Two mindsets that shape our lives

Last month, RMA friend and associate Sarah Wolfgram pointed us to, the weekly blog of New York-based writer Maria Popova. What a treasure-trove of great ideas! Popova’s recent piece, “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives,” really gives food for thought to how we fine-tune the “internal monologue” that scores every aspect of our lives, from leadership to love.

Here’s a quick overview of Popova’s article that may well encourage you to read the seminal work on the subject, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s remarkably insightful book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Our thanks to Sarah and our admiration to Popova (whom we’ll surely be reading more of in the future)!

The theory of two primary mindsets is based on the premise that the power of our beliefs and belief systems, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them, can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.

— The fixed mindset refers to the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.

— The growth mindset, on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets–which we manifest from a very early age–springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

Dweck believes that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being immutably engrained traits. Thus the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. We were struck by how this happens–how can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life—relates strongly to not only personal development but also the study of organizational leadership. For example:

1. Believing that your qualities are carved in stone, the fixed mindset, creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character–well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

2. We’ve all known people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

3. Conversely, the growth mindset is a refreshing alternative based on the belief that traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with (i.e., always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens). In the growth mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. Your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

4. Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

5. At the heart of what makes the growth mindset so appealing is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.

6. With a growth mindset, your energy isn’t wasted proving over and over how great you are, but always seeking ways that you could be getting better. Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

7. This idea, of course, isn’t new–if anything, it’s the fodder of self-help books and vacant “You can do anything!” platitudes. What makes Dweck’s work different, however, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on how the mind, especially the developing mind, works, identifying not only the core drivers of those mindsets but also how they can be reprogrammed.

8. People with the fixed mindset see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing that they come up short in some way. But the relationship between mindset and effort is a two-way street. “It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow,” Dweck writes.

9. As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.

10. Your mindset defines what you strive for and what you see as success. A mindset changes the definition, significance, and impact of failure; it also changes the deepest meaning of effort. For those with a growth mindset, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best.” For those with a fixed mindset, “success is about establishing superiority, pure and simple–being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.”




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