Mindsets and success

Your beliefs become your thoughts;
your thoughts become your words;
your words become your actions;
your actions become your habits;
your habits become your values;
your values become your destiny.
                                                                                                                 Mahatma Gandhi

We now have a large body of research that demonstrates the truth of Gandhi’s words. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in her new book Mindset: The new Psychology of Successdescribes some of her own research that shows how our beliefs about ourselves fuel our behaviour and predict our success. Her research on this topic with both children and adults covers 20 years. She’s found one mindset in particular that is critically important. Which best describes your beliefs about yourself:

  • My personality, character, intelligence and other important traits are fixed–I’ve got what I was born with and that’s it.or
  • I can keep learning and growing and changing and improving.

Dweck calls the first a fixed mindset and the second a growth mindset. When you have a fixed mindset, you end up not challenging yourself but putting your efforts into ensuring your beliefs about yourself are proven correct. The growth mindset takes effort too, but your efforts go into learning and improving, instead of protecting yourself and your beliefs. When you have a growth mindset, success or failure at a specific task isn’t what matters. What matters is challenging yourself and learning and improving all the time.

And these mindsets begin at a very early age. Throughout your life, they guide your behaviour and how you view success and failure, both at work and in your personal life. Ultimately, they determine how satisfied you can feel with yourself.

In one experiment, for example, Dweck and her team gave four-year olds an easy puzzle to complete. Then they let the children choose another easy puzzle or a harder puzzle. Some children chose another easy puzzle (guaranteed ‘success’) while others chose the harder puzzle (guaranteed ‘challenge’ and ‘learning’). The latter is the growth mindset: ‘Why do another easy puzzle? I’ll try a harder one and see whether I can do it.’

In another experiment, teenagers were given a nonverbal IQ test; most did quite well. Half were praised for their performance: ‘Wow, you got X many right; that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.’ The other half were praised for their effort: ‘Wow, you got X many right; that’s a really good score, You must have worked really hard.’

Praise for performance pushed the teenagers into a fixed mindset while praise for effort pushed the others into a growth mindset. Sure enough, when offered a new task to do, the fixed mindset teenagers rejected the challenging one–they had been told they were smart and they didn’t want to spoil it. In contract, 90% of the teenagers who were praised for their effort chose the challenging new task they could learn from.

Next came a series of more difficult IQ tests; most didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the fixed mindset teenagers thought they’d failed and weren’t so smart after all. But those who had been praised for their effort saw the fact that they hadn’t done so well as a signal to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or stupidity.

As the tests progressively became more difficult, the performance of the growth mindset teenagers improved significantly and they continued to enjoy themselves and the challenge. The performance of the fixed mindset teenagers grew worse and worse, and so did their enjoyment of the experience.

When the researchers asked the teenagers to write letters to their friends telling them about their day and their scores, 40% of the fixed mindset teenagers lied about their scores, increasing them so they’d look more successful than they were. When you have a fixed mindset, failure is shameful. When you have a growth mindset, failure is not trying and not learning–as long as you’re trying and learning, you’re succeeding.

In an experiment with adults, Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset only heard feedback about whether they got their task right or wrong and tuned out any information aimed at helping them learn and improve. The adults with the growth mindset, on the other hand, weren’t as focussed on whether they got their task right or wrong but they really sat up and took notice of information that could help them learn and improve so that they could do better next time.

Fixed mindsets are binary: right or wrong, good or bad, success or failure. They’re lose-win. Growth mindsets are open-ended: am I learning? How can I keep learning and improving. That’s win-win.

So which is your mindset? To change a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, change your thinking. That changes your actions and your actions become your destiny.

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