Growth Mindsets Are So Much Better Than Fixed Mindsets [42]

By Dr. Keith Witt
December 31, 2011
man_crossed_fingers Lots of us make New Year’s resolutions, and most of us don’t follow through. Why is this? I believe it’s often because we have the wrong attitudes towards change—we try something, find it’s hard or sloppy, and then get irritated, embarrassed, or frustrated and just give the whole thing up. So this year, I encourage you to make a resolution to improve your attitudes towards change. We typically have attitudes we bring to bear on everything we do. If I drive carefully, I bring an attitude of caution each time I’m behind the wheel. If I drive aggressively, I bring an attitude of “Don’t mess with me!”  Such attitudes are called, “mindsets.” Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, The New Psychology of Success has found that people live from two major mindset positions—growth mindsets and fixed mindsets:
  • A growth mindset believes that effort and progress are what matter most. If I’m learning to play the piano, it’s less important that I sound great and more important that I’m practicing and improving. If I have a problem with my iphone, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it just means I need to invest some effort and progress to solve the problem, and—if I have a growth mindset—effort and progress resulting in finding and solving problems is what I like. Growth mindset people prefer friends and colleagues who are as smart and capable as possible to help stimulate fresh ideas and change, and are delighted to find somebody who is more knowledgeable or expert than they are.
  • A fixed mindset believes that ability and intelligence is innate, and that failure is shameful. I’d rather do an easy project where I don’t risk failure than try a harder project that might involve being frustrated or temporarily stumped. If I have to work to learn something, it means that I am inherently flawed and I want to avoid that shameful feeling by avoiding the hard activity. A problem with my iphone scares me because it makes be feel inept and inferior. Fixed mindset people like friends and colleagues who don’t seem as smart or capable, because then the fixed-mindset person doesn’t feel stupid in comparison.
It seems so easy doesn’t it? Clearly, growth mindsets are a better way to go, so why aren’t they the universal standard for everyone all the time? Mainly because we are a success-oriented culture where we admire easy victory, and often view struggle to grow as a sign of inferiority. For instance:
  • Your eleven-year-old comes home from school proudly waving a report card with an “A” in every class. You compliment her extravagantly and she says, “It’s not that hard, really.” Later that day you tell your best friend (feeling a secret glow of pride), “June got straight A’s again. She’s just naturally gifted.”
  • June comes home with three B’s and two A’s. You ask her how she feels about it and she says, “I feel good about my B in Algebra. I was a C for the first part of the class, but I studied hard and now I’m getting it better. Math’s like a bunch of puzzles that keep getting harder forever. I kind of like puzzles.” You tell your friend later (again feeling a secret glow of pride), “June got three B’s and two A’s, but she feels best about her B in algebra because she worked hard and saw progress.”
Most of us can identify with both these stories, but research shows that growth mindset stories (“Math’s like a bunch of puzzles that keep getting harder forever. I kind of like puzzles.”) way predict future happiness and success more than fixed mindset stories. I use eleven-year-old June as an example because Carol Dweck found that fixed and growth mindset kids diverged wildly at around eleven. Fixed mindset kids are often distressed by the extra challenges of middle school, and academic performance tends to slide through high school. Growth mindset kids continue to improve through high school and even farther into college. Both of the above scenarios tend to feel good to parents. We like to believe our kids are talented and naturally successful, and we also love it when our kids display mature growth-mindset attitudes to problems. The take home message is that, in many areas, we unconsciously accept fixed mindset standards without considering that a growth mindset is the best path to success and happiness. For instance:
  • A VP tells a fixed mindset CEO, “We have problems with quality control, and we need to gradually improve the culture in production. People get publicly humiliated for making mistakes, and everyone is afraid they’ll be axed in the next series of lay-offs.”  The boss replies, “We have the best factory in the state! How dare you suggest there’s a “problem with the culture?’ You’re fired!”
  • Same scenario with a growth mindset boss who replies, “Really sounds like you’re on to something! What do you imagine the next step should be? Who could best help us make these changes?”
  • A fixed mindset husband tells his wife, “I’m just not in love anymore. It doesn’t feel the same as when we first got married. I don’t think we’re meant for each other and I believe we should separate.”
  • Same scenario with a growth mindset husband who announces, “We seem to have drifted apart. Let’s get some help and advice about how to feel closer and have more fun. I think our marriage needs it.”
Mindset is full of such examples about kids, bosses, athletes, and lovers—all supported by rigorous research. Again and again, an attitude that effort and progress are the way to go resulted in better development, more joyful relationships, superior performance, and more profit and better employee relations over extended periods of time. I teach growth mindsets to everybody, and encourage people to look with interest into where they have fixed mindsets. Sometimes a guy will have a growth mindset at work (each month he sits down with his staff and everyone talks about how “We can make things a little more successful and fun around here.”) and a fixed mindset at home (“This report card is unacceptable. I want to see A’s!”). Or a woman will have a growth mindset about her kids (“Let’s just focus on having more fun with your homework.”), and a fixed mindset about herself (I’m just not that attractive, so why should I try to exercise and eat right—what’s the point?”). My goal is to help my clients notice when they’re coming from a fixed or growth mindset, and to make effort and progress towards having less of a fixed mindset and more of a growth mindset in every facet of their life. Try it yourself. First, are you willing to accept that you’re not perfect just as you are, and can improve everything about your life with effort and progress? If the answer is “yes,” look with interest at how you relate to yourself, others, and the world today.
  • Do you feel good when things go well, but still have a sense that you can make them even better with effort and progress? Do you get frustrated by mistakes or areas you’re clumsy or uniformed, but then tell yourself, “OK, I just need to focus on gradual improvement and everything will be fine.” These are growth mindsets which will eventually lead you to greater happiness and success.
  • Do you make a mistake and tell yourself, “I’m an idiot!” and then rage for a while at yourself or someone else? Do you have zero patience for others’ imperfections? Do you get irritated or embarrassed when someone seems to be more knowledgeable or skillful than you? These are fixed mindsets that will compromise your happiness and success, and you might want to direct yourself to more growth mindset attitudes and behaviors—with the sense that effort and progress is beautiful.
  Noticing fixed and growth mindsets and adjusting towards growth mindsets can uplevel and transform your life, your marriage, your work, and your parenting. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for a few weeks and see how the “effort and progress is beautiful” growth standard impacts your world. You’ll be glad you did.  

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