Never leave home without your bad ideas.
As Matthew sat in his boss’s office, learning why he was being fired, he wondered how it had come to this. When he was younger, he was often lauded for being exceptional—teachers told him he was one of the smartest kids they’d taught. But when his first adult job brought new challenges, he crumbled.
If given a task he didn’t know how to do, he’d panic. As soon as tasks grew difficult, he gave up. It wasn’t that he didn’t deserve to lose his job: he knew he did. What he couldn’t figure out was: how could years of nonstop praise lead to such low self-confidence?
Carol Dweck, a young researcher in psychology, was similarly fascinated by the question of what motivates us to succeed. Conventional wisdom during the 1970’s reflected a straightforward relationship between praise and self-esteem. If you wanted children to develop self-confidence, regular praise and reminders of innate talents were encouraged. If you wanted to grow inner confidence, reminders of one’s own special qualities and talents would be key. Eventually, the messages would sink in, and result in self-belief and success.
Dweck wanted to explore this idea further, so she did what any scientist might do: she devised an experiment to test it. The experiment had a group of children solving a fairly easy math puzzle. Once they’d completed it successfully, half the kids were told: “Well done! You’re so smart!” The other half were told: “Well done! You tried really hard!” Then they were given a second, more difficult puzzle to solve.
The results were fascinating. Confronted with the more complicated task, the kids who’d been praised for being smart tended to give up sooner and scored lower on the test. Meanwhile the kids who’d been praised for their effort tended to persevere when they couldn’t find the answer straight away, and as a result, earned higher scores. Even more revealing was that, among the kids who’d been praised for intelligence, 40 percent lied about their scores if given the chance. By giving children a certain kind of praise, you could also instill a fear of failure.
As Dweck pondered these findings, she challenged the conventional wisdom around motivation and self-esteem and began to develop a theory that would change the way we think about these traits. It also led Dweck to become a professor at Stanford, a world expert on personality and development, and a bestselling author.
Based on her research, Dweck divided people into two categories: the first, with what she called a “fixed” mindset, tend to believe their basic attributes, like intelligence and talent, are innate and set in stone. By contrast, people who exhibit a “growth” mindset tend to understand basic abilities as malleable, and believe they can be developed over time. Dweck devised questionnaires to further test which mindset might be associated with which real-life outcomes.
Over and over again, Dweck’s experiments showed a striking divide. People with a “fixed” mindset avoided difficult tasks, fearing that failure might expose a lack in ability. Meanwhile, people with a “growth” mindset loved new challenges and viewed setbacks as opportunities to learn. Unsurprisingly, people with a “growth” mindset displayed better self-esteem, more resilience, and enjoyed better outcomes in life.
Dweck’s insights felt uncomfortably close to home. Full disclosure: Matthew, the guy I told you about at the beginning of this article, is me. As I read up on the two mindsets, I realized that from a young age I’d come to believe that success should come easily (or not at all) and that the real goal for learning was to be considered smart. Instead of growing my confidence, all the praise I’d received from my teachers had instilled a fear of exposure. And my “fixed” mindset didn’t just hold me back in my career: I tended to see everything—from sports to relationships—as tests of my inherent attributes. When the going got tough (as it often does), I quickly concluded I didn’t have whatever it takes to succeed.
Fortunately, as Dweck points out, mindsets are just beliefs that we hold about ourselves—and thoughts can change. Here are three steps to encourage a change in mindset:
1. Observe your mindset. You can’t begin to change a “fixed” mindset until you recognize it. Notice if you rush to conclusions about fundamental abilities. Do you tell yourself that you’re no good at a particular task, so there’s no point attempting it? Do you believe that success in certain kinds of activities—whether it’s in music, sports, or creative fields—are reserved for people who are naturally gifted? Do you worry that if you try your hardest and fail at something, you’ll be exposed as “no good”?
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2. Challenge your beliefs. Now that you’ve begun to recognize the symptoms of a “fixed” mindset, you can begin to cultivate a “growth” mindset instead. If a task doesn’t come easily, remind yourself that it isn’t a reflection of your inherent worth, but instead an opportunity to learn and improve. Remember the kids who took that math test: encourage yourself in the same way, by focusing on effort rather than quick success. Good news: it’s possible to notice the effects a change in mindset quickly: research shows that considering a growth mindset for a few moments before starting a task can improve performance.
3. Build a “growth” muscle. Neuroscientists have found a circuit in the brain that governs persistence in the face of difficulty. When there’s a lack of immediate reward, it switches on, effectively telling us: “Don’t give up! There’s a reward (in the form of dopamine) on the way!” For some, this circuit hardly functions at all, so challenges arise, they can be more likely to give up. If—like me—you suspect you may have this tendency, you can begin to change your brain’s wiring by slowly teaching it that hard work and resilience pay. Rather than seek out opportunities to repeatedly prove your abilities, look for challenges that may encourage learning and growth. Start small, like someone building a muscle in the gym. When you encounter difficulties: great (muscles also undergo breakage and tearing before growth). Look for these opportunities to practice perseverance and learn from mistakes. Over time, a “growth” mindset can become an unconscious response.
Artwork by KAREN HONG