If you were to fail a test, how would you react? Would you say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so stupid, I can’t do this!” Or would you say, “Yeah, I’m just not the best at that subject, but I’m sure with some extra help I can get it.” These two statements represent the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, and in terms of success, that could make all the difference.
Growth versus fixed mindset was a label created by Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Since then, it has become a multi-million dollar research effort that now involves conversations about early childhood education and development, genetic markers for resilience and the psychology of happiness itself. Even professors here at Case Western Reserve University study mindset.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, a fixed mindset assumes that traits such as our intelligence, creative ability and talents are static and unchanging. Whatever skills you possess now are the skills you will always possess, and whatever you don’t possess now, you will never possess. People with a fixed mindset avoid taking risks and trying new things for fear of failure; they avoid failure at all costs. They hinder their own growth in discovering new abilities in order to maintain their sense of intelligence and highlight the skills they already know they possess. A person with a fixed mindset needs to prove their intelligence and perceived worth over and over again, never being happy with their accomplishments because their view of success is based around their tangible achievements; in every new situation, they must again prove their prowess.
On the other hand, you have people with a growth mindset. In this line of thinking, the skills you possess now are simply your foundation, not your finished product. In a growth mindset, you see your inherent qualities as abilities which can be cultivated and grown through experience and application. A hallmark of growth mindset is this idea of cultivation through new experiences which Dweck calls “deliberate practice.”
While a person with a fixed mindset views failure as an ultimatum, a final determinant in what is possible, a person with a growth mindset may not view the same situation as failure at all, but rather as a learning opportunity.
A person with a growth mindset does not strive for success as validation of their abilities, but strives only to better themselves—a quintessential difference in what motivates us to succeed.
In one sphere of thinking, success is about needing to be the best at everything we do all the time—having to put in effort to succeed is itself a failure. Effort means you’re not the best, which means you’re not the smartest or the most creative because if you were, you wouldn’t need to put in the effort. Effort and failure are therefore linked and viewed as a setback. In this way, we see how a fixed mindset can block us from growing and discovering new abilities and aspects of our own personality because we deprive ourselves of new experiences.
In the other sphere of thinking, failure is simply about not having reached your full potential, and therefore having to put in effort is what makes you talented and intelligent. If you adopt a growth mindset and initially “fail” at something, you’re motivated to learn more, try harder and seek additional avenues to grow your abilities until you reach what you view as success. Because your success is not defined by a constant need to be the best, but rather a want to better yourself, the effort you put in allows you to cultivate new abilities, and therefore that effort has made you successful. Our success is defined by what we have learned.
Let’s think of this in terms of verbal praise. In an experiment, Dweck gave a group of children ten fairly easy problems from an IQ test. Some of the kids were told “wow, you got [x amount of problems correct,] you must be really smart” while others were told “wow, you got [x amount of problems correct,] you must have really worked hard.” Notice the difference in wording, one form rewards inherent ability, while the other rewards effort.
Children rewarded for ability immediately adopted a fixed mindset, and the others a growth mindset. Dweck then gave the children harder IQ questions and obviously the children did not perform as well. However, Dweck found that the ability-praised children internalized their “failure,” thinking they were no longer smart or gifted, while the effort-praised children viewed their “failure” as an indication that they needed to work harder, not as a reflection of their ability.
Not only did the effort-praised children enjoy these harder questions more than the ability-praised children, but eventually the effort-praised children out-performed their peers while the ability-praised children actually performed worse on subsequent tests. They were discouraged by their own fixed mindset while the children with a growth mindset were not only encouraged but also happier—their initial shortcomings emboldened them to try harder rather than discouraged them from trying at all.
So, next time you don’t do well at something, pay attention to how you view that situation and how you talk about yourself. Are you discouraged by that setback to the point that you no longer want to go to Supplemental Instruction sessions and opening your textbook gives you anxiety? This is evidence of a fixed mindset that can hinder your future success. Instead, try to change that mindset to one that motivates you to work harder and take in as much knowledge as possible. Surround yourself with people who have a growth mindset and pay attention to how your friends talk about their successes and failures.
Finally, frame your thoughts as a reflection of your effort: “I just need to work harder next time,” or “I worked really hard and it paid off” rather than as a reflection of ability: “I’m not good at this” or “I’m the best at this so I did well.”