What is your thinking about intelligence and your abilities? Is it nature or nurture? Do you think of your intelligence as something that you are born with and that you can’t do much to change? Or do you think that you are in control of changing your intelligence, your capacity for learning or your abilities considerably if you want to?
Depending on your response to these questions you are likely to display a very different set of behaviours and ways of thinking about the world: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Mindsets are meaning systems that help us to make sense of our experiences. The idea of two distinct mindsets was developed by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. When investigating why some people are more likely to achieve highly in life than others even though they seem to have the same level of talent, Dweck realised that it’s s people’s attitude that matters. Your attitude in life will make huge differences in terms of self-believe and subsequent performance. Let’s have a look at the two mindsets that Dweck describes in more detail.
Fixed mindset — There is a limit to what I can do
You believe that intelligence is something that people are born with. As a result, you are likely to give up more readily when you hit a challenge. You tell yourself that you are not clever enough for the task. Your underlying belief is that your brain will only take you so far and if you can’t deal with the challenge it means you have achieved your maximum intellectual capability. That’s it — you can’t go any further. You think of intelligence and your abilities as largely set in stone, therefore you either get something or you don’t. Following on from this you are likely to structure your thinking in terms of the beliefs you hold about your intellect and your abilities. With a fixed mindset you are less likely to try new things which you perceive to be beyond your ability level. You are consequently more likely to be afraid of failure. As you don’t try new challenges you don’t have an opportunity to question your belief. As children people with a fixed mindset would have learned what Dweck calls, “learned helplessness”, believing that an adverse situation cannot be overcome as they lack the necessary ability.
Growth mindset — Everything can be learned
You believe that you can learn new things. Your growth mindset helps you to overcome setbacks as you consider challenges and obstacles as temporary and as something that you can conquer if you acquire new skills. With a growth mindset you are more likely to think of intelligence and ability as malleable, as something that can grow, change and develop in time. A challenge is not seen as having reached an intellectual or capability limit but as something that requires more input and effort. The word ‘failure’ isn’t part of your vocabulary. Your inclination is not to give up but to keep on trying.
Mindsets are learned
When we hold on to a fixed mind set it is often for a reason, usually related to messages we received as children. At some point in our life our mind set served a good purpose. It gave us a strong sense of who we were as a person or we wanted to be, i.e. ‘the clever one’ or the ‘sporty one’. When our parents described us as clever or talented, we were encouraged to be that person, e.g. to always get the top grades at school. In this way the praise provided a formula for self-esteem and love from the primary carers. The challenge, however, is that difficulties arise when you were not that person, for example bringing back school grades that were not conforming to the usual expectations. The frustration that came with this kind of setback still echo in adulthood and the feelings of frustrations or low self-esteem still arise when not achieving what you set out to achieve. This could include targets that were set at work, not finding the right partner or not living the lifestyle you aspired to.
Dweck argues that children benefit more from being praised for effort rather than for being talented. Praising effort encourages a growth mind set; your child will be more likely to enjoy the learning process rather than the result. They may try harder because the process if more engaging and fun rather than daunting and hard work.
The brain science
The idea of the brain being quite malleable is borne out by the recent findings in neuroscience where scientists talk about brain- or neuroplasticity. Far from being fully developed at some point in our life our brain grows on a regular basis. The great news is that our learning never stops. For example, when we think a thought, talk to someone or practice an instrument, our brain communicates this message via neurons which establish new pathways.
As we learn new things the brain makes new connections. The more we learn about a specific subject the stronger the connections become. Therefore, our brains get denser when we practice newly acquired skills. For example, playing an instrument regularly will develop the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain. So, our hearing changes. Another study showed that traditional taxi drivers in London who had to learn routes by heart (rather than rely on sat nav) had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals. Through learning ‘The Knowledge’ of finding their way around the myriad tiny streets in London, the drivers enlarged a part of their brain.
Change the way you think
Most people are likely to move somewhere on the spectrum between a fixed or growth mind set. The underlying positive message of a growth mind set is that you can always learn new things. And the way you think about yourself can be challenged and changed too. This is particularly relevant if your self-esteem or confidence tend to be quite low and you always think of yourself as not being very successful or not having achieved enough in particular aspect of your life. For example, you may think that you will never find a loving life partner.
Mindsets can shift and may differ in relation to different parts of my life. For example, I may have a fixed mindset in relation to my beliefs as a trombone player and a growth mindset when thinking about myself as being an actor. Mindsets are a mental attitude that will determine how I interpret situations and respond to them.
So, you have a choice in the way that you interpret difficulties and challenges. Your perception determines your view of the world. Changing from a fixed to a growth mindset does not, of course, happen overnight and is not only a question of simply willing it to be different. After years and years as adults we all are quite invested in our view of the world. It helps us to make sense, to create predictability in life and to feel safe. However, paying more attention to instances when you approach difficulties with a fixed mindset gives you a starting point for questioning whether this way of looking at difficulties is stopping you from learning something new or developing to your full potential. Notice when a little voice in your head tells you that ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you’ll never be able to do this’ or ‘this is not possible for me’. It helps sometime to write down these statements and to see whether another argument can be developed which is less critical of yourself. Try to be your own defence lawyer and note down arguments and evidence in favour of a capable you.