Opening Your Mind(set)

an interview with Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University

In May 2006, Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, answered questions posed by On the Page editor and co-founder Nada Djordjevich. Dr. Dweck is a recognized leader in the study of personality and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006). Her research challenges assumptions about talent and achievement in all aspects of life, including art, athletics, business, and love.

Nada Djordjevich (ND): For those unacquainted with your work, would you define the two “mindsets” and describe the process of determining which mindset you are?

Dr. Carol Dweck (CD): We’ve surveyed thousands of people. About half of them have a fixed mindset. This means they believe that their basic traits, like their intelligence or their personality, are carved in stone: they have a certain level of intelligence, talent, or personality and they can’t change it.

The other people have a totally different belief, a growth mindset. They believe that even their most basic qualities can be cultivated and developed. It’s not that they don’t believe in talent. They simply think that talents and abilities can be augmented and that just about all great figures — in science, sports, business, the arts — have reached the heights because of their passion, commitment, and plain old hard work.

How do we know who has a fixed or growth mindset? We ask people how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements, like these statements about intelligence:

Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t change very much.
You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change quite a bit
You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

People who agree with the first two (and disagree with the third and fourth) have a fixed mindset. People who disagree with the first two (and agree with the third and fourth) have a growth mindset. Yes, there are people who don’t fit squarely into one mindset, but most do.

Why do these mindsets matter? The mindsets create a whole way of seeing the world and your purpose in it. When you believe your most important qualities are fixed, you need to prove them. Your energies are devoted to showing the world (and yourself) that you’re a smart person or a talented person. Deficiencies are hidden or denied — if your traits are fixed, deficiencies are fixed, too.

In a growth mindset, the world is a place of opportunity — opportunity for learning. Your purpose is to take advantage of these opportunities to maximize your growth and the growth of others around you.

Research now shows that people with a growth mindset do better and go farther in challenging educational and business settings — and enjoy themselves more! Maybe it’s not surprising that cultivating your skills gets you farther than cultivating your image.

ND: You have conducted some interesting research on children who were given an IQ test. Would you discuss the differences, in terms of both test performance and test-taking style, between those children who approached the test with a fixed mindset and those who approached it with a growth mindset?

CD: Yes, it was amazing. We gave fifth-graders an IQ test and, after the first set of problems, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence (Wow! You must be smart at this!). We praised others for their effort (Wow! You must have worked really hard!).

Now, almost everyone thinks that praising children’s intelligence is a great thing. It’s supposed to boost their confidence and make them achieve more — but we found just the opposite. It put them into a fixed mindset. After being praised for their intelligence, they wanted only easy problems (so they could continue looking smart) and when we gave them hard ones, they fell apart. They now thought they were not smart, they lost their enjoyment, and their performance plummeted.

(By the way, this can happen to adults, too. What happens to first-time novelists after they’re called “brilliant,” “the new Marcel Proust,” “the genius for our century”? They’re often paralyzed.)

In contrast, when children were praised for effort, it put them in a growth mindset. They wanted hard problems and thrived on them. When they hit obstacles, they remained engaged and their performance kept improving.

By the end, the children who were praised for effort were doing far better than the others on this IQ test. In a sense, their mindset made them smarter!

There was another surprising finding. Many of the children who were praised for their intelligence later lied about their scores — always in the upward direction. This told us that in a fixed mindset your performance measures you — so deeply that you have to lie.

ND: In your book, you talk a bit about the tennis player John McEnroe. Can you expand on the qualities that differentiate him from other famous athletes you discuss?

CD: Let’s start by making one thing perfectly clear. John McEnroe was one of the — maybe the — most talented tennis players ever. But, boy, did he have a fixed mindset. He was obsessed with his talent — he rooted for his brother and friends to lose so he could be the only one with talent. He didn’t like to practice — if you’re naturally talented, why should you have to? He couldn’t admit his mistakes or take responsibility for his losses — it was always something or someone else’s fault. He didn’t work to overcome his weaknesses — he remained vulnerable to distractions when he was on the court and never learned how to tune them out. And he had trouble coming back from failures — after he lost badly in mixed doubles at Wimbledon, he didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years.

Now, let’s compare him to Michael Jordan — without question, the best basketball player ever. Jordan wasn’t always the superstar he became. He was cut from his high school team, he wasn’t recruited by the college he wanted to play for, and he wasn’t drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him. He became the Michael Jordan we know by being the hardest-working player any coach ever saw. Even at the height of his fame, his capacity for relentless practice was legendary. When he missed a shot or lost a game, he went back to the court and practiced for hours — even if it was the last game of the season. And he embraced his failures. In one of his favorite Nike commercials he said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed.” You can be sure that each time, he went back and practiced the shot a hundred times. Because of his growth mindset, Jordan dominated the game for over a decade.

In spite of his fixed mindset, John McEnroe had a great career, but he was no Michael Jordan. I believe that with a growth mindset he would have been.

ND: I was also intrigued by the relationship between mindset and depression. According to your research, it’s not that people with growth mindsets can’t be depressed, only that their approach to depression differs from those with fixed mindsets.

CD: Right. We studied people who were mildly or moderately depressed and found that there were two very different ways of being depressed. In a fixed mindset, when people were depressed, they got really down on themselves and started to let things go. The more depressed they got, the less they kept up with things in their lives.

But in a growth mindset, when people got depressed, they made sure to remain active, deal with their problems, and keep up their lives. The worse they felt, the more they did.

It’s as though in a fixed mindset, depression is like failure. You feel bad about yourself and give up. In a growth mindset, it’s still a setback — you can feel really bad, but you meet it head on. A huge number of people experience this kind of depression at some point. The way they lead their lives at these times can make a big difference to their futures.

