Does mindset really matter? My older daughter is learning how to tie her shoelaces. The other day she looked at me and said, “I never tie my laces.” I replied, “Not yet, darling, keep trying.” Several minutes later (in “Mummy time” it felt like two hours) she looked up beaming, “I did it!” These “sliding door” moments are what world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck describes as “growth mindset” moments. Dweck has conducted decades of research on motivation and what contributes to success in life. She believes the key to achievement lies in one word – mindset. A person’s mindset refers to perception of self, others and the world. Many argue that simply changing your mindset can change your world. Dweck posits that teaching a growth mindset at an early age can increase efficacy in learning, which has offshoots later on in business, sports and personal relationships.
However, is a “growth mindset” all smoke and mirrors and no substance?
What is a Growth Mindset?
Professor Dweck researches what makes meaningful change in people’s lives. In her TED Talk, Dweck discusses how people who believe their talents can be developed through hard work and repetition develop a growth mindset that sees them fare better in life. Her research has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success. In her 2006 book Mindset, she says that when it comes to achieving success, the belief that you can improve makes all the difference. Elaborating on her TED talk, Dweck describes two types of mindsets.
Growth mindset: people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are only the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. A growth mindset helps you regard failures and setbacks as part of a learning process, and gives you the motivation and persistence to master new skills. With a growth mindset, people worry less and are more successful; they put more energy into learning and are less concerned with “looking smart”. They value collaboration and hold others with the same positive regard as they do themselves.
Fixed mindset: in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are simply fixed attributes. They spend their time showing off these qualities instead of developing them. They believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. But Dweck is not the first person to discuss the role of mindset. Many people have described mindset in other terms, such as resilience. Critics of Dweck argue that fixed and growth mindsets are buzzwords and can set people up
for failure. It is true that not everyone can do everything. No matter how much I would love to sing like Pink, it will never happen. I could take 1000 singing lessons but I do not have the innate talent of Pink. However, this is not what Dweck argues.
Much of her work reinforced productive effort targeting areas where people can improve and not setting up unrealistic expectations. She acknowledges people are a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets and both are often needed. There is a strong body of research that shows adjusting perspective can create real-life change. Psychology was founded on this premise. The belief that change is possible is still inherent in many children when they say, “I’ll just give it a go.” Sadly, this precious quality seems to lessen as we age. Sometimes it is affected by life circumstance, trauma, repeated modelling of limiting behaviours, physical or mental illness or unhelpful reinforcement of fixed mindset behaviours. If you have not been encouraged to see barriers as challenges, it will often lead to a fixed mindset. I often see this phenomenon when I lecture at universities or provide supervision or training. Young people can be so preoccupied by demonstrating their intelligence that they miss the point that it is about “trying” and “learning”. Learning that our brains and talent are only the starting point, then some risk-taking and an inner thirst for knowledge is something to start teaching young. Otherwise, like me at the ripe age of 40, you will need to rework any old self-limiting behaviours.
How Do Mindsets Impact Learning?
A series of studies have shown that children tend to avoid challenges when they have a fixed mindset. In one study, Dweck gave a group of 10 year olds difficult problems to see how they coped with challenges. Results were mixed. Some students loved the challenge (growth mindset); others felt judged and like they failed (fixed mindset). Dweck repeated follow-up studies on children with a fixed mindset who later reported they were more likely to cheat and/or look for someone who did worse than they did, in order to feel better about themselves. Dweck believes these children with a fixed mindset were operating from the “now”, whereas children with a growth mindset were operating from “not yet”. So how do we encourage a growth mindset? Dweck suggests we engage in the following. Firstly, use self-compassion. If you experience a negative thought, such as “they think I’m not as good”, then challenge it. Does it really matter what they think? Secondly, even if they do think that, does it matter? Avoid connecting with the negativity. Show yourself some kindness. Praise the effort, not outcome.
Praising intelligence leads to a preference to stay in the “safe zone” – only wanting to show what you are good at. Be vulnerable. It’s the only way to learn. Praising effort leads to more engagement over longer periods of time and more resilience. Use the words “yet” or “not yet” to increase hope that change is possible. This is not just for children – check out your own self talk.
Challenge your perceptions. Reframe negative feedback. Ask for information and see it as an opportunity to improve rather than as a negative judgement.
Myths of Growth Mindsets
Any concept can lose value when used without full understanding. In my own research, I found some people had jumped on the “growth” catchphrase but had actually missed the point. A growth mindset is about the process of learning rather than, “Earn millions by buying this growth programme”.
With that in mind, Dweck lists the three important aspects of a growth mindset.
1. Growth mindset isn’t just about being open-minded. Dweck argues that everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth. The goal is to work and improve on your growth continually, similar to your physical health. It is an evolving physical journey.
2. It’s about more than praising and rewarding – outcomes do matter. Dweck advocates praising people for putting their energies into productive effort, such as capitalising on setbacks or trying new things, rather than endless practice on an unattainable pursuit, such as singing like Pink.
3. Walk the talk. If you make a growth mindset part of your company’s mission statements, don’t just pay lip service. This means encouraging employees to use appropriate risk-taking, rewarding useful lessons learnt.
What you can do
Praise your children, partner and yourself for their effort not their talent. People are more than the sum of their skills. Praising a person’s intelligence will cement their need to always be seen in this light, and will encourage them to avoid trying new things due to a fear of making a mistake. Try to avoid going through the motions of “achieving success” by signing up to expensive programmes. Have the confidence to set mindset goals and go for it. A growth mindset is hard to achieve, but then so are most things that are worthwhile in life. Get out of your comfort zone and watch what happens.