Get set for success

Dear colleagues,

Your daughter started reading early, and you tell her she's really smart. Your son was the star of the soccer game, and you tell him he's naturally talented. Strange as it may seem, you may be setting up your children for failure.

Carol S Dweck is a psychologist who has been studying achievement for decades. She has come up with a fundamental insight: our beliefs about intelligence and talent are central to the way we operate. She presents her conclusions in the accessible book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine, 2006).

She says there are two main mindsets, which she calls fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that good performance results from natural talent. You've either got it or you don't. People with the growth mindset, on the other hand, believe good performance results from working hard at something.

The fixed mindset can be damaging. If good performance means you're smart, then failure must mean you're stupid. Therefore, those with fixed mindsets are constantly looking for signs that they're smart. This might be okay except that big challenges may be avoided due to the risk of failure.

Think of all the students afraid to speak in class because they might reveal their ignorance. This suggests a fixed mindset.

The fixed mindset is particularly ineffective in dealing with setbacks, because they signal inherent weaknesses. The solution is to avoid possibilities when failure, or even criticism, is likely. Referees' comments on a paper are often highly critical and send fixed-mindset authors into despair. The solution: don't submit a paper to a top journal, because it'll probably be rejected. Don't show a draft to colleagues: they might think it's no good.

When a colleague is recognised for a valuable contribution, you feel worse. Their achievement means they're smart, so what does that say about you?

When you can't follow something in a seminar, you hardly ever ask for it to be explained: it might be a stupid question. People with a fixed mindset are susceptible to the impostor syndrome: they feel like they're not good enough and others might find out they're impostors.

Academics with a fixed mindset often blame others or circumstances for their lack of success. It's better to have excuses than admit to being no good.

The growth mindset is quite different. As the name implies, it is based on the belief that humans can develop their capacities. The implication is that the key to success is working hard and learning along the way.

People with a growth mindset try hard despite setbacks. Failure just means that even more work is needed. Persistence is central.

People with a growth mindset like challenges, even if they might fail, because they know they can learn and improve. They are less worried about whether others think they are smart. They know intelligence is malleable and that through effort they can become smarter.

Students with a growth mindset will admit ignorance and ask elementary questions - and likewise for academics. They will not be upset by other people's success, because they recognise the effort involved and know they too can improve though more effort.

It sounds like the growth mindset has a lot of advantages, and that's what Dweck tries to convey. She gives examples from diverse fields. Consider for example the basketball player Michael Jordan, one of the greatest in the history of the game. Surely he had natural talent. No, says Dweck. He wasn't always good. But he tried incredibly hard. After the last game of one season on the university team, he spent hours practising - for the next season.

Dweck looks at relationships. People with a fixed mindset look for the perfect partner and expect happiness without trying, and may give up when problems arise. People with a growth mindset know that relationships require work and put in the effort to maintain and develop them.

Enron was known as a company that hired "the smartest guys in the room": it was built around fixed-mindset thinking. That's one reason there wasn't enough communication about problems in the organisation. People who asked questions were disdained - and the company became the largest bankruptcy in history. Dweck sees a connection between fixed mindsets and bullying at work.

A growth mindset leads to a very different organisational style, with greater communication, tolerance for mistakes and encouragement for innovation. Consider innovation in teaching: it's risky to undertake if superiors and colleagues are likely to use it against you when things don't go as well as expected and there are some student complaints. In a growth-mindset dominated environment, on the other hand, problems and setbacks are accepted as inevitable, with the main focus being learning from them.

The growth mindset is compatible with recent research on the way the brain operates. Rather than being fixed at birth or youth, the structure of the brain is modified throughout life, with new cells created and sometimes - with the right training - entire areas opened up for new functions. The growth mindset is not just an attitude: it reflects the biological reality that intelligence and skills result from exercising the brain.

Just as the brain can be developed through use, so a growth mindset can be developed. Dweck cites some impressive research on how children can be taught to think in a growth-minded way, with subsequent improvements in performance. The key elements in training are to send messages of development, don't praise talent but instead focus on process, use constructive criticism, set goals of improving knowledge and skills, set high standards and show how to reach them, and help without judging.

She reports that growth mindset workshops made a difference in children's performance, but learning study skills didn't. The study skills might have helped, but children with a fixed mindset didn't practise them because they thought talent rather than effort was what mattered.

Training to develop the growth mindset is not an easy matter of learning a few tricks. It's a mindset, after all, often deep-seated. Dweck outlines some of the difficulties facing someone who tries to shift away from a feeling of entitlement (because they're smart, they deserve success) to growth. A whole bunch of attitudes and, more importantly, behaviours need to change.

The high-output writing programme that I've been running, based on the work of Robert Boice and Tara Gray, is entirely compatible with the growth mindset. The programme involves regular practice, namely doing the thing that develops new brain circuits. It is built on the planning that Dweck says is a key to the growth mindset. And it focuses on process, not product: rewards for writing are given for doing it, not for the quality of the writing.

The growth mindset can be learned at any age and make a big difference, but can make the biggest difference for children. Dweck is adamant that praise can be harmful, saying experiments have shown conclusively that "Praising children's intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance" (p. 175).

Dweck gives many fascinating stories of fixed-mindset people - athletes, managers and teachers, some of them very talented - who were held back by their beliefs. And she tells parallel stories of growth-mindset people who have succeeded themselves or have promoted success for their teams, organisations or students.

Mindset is aimed at a general audience, and Dweck doesn't emphasise the qualifications to her main argument. She mentions that people can have mixtures of fixed and growth mindsets, but for convenience discusses them as separate.

She is aware that having a growth mindset doesn't guarantee success and that factors such as money and connections can make a big difference: "let's remember that effort isn't quite everything and that all effort is not created equal" (p. 48). Nevertheless, the book has an individualistic orientation, in the tradition of self-help. But there is a collective dimension. Some of Dweck's most inspiring stories are about teachers and leaders who brought out the best in their classes and organisations.

Dweck doesn't mention any universities that have adopted systematic programmes to promote a growth mindset among either students or academics. One possibility is to recruit students and staff according to mindset more than achievements, knowing that growth mindsets will ensure future performance and help create an environment of mutual learning. Another possibility is to promote systematic training in developing and maintaining a growth mindset. That might be harder to bring off, but the impact could be enormous.

Brian Martin
7 October 2008

Thanks to Kate Bowles for valuable comments on a draft.

Go to

Brian's comments to colleagues

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website