Fun fact: Albert Einstein couldn’t read until he was seven. His family thought he might be mentally handicapped.
As it turned out, he probably wasn’t.
Which leaves us with a conundrum: Was Einstein a born genius, too busy concocting revolutionary formulae to bother learning his alphabet? Or is this perhaps evidence of something more exciting and challenging: that it’s possible to become brilliant with sufficient effort, discipline and daring?
Carol Dweck’s pioneering psychological research suggests that neither is the ‘correct’ interpretation. Rather, each represents a particular way of viewing the world. She terms them the ‘fixed mindset’ and the ‘growth mindset’, and which of them we personally subscribe to has profound implications on every aspect of our lives.
The fixed mindset stems from an unconscious belief that success is a product of innate ability. Consequently, everything we do and say is judged, by a fixed mindset, to be evidence of our ultimate talent, importance and worth. It’s a fixed mindset that makes us to pretend we know what we’re talking about and pray that it’s convincing; it’s a fixed mindset that makes failure scary enough to keep us from trying anything new.
A growth mindset, in contrast, is based in the belief that our essential worth and our most important qualities are cultivated over time, through patience, persistence and plenty of hard work.
Instead of fixating on existing, entrenched hierarchies, a growth mindset requires that we look honestly at our achievements: can we improve? Are we ignoring our weaknesses or pretending they’re beyond our control? What can we learn from our failings?
According to Dweck’s research, cultivating a growth mindset leads to greater and faster improvements in skills and intelligence. This is because we are likely to see intelligence and ability as more like a muscle we incrementally train and develop. So we become far more open to advice and criticism, and more honest about our shortcomings.
When we see things as fixed, we are far less likely to put ourselves in unfamiliar or potentially challenging situations. But this is a fatal mistake. It is precisely such situations which make manifest skills and abilities we didn’t know we had, and which force us to develop new ones.
For this reason, a growth mindset has been shown to improve mental health and individuals’ ability to cope with difficult situations; it’s also been demonstrated to improve working dynamics within organisations, making employees happier, healthier, more creative and more productive.
Well for one thing, a growth mindset demands effort from us. Once we accept that our potential is not set in stone, the responsibility we bear for our own successes and failures drastically increases. And plenty of us would prefer to abdicate that responsibility in exchange for the safe certainty a fixed mindset facilitates.
Equally, many people find it more difficult to sustain a growth mindset through their successes than their failures. We see the benefits of believing that success is a process when things are going wrong, but when everything’s going our way it can be tempting to tell ourselves our achievements are evidence of our essential, unique genius. And that’s when we start to rest on our laurels.
You have to give up some of your fundamental ideas about progress and value. You have to learn to value hard work and resilience over talent or prestige. And you have to give up some rather comforting notions you might hold that life is planning on rewarding you just for being you.
Of course, simply striving doesn’t guarantee anything. It is, ironically, a very ‘fixed mindset’ mentality to pretend we can always embody the growth mindset. Our mindset is the product of everything from our childhood and genetics to what we’ve eaten and how we’ve slept. So this sacrifice is something we have to make over, and over, and over.
Dweck’s mindsets are simply a useful heuristic – the dichotomy represents two ends of a spectrum we are forever moving along. By knowing which end of it we want to be on, we can go about figuring out how to make sure we’re there as often as possible.
What triggers you? What nudges you back into that fixed mindset? Can you learn to better cope with those situations? Can you learn to thrive on difficulty?
And can you help those around you stay in that growth mindset? Are you prone to praising achievement and talent when you know hard work is what really needs to be encouraged?
If we truly want to grow, these are the questions that we must always be asking ourselves. Again, and again, and again.