The Growth Mindset
My son (15) is doing maths tutoring at a local school as part of a community service project for his studies. Last Saturday he was taking a couple of students through ratios and basic sums while I was sitting in the back re-reading Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” in preparation for a webinar. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, found through her research that people display one of two mindsets:
- A fixed mindset, where they believe that talent is rigid and cannot change or improve; or
- A growth mindset, where people believe in talent and natural ability, but also believe that it can improve vastly with effort and hard work.
In the room was the math teacher. She came over to see what I was reading, and I explained the premise of the book. I told her that it had changed the way I looked at talent and performance – both my own and my children’s. Instead of praising their natural ability by saying “Wow, you are so good at math!” I would say “Well done on getting 95% for the math test! Your hard work has really paid off.” I praise effort and progress, not just the achievement. And never, ever do I praise natural talent. I’ll explain why in a moment.
The teacher was really interested and vowed to buy the book for herself. Then she turned around, checked the work of one of the girls and immediately exclaimed: “Clever girl!” I cringed silently in my seat. A perfect display of the fixed mindset.
Why is that so bad, you ask? Shouldn’t we praise the achievement? Shouldn’t we tell kids that they are smart in order to build their confidence? The answer is no. This is what they hear when you praise talent or characteristics: I am good at math. I am clever. But that means that if I make a mistake in a calculation or fail a test, I’m not so good anymore. So, I can never make a mistake. Because mistakes mean that I’m not clever. And I cannot risk that. So, I just won’t even try.
This type of thinking – a fixed mindset – fosters doubt and a fear of performance. People with a fixed mindset don’t like to compete because if they fail, it means that they are worthless. If they make a mistake, it casts doubt on their ability. History is riddled with examples of people who were great and couldn’t sustain it.
In contrast, a growth mindset still believes in natural ability and talent. But it ALSO believes that effort and hard work are critical. They see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve, not as a threat that can expose you as a failure. People with this learning mindset love challenges because they can learn from them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care about winning or achieving, it just means that if they win (or lose) it does not define who they are.
In my experience people don’t want to hear that effort and progress is more important than talent. We seem to want to believe the fable of the “natural”, someone who can do something seemingly effortlessly. I experience this in my work constantly. Here’s how the fixed mindset shows up:
I’m a graphic recorder, which means that I listen to talks and speeches and then capture these in pictures. Usually, my clients are blown away with the beautiful graphic I create for them in real time. I often get people saying things like “Wow, you are so talented! I can’t even imagine how you can listen to everything and create a picture like that at the same time.” When I say: “Thanks, it’s the result of years of practice.” they look at me with a sense of almost disappointment. They don’t want to hear that it takes hard work and effort. They want it to be easy and effortless – a gift from the gods. Sometimes they disagree with me by saying that they’re sure I have some natural ability that allows me to do it. When I insist that it’s mostly practice, they smile uncomfortably as if they’re thinking “Ok, maybe she’s not that special after all…”
I believe that we need to change this fixed mindset. It’s probably the element that held me back for most of my life, stopping me from trying new things and learning from mistakes. Because I was stuck in a fixed mindset for so long, I know how dangerous it can be. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have some natural ability that sets you apart from others and makes you a bit more special?
- Do you fear your mistakes will expose you to not be as good as other people think you are?
- Have you stopped trying new things because you’re fearful of failure?
If you answered yes to these, you might be stuck in a fixed mindset.
But don’t despair – you can change your mindset. In the next article I will give some pointers on how to change from a fixed to a growth mindset.