What is mindset and why is it important to know about? What if learning about mindset and the research behind it could mean the difference between being broken and devastated by failure and using a setback as fuel for growth, reinvention, and renewal? Indeed, we have sufficient empirical evidence suggesting that a fundamental distinction in how people view their own abilities is largely responsible for whether one will persevere in the face of challenges and obstacles or give up trying as soon as the going gets tough. In other words, it is our very attitude toward the possibility of failing that determines whether we are headed for success or failure in the long run.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
What is mindset to begin with? According to Wikipedia, “mindset is a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by one or more people or groups of people that is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviors, choices, or tools.” In other words, mindset creates a sort of gravitational field around itself that reinforces prior choices and behaviors unless of course it is examined and challenged.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck distinguishes between two types of mindset – fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset see their intelligence or their ability in a specific area such as musical talent or linguistic aptitude as a fixed quantity. They often act in ways that they believe will help them preserve an image of being exceptionally gifted, smart, or capable. This can mean refusing to take on activities that would challenge and “expose” them as less than perfectly proficient. For example, a student who’s been told repeatedly how smart they are and how easily they outperform their peers, is likely over time to form the belief that working hard at something must mean they aren’t really all that smart. They come to equate effort with inadequacy and not getting the right answer with failure. And they stop trying.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are generally eager to take on activities that stimulate their thinking and stretch them well beyond their comfort zone. They thrive on novelty and ambiguity. They seek out opportunities to do things they haven’t done before. They see effort as intrinsically rewarding and not getting the right answer right off the bat as a valuable opportunity to learn. In the short run, they perform better at challenging tasks and in the long run, they are better equipped for resilience and success.
The Dweck Mindset Map depicts visually the key differences between the two mindsets.
Of course, it is widely known that people start out with differences in underlying tendencies, aptitudes, and predispositions determined by their genetic makeup. But how and when those will unfold and develop is largely dictated by environmental influences. Science now recognizes that our brains continue to develop and grow in complexity throughout our lives given the right amount and quality of stimulation and support. In Mindset, Carol Dweck quotes Robert Sternberg who suggests that the most important factor in cultivating expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.”
If engagement is indeed the road to mastery, why would anyone shy away from full and meaningful engagement? Indeed, this is a good question to ask if we notice ourselves avoiding challenges, being overly cautious when it comes to taking on risks, or hesitating when given the opportunity to learn a new skill. Those are some of the tell tale signs of a fixed mindset. The good news is that even if we do find ourselves exhibiting fixed mindset behaviors, we can take comfort in knowing that we are most certainly NOT doomed to continue repeating them. In fact, we can choose which mindset to adopt in any given circumstance. In part 2 of this article, we’ll look at how exactly we can do that.