Growth Mindset and its Effect on Learning

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” 
Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do

Always good to open with a quote, which will make a bit more sense later on. Growth Mindset is a theory researched by Carol Dweck and has perhaps been made more popular by former British number 1 in Table Tennis Matthew Syed. He is well known for writing the books Black Box Thinking and Bounce which will give a much better overview than I ever could, so you may as well stop reading now (please don’t!).

What is it?

Growth Mindset is a learning theory which suggests that your attitude towards learning and how much you practice is much more relevant to how successful you are as opposed to your innate ability, and arguably the existence of innate ability. Malcom Gladwell suggested in his book Outliers that it takes roughly 10000 hours to master a skill. This would indicate that no one is born with natural talent, more so that they display such passion and dedication and time to a skill that they are able to master it. This fits hand in hand with a Growth Mindset. A perfect example is with child prodigies such as Mozart.

“Child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not with other performers who have practiced for the same length of time, but with children of the same age who have not dedicated their lives in the same way. We delude ourselves into thinking they possess miraculous talents because we assess their skills in a context that misses the essential point. We see their little bodies and cute faces and forget that, hidden within their skulls, their brains have been sculpted — and their knowledge deepened — by practice that few people accumulate until well into adulthood, if then. Had the six-year-old Mozart been compared with musicians who had clocked up 3,500 hours of practice, rather than with other children of the same age, he would not have seemed exceptional at all.” 
Matthew Syed, Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success

So if it's just a matter of practice, why isn’t everyone a master?

The Learning Pit

I’m sure we have all been in the same situation, found something new you want to learn, started learning it, loved it, hit a wall, stopped learning it. Thats the learning pit, and it's where a majority of people give up. If you don’t give up it is a steady but manageable upward path until you reach your goal. This can be achieved in many different ways, through the help of a friend, a suitable Google search or just more practice!

The Problem

The problem with The Learning Pit comes due to people's attitude towards learning, and the amount they think they believe they can learn. Those who believe in innate ability get to the bottom of the pit, attempt the problem once, maybe even twice, and then decide that they are not innately good at the concept they are attempting to learn. So what's the point in even trying? Someone with a Growth Mindset would attempt the problem, realise that they needed to practice more and just keep trying. Now this practice might result in the realisation that you need to ask someone else and thats fine, learning isn’t linear, it takes many forms!

Told you learning wasn’t linear..

The other problem is that people quickly lose interest in something they are struggling with. I am as guilty as this as the next person, the real trick to having a Growth Mindset is knowing how to deal with failure. One way to deal with failure is to accept that it is inevitable throughout your life (unfortunately it is). The other way of dealing with failure is to mitigate the effect failure has on you, in my experience this can be done through finding something you are passion about. If you are learning something you are passionate about then, in my experience at least, you won’t mind when you fail. Once you accept that failure is a part of learning and failure only comes through practice, you will soon realise that learning, failure and practice all feed into a Growth Mindset and thus sustained progress (and learning) over time.

Does a Growth Mindset apply to programming?

Got here in the end! The short answer is YES and it applies to anything you want to learn! A Growth Mindset really is just a belief that you have the ability to learn and improve at anything that you set your mind to. In reality it is a little harder than that, life gets in the way, other things take your attention away, work is stressful and maybe sometimes gaming is more appealing than programming. The truth is that's fine, no one can give 100% all the time. As long as you are willing to not give up and come back to it within a reasonable time frame its fine, perhaps even encouraged, to take breaks! So when you get stuck ask your mate, Google it, make a Stack Overflow post, just keep trying. Even if you don’t realise it now, you are learning with every failure. The more you practice the better you are going to get, and the more you practice the more you are going to fail, the only thing you can’t do is give up.

So to summarise…

Growth Mindset isn’t revolutionary, it's not even much more than common sense, but that doesn’t mean it's not important. If you didn’t take anything else I wrote, the next 3 sentences are all you need to know. The things that you dedicate your time to are the things you will master, and with dedication comes failure. The things you are willing to dedicate your time to are the things you are passionate about. The thing you are passionate about is the thing you will master. Make mistakes, try again, you will learn and you will get better, it might seem unattainable now, but even Mozart started somewhere.

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