I came across the book Mindset by Carol Dweck on one of my favorite websites, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. Dweck is a research psychologist who has done groundbreaking work on how our belief systems shape our personalities and our brains. She describes two mindsets that can color the way we live our lives across learning, teaching, leadership style, and even our personal relationships.
The fixed mindset is based on the belief that everyone is born with a fixed amount of talent. It is essential to live up to one’s perceived full (but actually limited) potential at all costs. Failure is seen as unacceptable and must be avoided. Always self-limiting, at worst, those with a fixed mindset will lie to themselves and even others to keep their identity in tact when they perceive that their talents fail them. They blame themselves or others rather than learning from mistakes and moving forward. Also, a fixed mind-set dampens the spirit of team work. Their is an unconscious fear that the work of others will outshine one’s own performance challenging one’s identity.
The growth mindset encourages learning because failure is a stepping stone to improvement. There is a strong belief that effort and practice using different strategies can lead to improvement, and improvement is always perceived as success. There are no limits to what one can learn. Asking for help is not a threat, and finding joy in the creativity of others enhances rather than depletes one’s sense of self. While not everyone can become a “superstar,” full potential is always out ahead and worth striving for. There is always possibility to improve.
Her research is fascinating. In one study with four year olds, she presented them with increasingly difficult puzzles. As soon as some of the children encountered puzzles they had trouble completing, they lost interest and quit. Others seemed to get more excited and were energized by the challenge. Two mindsets seemed to be at work. Her study showed her that these mindsets are established very early in life. Further studies show that mindsets can can change from fixed to growth at any age with dramatic positive results.
How we are reinforced plays a large part in which mindset we develop. It turns out that being praised for talent and accomplishments can discourage rather encourage creativity and learning. Identity is tied up with perfect products rather than perseverance and creativity. A fixed mindset supports the belief that positive outcomes should come easily because the talent for success is inborn and easily accessible. The growth mind set loves a challenge and thrives on finding solutions through practice, hard work, trying new strategies, and asking for help. When a growth mindset is operating, one does not say to themselves “I’m just not good at_____.” If that thought goes through ones head, the fixed mind set is at work. Praise for effort and trying new ways at finding solutions promotes a growth mindset. Less than perfect is positive rather than negative.
The book explains that we are all a mix of mindsets depending on context. It is full of fascinating research as well as anecdotal stories from the author’s self discovery about how each mindset has operated in her own life and in the lives of those around her as well as in the lives of prominent teachers, sports coaches, and CEO’s of large corporations.
She ends the book with ways to use her paradigm to observe how our own mindsets are operating in any given situation. One can begin to ask, “Is this thought self-limiting or growth-producing.” I found Mindset a very insightful read helpful for personal growth, parenting, teaching, productive leadership, and a deepening of self-enhancing ways to accept myself and interact with others.
In addition, this book gave me a new lens to try and understand the country and broader world that we live in today. In many ways our culture supports a fixed mind set that has infected everyone from “the least of these” all the way to some of the most powerful political leaders of our time. Certainly this book supports a view of politics that includes a belief that effort and perseverance, communal action, and creative strategies, even in the darkest of times, are essential. It is the only way to hold on to possibility and gain long-lasting success. I believe those of us with the most privilege must take the greatest responsibility for fostering a growth mindset in ourselves and others, and, most importantly, we must act out of that mindset. While I have no doubt my own future is at stake, I have the luxury of escape into my comfortable life style hiding behind the fixed mind set that I can’t make a difference. The problems are too overwhelming. Those suffering must struggle with survival each and everyday. When they demonstrate a growth mindset by taking enormous political and personal risks, I have no choice but to follow their lead.