Fixed or Growth Mindset

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Very early on in her compelling book Mindset, author Carol Dweck (a Professor at Stanford University) asks us to consider the kind of mindsets we carry, and in doing so, asks us to look at the beliefs that guide them.

To that end, she lists four agree/disagree statements about our abilities.

  • Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change.
  • You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
  • No matter how much intelligence you have, you can change it quite a bit.
  • You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

Which statements did you agree with more?

As you might guess, #’s 1 and 2 are fixed mindset statements, whereas 3 and 4 are growth mindset statements.
Dr. Dweck also asks us to look at the kind of people we are, and again posits four statements, but this time about our personal qualities – about how dependable, cooperative, caring, or socially adept we are.

Although she tells us we can have a mixture of beliefs about our abilities and personal qualities, she does say that most of us lean toward a growth or a fixed mindset. The important point? Whatever mindset we have in a given domain will guide us in that domain. If we believe we can’t be more intelligent, or persevering, or rise to a challenge, then we can’t reach our potential. But if we believe we can….

Here’s a birds-eye look at the growth vs the fixed mindset from Better Than Yesterday, a superb animated summary of the book.

A Growth Mindset
Embraces challenges
Sees effort as a way to mastery
Persists in the face of challenges
Learns from criticism
Finds lessons & inspiration in the success of others

A Fixed Mindset
Avoids challenges
Gives up easily
Sees effort as fruitless
Ignores useful negative feedback
Feels threatened by the success of others

It’s pretty easy to see that fixed mindsets fear mistakes, while growth mindsets are all about learning from mistakes and improving. This is what Michael Jordan, Mozart, and Cezanne did (among many others). They put in the effort; they learned, and they improved. They got better – and smarter.

At the core of a growth mindset is the power of Yet.

“Yet” means we are no longer gripped by the tyranny of Now. i.e.: “I’m not a manager/team leader/CEO” becomes: ‘I’m not a manager/team leader/CEO…yet”. Or: “I haven’t met the right person” becomes: “I haven’t met the right person…yet”.

Dr. Dweck encourages us to apply that thinking to all parts of our lives. “My child hasn’t gotten an A or a B… yet. My wife/husband isn’t picking up their fair share of the workload… yet. My employee hasn’t learned the value of perseverance… yet.”

Yet-thinking is empowered thinking. It leaves you free to learn, accomplish, and hope.

If you are in a leadership role, the author advises you to praise wisely.

Praise someone for sticking to the task, or for considering various strategies before finding one that worked. Thank someone for their effort. Do not tell someone how smart they are. Dr. Dweck says this can/will lower their IQ.  Huh?  It seems counterintuitive, but if we praise someone’s ability (smartness) rather than their effort, they become worried about putting their smarts to the test. They begin to avoid new and challenging situations/problems. They adopt a fixed mindset.

The book is peppered with interesting vignettes about famous people; some showing fixed beliefs; others showing growth ones.

Here are two wonderful examples from the book:

One day in 1939, George Bernard Dantzig, a graduate student in math at Berkeley, arrived late for class, and assuming the two problems written on the board were homework, quickly copied them down. It took him days to solve them. Small wonder. They weren’t homework problems, but rather, examples of two famous math problems that had never been solved.
Mr. Dantzig later said: “Had I known they’re weren’t homework, I probably would not have thought positively, would have become discouraged, and would never have solved them”.  Interesting, isn’t it? Had he known, he would likely have adopted a fixed mindset, but in thinking the answers were within reach, he used a growth one.  He used the freedom of ‘yet’.

Last but certainly not least, I offer you the beautiful example from Dr. Dweck of a young boy’s response when his teacher introduced the notion of growth mindset to his class. The concept truly touched the boy. He looked up, and with tears in his eyes said to his teacher: “You mean I don’t be dumb anymore?” 

No, he didn’t.  And neither do we.

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