Beliefs can powerfully affect our success in life. In her book Mindsets, psychologist Carol S. Dweck describes two prevailing, overarching beliefs that can color our assessments of everything in life and affect our willingness to do what it takes to achieve our goals.
Dweck refers to these two beliefs as the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence, character, and personality are unchanging. You have the talent or knack for something or you don’t. The contrasting growth mindset is that people can improve their abilities by their efforts. If you’re willing to do the work, you can learn and get better.
These mindsets affect the way we view ourselves and interpret everything that happens in our lives. People with a fixed mindset see problems, setbacks and failures as a reflection on who they are. If they have difficulty with a subject, maybe they aren’t smart enough. If a relationship is troubled, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. The fixed mindset comes with a lens of judgment, through which one sees success as a validation of talent or specialness, and difficulty or failures as proof of inherent shortcomings.
People with a growth mindset see failure as a sign of where they are, or their current status, which they can change. If they have difficulty with a subject, they can study harder or ask for help. If a relationship is troubled, they can reflect on things they or their partner are doing that may be producing negative results. With the growth mindset, failures become opportunities to learn and successes are evidence that your efforts are paying off.
Though written in an informal style, Dweck draws on her own and others’ research. She also draws examples from business, education and sports. She illustrates the mindsets in the lives of CEOs, teachers, students and coaches.
There are few points I’d particularly like to remember from this book. First, the fixed mindset is essentially rooted in pride. A person with a fixed mindset sees himself as special or superior to others, and much of he does is oriented to proving that point, at least to himself. A person with a growth mindset doesn’t expect to be good at anything, at least at the start, because he has much to learn and much effort to put into improving; he is humble.
It is important to praise rightly. Praising someone’s talent or ability tends to put them into the fixed mindset. This may make them less likely to take on challenges or put forth effort in the future. Instead, praise the effort, which puts people into the growth mindset and makes them or open to taking on challenging work, even at the risk of failure, in order to learn and improve.
Change is not easy. In particular, one with a fixed mindset must put aside the idea that he is special and let go of the strategies he used to protect that status. He must embrace a new, less idealized, image of himself that is open to challenges, setbacks, and even failures for the sake of learning—all things the fixed mindset guards against. When you adopt growth-minded strategies that produce positive changes, you can’t let up on practice and learning. People can easily slide back into old habit, and the fixed-minded judgment of the backslide can be worse than the judgment of the perceived failures before the change.
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Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.