I just finished listening to a lecture by Carol Dweck at IT Conversations, Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, is the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dweck’s idea is straightforward, though widely applicable. She starts with the premise that there are two kinds of people, those with “fixed mindsets” and others with “growth mindsets.” Those with fixed mindsets see their lives as being about proving themselves and not making mistakes. It is important to them that they look smart at all times. Those with “growth mindsets” have deep-seated beliefs in cultivating and developing their own qualities. Their lives are about stretching and growing, a process that is not thwarted (and is sometimes actually enhanced) by making mistakes.
How do you tell which mindset you have? During the interview, Dweck offered this simple test: “True or false, you can’t change how smart you are.” If you think this is true, you probably have a fixed mindset.
This distinction important because there are adverse consequences to having a fixed mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, failures label you as a failure for the rest of your life. People with fixed mindsets develop inaccurate views of themselves. They block out negative information for the sake of their egos. Compare this to growth mindsets, where failures are not self defining, but merely bumps along the way. Failures are, indeed, opportunities for growth. Those with growth mindsets actually crave negative information. They stay in touch with their own liabilities in order to make adjustments.
Dweck has conducted research showing that mindset is critically important when it comes to the ability of children to learn. Self-esteem is not a bad thing, but it can’t be simply “pumped into a child” by telling the child how good he or she is. Admittedly, telling a child that she is smart or talented will make her happy for a short while. Making these sorts of statements to a child, however, put the child into a fixed mindset. When that same child encounters future hurdles (difficult tests, for example) she will be unable to cope with setbacks as well as a child with a growth mindset. For her (with a fixed mindset) the name of the game is to look smart. These fixed mindset children “crash” when they encounter difficult new tasks. Rather than attempt new tasks, they would rather re-do familiar tasks over and over.
Compare this with what happens when you praise the effort or the strategies employed by a child (instead of praising how “smart” the child is). When you praise the effort or strategy, 90% of the students are more willing to attempt to learn new things. When growth mindset children encounter difficult new problems, they don’t rely upon how “smart” they are (they haven’t framed their past successes in that way). Rather, they try harder. They work their ways out of problems. Especially difficult hurdles simply mean they need to reach deeper and try even harder.
Through her work, Dweck has evidently discovered real-life reasons for avoiding the fundamental attribution error.
Dweck has studied adult students as well, including medical students. Even as adults, those with growth mindsets are more resilient, more willing to immerse themselves deeper into their work when things get tough.
Those with fixed mindsets also stumble when it comes to mate choice. They tend to look for the perfect mate. They have difficulty tolerating disagreements or mistakes in relationships.
The good news, according to Dweck, is that people can change their mindsets. Although she did not discuss the method of doing that in this interview, she indicates that her book contains a series of exercises for getting out of the fixed mindset mode and cultivating a growth mindset.
These are politically charged times, and I couldn’t resist applying Dweck’s work to politicians who are of the view that God has annointed them to do God’s work. It would certainly seem that this sort of belief would give rise to a fixed mindset, leading to repeatedly asserting their infallibility and fearing mistakes above all else.