When Carol Dweck was starting out as a developmental psychologist, she’d go into schools and subject children to a series of increasingly difficult puzzles.
She was astonished by what the kids did.
As she writes in her book “Mindset“:
Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”
What is wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?
You could see it in these kids’ faces: When they came to a problem they didn’t get, they didn’t start thinking they were failing, Dweck says.
They thought they were learning.
While it seems like a small thing for a small child, the long-term difference is staggering, for the way you relate to a challenge reveals your mindset, Dweck says, or the view you have of yourself.
Dweck’s decades of research show that your mindset predicts your achievement. Her work has gained her fame in the dev psych game. Everybody trying to figure out how to the best way to get better — from English football clubs to the Khan Academy — comes to her to get educated on mindsets.
The mindset comes in two flavours: fixed and growth.
Over at the always-fantastic Brain Pickings, Maria Popova says they go a little something like this:
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.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
These mindsets, Dweck’s three decades of research suggest, are at the root of whether some people become the best in their field while others languish.
At the core is a distinction in the way you think your will affects your ability: If you think that your talents can be developed with hard work, you’ll be more likely to push them forward, an attitude Finns call “sisu.” If you think talent is innate, then you won’t hustle quite so hard.
Dweck got into the field of research back when she was a PhD student at Yale in the ’60s and ’70s. “Learned helplessness” was all the rage back then; researchers found that lab animals would give up before trying something because they had failed before.
Dweck wondered if kids did the same thing.
“I asked, ‘What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?'” she recalls.
So she set to experimenting.
Stanford Magazine gives the account:
Dweck and her assistants ran an experiment on elementary school children whom school personnel had identified as helpless. These kids fit the definition perfectly: If they came across a few maths problems they couldn’t solve, for example, they no longer could do problems they had solved before — and some didn’t recover that ability for days.
Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure — and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.
Further studies confirmed this.
In one study of four-year-olds, Dweck let them choose between solving easy or difficult jigsaw puzzles. As you might guess by now, the kids with a fixed mindset chose the easier one, since it would validate their god-given abilities. The growth-oriented kids opted for the harder puzzle, since they saw it as an opportunity to learn. Like Popova notes, the “fixed” kids wanted to do the easy puzzle since it would help them look smart and thus successful; the “growth” kids wanted the hard puzzles since their sense of success was tied up in becoming smarter.
The takeaway: The growth mentality leads people to more deeply engage with the limits of their skills — which is a better predictor of success than any 10,000 Rule.
If you have a minute, watch a lecture of Dweck’s.
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