Have you ever wondered why some people are successful, achieving all the goals they set for themselves, while others flounder by starting and stopping? Or why some become paralyzed with fear, unable to take the risks that could completely change their lives for the better? How do some people stay positive and focused in the face of obstacles and self-doubt? And why can some take constructive feedback, using it to grow and learn, while others resort to the blame game, making excuses or criticizing others in an effort to put the blame on anything other than themselves? When it comes to relationships, why do some thrive, growing better with each passing year, while others dissolve? Or even why some people cope better with life’s struggles? Is it that some people are simply stronger, more talented, more intelligent, have a better personality or better character?
Author and psychologist Carol S. Dweck answers these questions in her book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, a must read for anyone human, but especially for those parenting, running businesses, playing or coaching sports, going to school and in relationships.
Dweck provides research and case studies to show that intelligence, character and personality are NOT FIXED unless we believe they are. Our success in life, in all the different areas, depends on whether we have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Sure we may have different aptitudes, and some people have more opportunities than others, but we CAN become more intelligent, artistic, creative, athletic and knowledgeable in whatever area we choose with enough experience, training, personal effort and help.
First, what is a fixed mindset? It’s the thinking that who you are is a fixed trait. According to Dweck, this is why we shouldn’t label children, not even when we think we’re giving them positive labels like smart, talented, and intelligent. If a child is labelled intelligent, there is that constant need to prove that intelligence. It can make them risk averse, unwilling to learn new, or more difficult tasks so as not to look deficient. It can become all consuming to constantly prove intelligence in the classroom or later, in the boardroom.
The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can improve upon through your efforts, strategies and help from others. It cultivates a passion for stretching yourself and learning. It is “believing people can develop their abilities.” It is praising effort and trying new strategies when old ones don’t work. It is about guiding people/children toward other strategies and resources that can help if learning is not happening. It is never about judging, labelling and criticizing nor is it about undeserved praise. It is the mindset that mistakes and failures are opportunities to grow and learn without feeling like a failure. It is a way of thinking that goes something like this: I didn’t do well this time. I wonder what I can do differently to be successful next time.
Dweck notes that we all have a mixture of both mindsets. The key is to note where we have a fixed mindset, be aware of what triggers it and change the dialogue. For me personally, I think of all the times I’ve told myself and others that I’m bad at math, as if that is something I was born with, as if it can’t be changed through effort and learning. Yet, I fully believe that I’m capable of learning to be a better writer, a better mother, a better wife and a better teacher. The goal is to learn the growth mindset in all areas of our lives. This process is a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight.
What does this mean for parents? Instead of praising children for a trait, praise them for their efforts and improvement. Tell them they are getting smarter because they are learning something new and learning from their mistakes. It’s important to do this because many people pass up opportunities because of their fear of failure. Children (and adults) with a fixed mindset are more likely to cheat on tests. They are less likely to see their own faults and flaws and have little interest in actually learning. They also tend to fold when the going gets tough and are less likely to take action to overcome depression. They are the people who tend to assign blame, make excuses and feel good when others fail.
Children with growth mindsets are more likely to learn from mistakes, and even when distressed by a failure, they are “ready to take the risks, confront the challenges, and keep working at them.”
The worse thing we can do then, is to call students an A student, a B student and so on. Or, to tell a child they are not good at a particular subject. I picture a class where everyone is excited to put up their hand. No one is afraid of being ridiculed by either the teacher or their classmates. The love of learning becomes more important than the grade.
Why do we not pay more attention to this? We now know the brain is constantly developing, that learning never stops, that skills and intelligence are learnable. We know the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. One reason, says Dweck, is that we love the idea of natural talent. We look at all these sports stars and CEOs and think they were gifted, born that way. Dweck cites many examples of people with natural talent who did not achieve great success in their field. What makes a person successful, whether talented or not, is the belief in themselves, that with time, experience, training and help, they can reach their goals. She gives examples of people like Michael Jordan who seem so talented (and he surely is), but the real reason for his success was sustained effort and hard work, along with his willingness to learn from each failed shot.
Dweck says she sees bright children paralyzed by setbacks. “In some of our studies, they just have to take the simplest action to make things better. But they don’t. These are the children with the fixed mindset. When things go wrong, they feel powerless and incapable.”
Growth mindset people, both children and adults, are not afraid to take new courses, learn new skills, and pursue their dreams. They know it’s not about winning or judging themselves. It’s about learning and improving, on focus, determination and hard work. Failure is an opportunity to learn.
How do we encourage a growth mindset in children? According to Dweck, there are several strategies to achieve this.
-What did you learn today?
-What mistake did you make that taught you something?
-What did you try hard at today?
-Talk about things you’re struggling with and making progress on.
-Talk about mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from each mistake.
-Discuss your own strategies for learning and your setbacks.
-Become aware of your own internal dialogue. Notice when you’re saying things like: I don’t need to learn this. I’m already smart. I’m right and they are wrong. I’m a failure. I’ll never learn this. I’m not good at this.
-Realize that changing mindsets is a process that never ends. It takes work and commitment.
Dweck’s book covers so much material in its 500 pages (in simple every day language) and gives in depth information on how to move from our fixed mindsets to growth mindsets in several areas. It has been invaluable to me in changing how I speak to my children and how I speak to myself. It has reminded me that I am a person who loves learning, that I don’t have to be perfect immediately when learning a new skill and that I can try something hard. Dweck has reminded me that I don’t need to shy away and avoid hard things. I can get better at what scares me, and teach others, especially children, that they can do hard things too.