An Introduction to Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Mindset - Carol Dweck (Amazon)

Mindset – Carol Dweck (Amazon)

I’d like to discuss one of the key ideas from Carol Dweck’s wonderful book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  The focus of the book is how our mindset for ability and effort can have a dramatic impact on our level of success.

Dweck focuses on the dichotomy between what she calls a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset”.  She believes that this is the key to understanding why some people are able to overcome failures, while others give up in the face of adversity.

 The Fixed Mindset

When we have a fixed mindset, we see abilities as stable and innate.  We believe that people have gifts for things like math, language, athletics, or even general intelligence and we are either blessed or cursed and there’s not much we can do about.  If one achieves greatness, it is the result of high IQ or natural talent that allowed success to come easily.  Conversely, needing to struggle and work hard is viewed as a sure sign that natural talent is lacking.  This mindset discourages determination in the face of difficulty and interprets setbacks as markers that one isn’t talented enough.

The Growth Mindset

The growth mindset, however, embraces the possibility for improvement.  The growth mindset encourages the belief that hard work and effort is what matters most and that we learn and grow from our failures.  When confronted with setbacks or failures the growth mindset sees greater opportunities to learn, rather than messages to give up.

Dweck’s concept of mindsets is based on many years of research and a number of carefully controlled studies, often involving children.  Dweck and her colleagues have found that children intuitively pick up on cues that shape their interpretations of themselves and their abilities.  While this distinction between fixed and growth mindsets may initially appear common-sense or even trite, Dweck’s research has a number of surprising implications.

For example, Dweck has found that children who are praised for their hard work after completing a number of easy puzzles are more likely to adopt a growth mindset.  These children subsequently take on greater challenges and are more persistent when faced with more difficult puzzles.  Children who are praised for being “smart” for solving the easy puzzles are more likely to adopt a fixed mindset and will subsequently turn down greater challenges.  Given a choice, they prefer to continue working with the easy puzzles, protecting their ego and their new-found identity as “smart”.  This is surprising because it shows that even well-meaning praise that focuses on fixed traits (rather than effort) can actually work to undermine growth and development.  This subtle distinction has important implications for how we choose to praise children and how the language we use can shape their mindsets and their futures.

Considering Our Own Mindsets

Even though I had been familiar with the basic concepts of Dweck’s research for several years, I hadn’t realized how mindsets infiltrate every aspect of our lives until I read this book.  It helped me to reconsider my own motivations for success and how fixed mindsets were unconsciously holding me back from reaching my fullest potential.

The good news is that mindsets can be changed.  If you find yourself with a fixed mindset, it’s possible to shift your interpretation and develop a growth mindset.  In fact, in some studies, Dweck and her colleagues were able to instill either a fixed or a growth mindset in their participants simply by how they worded instructions.  Describing a task as a test of innate ability tended to foster a fixed mindset, while a description that emphasized the possibility for improvement helped to bring out a growth mindset.

Reflecting on how we may have developed fixed mindsets for certain abilities (I’m no good at math, I’m not athletic, I’m not creative, etc.) is the first step in changing those mindsets and freeing ourselves from self-reinforcing mental traps.  Perhaps an early failure has kept us from trying or taking on challenges, which in turn prevents us from growing and improving.  Breaking free of these cognitive shackles may be as simple as recognizing that incremental improvement is always possible.  In all endeavors, shifting to a growth mindset can encourage us to work harder and strive to learn from setbacks, rather than allowing our past failures to define us.

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