This article by Maria Popova summarizes parts of a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck that theorizes there are two primary mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Here are the very basic definitions:
“A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way…striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.”
“A growth mindset…sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”
Of course, as any reader might, I immediately thought about myself, and which mindset I have. Unfortunately, for most aspects of my life, I came up with the fixed mindset. Having easily excelled in school, I assumed I was very smart and that my intelligence would always be rewarded with success. “A’s” in school would naturally translate into jobs, publications, salary. And when that kind of success didn’t come, I obsessed about failure, pushing on as a writer and teacher only because I loved to do those things, questioning my self-worth at every turn.
Now I’m in a period of growth mindset about my career, learning new computer programs, trying out new ways to make a living. Trying to expand, rather than feeling insecure and rejected for what I thought I was already good at. Of course, it took me 20+ years to get to this mindset in my career.
When it comes to relationships, however, since college I’ve worked consciously and hard to have a growth mindset. I’m an introvert, and have always disliked trying to talk to someone I’ve just met in a formal social situation, like a cocktail party. Luckily I gained a best friend in college who was excellent at talking to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. While I never developed her innate knack for remembering names, I did note one thing she did that always made conversations happen, and kept them interesting: she asked questions. She used her agile, curious mind to make observations about someone and ask follow up questions designed to draw them out. At first, when I tried it, it seemed like a trick. Now, it comes naturally to me.
The article—and presumably the book—goes on to point out how easy it is to foster one or the other mindset in kids. Parents and teachers can either praise innate ability, or praise effort. That has some profound implications for the way we teach.
I wish I had always been someone with a growth mindset. I suppose it proves my fixed mindset even more that I would have said I was genetically predetermined to have a fixed mindset. I don’t think failure will ever be easy for me, nor will I ever embrace it as a motivation. But I can focus on learning more, changing, stretching myself and my perceptions. I can question long-held beliefs about myself, like the assumptions that I’m just not good at visual art or that I don’t have what it takes to start a business. Those are judgments I made about myself, based on how difficult those things seemed to me—how much effort I would have to put into them, when it seemed like other people could do them effortlessly.
The truth, this middle-aged woman is coming to find, is that effort isn’t a bad thing, and what looks like effortlessness is often just a skill honed by long practice.
Of course, I also have some pretty strongly held beliefs about the definitions of “success” in this 21st century American culture, and how much of the work ahead of us as a culture and as individuals involves some radical redefinition. But that’s for another post.