That is the central message in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dweck and her colleagues’ research has found a very simple belief about ourselves that guides and permeates nearly every part of our lives.
This belief limits our potential or enables our success. It often marks the difference between excellence and mediocrity. It influences our self-awareness, our self-esteem, our creativity, our ability to face challenges, our resilience to setbacks, our levels of depression, and our tendency to stereotype, among other things.
What is this powerful, yet simple belief?
The Fixed and Growth Mindsets
Much of who you are on a day-to-day basis comes from your mindset. Your mindset is the view you have of your qualities and characteristics – where they come from and whether they can change.
These following two mindsets represent the extreme ends on either side of a spectrum.
A fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are carved in stone – who you are is who you are, period. Characteristics such as intelligence, personality, and creativity are fixed traits, rather than something that can be developed.
A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Yes, people differ greatly – in aptitude, talents, interests, or temperaments – but everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
It’s very possible to be somewhere in the middle, and to lean a certain way in one area of life, and a different way in other areas. Dweck writes about them as a simple either-or throughout the book for the sake of simplicity. Your mindset likely varies from area to area. Your views may be different for artistic talent, intelligence, personality, or creativity. Whatever mindset you have in a particular area will guide you in that area.
How does this simple mindset change your behavior? Having a fixed mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over – criticism is seen as an attack on your character, and to be avoided. Having a growth mindset encourages learning and effort. If you truly believe you can improve at something, you will be much more driven to learn and practice. Criticism is seen as valuable feedback and openly embraced. The hallmark of the growth mindset is the passion for sticking with it, especially when things are not going well.
The following example helps illustrate the two mindsets. After you read this short vignette of an imaginary situation, ask yourself how you would respond to this situation.
One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’ve very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.2
How would you respond? What would you think? If you thought, “What a crummy day. I would feel like a failure. I would be frustrated. I wouldn’t feel motivated to study for the final exam. Maybe I’m just bad at that class.” then you may tend towards the fixed mindset. If you thought, “Well, I probably shouldn’t have parked there. And maybe my friend had a bad day? I’ll have to study harder for the final.” then you may tend towards the growth mindset.
You don’t have to be of one mindset or the other to get upset. But those with the growth mindset don’t label themselves and throw up their hands in defeat. They confront challenges and keep working. The growth mindset enables the converting of life’s setbacks into future successes. The fixed mindset, however, often results in little or no effort; Dweck mentions the many times she is outright startled by how much the people with a fixed mindset do not believe in effort.
You may be thinking this whole idea of a mindset seems a little simplistic. Surely we’re more complicated than that? Surely such a simple belief can’t have that much impact on our lives?
Small Belief, Big Influence
How can one belief lead to all this – the love of challenge, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks, and greater (more creative!) success?3
“Smart people succeed,” says the fixed mindset. Therefore, if you succeed, you’re a smart person. Therefore, pick the easier problem so success is more likely, and you validate your smartness. Pick a hard problem and you may fail, revealing your stupidity.
“People can get smarter,” says the growth mindset, “and do so by stretching themselves and taking on challenges.” Therefore, pick the hard problem – who cares if you fail!
Your mindset is the view you adopt of yourself. These mentalities can be seen as early as four years old. In one of Dweck’s studies:
We offered four-year-olds a choice: They could redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or they could try a harder one. Even at this tender age, children with the fixed mindset – the ones who believed in fixed traits – stuck with the safe one. Kids who are born smart “don’t make mistakes,” they told us.4
The growth-oriented kids welcomed the harder puzzle, finding a safer puzzle to be boring. But those are just kids and toys. Does your mindset have any influence on more important life decisions? It turns out they do. One of the many examples given by Dweck deals with university students making decisions that will influence the rest of their lives.
Who would pass up a free opportunity to improve their life success? At the University of Hong Kong, everything is in english. Some students are more fluent than others, and this can have a big impact on their success. As students arrived to register for their freshman year, they were asked if they would take a free course to improve their English skills if the university provided one. It turned out that those with a fixed mindset were not very interested, and those with a growth mindset were absolutely interested.5 This is a perfect example of how the fixed mindset turns people into non-learners. As Dweck says:
The fixed mindset stands in the way of development and change. The growth mindset is a starting point for change, but people need to decide for themselves where their efforts toward change would be most valuable.
People with the fixed mindset are not simply lacking in confidence, though their confidence may be more fragile and more easily undermined by setbacks and effort. Also, having a growth mindset doesn’t mean you have to be working hard all the time. It just means you can develop whatever skills you want to put the time and effort into.
The following image, created by Nigel Holmes, and found near the end of the book, is a great summary of the key ideas in Mindset, and how it affects your life. (My one nitpick is the use of “deterministic” in the final fixed-mindset sentence, which I’d say is incorrect; replace it with “unchangeable” and I’d be happy.) It shows the difference between the two mindsets, and why the growth mindset is better. Remember that all of these behaviors stem from the very simple beliefs you have about your own abilities to change and improve.
Being aware of your own mindset will be key to changing it, as we’ll see in a future post.
For now, think about which side of this image better represents your beliefs about intelligence, and your resulting behavior. How about for creativity, or technical skills, or speaking abilities, or school skills, or social skills, or any other life skill and ability?
What’s coming up next:
- Where our mindsets come from.
- Evidence that our mindsets can change.
- How to change our mindset. (Edit: I doubt I’ll get around to writing this any time soon, so here is a relevant post by Malcolm Ocean.)
- 15 reasons why the growth mindset is better than the fixed mindset.
Header image from coverbrowser.com.
This post is released under CC BY-NC 3.0.
- Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. [↩]
- Dweck (2006), p. 7. [↩]
- Dweck (2006), p. 11. [↩]
- Dweck (2006), p. 16. [↩]
- The test subjects were giving a questionnaire including questions like “Is a person’s intelligence fixed and unchangeable?” This enabled researchers to determine their mindset. [↩]