Why some people avoid challenges and languish when faced with difficulties, while others thrive and achieve their highest potential?
Our mindset is our perceptions or our beliefs about our abilities and qualities such as; our intelligence, creativity or musicality. Dr Carol Dweck (2006) who is a leading authority in motivation and personality has discovered that our mindset is not a trivial oddity of our character, it creates our entire perception of attainable opportunities.
Our mindset is what makes us optimistic or pessimistic. It shapes our attitude and it is the ultimate factor which determines our success or failure. Dr Dweck believes that we basically have either a fixed-mindset which implies that we believe our attributes and abilities are inherently fixed and unchanging. Or, a growth-mindset that suggests, we believe our talents and abilities can be improved and developed.
Our mindset starts to shape in childhood but it continues to develop throughout our adult life. In her book; Mindset: The new psychology of success, Dr Dweck explained how the growth-mindset of brilliant masters in music, literature, science, sports, and business made them achieve the incredible results that we know them for. But, most importantly, she has shown how we can change our mindset to achieve success and fulfilment at any stage of our lives. Dr Dweck’s work is about the power of beliefs. The beliefs we may or may not be aware of having, nonetheless they strongly affect our success.
In fact, much of what we think as our personality, drive or setbacks, actually grow out of our mindset. In a fixed-mindset, the aim is to achieve validation and endorsement. The person constantly tries to prove himself, and is highly sensitive to being wrong or making a mistake. So, failure brings him doubt, demeans his character, and destroys his confidence. As a result, a person with a fixed-mindset, always feels anxious and is vulnerable to setbacks or criticisms.
On the other hand, growth-mindset is about achieving mastery and competence. The person believes that superb personal qualities can be learned, developed or cultivated. So, she views failure only as feedback about her performance, and not as a judgement of her personality, potential or value. Therefore, a person with growth-mindset feels eager to learn to boost her performance and enjoys exploring, experimenting and stretching herself. She is not sensitive to criticisms and setbacks don’t hurt her so hard.
Research has shown (Yeager & Dweck, 2012) that what makes students succeed is quite different from their cognitive abilities or the quality of the instructions they receive. Their success, in fact, depends on their belief about their intelligence and their abilities. In other words, their success depends on their mindset. When, they believe that their intelligence is predetermined, limited and unchangeable (fixed-mindset), they doubt their ability which in turn, undermines their resolve, resilience and learning. But when, they have a growth-mindset and believe that their abilities can be developed, students show perseverance and willingness to learn. What’s more, they achieve remarkable results even in the face of hardship and difficulties.
Researchers also showed that youngsters who believed (or accepted) that their personal characteristics can be developed (growth-mindset), had notably lower aggressive tendencies, and felt lower stress in response to the pressures from their peer group. The growth-mindset also improved their academic performance (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Moreover, Dweck et al. showed that accepting (or learning) that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable, makes students think that the difficulties they face is the sign of their intellectual deficiencies, and makes them feel dumb.
In experiments with school children, Dr Dweck found a surprising result. Praising children’s talent or intelligence ruins their motivation and lowers their academic performance. Of course, praising children’s talent will make them happy and proud, but only for a short while. As soon as they face a challenge or a setback their confidence fade away, because, if success is a sign that they are smart, failure should mean they lack talent and proves them dumb (fixed-mindset). Dr Dweck suggests that we should avoid praising our children’s talent or intelligence and instead, praise them for their diligence, effort and conscientiousness (growth-mindset).
People's mindset is not totally of one type or the other. There may be few extreme cases but most of us lie somewhere in between the two bounds. Moreover, our mindset does not always remain constant. We show different mindsets in different situations, depending on how we formed our belief about our particular abilities. Nevertheless, the first step in changing our defeating fixed-mindset to a growth-mindset is to recognise our fixed-mindset in action.
Fixed-mindsets don’t come with a label attached to them but they reveal themselves when we are about to quit trying, or avoid something that we know it’s good for us. These are the moments that we suddenly feel board, tired, anxious, uncomfortable or even hungry, and want to stop trying or taking the necessary action. Such feelings may have a valid source, but before you give-in to them, carefully question them. Put yourself in a growth-mindset and question your reaction to the situation.
Think of your effort as a sign of your strength, not as a confirmation of your shortcomings. Think of learning as a joyful and constructive process, rather than a chore that exposes your inadequacies. Dr Dweck suggests that we should think of an idol who has achieved what we really value. Then we should ask ourselves, has she achieved that extraordinary ability with little effort because of her innate talent, or has she worked very hard for it. Dr Dweck tells us; “go and find out”. Because, without fail, we are going to discover that they worked very hard to accomplish what we admire about them. This would make us respect our idol even more, but more importantly, will show us the power of adapting a growth-mindset.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House.
Yeager, D. S. & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314, 2012.