ND: You seem to disagree with the belief that there are some individuals who are artistically or athletically inclined and others who simply do not possess those abilities. Can you give some examples of people who have developed talents in areas in which no one thought they were naturally gifted?

CD: I don’t disagree with the belief that some people are more naturally gifted than others, but I do disagree with the idea that you either have it or you don’t. Or that natural talent is necessarily the decisive factor.

The most dramatic demonstration of this is the five-day drawing course offered by Betty Edwards, the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In her book (and in my book on page 69), you see self-portraits drawn by the students on Day One of her course. Right away, you might decide who has talent and who doesn’t. Many of the self-portraits are pretty awful. But on Day Five, at the end of her course, all of the self-portraits look great. It didn’t matter how much natural talent they started with.

In the artistic world, Jackson Pollack was not gifted. He was wildly passionate about art, immersed himself in the art world, found mentors, worked night and day to develop his skills and ideas, and became one of the most important painters of our time. Cezanne’s early work did not show him to be naturally talented, but he developed his skills and personal style to become one of the most influential figures in the history of art.

ND: Another interesting chapter concerns love and relationships and the difficulties that fixed mindsets have in this area. You have discussed the problem of a fixed mindset’s search for a partner — would you tell us a bit more about that?

CD: Finding true love is hard enough, but a fixed mindset makes it even harder. First, instead of just looking for someone who will love you and help you to grow, you’re looking for someone who thinks you’re already perfect.

Next, instead of expecting that there will be differences of opinion between you and your partner — differences that can help you learn more about each other and deepen the relationship — people in a fixed mindset expect that they and their partner will agree on everything. Good luck!

Then, when something goes wrong, it’s hard to admit any fault. Faults are for deficient people.

So if you need to be perfect and you demand perfect harmony, you have no way of recognizing and correcting problems. This is not good news for your relationships.

ND: You also described how changing your own mindset improved your relationship with your mother.

CD: My mother didn’t really love us. She wasn’t that involved with us, she wasn’t sensitive to our needs, and she often went back on her promises. In a fixed mindset, you have to decide — was it is her fault or mine? If she didn’t love me was she a bad parent or was I unlovable? These are the awful questions you ask within a fixed mindset, and you rush to protect yourself.

Then I realized I had a choice and I had control — not over my mother, but over myself and my behavior. I realized that at least I could have half of the relationship I wanted — my half. As I let go of my bitterness, I was able to be a more loving daughter and that in itself was rewarding.

But it also allowed something else to happen. My behavior gave my mother room to grow, and over time we formed a wonderful relationship.

In a fixed mindset, the blame feels self-righteous and the bitterness feels powerful. They’re hard to let go of. But blame and bitterness are hardly fertile ground for growth.

ND: Much research has been done on the importance of developing self-esteem for children and adults to grow, but from your book it would appear that getting praise from coaches and teachers and parents can adversely affect us.

CD: A big fallacy is that we can give people self-esteem by praising them lavishly. Instead, as I explained earlier, our praise can end up harming them by putting them in a fixed mindset. My research shows that praising people’s intelligence or talent, rather than giving them self-esteem, makes them vulnerable to a loss of confidence when things go wrong. Plus it makes them praise-junkies. They can’t feel good about themselves if people aren’t heaping praise on them.

The best thing coaches, teachers, and parents can do is to equip children to maintain their own self-esteem. And that means helping them learn a growth mindset, where their self-esteem comes from confronting challenges, pursuing them vigorously, and growing their skills. The book gives many tips for how to do this.

ND: Despite potential damage done at an early age, how can we change our mindsets — how can a fixed mindset person come to see him or herself as a work in progress?

CD: It isn’t an overnight thing, since a mindset can be an ingrained way of thinking. But the first step is just knowing about the growth mindset, what it is and how it operates. This lets you realize that there’s an alternative to believing in fixed traits and worrying about them all the time.

The next step is to go through situations with your existing fixed mindset — hearing the language of the fixed mindset: “You’re not good at this.” “Don’t look dumb.” “Don’t try.” “Make excuses.” “Save face.” Listen carefully and hear all those things in your head. Now, think about the same situation from a growth-mindset perspective. “What went wrong and how do I fix it?” “What do I have to learn and where do I get the skills and knowledge I need?” So instead of being defensive, you can go into high gear in an informed and strategic way.

People in a fixed mindset would be mortified to be told to their faces that they were lacking, but people in a growth mindset seek out this information knowing they can work to improve. In the book, I take readers through a number of situations — at work, in relationships — first in a fixed mindset and then in a growth mindset. In this way, they can begin to go from feeling like a finished product (perhaps with deep-seated, gaping flaws) to feeling like a work in progress with an exciting future.

ND: Is there a possibility that the growth mindset can also lead to workaholism or an increased sense of failure as people believe that if they only worked harder they could develop their artistic, athletic, or academic/career talents?

CD: The essence of a growth mindset is a joy in learning and a belief in the power of passion and dedication. The growth mindset does not guarantee anything — it does not promise you the all the skills you want and all the success you seek.

However, sometimes people can become obsessed with something, work at it night and day, and refuse to believe that their effort is not bringing them skills they hoped for. Although this can be painful and costly, I still have trouble thinking that a fixed mindset is better. For me, it’s better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all.

Perhaps the best thing is to keep in mind is that in a growth mindset, people tend to pursue things they love and value. In that case, the effort is not wasted. Maybe they didn’t find the cure for cancer, but the search was meaningful. Maybe they didn’t have a concert career, but they’re one hell of a violinist.

Originally published at