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Two Mindsets – Which Is Yours?

By Carol S. Dweck; Reviewed by Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Hands up who can draw.

Now, I can’t see you, but I suspect there’s less than a flurry of arms waving out there. A good two-thirds of you are probably cringing inwardly, remembering your stick figures and your frustration at being unable to transmit to paper what you could see in your head. I bet you’re also remembering the brilliant artist in your primary or high school class, the one who was a natural, and produced enviable artwork effortlessly.  (Mine was called Chieko, a quiet girl from Japan. Gosh, she was good.)

Because it’s all about talent, right? Either you’re born with artistic talent or you’re not.  And if you’re not, like most of us, there’s not much point practising because you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But here’s the thing, you can.

You can move from what Carol Dweck, Psychology Professor at Stanford University, calls the ‘fixed mindset’ across to the ‘growth mindset’.

Two Mindsets

These opposing mindsets of ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’, and their impact on us, are the core of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In successive chapters on schooling, sport, business, love, leadership and parenting she shows the power of the growth mindset to improve lives and to lift achievement. John McEnroe is the not-so-poster boy for the fixed mindset in sport; Ivan Lendl his growth mindset opponent who wrested the 1984 French Open title from him from two sets down (but who was cuter and more fun to watch? Ahem, I digress).

In vignette after vignette, situation after situation, Dweck seeks to distill the essential differences between the mindsets.  Rather interestingly, she never sums them up in one place. Undaunted, gentle reader, I’ll have a go!

The Fixed Mindset

In this mindset, the schema that runs in your head is that you have to play life with the cards you’re dealt at birth.  That makes everything a zero-sum game. For example, let’s say you were dealt a great hand in intelligence. Since you can’t increase this, you tend to see every event and situation as a test by which your intelligence will be judged, and you seek ways to keep looking good to yourself and everyone else. This means that if you fail it diminishes you as a person (“I am a failure” rather than “I failed the Maths test”) and that in turn leads to you avoiding challenges where you might fail. Also, it can lead to you looking anywhere but yourself for the cause of a failure, limiting your self awareness into the bargain.

The other major impact of the fixed mindset is that it makes its users averse to effort. They think, “I am naturally talented I shouldn’t need to try. It should come to me effortlessly”.

The Growth Mindset

In this mindset, the schema in your head is that your basic qualities can be developed by effort. The way to learn is, to quote Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

People with the growth mindset don’t waste time proving again and again how great they are at one thing, they stretch themselves. They love learning. When failure comes, it hurts, but it isn’t devastating because it doesn’t define them.  Also, they look for strategies to overcome failure and to learn from it, because learning and growing is to them a form of success in itself.

Why I Recommend You Read This Book

Firstly, because it makes us aware of a potentially damaging ‘fixed’ script we may be running in our heads and it gives us a more empowering one to replace it with. Throughout the book Dweck includes tips and coaching ideas to help you make the shift. Remember, fixed and growth mindsets are no more than belief systems – albeit powerful ones – and we have the power to change them.

Moreover, it’s apparently possible to have the fixed mindset in one area of our lives and not another. That’s why the book’s chapters on so many varying aspects of life, from business to parenting, and the many interesting examples, could help you identify pockets of ‘fixedness’ you may have.

Secondly, read the book because Dweck has sage advice for parents. This was a scary part of the book. Have you ever heard your child say something like, “I’m not going to try out for hockey because I’ll never be the best at it,” and wondered where that could have come from?

Dweck puts forward a good argument that parents may be the source of the mindsets.  We all want to praise our children, but have you ever thought there could be a wrong way to do it? Kids are fast to pick up on messages you never knew you were sending. For example, “You did that so quickly, and you got everything right!” sends the signal that what matters is speed and accuracy – and these are “the enemy of difficult learning”. Dweck is gracious enough to admit that she still catches herself saying “You’re brilliant!” when her son does something impressive. Old mindsets might shrink but they don’t disappear, it seems!

Success Formula?

In case you were wondering, Dweck doesn’t promise you untold success if you apply the growth mindset. What she says is that you don’t know how far you might go, and how much you might achieve, until you apply effort and an inquisitive and resilient approach to learning. And she’s pretty sure you will enjoy the journey a lot more with the growth mindset than the fixed.

Why Did I Want to Throw this Book across the Room?

Because, for Dweck, everything is due to mindset.  Heck, if you baked a batch of muffins and two of them didn’t rise, it’d be ‘cos those muffins had a fixed mindset! She will not brook any other interpretation. 

Example: she describes an event from her childhood when she was late joining a group of friends to walk to the cinema. They were already well down the road. She stood frozen, unable to call out to them to wait for her. “Why did I accept defeat before I had tried some simple tactics?” Apparently because of her fixed mindset: something had gone wrong and she felt powerless and incapable.

Hmmm. Or maybe the young Dweck was just painfully shy? Or suffered low self esteem? Or was a pessimist? Or stood there, busily justifying to herself that her friends were early whereas she was precisely on time so it was their fault.

These alternative explanations are given short shrift, and by extension, so too are the psychologists whose life’s work they represent. Buried on page 267-8 is a short list of recommended reading, including one or two great reads like Seligman’s Learned Optimism, which doesn’t scrape a mention up in the main body text of Mindset.

Mostly, though, I wanted to throw this book as far as I could for the way Dweck writes about people who have the growth mindset. Can you hear a faint splashing? That’s the sound of those enlightened beings walking on water. She is such an ardent apostle for her insight about the positive impact of the growth mindset that she can’t help but make its users sound like veritable saints. They don’t bully, cheat, or sulk. They do plan, work hard, and seek ways to learn. It’s enough to make fixed mindsetters of the world dig in their heels, like Kevin The Teenager, and refuse to listen.


My advice to you is this:

  • Borrow a copy of ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ and read it. Dweck’s insights are a useful addition to the psychological world and her advice for parents is especially valuable
  • Buy a copy of The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Now THAT’s a book that is fun to follow, doesn’t preach, and will quickly demonstrate the power of the growth mindset to the many of us who gave up on art years ago for lack of talent.

Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.

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