A Mindset for Entrepreneurship

I remember the buzz when Dr. Carol Dweck released Mindset in 2006. I was teaching in New York City at the time when a 2007 New York Magazine article shared Dweck’s finding that we should not be praising children on their inherent attributes (intelligence, athletic prowess, goodness) but rather on the effort children make to learn and to improve. Dweck had hard data to back this up.

The most vivid example of the benefit of praising persistence over intelligence was in the puzzle experiment. Two groups of children were given a relatively easy puzzle to solve; most solved it. In A group, the children were highly praised for their inherent qualities: “You’re so smart! You are a really good puzzle solver!”. In B group, the children were treated positively but no mention was made of attributes. Instead children were praised for perseverance: “You worked hard on that puzzle! I can see that part was challenging, but you kept going.”.

After the first round of puzzles, the children were all offered the chance to do some slightly more challenging puzzles. The kids labeled “smart” refused; the “workers” eagerly went to the next level. X argues that this is all about mindset. When we focus on challenges, perseverance and learning, we cultivate a growth mindset. When the focus is on being identified as “smart”, “gifted”, “athletic”, we can often become very resistant to anything that would risk that.

I recently had a chance to read Mindset and it’s one of the most interesting and valuable resources for business owners I’ve encountered. It presents important insights for running an organization, being a better leader and supporting talent development in your staff.

What does a fixed mindset look like?
For a young child, this might mean not doing the puzzle. For a teenager, this could mean refusing to study; if you do well you’re “really smart” (as everyone has told you for the last fifteen years), but if you do poorly, you haven’t risked anything. You’re parents will probably say, “John is so smart, it’s a shame he won’t do his work.” As children and teens internalize the value of effortless success, their ability to learn diminishes.

As an adult, a fixed mindset can be professionally and personally crippling. Perfectionism, controlling tendencies, an overly critical attitude can all become habits if we are constantly looking for the world to prove we’re great; rather than simply putting in the hard work that creates greatness.

So what does this have to do with business?
Business leaders with fixed mindsets cannot help their businesses evolve and they are dreadful as bosses. The problem with a fixed mindset is that people become desperate to protect that mindset. Whatever quality we have is supposed to be effortless and anything that threatens that quality is anathema.

A fixed mindset boss is always right. So what happens if the world doesn’t go the way she planned? The world is wrong. Employees made mistakes. The data is wrong. The customer is fickle. So energy is placed on fixing the world, not on the leader actually learning.

Dweck often sites tennis star John McEnroe as a clear example of the fixed mindset personality. Most vividly, he once attacked a journalist because the noise from the journalist’s headset was “making him” miss serves. Never mind that concentration is a skill an athlete should practice; it was the world that was to blame.

Fixed mindset founders are not common. Rather fixed mindset entrepreneurs who actually build and sell things are not common. There are many “amazing” entrepreneurs out there who thought of Ebay first, had a great idea but the world conspired against them, or would have a great company if the world weren’t wrong. But entrepreneurship is a pretty big identity gamble for someone looking to prove that he or she is smart and successful.

But an entrepreneur with a growth mindset can do amazing things. For one thing, a growth mindset is energizing. As the goal is to learn and face challenges, you are constantly meeting that goal, rather than sitting around waiting for trophies to land at your feet. Growth mindset entrepreneurs are also very efficient. The old Silicon Valley saying: Fail fast, fail often; is really just an articulation of the growth mindset. Try and test often, learn often. Repeat ad infinitum.

The Takeaway

  • Take risks and show your team that you are doing it
  • Praise team members who try something new, persist at a tough challenge
  • Build constructive criticism into every project
  • Make sure you are not living in an echo chamber; find someone outside your company who can candidly talk to you about your choices.

Ultimately, a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset is about the quality of life we want to lead. I personally want to experience life to the fullest, and that means going into situations where I am more often than not a novice. The secret is to be comfortable with the new, not to stay where you are comfortable.

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