As a kid, I was told many things by people in my life (parents, teachers, coaches):
- You are the smart one
- You need to go into the “sciences” – writing is just not your strength
- With your job experience and education, you just don’t have a business mindset
- You are so athletic and great at running but throwing sports are just not your thing
Now don’t get me wrong. I have two incredible parents who love me and my sister dearly. I also have had a ton of great teachers and coaches over the years who have helped me grow immensely. The thing is, when it comes to your formative years, it just takes one person you love to say something and it just sticks… it can change how you feel about your self, what you think is true and your mindset.
Recently I picked up a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and it has been a huge eye opener. Throughout the book she explains two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
First let me explain the difference.
In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and therefore cannot change over time. When someone has a fixed mindset, they are more focused on their level of intelligence or talents rather than working to develop or improve themselves. They don’t believe that effort should be required, as talent alone leads to success. They also feel that you are born with a certain amount of talent…meaning they believe it is as good as it gets, but they are also afraid of looking dumb so they constantly try to prove themselves (i.e. smart or athletic).
A person with a growth mindset has an underlying belief that their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. These people believe they can get smarter, but that effort is required to reach higher levels of success. They also do not believe that all people are the same, but that everyone can get smarter if they try.
Why is this important? First you have to read this study which highlights a huge problem!
In a study of hundreds of students, Dweck and her colleagues gave each student a fairly challenging problem from a nonverbal IQ test. This was followed by praise of the student for his or her performance — most had done pretty well. But they offered two types of praise: Some students were told, “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this,” while others, “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, some were praised for ability (fixed mindset) and others for effort (growth mindset). The findings, at this point, are unsurprising yet jarring:
“The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.”
In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.
The most interesting part, however, is what happened next: When Dweck and her colleagues gave the students a subsequent set of harder problems, on which the students didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the ability-praised kids thought they weren’t so smart or gifted after all. Dweck puts it poignantly:
“If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.”
But for the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect.
Perhaps most importantly, the two mindsets also impacted the kids’ level of enjoyment — everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions, which most kids got right, but as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised kids (fixed mindset) no longer had any fun, while the effort-praised (growth mindset) ones not only still enjoyed the problems but even said that the more challenging, the more fun. The latter also had significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder, while the former kept getting worse and worse, as if discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset.
It gets better — or worse, depending on how we look at it: The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic by product of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful.
Again, why is this important?
How we speak to our kids, spouses, employees matters! But it is especially important with our kids. The above study shows how the way we praise people can have a profound impact on their mindset. The more we speak to our children about how “smart” they are, we push them towards a more fixed mindset. This is because it sends a message that their accomplishments are trait-based.
So what can you do? Check out this table for some ideas:
|Say This||Not That|
|“I can see you worked so hard on this!”||“You are so smart!”|
“It seems like it’s time to try a new strategy.”
“It’s okay. Maybe you’re just not cut out for this!”
“I like watching you do that.”
“You’re a natural at that!”
“That was really hard. Your effort has paid off. Next time you’ll be ready for this kind of challenge!”
“That was really hard. I’m so glad its over and you don’t have to do that again.”
“You’ve worked hard to become a good writer. You should challenge yourself with an advanced class and learn something you don’t know how to do yet.”
“You have a real talent for writing. You should take a creative writing class because you’re so good at it.”
Now if this freaks you out because you feel like you have messed up, stop yourself because that is probably your own fixed mindset speaking to you. If you negatively react when your child fails or struggles, your child is going to learn to try to avoid failure and may develop a fearful attitude when it comes to trying new activities. So fail in front of your kids and let them watch you pick yourself up again. Or talk to them about your past struggles and how you have grown from them.
Your mindset can be changed (and your child’s mindset) over time. It just is going to take some effort. But I can promise you it’s worth it.