If you’ve spent much time around these parts you may have noticed that I read a lot. One way that I find new books is by seeing who the authors that I like are reading.
Turns out, a lot of them have read Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck.
Because the book (and the theory) had been referenced in other books that I’ve read, I already knew the basics. A fixed mindset is where you believe that your qualities and attributes are set in stone. Either you are smart or you aren’t. Either you are creative or you aren’t. Either you are an organized person or you aren’t.
A growth mindset is where you believe that you can build and improve and develop. You may currently have certain traits and abilities, but if you want to change those, you can work towards that goal and eventually do so.
I figured it might be an interesting read, although it probably wouldn’t apply much to my life. Obviously I’m a growth-minded person. I am constantly learning new things and working to better myself. This whole fixed mindset thing can’t really be relevant to me.
But it isn’t quite that simple.
Does Failure Make You a Failure?
It is easy to declare yourself an adherent to one particular mindset in the abstract. The real test comes in how you actually respond to problems.
Dweck presented college students with a hypothetical bad day. They got a C+ on the midterm for their favorite class. They got a parking ticket. They got brushed off by their best friend when they called to vent.
The fixed mindset people reacted with thoughts like “I’m a total failure.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’d feel like a reject.” “The world is out to get me.” The coping mechanisms for these folks included things like “Stay in bed.” “Get drunk.” “Eat chocolate.” “Break something.”
The growth mindset reaction was closer to “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” Their coping included thinking through a more effective way to study, talking to the teacher about where they went wrong, deciding whether to pay or contest the ticket, and reaching out to their friend to smooth things over.
In the fixed mindset, a failure of any sort is a knock on your abilities. It reflects on you as a person. It defines you. And so it makes sense for you to cope by wallowing. If, on the other hand, failure reflects on a specific situation, rather than you as a person, you can get right to work on improving and avoiding that same failure in the future.
Growth vs. Identity Protection
Your mindset also changes the way that you interact with challenges and opportunities.
One study gave students a short IQ test. Half of the students were told upon completion, “That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” The other half were told, “That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” This gets the first group into the fixed mindset of innate abilities and the second into the growth mindset.
Next, they were offered the chance to complete a harder test or to repeat one at a similar level. The fixed mindset group chose to stay at the same level, while the growth mindset group wanted a new challenge. The researchers then had both groups complete a third test at a similar difficulty level to the first.
Both groups had similar scores on the first test. As you might expect, though, the growth mindset group improved. They took the harder test and pushed themselves and learned. They gave their brain an extra workout. When they came back to the easier test, they scored better than the fixed mindset students who had plateaued when they decided not to challenge themselves.
This same mindset split is even present in children. Dweck did a similar study with four-year-olds and jigsaw puzzles. The fixed mindset kids wanted to do the same puzzle over again after they successfully completed it, while the growth mindset kids wanted a tougher one. The fixed mindset kids said that smart kids “don’t do mistakes,” and so they stuck with the puzzle that they knew they could complete.
Ever at four, we are already hesitant to challenge our label as a smart kid.
This hit me particularly hard. I half-assed school. High school, college, and even law school. I put in enough work to get good enough grades, but I never put my full effort behind anything.
I had excuses for bad papers or test scores. That paper got a B instead of an A because I didn’t start it until the night before it was due. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough to get an A. I didn’t do as well as I could have on that test because I didn’t spend the time studying that others spent.
This wasn’t the conscious intention of my procrastination and lack of effort, but it lines up pretty perfectly with a fixed mindset approach. It could very well have been my subconscious pushing me in that direction as a protection mechanism.
It is important to recognize that everyone has tendencies towards both mindsets in different areas of their lives. Maybe you have a growth mindset towards intelligence, but you think that creativity is fixed. Maybe you think you don’t have the capacity to become more organized but you know you’ll become better at cooking with more practice.
On top of that, the studies have shown that people can get pushed temporarily into one mindset or the other. The IQ test study didn’t start with fixed mindset students and growth mindset students. It pushed them in one direction or the other based on a single line of praise.
Our mindsets are flexible. If we want to work our way out of fixed mindsets, we can! But it isn’t easy and it will be an ongoing process.
First, we need to recognize where we have a fixed mindset and what triggers that mindset. When do you have those thoughts of “I’m a failure” or “I’m an idiot” like the fixed mindset college students? What are the situations that lead your mind down that path?
We need to flag these areas and recognize that they are weaknesses for us. We need to work extra hard to push the growth mindset approach in these situations. Catch yourself thinking those thoughts and then push yourself to try the growth mindset coping mechanisms.
Instead of instinctively eating chocolate or getting drunk, force yourself to think about what you can learn. Okay, maybe this was a failure. But why was it a failure? What went wrong? And how can you avoid a similar failure in the future? As we’ve seen in the studies, the growth mindset allows you to use failure to get better.
While the fixed mindset people are staying in bed, the growth mindset people are improving. Which would you rather be?