Why is it that some individuals become geniuses, others retire as millionaires, business empires get built seemingly from scratch and in other cases talented individuals never rise beyond mediocrity, regardless of their field or profession? Some attribute this to luck, others claim it is down to what talent we are born with or that we are either smart or not, but in all cases people are wrong. Success is not down to what you are born with, it’s about what you make of the things you are born with. In other words, it’s down to whether you have a fixed or a growth mindset.
A fascinating series of studies by Stanford Professor Carol S. Dweck have been collected in a newly released book titled Mindset – The New Psychology of Success capturing the intricate, but crucial differences in how people with these mindsets look at the world and what effect that subsequently has on their lives, their chances to succeed and ultimately their happiness.
The Fixed Mindset
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. So many people are stuck with this all-consuming goal of proving themselves – in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships: every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality or character: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? These aren’t just things we pick up as we enter adulthood, but Dweck delicately points out that as a parent, you can have a profound impact on whether your child falls into the fixed or growth mindset, same in schools – in fact society at large seems to have conditioned us to think that talented people always get ahead and those smart enough don’t have to work hard – they just do it. The truth is no one just does it – but how can learning even be fun when your whole being is at stake every time there is a test, a competition or a deadline?
The Growth Mindset
The people with a growth mindset have a far more open way of looking at the world and themselves in it – traits are not simply a hand you have been dealt and have to learn to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you are secretly worried it is a pair of tens. In the growth mindset, the hand you are dealt is just the starting point for development. It is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents, and aptitudes, interests and temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Do people in this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it is impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.
Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children? That Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was completely uncoordinated and graceless as a child? That the photographer Cindy Sherman, who has been on virtually every list of the most important artists of the twentieth century – failed her first photography course? That Geraldine Page, a great actress was advised to give it up for lack of talent?
You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it is not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Who has accurate views of their assets and limitations?
Interestingly, studies show that people are terrible at estimating their abilities. Professor Dweck and her students recently did a study to find out who most likely to have inflated views of their abilities and try for things they are not capable of? It turns out that those with the fixed mindset accounted for almost all the inaccuracy. The people with the growth mindset were amazingly accurate.
When you think about it, this makes sense. If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you are open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it is unflattering. What’s more, if you are oriented toward learning, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything is either good news or bad news about your precious traits – as it is with fixed-mindset people – distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don’t know yourself at all. Howard Gardner, in his book Extraordinary Minds, concluded that exceptional individuals have ‘a special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses’. It’s interesting that those with the growth mindset seem to have that talent.
Rather than merely going over the differences between the two mindsets, Professor Dweck does an excellent job of also explaining the background to these mindsets, that we may in fact be riddled with both of them, but in different areas or parts of our lives. She further takes a very hands-on approach to explaining how to spot when you are in fixed mindset thinking and then how to move yourself in to the growth mindset thinking instead. The book is littered with case studies of people from all walks of life, explaining how people have conquered their fears of failure to become successful individuals. Despite Professor Dweck being an academic, the book is surprisingly straight-forward, even chatty in places, but ultimately a very approachable book and one of the most useful I have read in a long time. Not only do you learn to examine yourself and your own behaviour as a result of reading this, you also learn to be supportive to your friends, loved ones and partner, and moreover, how to turn your workplace into a positive environment where people thrive. I find my coaching skills have improved dramatically too – highly recommend reading this book!