Mindsets: Where do they come from?

February 2012

in Self-awareness

Post image for Mindsets: Where do they come from?

Followup to: Why Your Mindset is So Important

In Why Your Mindset is So Important I introduced the concept of mindsets from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.1

Your mindset is the view you have of your qualities and characteristics; specifically, where they come from and whether they can change. A fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are carved in stone. A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Our abilities, while sometimes naturally inclined, are largely the result of effort and hard work, which the growth mindset encourages.

Having already briefly introduced the importance of the growth mindset for dealing with criticism, facing challenges, being resilient to setbacks, and increasing creativity, an obvious question comes to mind: Where does our mindset come from? 

Dweck notes that everyone is born with a love of learning. If babies were crushed by failure they would never learn to walk or talk. They have to do it wrong many times before they get it right. Why, then, would someone ever develop a fixed mindset?

It’s possible the fixed mindset served a useful purpose at some point in a person’s life:

It told them who they were or who they wanted to be (a smart, talented child) and it told them how to be that (perform well). In this way, it provided a formula for self-esteem and a path to love and respect from others.2

This is crucial for children, where the fixed mindset may offer a simple and straightforward route to being valued and loved. Over time, however, this mindset may become the ‘default’ state. The problem is not that they desired being valued and loved, but that they found a way to ‘achieve’ this by focusing on performance and success, not growth and learning. Why would they come to think this?

Teachers, Parents, and Learning Environments

Education has a big influence on mindsets. If a teacher or parent promotes a growth mindset over a fixed mindset – such as by encouraging learning and improvement rather than praising talent and discouraging failure – this will have a lasting influence on how the kids view themselves.

As an example, Dweck performed a study whereby students, mostly early adolescents, were given ten difficult problems from an IQ test. Some students were praised for their ability – “That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” – while others were praised for their efforts – “That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

Right after the praise, the two groups began to differ in striking ways. The ability-praised students rejected a followup challenging task that they could learn from. The effort-praised students did not.

There’s more. When the students were told by researchers that these tests were going to be performed at other schools, the students were asked to write their thoughts about the test, as well as their test score, for other students. The ability-praised students lied about their test results almost 40% of the time!

So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter.3

They turned ordinary children into liars, simply by telling them they were smart! Clearly that’s not what we (teachers, parents, friends) intend when we praise kids as “gifted” or “talented”, but nonetheless that is what happens.

How much do the teachers and environment – and resulting mindset – that surround children affect their future abilities? Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, has this to say:

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.”4

That’s an important ‘if’. The takeaway message is this: learning conditions and environment have a huge impact on future abilities, skills, and attitude.

Differences Within A Single Person

We can also extrapolate why our mindset may vary from one personal area to another, such as intelligence and creative skills.

For example, if we were praised for our hard work and effort in sports, but praised for our “natural talent” in mathematics, we may come to measure our self-worth by our performance in math (resulting in little effort or motivation to try harder things and risk failure), while seeing sports as an opportunity to improve skills and have fun.

Can you think about your own schooling and upbringing? What sort of feedback or praise was typical of your teachers and parents? Has this impacted your current views regarding your skills and talents?

What We Can Do About It

For starters, be aware of how you talk to children. Ask yourself: how do you praise your child, a niece or nephew, a young cousin, a sibling, or a random stranger? Do you complement them for their natural abilities or their hard work and effort? The simple framing of your praise may be having much more impact on their personal development than you realize!

How about your workplace? Or your home life? Are people generally rewarded for their hard work and effort, or for their natural talents? Are the environments you spend your time in encouraging growth mindsets or fixed mindsets? Is there anything you can do to change that?

This is just a start. Coming up soon will be a survey of the evidence showing that our mindsets can indeed change, and how we can change them.


Image by Michael 1952.

  1. Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. []
  2. Dweck (2006), p. 224. []
  3. Dweck (2006), p. 74. []
  4. Dweck (2006), p. 65. []