How to Try a New Skill Without Hating Yourself and Giving Up
With a growth mindset you have more control over your intelligence and “talents” than you think.
Did you grow up with the idea that you were born with a certain lot in life?
“Some people are good dancers. Some aren’t. That’s just the way it is.”
“I’m just not a math person.”
“I can’t change my intelligence.”
Research suggests that this belief, this mindset, limits our achievement and prevents us from learning new and difficult skills. It keeps us caged.
Luckily, the opposite mindset has the opposite effect: When we believe that we can grow and develop our most basic skills, we perform better and believe in ourselves. We do better in school, at work, and at new hobbies.
This mindset theory was pioneered by Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor who has taught at Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Illinois. Along with her colleagues, Dweck performed studies on thousands of students that support the idea that your mindset affects your achievement. (And that you can change it, thank goodness.)
Specifically, Dweck defined and compared two types of mindsets: growth mindset (the helpful one that boosts performance) and fixed mindset (the unhelpful kind).
A growth mindset is the idea that your skills, even basic traits like intelligence, are developed with time, effort, and the right strategies. They are in your hands. The focus here is on learning: when you hit a challenge, you can learn and persist until you overcome it, rather than giving up at the first real sign of challenge. Through this resilience brain forms new connections, and you develop new skills.
Meanwhile, a fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are fixed. The idea that you’re born with certain intelligence, math skills, and dance skills (or lack thereof), and that’s the way you’re going to be forever.
Imagine you’re one month deep into your new hobby of learning to play the piano. You’re working on a simple Sonatina in C by Clementi, a lovely piece, but you keep getting stuck on a measure in the middle. Your left hand keeps forgetting what to do, your right can’t move quickly enough, and sooner than later, you don’t like this song so much anymore.
Ah, your first challenge.
What happens next in your mind can tell you a lot about your mindset.
A fixed mindset would feel this frustration and come to the conclusion, “I’m just not a piano person.” A growth mindset sounds like, “I’m not a piano person yet.”
Growth mindset attempts to increase understanding one bit at a time, and if something feels tough, then that’s the brain forming new connections. The difference is the emphasis on becoming instead of being. And it’s a realistic acknowledgement of your current skills (“I’m not sure I can play a sonatina right now, but I think I can learn to with time and practice”) as well as failure (“Clementi, Chopin, Brahms, and all the greats had failures on their paths to greatness”).
What mindset are you supporting in your kids, students, colleagues, and friends?
We all have a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and it’s up to us to cultivate growth.
When we’re trying to change this in ourselves, a few things can help. We can read about this theory and be educated about the positive effects of growth mindset; we can notice whenever we want to give up easily; we can consciously try to change our inner self-talk.
But what about when we’re talking to children, students, colleagues, and even significant others?
One of Dweck’s theories is that the way we praise the people around us can reinforce either a growth or fixed mindset. For example, praising effort (“good work practicing that sonatina!”) supports growth more than praising talent or intelligence (“wow, you’re so talented at piano!”).
And it’s a tricky one, because praise is so easy and pleasant to dole out. Who doesn’t want to tell their child, “you’re so intelligent and talented, I’m proud?”
“After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance,” writes Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. “How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised? Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow — but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
“So what should we say when children complete a task — say, math problems — quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”
Be careful not to blindly praise effort
Many years after Dweck’s original research, she revisited the theory after seeing it shape thousands of teachers and parents all around the world. She noticed that many teachers were praising students for their effort blindly, regardless of performance, and urged us to think about the growth mindset a little differently. (Because, hey, even her understanding is growing.)
Here’s the nuance: If a student in a math class tries hard but still can’t solve certain problems, and the teacher says “Good effort! You did your best and that’s enough,” then they are settling for failure. They’re accepting less than the student’s best, and the praise just masks a gap in achievement.
“The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them,” writes Dweck. “It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”
The truth is that achievement is not all about effort; there are other ingredients in the mix. What about encouraging the student to try a new strategy, or ask someone with an outside view to help pinpoint where they’re stuck?
Let’s recognize that we all have fixed mindset and growth mindset forces within us. And we can only travel closer to growth by seeing our fixed beliefs clearly and using them as a jumping-off point to where we want to go.