Our School’s impact and developing our talents

Our School’s impact:

Each year, I submit a progress report to the Provost about my role as dean and my and the School’s accomplishments over the past year. Similarly, the School’s chairs and unit leaders provide me their progress reports. A couple years ago, I asked them to include highlights of their unit’s impact in research, service and teaching. As I have said before, as a public university, we must hold ourselves to a standard of making a difference. Just to be clear, impact could be a groundbreaking new type of statistical test for microarray analyses, a basic science finding that changes how people view a nutrient, an epidemiologic result that alters how we understand breast cancer risk, a new teaching program that is educating students more effectively or the effect of an intervention on health policy or population health. In each case, something changes because of our work. This year, I read the Chairs’ reports with real pleasure and enthusiasm as I saw the many ways in which we are making a difference across the School. I will share some of these impact stories over the next few weeks. It is one of the things that excites me so much about being dean—this opportunity to achieve impact and to communicate about it. For now, more about the SPH’s impact can be found on our Web site.

Developing our talents:

I really appreciated HBHE Assistant Professor Noel Brewer sending me an article I’d seen in the New York Times July 6, but hadn’t grabbed electronically. It is called “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow,” by Janet Rae-Dupree. The article begins, “WHY do some people reach their creative potential in business while other equally talented peers don’t?” After three decades of painstaking research, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, believes that the answer to the puzzle lies in how people think about intelligence and talent. Those who believe they were born with all the smarts and gifts they’re ever going to have, approach life with what she calls a “fixed mind-set.” Those who believe that their own abilities can expand over time, however, live with a “growth mind-set.” Guess which ones prove to be most innovative over time.

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Professor Dweck, who is known for research that crosses the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology. “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them…”

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As some of you know, I occasionally cite the wisdom of Group Fitness Coordinator Paula Brennan, spinning and fitness instructor/trainer extraordinaire at the UNC Wellness Center in Meadowmont. She has an expression which I have mentioned before: “We have to work our weaknesses.” It has a lot in common with Dweck’s conclusions. We have to develop the parts of us that don’t come easily. I’ve had to work really hard to develop my quantitative skills, but the more I’ve used these skills, the easier it becomes. Many of us, particularly those of a certain age (read: well over 50), grew up thinking that if we weren’t a natural at something, we just couldn’t or shouldn’t do that thing. For me, it was athletics. When I finished the NYC Marathon at age 40, I imagined every gym teacher who thought I was worthless at the finish line. And when I finish a session of ultimate conditioning, I still see those teachers. But boy, am I working my weaknesses!

I have watched some of our students struggle with their weaknesses, especially those who really have to work at writing or experience a setback in their work. Yet, when they put their hearts and minds to it and work with mentors, they improve in astonishing ways.

What’s striking is that sometimes the joy and satisfaction we get from surmounting our weaknesses is so much greater than performing in areas that come easily. I really resonated with Dweck’s message. It’s the kind of message that gives us hope that we can transcend our own weaknesses and limitations. After all, we are part of the university; we should never stop growing. I want this School to be the kind of place where people can work their weaknesses and get a lot of support doing so. That’s the ultimate strength training!

Happy Monday!

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