Mindset by Carol Dweck

Author: Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Mindset is my new lens for seeing the world. As Carol Dweck explains in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, there are two available mindsets: fixed and growth. As you could probably guess, the growth mindset is preferable. Unfortunately, it’s not typically our default. Looking back on my own life, I see a fixed mindset more often than I’d like to admit.

I use the word preferable in the prior paragraph because the growth mindset is most useful in our modern world. As we grow, we form beliefs about the world. Often we simply copy/paste beliefs of parents, teachers, friends, etc. Mindset, whether growth or fixed, tends to develop from our social environment rather than our deliberate choice. The problem? Research shows growth mindsets are simply more useful. So, if your childhood belief system instilled a fixed mindset, every passing day leaves you disadvantaged.

The two mindsets.

Let’s begin by describing the two mindsets. First, I present to you the Fixed Mindset.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

The Growth Mindset:

“…is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

The mindsets are not universal—it’s possible to be fixed in some areas of thinking and growth in others. Dweck uses a short survey to identify mindsets.

Read each statement [about intelligence] and decide whether you mostly agree with it or disagree with it.

1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

Agreeing with numbers 1 and 2 reflect the fixed-mindset while favoring 3 and 4 reflect the growth mindset. While you can have a mix, most lean toward one or the other.

How mindsets impact us.

Let’s consider intelligence. If I believe my intelligence is fixed, and that more intelligence is better, then my focus will be on continually proving my smarts. Ask me a question? I will prove I know the answer! When I can’t, my self-image might collapse, causing my biases to kick in and convince me I’m right anyway. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses this in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

I won’t suggest the growth mindset is an antidote to bias. I will instead suggest bias powerfully reinforces a fixed mindset, making its outcomes even more pronounced. If I believe intelligence is fixed and I don’t have much, I might choose to avoid situations that feel like tests altogether – both consciously and subconsciously. If I believe I can’t change, why bother trying?

The meanings of effort & failure.

Fixed Mindset:

  • Effort: If I have to work hard, it means I lack the ability.
  • Failure: If I fail, it’s because I’m not good enough, and that won’t change.

Growth Mindset:

  • Effort: However skilled I am today, improvement requires effort.
  • Failure: Failure is a signal to apply more effort, not a reflection of my permanent limits.

Dangers of praise & being ‘smart.’

It feels natural to praise people’s abilities, especially in children. Dweck writes, “…more than 80 percent of parents told us it was necessary to praise children’s ability so as to foster their confidence and achievement.” Unfortunately, it backfires. Praising ability drives children toward a fixed mindset. Instead, praise effort. This delivers better outcomes as it drives toward a growth mindset.

One of Dweck’s experiments tested two variations of praise.

Ability: “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”

Effort: “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

As we feared, the ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent. … In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.

I try to remember this study each time my instinct to praise our toddler’s intelligence kicks in.

Parenting & messages about success and failure

With our words and actions, we teach children how to think about themselves.

Children love praise, of course. Dweck writes, “They especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”

Dweck advises against reassuring children about their intelligence or talent. It makes them afraid to show a deficiency. Instead, she suggests messages reinforcing, “skills and achievement come through commitment and effort.” Dweck even suggests avoiding praise for a job well done, draconian as it may sound.

So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”

The ‘natural’ in sports.

People love seeing incredible displays of athleticism. When we’re watching an NBA center dunk or an NFL wide receiver catch a long pass, it’s normal to marvel at their talent. We awe at their natural-born ability. Dwek writes, “We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.” This misses something that’s by now obvious: it’s not natural-born ability that enabled their success. It’s years of hard work and practice. Aptitude alone isn’t enough.

Dweck uses a number of anecdotal examples to demonstrate growth mindsets in sports. I’ll highlight Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.

Muhammad Ali didn’t measure up to the traditional metrics of reach, chest expansion, and weight. He didn’t have the physique of a great fighter, the strength, nor the classical moves. This was all in contrast to his adversary Sonny Liston who “had it all—the size, the strength, and the experience… It was unimaginable that Ali could beat Sonny Liston. The matchup was so ludicrous that the arena was only half full for the fight.” What did Ali have in his corner? Effort and the growth mindset. “I read everything I could where he had been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, and try to get a picture of how his mind works.”

