What I learned from Carol Dweck’s Mindset

I’ve always been obsessed with the art of learning and what really differentiates people who have accomplished a lot in their life from the rest. The internet is filled with articles about productivity and motivation — I have done my fair share of reading in trying to answer the question. But most of the tips and hacks that I found, as effective as they can be, were not very insightful. They were like the symptoms of a disease, not the root cause that I was interested in.

I recently stumbled upon a book by Carol S. Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, called Mindset. It tries to explain how your performance, be it in the classroom, football field or as a CEO of a company, depends on your mindset. You either approach something with a fixed mindset or with a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset usually think that their abilities are more or less carved in stone. With every new task that they undertake, they feel that their reputation is on the line and the result will be a reflection on their talent and skills. They feel smart when they are flawless, they compare themselves with their peers all the time and their internal monologue is always along the lines of “Am I going to succeed or fail here?” or “Will I look smart or dumb once I’m finished?”. Their fear of trying and failing is overpowering because failure, they believe, would imply that their skills are not up to the mark and that hurts their ego.

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that you can improve even your most basic qualities through practice and learning. They believe that you cannot know your true potential at the start. They feel good when they try really hard and accomplish something they couldn’t have without the effort. They don’t mind failing as long as the process involves learning something new or helps them improve their abilities.

So how do people end up with different mindsets?

It depends on the value system they were raised with. If your parents and teachers always praise your talent — “You got an A! You are so gifted at math!” or “Wow you did it so quickly, it just comes to you naturally!” — then you start believing that your current skills are your prized possessions and you have to protect your image in all your future endeavors.

Whereas if the feedback that you received was based on your effort and process — “I really like how you worked on this problem for 3 days and didn’t give up!” or “I love how you have improved so much since you started!” — then you are more likely to value learning more than anything else.

Same theory applies when you receive negative feedback — “You got a C-! I guess you are really dumb when it comes to Physics.” versus “I’m not surprised you didn’t do well given that you didn’t put enough effort it in. Let’s come up with a thorough plan for the next test!”.

One of the most interesting things I found in the book was the experiments with young students. To see how the performance of students varies with their mindset, they randomly divided the class into two groups and gave one group a fixed mindset and another one a growth mindset. The emphasis is on the “gave” part. It was really easy to influence their mindset just by using some of the above praising techniques and the results were quite astonishing. The test scores of fixed mindset students stayed at the same level but those of growth mindset students improved consistently with time.

Popular examples

John McEnroe, the book says, had a fixed mindset. No doubt he was very talented and was a champion, but whenever he lost, it killed him. He couldn’t deal with failure; he would blame the referee, his health, the weather, anything under the sun really, but he wouldn’t own up and work on his mistakes. He was either no. 1 or he was nobody. This mentality is very common in people with fixed mindset — “I’m a natural, I shouldn’t need to work hard to improve.”

Michael Jordan on the other hand was a typical growth minded player. He was by no means a “naturally gifted” player and he faced a lot of rejection in the beginning. But he believed in the power of working hard and improving a little everyday. We all know how this story ends.

The book has a lot of such examples about athletes, coaches, teachers and even corporations. Depending on the CEO and the senior management, a company can either have a fixed mindset (e.g., Enron, Chrysler) or a growth mindset (e.g., General Electric, IBM, Xerox).

Where do we go from here?

As a parent, or a coach, or a leader, we need to understand how our feedback is going to affect someone. For instance, often when their kids lose in a contest, parents try to make them feel better by saying something like “Oh, the judge was biased” or “The winner is just a freak of nature” but sometimes we really need to give honest feedback. Elizabeth Spiegel and her students’ success story is a great example of how proper feedback works wonders. You can read about it here.

As an individual, merely knowing about the distinction between growth mindset and fixed mindset is a great start. Another important point discussed in the book is about how we handle success. If you think of success as a reflection on yourself and your talent, then you are likely to become sloppy and complacent eventually. Not only that, but you’ll also bury yourself deeper into the fixed mindset mentality. Instead, we should attribute our success to the discipline and hard work that resulted into that outcome and we should be aware of the fact that once you take out these ingredients, the results would change dramatically. Alex Rodriguez summed it up very nicely:

“You never stay the same, you either go one way or the other.”

Similarly we shouldn’t feel offended by criticism but should welcome it instead. We shouldn’t look at it as a judgement passed on ourselves but as an opportunity to improve the process and our abilities. The same attitude also helps in overcoming the fear of trying something new and failing. Mark Zuckerberg at startup school 2011 talked about this:

“You’re going to make a ton of mistakes. It doesn’t matter. You don’t get judged by the mistakes. People don’t remember those years from now. They remember the things that you did that were good.”
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