The mistake everyone makes when talking about a Growth Mindset
Reading time: 9 minutes 13 seconds
“Every good idea is one dumb interpretation away from being a bad idea.”
In the sixth grade, Carol Dweck sat up front in a class with the children organized by IQ. For the full year, that would be her seat, and this had a profound impact on her. For years, she shied away from challenge. Her intelligence became a limit to her. She stayed in her lane and focused on optimizing success rather than searching for improvement.
Years later, during a study with ten-year-olds who were given challenging puzzles to complete, Professor Carol Dweck became fascinated with children who loved challenges and difficulty. On an episode of the Psychology Podcast, with Scott Barry Hoffman, Carol said:
“I’m gonna figure out their secret. I’m gonna bottle it and I’m gonna take a few healthy swigs of it myself”
It began with a ground-breaking experiment. She presented a series of puzzles to a group of children. Initially easy, the puzzles became increasingly difficult. Dweck was interested in how they reacted when this occurred. She noticed something fascinating. When some children encountered more difficult puzzles, they found themselves devastated. Others became invigorated and more motivated the harder the puzzles got. One boy stood up and rubbed his hands together in glee, saying, “I love a challenge.”
This stunned Dweck. How could anyone respond to difficulty with such enthusiasm? The answer came when she made a fascinating discovery. This initially was known as ‘entity versus incremental beliefs’ and eventually became popularized as a ‘fixed versus growth mindset’.
The Growth Mindset
There are two different ways that people think about their abilities and intelligence.
Some people believe they have a set amount of ability in any area. This is having a ‘fixed mindset’. Others believe that they can improve their ability. This is having a ‘growth mindset’. People with a fixed mindset seem focused on constantly proving their ability. People with a growth mindset seem focused on constantly working on their abilities. This provides those with a growth mindset with many advantages,
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last fifteen years or so educating people about the growth mindset. It is one of the most important concepts in psychology, and its fame is well deserved. At the same time, like many great ideas. I have seen it misunderstood, misexplained, and even used as a weapon to admonish poor performers:
“Your problem is that you don’t have a growth mindset. That’s why you’re failing.”
Professor Dweck has also addressed some of the ‘false growth mindsets’ people have. They believe that they have a growth mindset because they see themselves as open-minded. As she points out, being open and pursuing growth are two different things.
Furthermore, some people praise effort that isn’t really effort. If something is easy and someone is doing it, it doesn’t suggest that they are growing from it. Growth comes primarily from the challenge.
Others overvalue effort and don’t understand the other variables that matter. A growth mindset is about praising effort as well as praising strategy and grit and is about the ability to take feedback and seek input.
Indeed, one of Carol’s biggest concerns is that people were making the same mistake with the growth mindset as they did with the self-esteem movement. By over-praising children, you reduce their capacity to improve by giving them an over-inflated sense of their ability.
Indeed, we could also ask the question: Do we really need to “constantly improve”? Without running the risk of falling into a philosophical debate referencing the likes of Byung Chul Han, it’s important to take a step back. His thesis on “positive freedom”* suggests ongoing optimization is not necessarily healthy. It is important to know that we can grow and that we don’t always have to.
While there are a number of ways that the mindset work of Dweck is misunderstood, there is one core mistake I see many people make:
They have a fixed mindset about their own growth mindset.
To understand how this works, I want to explore 1) the differences between identity and a fixed mindset, 2) how our language can betray us, and 3) the different types of growth mindsets you can have.
Identity versus Fixed Mindset
In the 1960s, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a study whereby teachers were led to believe that certain students were ‘growth spurters’ based on a test they took.
While the students were picked at random and did not demonstrate such a spurt initially, they did show an improvement in their academic performance by the end of the semester. This was explained by the expectations of the teachers who got the best out of the students. When you treat someone like they are a certain type of person, they believe it. When you believe you are a certain type of person, you are more likely to act like that person would.
Recent books by James Clear (Atomic Habits) and Jonah Berger (Magic Words) also describe the power of using identity labeling to get yourself to change habits for good or to motivate someone to take action. Getting people to see themselves as a certain type of person has huge advantages.
If you believe you are the kind of person who is a runner, that label makes you significantly more likely to run. Often, when we warn people about using a fixed mindset, we suggest that they avoid using words that praise the person’s identity. The idea is that they need to focus on the effort and strategies the person uses rather than what is natural to them.
All of this seems to fly in the face of the growth mindset. The worst thing you can do is tell a child or adult they are a certain type of person. Instead, praise their effort. The praise that is given by people with a fixed mindset is generally about the person’s identity and what they are ‘good at or bad at’.
There is a crucial difference between a fixed mindset and the concept of identity. You can believe that you are the kind of person that has a growth mindset. That, in turn, is more likely to make you search for continuous improvement where you are developing and growing constantly. Having a fixed mindset implies that you have an identity that is fixed. Having a growth mindset identity suggests that your identity can improve over time. So the belief self-perpetuates.
