A couple decades ago, there was a young researcher named Carol Dweck who was obsessed with understanding how humans coped with failures. She wanted to understand exactly who coped with failure and who did not. She put together an experiment where she watched students grapple with difficult problems. The results were nothing at all like she expected.
She brought in children to an empty classroom one at a time, made sure they felt comfortable, then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first few were easy but then they became difficult. As students worked through their problems, she watched their strategies in coping with the challenge. One ten-year-old boy, when confronted with a difficult puzzle, smacked his lips together, clapped his hands and exclaimed, “I love a good challenge!” Another one proclaimed with authority how much he was hoping the task would teach him something.
She didn’t understand it. She thought that people either coped with failure or they didn’t! She had no idea that people actually loved a challenge.
These children became her roles models. They were not at all discouraged by their failure to complete the puzzles. In fact, they didn’t even think they were failing, just learning. Before the experiment, she thought that human qualities, such as intellect, were fixed. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Dreck shows us that the fundamental shift about failure is not in the argument about whether human qualities are cultivated or carved in stone, but rather, about what those beliefs mean to individuals.
Two Kinds of Mindsets
So what makes people different? There have always been essentially two sides to the debate. On one side, the argument is that you are born with a fixed set of traits. On the other side, your environment and background shape who you are. Today, most experts agree that it is not either or, but a constant give and take between the two. We are learning more and more about the incredible capacity that human beings have for lifelong learning and brain development. But with so many decisions, reactions, and thoughts in a day, we don’t have time to put too much extra thought into why we are the way we are. What Dreck’s research has shown is that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life, which boils down to two major mindsets: The Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.
The Fixed Mindset
The fixed mindset is a belief that who you are is carved in stone. You are constantly trying to prove that who you are is enough. It stops you from speaking out for fear of being wrong and from being seen as incapable or stupid. This mindset takes all the joy out of learning because you are too worried to come off sounding like you don’t know something. If you believe that your intellect has a fixed amount, then you will try your hardest to maintain that image.
I remember my first couple years of University, feeling absolutely petrified to say the wrong thing. And I was not alone. That first day, our English professor started writing really basic grammar terms on the board. Probably to clear out our minds from summer mode to time-to-get-down-to-business mode. But none of us would make a peep when he asked about their usage. We were in University, after all, we should already know. So instead of asking for a refresher, or confirming what we already knew, we stayed silent and finally breathed easy when the professor began talking about the definitions on his own. The crazy part was, we weren’t there to confirm what we already know—we were there tolearn more about what we didn’t.
The Growth Mindset
Let’s go back to those children in the experiment. When the difficult puzzles came up, they weren’t the ones that were able to solve it right away. Everyone struggled with those puzzles. What made them stand out was their excitement to really get to work on the challenge. It never crossed their minds that they couldn’t do it, only that they would have to try a different way. This is the growth mindset. It doesn’t matter how different people are in their talents, aptitudes, or temperaments—every single person can change and grow through application and experience.
In other words, people with a growth mindset know they are in the driver's seat, whereas people with a fixed mindset blame the car or the road for their bad trip.
The point here that I really want to drive home is that every single one of us faces challenges. Getting a bad grade, missing a deadline, feeling unappreciated, or forgetting something important are all part of being human. The growth-mindset is not about brushing these things aside and not letting them get to you. When bad things happen we feel bad, but the distinction sets in when you decide how to react.
The real value of this book came to me when I knew I was a fixed mindset. I let things get to me and I played the victim all too much thinking things like, “Why is this happening to me?!” I was stuck in the fixed mindset, and I didn’t like that realization. But the realization that followed was even greater.
If I think I am stuck in a fixed mindset, then I am already in the fixed-mindset. Growth mindset is about flexibly. So all I had to do was allow myself to believe that I can change, take on challenges, and evolve as I learn more. My mindset changed.
Dweck dives into some of the ways to get in the growth-mindset and thrive in it, but I’ll save that for another post. The first part (and most important) is deciding to take the shift from one that is fixed to one that is always growing.