[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
Mindset — a habit or way of thinking that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations.
Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has focused her research on motivation, personality, and development for over three decades and is best known for her research on intelligence and how we learn and perform. This work indicates that individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where their ability comes from. Some believe that their success is based on an innate ability and these individuals are said to have a fixed mindset. They believe that they have a certain amount of brains and talent that can’t be changed. Others believe that brains and talent are the starting point and that their success is based on these qualities plus hard work, learning, training, and doggedness and are said to have a growth mindset. (A short animation more completely illustrating these concepts can be found here.)
Where one is on this continuum between fixed and growth may be unknown to the individual but may be observed in the individual’s behavior. Fixed mindset individuals are focused on how they perform. They dread failure as they interpret it as a negative statement of their basic abilities. They spend time documenting their intelligence and talent rather than developing them. Growth mindset individuals don’t enjoy failing but fundamentally believe that their basic abilities can be developed through education and hard work even if they experience failure along the way. The mindset you have plays an important role in how you live your life – your learning achievement, acquisition of skills, personal relationships, professional success, as well as many other dimensions of your life are affected.
Dweck put it this way in a 2012 interview:
“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.”
“In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Dweck’s research also indicates that students only given praise by being told, for example, that they did a “good job,” that they are “very smart,” or they are so “talented,” etc., all comments focused on performance, are very likely to develop a fixed mindset. And, that those who are told “you worked very hard,” you stayed with it until you nailed it,” comments focused on their dedication, perseverance, and effort, are likely to develop a growth mindset.
The student hears these “praise” comments as indicators of what the person making the comment values. Comments like very smart, talented, and good job are seen as pointing to a focus on not failing, which is a key characteristic of the fixed mindset. Comments about perseverance, sticking with it, and working hard point to a growth mindset. And, each student will very likely do more of what’s valued.
Work with elementary school students clearly shows that it is possible to encourage students to persist despite failure. And, this represents changing their mindset.
What does this have to do with leadership or with work? Just this. If you look at yourself and those who work with you, you’ll see examples of fixed mindsets – resistance to taking on something new, excuses (I’m not good at that), succeeding at any cost, cutting corners, not sharing knowledge, etc. And, you also see examples of growth mindsets – that assignment will give me an opportunity to learn a new skills, seeking and sharing information, experimentation, volunteering, collaboration, etc. A growth mindset creates a more positive, engaged workplace, one that sees change as an exciting challenge rather than a demotivating threat. They also argue that a growth mindset leads to greater agility and engagement.
Here are two examples of growth mindsets in an individual’s work experience.
First, the musical “Hamilton” which opened on Broadway in 2015. The opening number presents Alexander Hamilton’s abbreviated biography. You can get the impact from just the first lines:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (You can find the full text here.)
Hamilton went on to become one of the most influential interpreters and promoters of the U.S. Constitution, the founder of our country’s financial system, and the first Secretary of the Treasury. And, clearly to be a person we would agree had a “growth” mindset.
A second example is the story of Eddie George. George won the Heisman trophy in 1995 and then went on to a successful pro football career for nine years. And, he has gone on from there to the Broadway stage, not just as a name that draws crowds, but as a legitimate performer. How did he do it? He started from the ground up. He took drama classes, voice lessons, and studied Shakespeare. He showed up with the intention to get better and better. And, he too has a growth mindset.
Professor Dweck sums up having a growth mindset by saying: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset. … This is because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning. When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed, they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.”
So, what would you do if you wanted to move to having more of a growth mindset? Here’s a plan:
1. Believe that your brain can change, that it works like a muscle. Every time you work hard to learn, you stretch yourself and learn something new, your brain forms new connections. As you use what you’ve learned, the connections become stronger. What you strive for and what you see as success changes. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort.
2. Learn to hear your “fixed mindset” voice. As you approach a challenge or a new opportunity, this voice may ask whether you’re sure you can do it, whether you have the necessary skills, or what if you fail, as well as note that if you don’t try you can protect yourself and keep your dignity. And, if you do fail, the voice might say, “I told you so, you don’t have what it takes.” You may even try to point out, to yourself or to others, that it was something or someone else’s fault.
3. Recognize you have a choice. How you interpret what you hear – challenges, setbacks, criticism – is a choice. You can listen to and interpret what you hear with a fixed mindset frame of reference, a framework that says your fixed talents and abilities are lacking. Or, you can hear and interpret with a growth mindset point of view, observing signs that you need to step up, strengthen your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and extend your abilities. It’s up to you.
4. Talk back in a growth mindset voice. Respond to the “Are you sure you can do it?” with “I’m not sure I can yet, but I believe I can learn with time and effort.” To “What if you fail, what will people think?” with “Most successful people are failures along the way.” Learn this word “yet.” This simple, very powerful, word reminds us that though we are not there yet, we are on the way, moving and growing, making sure progress.
5. Take the growth mindset option. Step up, take on the opportunity or challenge, learn from setbacks, act on the feedback you hear.
6. Persist. Make persistence and working to overcome setbacks a practice. Many successful people have developed this skill. Early research on “grit,” which is long-term perseverance and passion towards a singular goal, has linked this characteristic to success in learning and life.
From all I know, there’s no downside to a true growth mindset. It’s something that we all should strive for. Both personally, and for our organizations. So, in the coming weeks, watch and listen to what your mind is saying back to you when those new opportunities arise. And, if what you’re hearing is from a fixed mindset point of view, stop, explore carefully what is being said, and then move forward, hopefully in a growth mindset way.
I hope that you will make your week a really great week. . . . jim
[A version of today’s essay appeared as the Tuesday Readings on February 6 and 18, 2016.]
Suggested References for Further Reading:
- Carol Dweck, What Having A “Growth Mindset” Actually Means, Harvard Business Review, January 2016.
- Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton Broadway Production website, September 2015.
- Alexander Hamilton, Wikipedia.
- From Football to Broadway, Eddie George Knows a Good Play, CBS News, February 2016.
- Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2007.
- Shane Parish, Carol Dweck: The Two Mindsets And The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, The Farnam Street Blog, March 2015.,
- Carol Dweck, Developing a Growth Mindset, YouTube Video, October 2014.
- Caroll Dweck, Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset, Education Week, September 2015.
- Marina Krakovsky, The Effort Effect, Stanford Magazine, April 2017.