The power of belief is a topic that will be written about all throughout human history. One, it’s phenomenal how beliefs govern the way we lead our lives, how they influence behavior and attitude, and two, it’s even more phenomenal that beliefs are malleable and can be changed. Once we change our beliefs we change as individuals.
Beginning at an early age we hear the word mindset whether in sports, the workplace, or in the classroom. A strong mindset focused on winning is essentially about believing that the team will win. A mindset focused on learning views challenges as opportunities to stretch our abilities.
Psychologist Carol Dweck is famous for her research on the two kinds of mindsets that we can possess: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she shares a childhood memory about how her teacher organized all the students based on IQ, and explains how this primed students into embracing a fixed mindset [emphasis by me]:
“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—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. Some of us are trained in this mindset from an early age. Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet, she believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?”
Just reading that last few sentences is horrifying, especially once you begin to deeply understand the implications and science behind the two mindsets and how they mold someone’s character and overall life.
So a fixed mindset is the equivalent of believing that you were born an artist, a football player, a cook, a designer, etc. A fixed mindset is about believing your IQ is reflective of your overall intelligence and life, and no matter how many books you read, you simply can’t get smarter. This kind of self-sabotaging delusion makes me sweat because it’s untrue on every conceivable level. To me, it’s no different than brainwash, feeding information that simply isn’t true and in turn influencing someone to be something they’re not. And to make it worse, it starts at an early age…
The growth mindset, however, focuses on learning, believes that nothing is carved in stone, that intelligence and skills are malleable with practice, effort, persistence, and good coaching. What’s true about this mindset is that science has debunked the mystery around talent and skill development. Dweck says it better [emphasis by me]:
“But doesn’t our society value intelligence, personality, and character? Isn’t it normal to want these traits? Yes, but … There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
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 the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
Right now is a good time to ask yourself, Do I believe that I can become smarter through effort and practice, or is my intelligence just the way it is? Do I believe I can become an artist or is one simply born an artist? A good parent? Teacher? Athlete?
Another important factor to realize is that we can indeed possess both mindsets. Dweck sets up the question and then answers it:
“Question: Are mindsets a permanent part of your makeup or can you change them?
Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset— passing up a chance for learning, feeling labeled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset— making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort. When my graduate students and I first discovered the mindsets, they would catch me in the fixed mindset and scold me.”
What she said is key: “…you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” What she means is that when we experience failure, we don’t automatically blame our abilities or intelligence, but instead we acknowledge that there’s room for growth, that this failure taught us an important lesson and therefore we can do better next time. The moment we blame our personality or lack of talent, we believe we’re flawed and incapable of learning and improving, which of course, is infinitely unhelpful. What determines the mindset that you embrace comes down to how you talk to yourself.
Last question that I found interesting and useful to understand this subject better [emphasis by me]:
“Question: Can I be half-and-half? I recognize both mindsets in myself.
Many people have elements of both. I’m talking about it as a simple either–or for the sake of simplicity. People can also have different mindsets in different areas. I might think that my artistic skills are fixed but that my intelligence can be developed. Or that my personality is fixed, but my creativity can be developed. We’ve found that whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.”
What makes this transition from fixed to growth so difficult is because private beliefs don’t change overnight. If your whole life has been about proving yourself and believing that you’ve been endowed a specific set of talents and level of intelligence, it’s incredibly difficult to view a failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a reflection of your character. People with a fixed mindset can be successful, sure, but the journey then contains a kind of unnecessary stress that isn’t helpful for anyone.
So which is it?
I believe that I can become smarter. I believe my talents can grow through practice, effort, persistence, and coaching. I believe that this failure doesn’t reflect my character but rather my aptitude, which is something that can improve.
I was born this way. This is just the way I am. Math isn’t for me! I would rather take the easier test to confirm my natural abilities and to feel better rather than take the hard test and learn something new, but also risk failing and looking dumb.
Essentially this is the difference between becoming and being. As Dweck says:
“There was a saying in the 1960s that went: “Becoming is better than being.” The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”
Focus on becoming someone, learning from mistakes, being able to grow in all areas of your life, and you’ll surprise yourself in how capable you really are in living the life you desire. But believe that your level of intelligence is concrete, that your talents are stuck, that you’re born this way, then please don’t be surprised by the lack of growth or change.