“The most interesting thing about an acorn is that it contains a whole oak.
But the most interesting thing about a human – well, we’re not exactly sure.
We do not know the full measure of what we might contain.”
Steven Kolter, Founder of the Flow Genome Project (1)
The Foundation of Self-Development: Can I Change?
The pursuit of self-development rests on the assumption that we can change ourselves and our circumstances. If our moods, thoughts, abilities and opportunities are more or less set by our genetics and upbringing, then there is no point in bothering with character building in search of deeper fulfillment and greater impact.
Among the most exciting findings emerging from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and the study of expert performance is the startling degree to which almost all aspects of our nature are flexible: our level of intelligence, emotional experience, athletic ability, reserves of bravery, well of willpower, the list goes on. All of these can be changed, and dramatically so. This is not pie-in-the-sky motivational writing, but an argument backed by a barrage of scientific evidence. Over the next several posts, I’ll share this message from a few different angles.
Part I. The Growth Mindset (this post)
Part I: The Growth Mindset
If you look closely, you will observe two competing perspectives embedded in society regarding our potential for self-development: that we can change and that we cannot. On the one hand, our very education system is built on the idea that, through diligent study, we can become more intelligent by nurturing our creative impulses, analytical skills, and reasoning ability. In the US, we invest a tremendous amount on education, over 7% of GDP (2), based on that notion. Similarly, athletes practice diligently, in the weight room, on the courts or on the field, in order gain the inches or seconds that they know will make all the difference. We have all seen our own abilities grow. From our first words or initial steps to a presentation in the boardroom or a drive at 70 mph on the freeway, we’ve expanded our capabilities and evolved our perspectives.
On the other hand, we label ourselves and our neighbors. We may invest in academic development, but within our schools, students are classified as “learning disabled”, “gifted,” or somewhere in between. As athletes we are either “naturals,” destined for greatness, or “bench warmers” who will grow up to be “weekend warriors” if we continue to participate in sport at all. We view ourselves as “smart” or “dumb,” “good at tests” or not, “coordinated” or not, “strong” or not, “resilient” or not. This type of thinking, usually found in “I am” statements, like “I am a procrastinator” is severely limiting and doesn’t leave much room for category jumping.
In a career spanning several decades, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying these two perspectives – the growth and the fixed mindset – and has fleshed out their validity and consequences. She and her colleagues have amassed a compelling body of research (3) that demonstrates the incredible influence each mindset can have on those who hold them. You can test which mindset best fits you at her website.
The Fixed Minded believe that their abilities and traits are mostly set and cannot be changed over time. As a result, they seek external validation of their worth: extrinsic accomplishment proves their greatness, while failure exposes their inner weakness. Thus, they are quick to run from risk and view projects or skills that do not come easily to them as signs of their inborn inability. You might hear them utter statements like “I’m just not good at ______” as an excuse for not trying. Similarly, the Fixed Minded might attempt something, find it difficult and quit, saying “it wasn’t my thing.” They choose the easy path and take advantage of opportunities to put their talents on display rather than choose the difficult path that offers deep resonance with the longings of their soul. Their world is one of fear and scarcity, where someone else’s success comparatively lowers their own, leading to jealousy.
The Growth Minded view their skills and attributes as a portfolio of characteristics that can be built through determined effort. They seek to mold themselves into something slightly better each time they step to the plate. For them, failure is a lesson. It is an experience that sharpens and enables them to reach greater heights in the future. That does not mean they are trying to fail. In fact, they are trying much harder than their fixed mindset counterparts to succeed. But they are unbridled by a fear of failure and so sometimes they bite off more than they can chew… at that time. They share UCLA’s former 10-time NCAA champion men’s basketball coach John Wooden’s view of success: “a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” The growth mindset views failure as a part of the path to success, rather than its enemy.
This concept is powerfully illustrated by a study of students enrolled in a college chemistry course. Dweck and her team evaluated students’ mindsets at the beginning of the semester. Unsurprisingly, many of the students struggled since the course is a difficult first step on the competitive pre-med track. However, when the researchers examined data on the participants’ performance, they noticed an interesting pattern. Growth minded students typically rebounded from a bad grade on an exam, while fixed minded students usually did not. When asked about the experience, fixed minded students reported that, while they may have increased their effort following a poor showing on a test, they used the same methods that did not work the first time around: they read the book more or memorized more facts. Growth minded students, however, learned from their mistakes and changed their study habits, looking for “themes and underlying principles across lectures” or repeatedly going over mistakes to make sure they had learned from them.
