One of the hazards of my line of work is Too Many Good Books, one of many reasons I love my job. My boss’s latest recommendation is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. The topic is, essentially, how to view yourself and the world in a way that generates success.
Dweck distinguishes between two paradigms, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
If you have the fixed mindset, you believe that your talents and abilities are set in stone—either you have them or you don’t. You must prove yourself over and over, trying to look smart and talented at all costs. This is the path of stagnation. If you have a growth mindset, however, you know that talents can be developed and that great abilities are built over time. This is the path of opportunity—and success.
One of my favorite examples was from the very beginning of the book. Dweck was studying how people deal with failure by giving kids puzzles to solve. As the puzzles grew harder, the kids reacted in a variety of ways. And a couple of them said things like, “I love a challenge!” Or, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!” Dweck was flabbergasted:
What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?
Spoiler: they were on to something.
Because their focus was on learning from the puzzles, they were willing to do hard work—that fed into how they saw themselves, that was part of what they expected they’d have to do. It wasn’t scary and it didn’t hurt their confidence. Failure was the first step and an expected part of things, not a statement on their inherent worth or abilities.
On the other hand, the kids who thought that intelligence was a fixed factor felt threatened by their failures. If they couldn’t figure out these puzzles, then maybe they weren’t smart after all, and that was a terrifying thought. So they’d make excuses, blame factors outside their control, and give only a half-hearted effort. Anything was less scary than the thought that they couldn’t succeed even if they really tried. If they really tried and failed, then that meant that they were failures, and they’d never be good enough. That fear and hopelessness, predictably enough, led to more failure.
As Malcolm Gladwell put it,
After [the kids] were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer. …They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened they have difficulty with the consequences.
The book uses examples from business, sports, the arts, and science to show how a fixed mindset creates limitations, and how a growth mindset allows our failures to be a stepping-stone to future success.
The thing is, the fixed vs. growth mindset affects more than just our intelligence and our jobs. It affects our relationships in business, family, friendships, and romance. It affects our satisfaction with life in general. And, I think, it affects our spiritual lives. In the Orthodox mindset, salvation is a process. Theosis, right? We are being saved. We are becoming. Our struggles are a good thing, because they’re opportunities. It takes a lot of grace, and a lot of hard work, and a lot of picking ourselves up when we fall. That’s the growth mindset, right there.
I was fascinated by the book’s section on relationships.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflict, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait—a character flaw.
But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.
And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be solved.
So, if your partner cuts you off when you’re telling a story, they are self-absorbed. Or if they don’t do their share of the chores, they are messy. And that’s it, end of story, you can live with it (begrudgingly) or break up and try to find someone less annoying.
Contrariwise, couples with a growth mindset aren’t threatened by their conflicts. They’re just problems to fix, no big deal—it’s an opportunity. Your partner cuts you off? Huh, maybe if you sit down together to look at communication styles, you can discover a way for you both to feel heard and valued. The dishes are piling up? OK, time to figure out A) what you consider a clean house and B) how you want to accomplish that together. Cool, it’s skill-building time!
It’s not easy, but it is a more pleasant way to experience the world.
The book itself feels a little repetitive, and the anecdata can be a bit much at times. Still, I’d recommend it—there’s more nuance in growth vs. fixed mindsets than in the old advice to “just work hard.” And the thing about mindsets is that they aren’t set things. Most of us have fixed mindsets in some areas, but we aren’t stuck with them. There’s a lot of freedom in that thought.
If you’re interested in a short article written by Dweck on mindsets, click here.