From birth we are taught that some people are ‘talented’ and ‘gifted’ when it comes to certain traits, whether it be intelligence, creativity, personality or sporting prowess. As children, we attend schools and clubs that continually instil in us the idea that failure is bad and losing is for, well, losers. We are told to fear failure and reap success, but what if we embraced failure? What if intelligence wasn’t fixed? What if ‘gifted’ just meant ‘resilient’?
Carol S Dweck’s seminal research on the psychology of Mindsets is igniting much discussion and change in the fields of education, coaching and parenting. The Harvard Professor’s research has concluded that people have either a fixed or growth mindset when it comes to assessing certain traits and abilities. In short, those with a fixed mindset believe that certain ‘talents’ are fixed and cannot be changed, that if you have to ‘try’ to be excellent then you’re not REALLY that good after all. On the other side of the coin are those who have a growth mindset, people who don’t believe in the idea of being ‘special’ and that talent is just a starting point; true success comes from effort, engagement and tenacity. Fundamentally, Dweck tells us that intelligence and other traits that many deem as being ‘natural’ are in fact malleable and can be improved and enhanced through practice, challenge and resilience.
Dweck’s work within this area of people’s potential stems from her own experiences of having her intelligence and potential labelled by her sixth grade teacher who believed that a person’s IQ told the whole story of who they were. In her book, she describes what happened in her sixth-grade class:
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… 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 stomach-aches she provoked with her judgemental 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?
Fixed Failure v Growth Failure
No matter what mindset we have, failure will always find us and for those with a growth mindset, this is a great thing as it provides yet another opportunity to learn and improve. But for those who hold a fixed mindset, failure is a crippling and distressing act that can lead to severe mental trauma. Dweck’s work explains that someone who adopts a fixed mindset when they encounter failure no longer see it as an action but rather an identity, a label that they use to judge themselves and those around them. Consequently, those who have achieved a successful outcome will turn down any further challenging opportunities that may put their ‘successful’ identity at risk for the fear of failing as ‘if you’re a somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?’ ‘This mindset’ , Dweck states, ‘gives you no good respite for overcoming it. If failure means you lack competence or potential- that you are a failure- where do you go from there?’ Thus, resiliency is abandoned for blame, anxiety and depression. The growth mindset, however, doesn’t see failure in the same pervasive manner. Dweck found that for these people, failure is still a tough pill to swallow, but it doesn’t define them. Instead, failure is something to be faced, dealt with and learnt from; as a result, these people become resilient and tenacious in many areas of their lives, from work to relationships.
The Paradox of Praise
Dweck lists many actions that parents, coaches and educators adopt to instruct and educate young children that often lead to them adopting a fixed mindset, and the most surprising one can also be the most damaging: praise. Yes, that thing that we have been told to do to build a child’s self-esteem, to reward a student who has achieved 100%, to bestow on somebody who has done something exceptional- well, it can be extremely counter productive.
Dr Dweck conducted research with hundreds of students. She gave each student a set of 10 simple problems to solve from a non-verbal IQ test. Most of the students did well and when they’d finished, she praised some of the students for their ability (“you got a high score, you must be smart”) and some for their effort (“you got a high score, you must have worked hard”).
Both groups were exactly equal to begin with but, after receiving praise, some students started to suffer. The students whose ability was praised were pushed into the fixed mindset. When they were given a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from, opting for more of the same instead. Dweck believes that this is ultimately due to the fact that they didn’t want to do anything which would expose flaws in their intelligence and bring their talent into question. In contrast, 90 per cent of the students whose effort was praised wanted to try the challenging new task precisely because they could learn from it.
Dr Dweck concluded that praising ability actually lowered students’ IQ whereas praising effort raised them. She also said that praising children’s intelligence harmed their motivation because, although children love to be praised, especially for their talents, as soon as they hit a problem their confidence disappears and their motivation stops. If success means they’re clever, then failure means they’re stupid.
Praise and Labels
Dweck’s research concludes that children have the most to lose from adopting a fixed mindset, and it is therefore essential that those of us who work with these vulnerable minds are able to use and foster a culture that reinforces a growth mindset approach to all aspects of life, from developing friendships to academic potential. And the way we praise and deliver feedback to a child is essential to this growth. Praising a child for being a ‘natural athlete’ rather than praising them for their dedication to training three evenings a week undermines their commitment and hard work; the actual skills that have lead to their athletic ability. Rewarding and labelling a student as ‘brilliant’ for finishing a test ‘quickly’ sends the message that if they don’t complete it as quickly next time, then they are not as good, and ultimately causes them distress in undertaking further challenging activities. Dweck’s work also tells us that this student would shy away from completing more challenging tests for fear of not living up to their ‘brilliance’. Instead, they would choose to undertake work that was of a similar difficulty level or easier so that they could uphold this label of being ‘brilliant’.
Fixed Mindset Narratives
But it is not surprising that this ‘fixed’ vocabulary is so often used when we evaluate performance; it has been instilled in us from a very young age through stories of success. Dweck uses the example of the tale of the tortoise and the hare to exemplify this point: the moral of this narrative is that success is either determined by being naturally talented (the speedy hare) or by expanding no effort (the slow and steady tortoise). Both of these assessments reinforce a fixed mindset when it comes to achievement as although the tortoise wins, it is not through problem solving, devising strategies or skilful collaboration; he too focuses on his ‘inherent’ capabilities and just slowly plods on.
The outcome of Dweck’s dedicated research seems more common sense than ground-breaking study: effort, resilience and tenacity are the real ingredients for success and potential, not ‘special gifts’ and ‘natural talents’. As Dweck states in her book, ‘what’s so heroic about having a gift?’ And she’s right: surely it’s more impressive to value your achievements based on how they were achieved as opposed to what was achieved. These findings are also nothing new when it comes to pedagogy; Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher renowned for his work with high achievers concluded that, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” Thus, the foundations we lay for young people as they build their skills and capabilities must be conducive to growth and make room for failure; only then will they be able to fulfil their potential.
Changing Your Mindset
What is most promising from Dr. Dweck’s research is that we can change our mindsets from fixed to growth through our understanding of how the brain works. From educating others about the neurological processes behind stress to knowing strategies for enhancing neuroplasticity, we are able to not only change our own mindsets but also those around us: our communities, our families, our students and our children.
Grow Your Mindset:
Choose Neuroscience over Neuroses!
Neuroscience has changed our understanding of intelligence and has shown that your brain can grow. Make neuroscience a focus for your personal and professional development.
If you fall, bounce back up!
Failure has become one of the ugliest words in our vernacular and people will do anything and everything to avoid it. And if they can’t avoid it, they let it consume them. Practice resilience building skills and see every adversity as an opportunity.
Plan for Positivity!
Have you avoided doing something because it involves a risk to your supposed ‘identity’? Not trying out for a sports team? Avoiding certain ‘talented’ peers? Stop hiding and start planning! Make a plan to do something that you’ve always wanted to but were too afraid. Make sure the plan is achievable by forming habits that encourage consistency and are also realistic. Committing to joining a social soccer club and planning to leave work early one evening a week to train is much more rewarding and empowering than planning to be captain of the Soccerooos. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but having smaller, achievable goals will make the likelihood of you owning the next captaincy all the more realistic.
For further research examples, watch Carol Dweck’s talk from the ‘Happiness & Its Causes’ Conference that was held in Melbourne last October.