My Reply To Sal Khan's Email "Why I'll Never Tell My Son He's Smart"​

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This morning I got an email from Sal Khan, Founder & Executive Director of Khan Academy.

By force of habit I usually place these emails in my "Later" folder, however this time I couldn't resist reading it.

There is nothing special about the email's writing or design or the time I got it. It's a usual marketing email that you would automatically get from many of the services you sign up to.

However, the subject line spoke to something I related to right away. It hit deep, and connected to something I dealt with in my life.

Sal's Email

Subject: Why I'll never tell my son he's smart

Hi hussein,

I’d like to introduce you to an important idea that you can apply to learning anything, from algebra to a new language or instrument. It’s called a growth mindset.

Research has shown that you can improve your ability to learn by changing how you think about learning. Learning isn’t about being “smart”; instead, it’s about practicing and persevering through challenges. I wanted to share this article I wrote with you and encourage you to explore building your own growth mindset:

Learn why I'll never tell my son he's smart.


Sal Khan 

Founder & Executive Director

I read the email and immediately read the article which is 2 years old. But that didn't matter, the topic was relevant and timeless.

In the article Sal describes his experience with his 5 year old son, and how he takes the growth mindset approach instead of a fixed mindset, based on research from Stanford University and recommends that it's a better approach to learning, education and for working with people.

The article is short, to the point, and had great value.

But unlike any other good article that that's a good read that I then forget when I'm back to my busy day, this one connected to my personal experience. And I felt compelled to say thank you, to let Sal know how valuable was it to hear his story and to how I enjoyed his sharing. So I hit reply wanting to say thank you.

However, I found myself writing and writing nonstop.

My Email to Sal*

Hi Sal

This hits very deep for me

All my life I’ve been called smart by my mom, everyone in my family, relatives, and friends of the family called me smart and that my success is a given.

I was born and raised in Syria, where this kind of behaviour is perceived to be loving and an acknowledgment of someone’s status and family.

Of course I was smart, after all I come from a line of great and highly respected individuals!

That was the perception. Obviously I liked that a lot. Made me feel superior.

But that led to catastrophic consequences when I was an adult. 

Just like you said, I thought success was guaranteed by who I am, not by how hard I work. While that didn’t mean I worked less or didn’t put the effort. I had great work ethics. But I attributed my success to who I am and how smart I was, not to how much I’ve grown and learned.

So when the lucky success streak came to a sudden halt and a spectacular failure, I internalized that. And instead of seeing it as a chance to learn and grow. I saw it as a confirmation that I wasn’t smart, that my parents lied to me. Or even if I was smart, I wasn’t smart enough to make a project a success.

I was playing a blame game. I blamed everyone. And most of all I blamed myself. And taking my own life was the most incessant dominating thought in my mind.

See, what you shared with me today means the world to me, because, it was only my son that saved my life. 

The thought of leaving him without a dad was unbearable. And I’m still here because of him.

Back on my feet, working my way out of the results of my failure, I promised myself that I will never tell him "you are smart" as a way to justify why he can succeed at anything, instead, just like you said, I would point out and emphasize how he got over something difficult, how he worked hard and got things done, or achieved something. I would do exactly what you did with your son.

Whether it was learning Minecraft or LEGO, math or Taekwondo, I focused on his desire, willingness and effort to learn, and how that was the main reason he got it done.

Now I encourage him to read about anything he wanted to learn, I rewarded him for reading books, that’s how he made his allowance.

He ended up reading things like Lean Startup, Angel, Traction, and Power of Habit (he’s 13).

We bonded, our conversations became better, and our connection is stronger.

I love what you are doing and hold what you did with the utmost respect. Education is the way forward. It's what I do all the time and what I’m focused on with my actions in the community here in Vancouver, BC, and at Launch Academy where I mentor, and with every interaction with a student or entrepreneur.

Thank you for sharing your story, making my day, and giving me a boost to keep going and building a better tomorrow for my son, my community and the world.

If you made it reading all this email, thank you.

I wanted to avoid just sending a thank you, and share my story so you can recognize the true impact of what you shared on my life and my world, and I would guess on everyone you touch and your work impacts. Thank you

If there’s ever something I can do to help, please let me know.

And if you are ever in Vancouver and up for a great cup of coffee, hit me up ;)

Looking forward to hearing back from you and staying in touch

Enjoy a remarkable day

Hussein Hallak

*Done a little editing on this version as I discovered typos - I was writing on my phone :)

Key Take Aways

  • Storytelling is timeless: 2 years ago Sal told a story in a blog post that I could relate to today, and even if I got this 10 years from now.

  • Educational content makes for better marketing: Unlike regular automated marketing emails that invite you to use explore more features of a platform or product, this email added value, over and above the value of the product. There is no better way engage your customers and keep the coming back again and again.

  • Authentic purpose driven founders create authentic purpose driven organizations with authentic purpose driven marketing. Sal's story was not an afterthought, a nice story he can use to sell me on something. It is a true extension of how his world view and the congruency of words and action.

  • Being an entrepreneur is hard and at many times lonely as hell. By sharing your story, surrounding yourself with likeminded entrepreneurs, and adopting a growth mindset you can turn your idea into a successful startup that is changing the world.

For a community of likeminded in Vancouver check out Launch Academy, joining that community when I first moved to the city changed my life.