A team of neuroscientists cemented this point by measuring the electrical activity in students’ brains following mistakes on a computer test they were given as part of an experiment (5). Fixed minded participants showed very little mental activity following a mistake (shown in green in the figure below), while growth minded participants’ brain’s lit up with activity (shown in red) as they focused on trying to understand and correct their errors. Unsurprisingly, the growth minded participants improved more rapidly than their fixed minded counterparts.
Brain activity following a mistake (5)
The research demonstrates that the growth mindset leads to greater success and more enjoyment along the way, particularly following a setback or change in environment. Dweck and her colleagues have observed this effect at various stages in the educational journey, in business, in sports and in the arts. When the going gets tough, the fixed minded quit, alter course, or blame, while the growth minded buckle down and improve themselves in order to best the obstacles they face. They are resilient, motivated and creative rather than resentful, timid and trapped.
For everyone feeling burdened by a fixed mindset, the good news is you are wrong about your potential to develop; we can and do grow in startling ways, and that includes our mindsets. In fact, Dweck and her team (6) developed a training protocol on the growth mindset and put it to work with middle school students. They divided a group of middle schoolers into two representative sets and then put the control group through a training on study skills and the other group through a training on the growth mindset. Following the trainings, three times as many students in the growth mindset group versus the control increased their efforts in class. While grades for the control group declined, the group that had learned about the growth mindset increased their grades over the remainder of the class.
The implications of Dweck’s research are clear. Not only does your mindset about your potential have a powerful impact on what you actually end up achieving, but shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset is relatively simple, though it requires effort. Here’s the process:
- Understand the mindsets. The purpose of this series of posts is to summarize the convincing evidence that the growth mindset is more beneficial than the fixed mindset and its validity is overwhelmingly backed by scientific research. These posts serve the same purpose as the mindset training Dweck and her team gave to the middle schoolers in the study mentioned above. Merely reading about the two mindsets has already helped you make a powerful shift toward the growth mindset.
- Notice and adjust your mindset. Particularly when you feel strong negative emotion, ask yourself about the beliefs that underlie your feelings. Does someone else’s success raise the bar of high performance and enable you to push yourself even harder, or does it lower your status? Does a plateau or obstacle signal a need to learn something new or expose your inability? Are you fueled by a desire to “leave it all on the field” or do you expect things to come easily? When you catch yourself with a fixed mindset, talk yourself into a growth mindset by taking a new perspective on the situation.
- Expect failure and difficulty, and learn from it. While the process is simple, a mindset shift takes effort. You will experience setbacks and plateaus, but you don’t mind because you know they are part of the learning experience. In fact, it’s precisely when you catch yourself in the fixed mindset that you have an opportunity to nurture your growth mindset. The only way to a new mindset is to catch yourself failing. When that happens, pay close attention. What can you learn? How can you use it?
- Listen for and give growth minded encouragement. Encouragement from a growth-minded perspective praises effort, not achievement; process, not outcome. Ignore praise like “that came so easy to you,” “you’re a natural,” and “you’re so bright” and revel in “that was really great, you must have worked hard,” “you left it all on the field,” and “way to dig deep.” Train yourself to give growth minded encouragement as well.
- Challenge yourself. It’s one thing to know that you can change, it’s another to feel it happen. Pick something simple and devote yourself to practicing a few minutes a day. I decided to test this out by teaching myself to type correctly a few weeks ago. With around 10 minutes per day, I’ve been able to more than triple my output in less than a month with no signs of slowing down. Note that a lot of my brief training was a plateau in the 30 words per minute range – a “failure” that would have derailed me if I were operating from a fixed mindset. Not all skill acquisition comes this easily, but seeing it happen has been extremely motivating for other areas of my life.
My growth-mindset powered improvement in standard typing technique
- Automaticity. If you have had a fixed mindset for a long time, often your first interpretation of a situation will be from that perspective. However, as you continually catch yourself and remind yourself of your potential to change, the growth mindset will slowly get built into your sub-conscious. Over time, it will become automatic and your first reaction will be growth minded.
Your mental, physical and emotional life are all highly plastic. You can change your skills and abilities and the way you react to things. The process is not automatic. It takes work. But with enough effort and the right strategies there are few “I’m not ______ enough” statements that will hold up to your persistence.
For consideration: In what area of your life do you have a fixed mindset belief that is holding you back? What actions would you take if you had a growth mindset?
(6) Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C., “Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention,” Child Development (pdf)