First Principles: Mindset

The worst thing my parents ever told me was that I was smart.  When they bought me a toy piano when I was four, my dad tried to teach me to peck out the notes of Mary Had A Little Lamb.  When I couldn’t to do it after about 90 seconds, I didn’t even try to play an instrument for another 10 years, convinced that I just didn’t have the talent to do it.  In first grade, my class wasn’t taught how to do long division. The next year the school put me into the combined second/third grade class.  I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how to do long division and fell months behind the rest of the class.

I thought if I was smart, that meant I knew the answers, that I was capable.  If I didn’t know the answer or didn’t know how to do something, that was evidence that I wasn’t smart. If I had to put effort into something, it was a sign of my own shortcomings.  Anything that I didn’t know or wasn’t immediately good at was a threat to my identity as a smart kid.  Unsurprisingly, this attitude didn’t make me the most enjoyable kid to be around.

What was my problem?  How did I start to fix it?

Carol Dweck has researched this field more extensively than anyone else during the last 30 years.  While her findings may at first appear simple or even obvious, they are profound and can be life changing.  She has now published a book for the masses, Mindset, which is much easier to digest than her academic papers.  I don’t think I’ve bought more copies or recommended a book more often than this one.  This is an important book that everyone should read.

Fixed Mindset v. Growth Mindset

Dweck’s research has shown that people hold two mindsets, which she terms the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”.  Those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, character, or other abilities are inherent or fixed, and can’t be changed in any meaningful way.  Those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence, character, or other abilities are not inherent or fixed, and can be changed in a meaningful way.

Presented like this, you may think the fixed mindset is silly.  Who really believes that qualities aren’t meaningfully changeable?  As a kid, I did.  Most people do.  And, even though you’re reading this, I bet you do too, at least in some respects.  Most people honestly think they can’t do math, or can’t sing or dance.  Many people think they aren’t creative or can’t make relationships work because they aren’t good with people (or believe relationships that aren’t effortless are somehow broken and should be abandoned).  These are all preposterous ideas that stem from a fixed mindset.  Math, dancing, singing, and interpersonal skills are all learned abilities developed through practice.  Yes, some people are born a bit more coordinated, or have a better ear for tone.  But nobody becomes good at anything, including math, without loads of practice.

Ok, but Dweck’s “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” idea still doesn’t seem terribly revolutionary, does it?  In some respects, no.  Philosophers have acknowledged for millennia that self-improvement is possible.  But actually identifying these two mindsets is crucial.  If you’ve always assumed intelligence is fixed, or charisma is just something you’re born with, you may have never considered that a subset of the population knows this to be false.  Likewise, if you’ve known your entire life that your characteristics depend on the amount of effort you put into building them, you may have never thought that most of the world simply doesn’t believe that a person’s abilities or characteristics can be changed.  But even more importantly, your mindset profoundly affects how willing you are to work hard, learn, and ultimately succeed and be happy.

Mindset and Motivation

If you believe your qualities are set in stone, you will constantly limit yourself, just like I did as a kid.  My fixed mindset and my self-applied “smart kid” label severely limited me.  The choices I faced became about proving to myself and others that I really was a smart kid.

Dweck’s research shows that children praised for being smart consistently shun challenging activities, instead of choosing easier activities that they know they won’t fail at.  After experiments where kids took IQ tests, the children who were told they were smart consistently lied about their scores, reporting that they did better than they actually did.  In the fixed mindset, every situation becomes about success or failure.

Since my successes were a result of my innate intelligence, then my failures were the result of my lack of intelligence.  Anything I couldn’t immediately understand or do well, like long division or piano playing, was a threat to my status as a smart kid.  Anything that requires effort was evidence of my inferiority.  Unsurprisingly, this caused me to avoid challenges that stretched my abilities, since those challenges might result in failure, and even lying about my abilities and accomplishments.  With a fixed mindset, failure was a reflection of who I was as a person.

Those with the growth mindset don’t believe anything like this.  Those with the growth mindset know that their traits aren’t fixed.  With a growth mindset, you know that the proverbial hand you’re dealt in life is just the starting point.  Whatever your baseline intelligence, abilities, or character, you can change and improve those baselines through effort and experience.  In the growth mindset, success or failure is not a reflection of who you are as a person.  Failure simply means you must put forth more effort to succeed.  Thus in the growth mindset, every situation is not about success or failure.  Challenges are to be embraced as opportunities to get smarter, or stronger, or more personable, rather than opportunities where someone might discover you’re not as smart, or strong, or charming as you think you are.  Those with the growth mindset appreciate failure, because each different failure is evidence that they’re getting better or smarter; each new failure is one more mistake they’ve learned not to make the next time.

Simultaneous Mindsets

Many people hold both fixed mindsets and growth mindsets about different topics.  For example, some people believe intelligence is more or less innate and cannot be changed in any meaningful way, but acknowledge that musical ability is something that can be meaningfully changed through effort and practice.  Some people acknowledge that physical attributes like strength or endurance can be improved through training, but simultaneously believe that people are either innately creative or they’re not.  This is, as I’m sure you can guess, fairly silly.  If things like musical ability or athletic endurance can be improved, why do people believe you can’t learn to be more creative?

Changing Mindsets

One of Dweck’s most fascinating discoveries is that it takes very little to temporarily change someone’s mindset.  Language is extremely powerful.  In the same puzzle experiments mentioned above, when one group of kids was praised for the effort they expended solving the easy puzzles, 90% of them wanted to try the more challenging puzzles when given the option.  Less than half of the kids praised for their intelligence wanted to try the harder puzzles.

But this is good news.  Since mere suggestion has such a powerful effect on people, you can use this on yourself. Praise for effort, not ability.  Discuss the effort you put in to accomplish things, not merely the accomplishments themselves. Remind yourself that expending effort simply means you’re making yourself smarter, stronger, or more skilled.  Appreciate failure and setbacks by reminding yourself specifically what those failures and setbacks taught you (writing these lessons down can be incredibly useful).

Redefining Success

When you change your mindset, your idea of success generally changes as well.  In the growth mindset, success becomes about trying your hardest and doing your best.  When you do these things, success follows, regardless of whether someone around you accomplishes more.  Because success and failure are no longer reflections of your innate worthiness, you no longer define success as asserting your superiority over others.  Not only will this make you happier and more successful, everyone around you will be happier and more successful as well.

For much more about the growth mindset, including some now hilariously uncomfortable quotes from Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, I really can’t recommend Mindset enough.

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3 Responses to First Principles: Mindset

  1. Wan says:

    Thanks for the reminder, AJ.

    Having a growth mindset can help people to stop conforming with others and believe that they can improve themselves and stand out if they want to.

  2. Dre says:

    Thanks for this article… something I’ve understood for awhile but need to be reminded of.

  3. Pingback: First Principles: Internalization | The Blog of A.J. Kessler

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