The other great example of growth mindset is Michael Jordan: the greatest basketball player of all time was famously cut from his high school basketball team. Dweck writes, “He used to leave the house at six in the morning to go practice before school. At the University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses—his defensive game and his ball-handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shots for hours. He was preparing for the next year.”

The dangers of ‘talent’ — Enron.

There’s a book titled The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s the story of the rise and fall of Enron. A darling company of the 1990s, its core business was operating energy pipelines. They hired Jeff Skilling, a brilliant former McKinsey consultant, as a business unit CEO. As he became CEO of the entire company, he created a culture that valued intelligence above all. Enron’s story ended in bankruptcy, driven by large-scale accounting fraud.

Dweck theorizes Enron’s organizational fixed mindset led to its accounting fraud. Enron’s incentive structure under Skilling rewarded intelligence over learning. Leadership’s believed talent is everything and talented people don’t fail. As a result, employees inflated successes and hid failures. If something wasn’t working, executives pretended it was. This strategy is unsustainable and disastrous. While pretending to be great, it’s hard to spend time getting better.

While it’s difficult to know whether Dweck’s theory explains Enron, it does fit other studies showing a fixed mindset leads to increased cheating. One of Dweck’s studies found 10-year-olds exaggerate performance after receiving ability praise. The below chart summarizes the findings from another study of 300 preschool children (ages 3 and 5) in China.

Source: Li Zhao, Gail D. Heyman, Lulu Chen, Kang Lee. Praising Young Children for Being Smart Promotes Cheating. Psychological Science, 2017; 095679761772152 DOI: 10.1177/0956797617721529

Growth mindset in relationships

Dweck also studied how mindset affects relationships. The evidence here is more anecdotal, yet remains powerful. She shares two beliefs common to fixed mindset relationships: “If You Have to Work at It, It Wasn’t Meant to Be” and “Problems Indicate Character Flaw.” It’s easy to imagine what happens to a relationship where work equates to a lack of destiny. The latter statement is even more interesting. If character traits are fixed, and I view my partner’s traits as flawed, resentment can only grow. This literally dooms relationships!

Mindset also comes into play after relationships end. Dweck and her fellow researchers recruited more than a hundred people to share stories of rejection. How did the mindset impact what happened next? 

“[Fixed mindset individuals] felt judged and labeled by the rejection. Permanently labeled. It was as though a verdict had been handed down and branded on their foreheads: UNLOVABLE! And they lashed out.” Their mindset offered no recipe for healing the wound. So, they desired revenge, hoping to wound back.

In contrast, those with a growth mindset reacted differently to similar hurt. “For them, it was about understanding, forgiving, and moving on. Although they were deeply hurt by what happened, they wanted to learn from it…”

Changing Mindsets

It’s a learning process—not a battle between the bad you and the good you.

Dweck believes mindset change is possible. Through intention, effort and persistence, we can shift into a growth mindset. Because mindsets exist side-by-side, it’s easy to slip into old habits. The prerequisite to a growth mindset is belief that growth is possible.

Some things to note:

  • The process can be uncomfortable and disorienting.
  • It starts with opening yourself up to growth.
  • A growth-oriented plan is the best response to failure.
  • Avoid reliance on willpower. Setbacks are learning experiences, not reasons to give up.

Dweck offers four steps to mindset change:

  1. Embrace the fixed mindset. Everyone has one. Don’t fear it.
  2. Become aware of situations and thoughts that trigger a fixed mindset.
  3. Assign a name, like “Gertrude” or “Hank,” to the fixed mindset’s persona. Describe what the persona is like to develop insights about its associated feelings and triggers. 
  4. Educate the fixed-mindset persona. Acknowledge its fears, and explain to “Hank” the plan moving forward.

I believe a growth mindset will serve me, so I’m committed to making the change. I know it’s a process, not an immediate shift. If you ever catch me slipping into a fixed mindset, please take a moment to alert me so I can grow!

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