Have you ever met someone who said something like, “I’m simply bad at math”? Did you know that this is a preconceived limitation that is simply not true? It’s called a fixed mindset. While it’s common for people to get discouraged when they fail at something too often human beings are quick to wage war on themselves. Someone who would say they’re bad at something is actually just bad at having this thing called a growth mindset. Often individuals accept these preconceived limitations, but the reality is human beings are really just terrible at estimating their abilities. It’s true that every individual has their initial talents, aptitudes, interests, and temperaments, (24) but these natural inherent qualities are not fixed and subject to change. We like to put ourselves and others into boxes saying things like, “smart” or “dumb,” he’s good at this but not at that. They’re good or bad. Degenerate or prodigy. Labels are important and necessary but they should not be used to define an individual. We humans are not one-dimensional. Judgments are inevitable but they prevent us from learning and ultimately from growing. To summarize psychologist Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and creator of this concept, when our minds are fixed we spend our time documenting our intelligence or talent instead of developing them (42). In my report I will first Define what a growth mindset is and who came up with it, explain the difference between a fixed and growth mindset, simplify how to obtain it, show its effectiveness through a personal story and explain why it’s important.
What is a Growth Mindset?
Simply put a growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be developed. It’s a belief that construes intelligence as malleable and improvable (Ng). Its opposite counterpart, a fixed mindset, is the belief that abilities are fixed. Whether we are aware or not we all have beliefs, or non-beliefs, that strongly affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it. Carol Dweck focuses on beliefs you have about yourself and how it has profound effects. She says these beliefs “guide a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part…” (Dweck).
The Difference Between a Fixed and Growth Mindset
A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are carved in stone. Dweck says this creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics (11). It’s a defense mechanism against feeling inadequate. Dweck says she’s seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in a learning setting, their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is elevated: will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser (16)? On the other hand is the growth mindset, based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way with their initial talents, aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience (7). The difference between the two is in the following expressions. Someone with a growth mindset might say “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or ” Rome wasn’t built in a day.” To summarize Dweck she says, what is truly amazing is that people with a fixed mindset would not agree. For them, it’s “nothing ventured, nothing lost.” “if at first you don’t succeed, you probably don’t have the ability.” “If Rome wasn’t built in a day, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” In other words, risk and effort are two things that might Reveal your inadequacies and show that you are not up to the task. Those with a fixed mindset do not believe in putting in effort or getting help. They can do it on their own. Humans are the only species that believe they can do everything on their own. Every other species socializes and depends upon each other but human beings are self-made individuals that can and have relied solely on them self. It sounds nice, independent and confident but this way of thinking can actually be insecure and limiting.
How to Obtain a Growth Mindset
We need each other to learn and to grow. This is one thing the growth mindset teaches. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and ask someone if don’t know something. That fear makes you a nonlearner. Not knowing something makes you human. Dweck quotes Benjamin Barber, an eminent political theorists saying “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the Learners and nonlearners.” If you’d like to cultivate a growth mindset and be a learner you can. Saga Briggs breaks down 25 ways to develop a growth mindset, I’ll list the ones that resonate with me: Use the word “yet.” Whenever you see a student struggling with a task, just tell them they haven’t mastered it yet. Not yet. Acknowledge and embrace imperfections. Hiding from your weaknesses means you’ll never overcome them. Follow the research on brain plasticity. The brain isn’t fixed; the Mind shouldn’t be either. Replace the word “failing” with the word “learning”. When you make a mistake or fall short of a goal, you haven’t failed; you’ve learned. Now what did you learn? Cultivate a sense of purpose. Dweck’s research also showed that students with a growth mindset had a greater sense of purpose. Keep the big picture in mind. Value the process over the end result. Intelligent people enjoy the learning process, and don’t mind when it continues beyond an expected time frame.
Personal Story: Mengyuan Wu
Mengyuan Wu came from a traditional Chinese culture where she was taught some people are naturally talented and that this was the only way she could be truly good at something. When she was young her mother strived to discover her talents and so she was sent to a variety of classes. None of the classes pique her interest and so she was labeled as being without flexibility, artistic sense or any talent. With the belief that the goal of Education was to achieve excellent academic performance Mengyuan consequently felt a lot of pressure. Later she was introduced to the growth mindset concept and remembered a quote that goes like this: “What matters is what you learn and get out of it, not how high your score is.” With this in mind pressure slid off her shoulders and she started learning for the sake of learning instead of validation. She felt less stressed and thus could perform better. She applied the growth mindset beyond academics and took up a passion in fencing. Her parents never let her fence when she was younger because they didn’t think she had the talent. As an adult her parents still had their doubts about their daughter’s passion but the growth mindset gave her a renewed confidence. She pushed her physical limits and persevered winning a bronze medal. When deciding on a college and whether to take up fencing the growth mindset altered her perspective on the fear of not being good enough and being rejected. She remembered what mattered; what you learn and get out of it and not how high your score is. Mengyuan’s choice in college didn’t come from a place of proving herself. She came to understand that the best university for her was not the university on the top of the list but rather one that best matched her. She enrolled herself in a school and a sport that she enjoyed and when she failed she persevered and learned from it because it was what she wanted to do.
Why is a Growth Mindset
This mindset is important because its natural consequence is success. Empirical Studies have revealed that growth mindset has positive effects on student motivation and academic performance of all ages (Ng). According to Dweck, teaching growth mindset to Junior High School students resulted in increased motivation and better academic achievement, especially in particular subjects such as science and mathematics. Furthermore mindsets play a significant role in student success. The development of growth mindsets allows children to exercise autonomy over their learning thus producing higher success (Boylan et al).
In order to understand why this mindset is important you need to know that this mindset feeds intrinsic motivation. When people experience an inherent satisfaction of an activity itself they are intrinsically motivated. If a person is doing the activity in order to attain some reward, such as a grade or social recognition they are extrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful. When you have a growth mindset you are acting out of intrinsic motivation and when your actions are motivated by your individual interests and choices you foster a sense of purpose and meaning. In other words you’re not just doing or learning something because you have to but because you want to. So if you have no purpose in life but you cultivate a growth mindset and act out of autonomy you will feed intrinsic motivation and therefore foster a sense of purpose. A growth mindset is important because it could potentially be the cure for depression… and because of the positive impact it has on students. There’s a reason teachers don’t call you stupid when you ask a stupid question because they’ve cultivated this mindset. This concept is in our school systems because it’s more than important, it’s effective.
To summarize Carol Dweck, the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the Hallmark of the growth mindset. This is a mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. By this concept nobody and nothing can hold us back. No matter who you are, where you come from or what you’ve been through your capabilities are limitless with infinite possibilities to choose from. In other words, no matter what life throws at us we can do anything we set our minds to, man.