In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck describes “growth mindsets” and “fixed mindsets.” A growth mindset is the idea that we can learn to be good at something and that abilities are like muscles that need to be developed and practiced. When you have a growth mindset, a setback, like not achieving a goal you wanted to achieve, is seen as meaning that you need to study harder or practice more or do other actions to improve your skills.
A fixed mindset means that you see your abilities and personality as set. When you don’t pass a test, it’s because you don’t have the ability, aren’t smart enough, or another permanent reason.
Could you imagine someone saying to a one year old that this is his last chance, if he can’t walk to the dining room table, then it’s over, he just doesn’t have walking ability? Everyone knows he will learn to walk and that it takes time, growth, effort, acceptance and practice. Toddlers will fall lots of times, make lots of mistakes and sometimes hurt themselves, but they learn to walk. But some don’t see adults as capable of learning and changing.
Dweck quotes Benjamin Barber who said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures…I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.” Clearly people begin their lives as determined learners. How does a person become a nonlearner?
Dweck believes that the fixed mindset puts an end to having that push to learn. When children begin to evaluate themselves, they become afraid of failing, of not being smart and not being successful or good enough. “Quit while you’re ahead” takes on a different meaning, one of not risking failure. That might seem like a “safe” choice.
In her research, Dweck gave four-year-olds a choice of redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one. The children with the fixed mindsets chose the easy jigsaw puzzle that they had already done. The four year olds (four!) said that kids who are born smart don’t make mistakes. Children with the growth mindset (they believed they could work to be smarter) wondered why anyone would want to redo the same puzzle. They chose the new, harder puzzle, eager to figure it out and learn more.
Dweck is not saying that if you practice a sport long enough that you will become an Olympic gold medal winner. Talent and basic ability play a part. The idea is that you don’t really know how good you can become at something unless you put in the time and effort.
Learning as an adult is often more difficult. Adults with a fixed mindset may feel a sense of shame or inadequacy that they don’t already have certain abilities, such as how to manage intense emotions. They don’t see themselves as able to learn, and they are hurt every time they receive feedback that learning a new skill might be helpful.
Dweck’s research showed that while people in general aren’t good at estimating their own abilities, the people who are the most likely to have a distorted view are those with a fixed mindset. In fact, in her research the people with the growth mindset were quite accurate in assessing their own skills while those with a fixed mindset accounted for almost all the distortion.
Learning to manage emotions is often a challenge for the emotionally sensitive. Repeated practice is necessary, and there is significant pain involved in learning new ways of coping. Think of the commitment and willingness necessary to give up harmful ways of reacting to intense emotional pain and struggling to learn new strategies.
A growth mindset, the belief that skills can be developed, is part of having willingness to learn new coping skills. If you believe that you can improve through effort, then there is a reason to persevere. If you believe that your emotional control is fixed, then there would be no reason to work at learning skills.
A fixed mindset would be associated with willfulness, believing that nothing will work and so there’s no reason to try. And maybe this mindset developed out of repeated negative self-evaluation and fear. Maybe this mindset came about through many attempts at learning through therapy that wasn’t effective.
A fixed mindset, a strong willfulness and resistance to change, might come from believing that intense emotions are a result of the way the brain functions and that can’t be changed. In fact, scientists once believed that the brain could not be changed. Now we know that brain functioning can change by behaving differently, thinking differently, exercising, practicing meditation and even through improved self-care.
In the fixed mind world, success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Failure is about being rejected and not being smart enough or talented enough. In the growth mind world, it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Learning makes a difference.
Dweck points out that you have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. You can change your beliefs.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.