To What Do You Attribute Your Performance? What Happens Next May Rest on the Answer!

Some years ago, during my freshman year I got a 38 on my first test in physical chemistry. It felt like I was sucker punched. The tables had been turned from my high school days; I was no longer on top. Worse, I didn’t know why I did so poorly, except for the lingering thought that I wasn’t as smart as everyone had made me believe.

Fortunately, I bounced back from that dismal experience thanks to a chance encounter with the professor in the hallway. What was most important in retrospect was not just how I turned my grades around, but rather how I responded to the 38…and every negative (and positive) experience in college and in life thereafter.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that could be beneficial to you.

Questioning Your Ability Could Be Debilitating

My first reaction to the 38 was to question my ABILITY. I was humiliated and wondered whether or not I had made the right college choice. I had never been one to ask for help; I was always the one to whom my classmates looked. H.E.L.P. was a four-letter word in my mind. Mine was a classic Fixed Mindset, about which I’ve blogged in the past.

Effort Matters

That chance encounter with my professor changed my perspective. In a blunt yet strange way, by threatening to fail me if I didn’t put in the work, he was telling me that I did have the ability; I simply lacked the right kind of EFFORT. (He was right. I studied for just two hours for that test, and “study” was a strong word to describe what I did.)

His threat scared me straight. It compelled me to change my approach to my work: I spent more time in the library than my dorm room, resolving not to leave until I understood every concept, every equation, and every theory. I also committed myself to preparing at least two days before every exam.

I turned it around quite considerably, graduating with two degrees in engineering from that same university. I’ve previously written about this new Deep Dive Learning Approach that I’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years.

To What Do You Attribute Your Performance?

My story, and particularly how I responded, was a lesson in Attribution Theory—the study of how people think about the causes or meaning of events based upon their motives. Fritz Heider, who is considered the father of this theory, suggested that human beings have an intrinsic desire to explain and understand the causes of behaviors and other occurrences in life so we can exercise control over our environment and therefore know how to adapt to similar situations in the future.[1] Bernard Weiner, the pioneer in the study of attributions about success and failure, applied this theory to explain achievement and motivation.[2] I’ve adapted his model based on what I’ve learned working with hundreds of students as a college administrator and my own research:




Attributing causes affects our expectations, emotions and behaviors. Making the wrong attributions could have deleterious effects on what we do next. Attributing failure to a lack of ability is ostensibly something you can’t control. Attributing my 38 to lack of ability perhaps may have caused me to withdraw my effort, hide my performance from my friends, and seek out other ways to exercise my uniqueness, perhaps in destructive ways. It is quite likely—as is the case for countless college students—that a growing sense of learned helplessness could have led to my dropping out of college.

Similarly, attributing success to LUCK could be just as fatal. Earning a high grade when you doubt your ability doesn’t lead to a change in approach, or a boost in confidence. By saying to yourself that you were lucky is attributing your success to CHANCE, something you can’t control either.

Take Control of Your Attributions

Making the right attribution motivates you to seize control over your performance, whether good or bad. Attributing success to EFFORT and failure to a LACK OF Effort are responses that are internal and controllable. My serendipitous encounter with my professor shocked me from one attribution—LACK of ABILITY, to another, LACK of EFFORT, leading to a change in expectations and behaviors. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What About You?

To what do you attribute your performance in school, on the job, or in social encounters? Writing off your failures to genetics, a bad professor or a mercurial boss or other permanent causes hurts you in the long run. Choose to make positive attributions—place blame on controllable factors, then get to work.


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[1] Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons

[2] Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4). pp. 548-573.