled. That’s the essence of a growth mindset.
If you’ve read much of this blog, then you’ll likely remember that the growth mindset is both true and better. We can improve, and when we believe we can improve, we do the work to prove ourselves right.
So my challenge to you is this: When you talk about people’s abilities – especially your own – try to avoid using the word “good.” Instead, say “skilled.” At first, this will be hard. You’ll feel like you’re not good at using growth-minded language. But remember, you’re actually just not skilled yet, and with practice, you’ll surely improve.
Note: This is just one small piece of the puzzle when it comes to cultivating a growth mindset. No single intervention will suffice. It’s a long game that requires a multipronged approach. Click here for a deeper dive into what it takes to cultivate a growth mindset.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.