Having versus Not Having
We also have to be careful in our vernacular. We talk about either HAVING a growth mindset or NOT HAVING a growth mindset. This can be problematic. Ironically, it can lead people to fall into the trap of ‘HAVING” a fixed mindset about having a growth mindset. They assume that they no longer have to do anything since they ‘have’ a growth mindset. This is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, the reality is that the notion of ‘HAVING a mindset’ is really the continuous act of believing in your ability to grow, improve, develop, and learn. It comes from how you think about the challenges you face and the kinds of questions you ask yourself in response. It is something you need to do on an ongoing basis. It’s not as simple as we would like it to be.
It’s important to actively translate having a growth mindset into what that actually means. What specific practices can you engage in that will help you grow, improve, and develop?
The different types of Growth Mindset
Whenever I am outside of Ireland, I get told that I have an Irish accent. In truth, there is no such thing. Instead, there are a multitude of different accents depending on where in Ireland you are from. Even in the capital city of Dublin, there is a selection of different types of voices that might suggest where you are from.
This happens with the growth mindset. It is often used as a catch-all for several different types of growth mindsets. The original mindset was more about your intellectual ability to solve problems. However, there are many other ways we can have a fixed or growth mindset.
You might believe that you can improve at work, for example, but yet you label your relationship with someone as something that won’t or can’t change.
“They are just not my cup of tea.”
“We just don’t get on.”
These sentences reveal a fixed mindset when it comes to your relationships with people. Or you might fall prey to a fixed mindset about somebody else’s abilities and not your own. I can get better, but they really can’t.
One of the mindsets that I speak about is the importance of what I call a ‘belief growth mindset’. Put simply, this is the mindset that suggests that you can update and improve your own beliefs. It is the very mindset that provides you with the opportunity to change your mindset in the first place.
So many people fall for the delusion that their identity and capabilities are fixed. They fail to understand that the beliefs they wholeheartedly believe are not necessarily true. Having a belief growth mindset opens you up to believe in your capacity to improve what you believe and believe better.
It’s also important to remember that a growth mindset isn’t a panacea. As a result of how much it is being used across different sectors and industries, it has been seen as a catch-all. The truth is that the support systems we get access to and the environment we live in make a difference.
Having a growth mindset is believing in your ability to get better. It is about your potential, not your performance. Talent still plays a part. Some things you will be naturally good at, and others you will need to put a lot more effort into. Even more importantly, you will need to get the right kind of instruction and support.
Having a poor teacher or mentor can make your growth stagnate. Effort isn’t the ONLY thing that matters. When we simply praise effort, we fail to consider all of the other factors that also make a difference.
How to really have a Growth Mindset
So, with all of that in mind, how do we cultivate a set of growth mindsets that improve our lives without making the mistakes we see others making? Well, seven key practices might help:
1. See yourself as the kind of person with multiple growth mindsets in many areas of your life.
2. Adjust your strategy based on results.
3. Hunt for feedback and input from others.
4. Always look to work hard and invest effort consistently.
5. See failure as an opportunity to bounce back and get better.
6. Praise effort, strategies, flexibility, resilience, and being open to feedback.
7. Ask the following question consistently: How can I improve/grow/develop?
Having a growth mindset is about loving to learn and constantly pursuing improvement. It’s about believing in your ability to grow and get better. It’s about bouncing back from adversity. It’s about learning from your experiences and failures, making mistakes, and moving forward. It’s about incorporating feedback and adjusting so you can succeed. It’s not just about trying harder but trying smarter. Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean that you are feeling good. You may well be frustrated with the learning process but still fully believe in your ability to learn and figure things out. The key is for that frustration to translate into determination.
In that early Dweck study with the children, many of the children who gave up and many of those who kept persisting found themselves frustrated. For one group, that became the reason to stop and beat themselves up. For the other group, it became the catalyst to drive them to succeed.
One of the most important lessons out there at the moment that is gaining more traction is the idea of doing hard things. Human beings evolved because we continued to solve the next problem. Incredible feats of engineering and science are the product of the human spirit of asking, ‘How can we solve this problem?’ It is perhaps the ultimate driving force behind all great human endeavors. And it rests on this growth mindset: that we can improve and get better and figure it out.
We solve one problem, and then we face the next. We continue to conquer, and that gives our life meaning.
As the wonderful poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it:
“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to wish you a legendary and Happy New Year! May the force continue to be with you in 2024!
P.S. If you are interested in reading more editions of Inner Propaganda, you can find them here.
*Byung Chul Han is a philosopher who theorizes on the idea of negative freedom, where we are allowed to live in our own way without external constraints, vs positive freedom where we have the freedom to become our very best selves and the point is to optimize, optimize, optimize constantly. This excessive self-optimization can lead to burnout, a loss of authenticity, and the tyranny of positivity. We are so busy trying to be our best selves that we fail to experience the world effectively.