Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise "is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement." Or, as his forerunner Binet recognized, it's not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.
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.
The growth mindset is based on the belief that 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. You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? 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.
An assessment at one point in time has little value for understanding someone's ability, let alone their potential to succeed in the future.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren't a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.
You can look back and say, "I could have been …," polishing your unused endowments like trophies. Or you can look back and say, "I gave my all for the things I valued." Think about what you want to look back and say. Then choose your mindset.
In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail--or if you're not the best--it's all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they're doing regardless of the outcome. They're tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.
"You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better." [Wooden] didn't ask for mistake-free games. He didn't demand that his players never lose. He asked for full preparation and full effort from them. "Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?"
Grow Your Mindset
Think of a time you were enjoying something--doing a crossword puzzle, playing a sport, learning a new dance. Then it became hard and you wanted out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don't fool yourself. It's the fixed mindset. Put yourself in a growth mindset. Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.
Is there something you've always wanted to do but were afraid you weren't good at? Make a plan to do it.
Think of times other people outdid you and you just assumed they were smarter or more talented. Now consider the idea that they just used better strategies, taught themselves more, practiced harder, and worked their way through obstacles. You can do that, too, if you want to.
Are there situations where you get stupid--where you disengage your intelligence? Next time you're in one of those situations, get yourself into a growth mindset--think about learning and improvement, not judgment--and hook it back up.
Are you in a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset workplace? Do you feel people are just judging you or are they helping you develop? Maybe you could try making it a more growth-mindset place, starting with yourself. Are there ways you could be less defensive about your mistakes? Could you profit more from the feedback you get? Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself?
Are you shy? Then you really need the growth mindset. Even if it doesn't cure your shyness, it will help keep it from messing up your social interactions. Next time you're venturing into a social situation, think about these things: how social skills are things you can improve and how social interactions are for learning and enjoyment, not judgment. Keep practicing this.
Mindsets frame the running account that's taking place in people's heads. They guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging: "This means I'm a loser." "This means I'm a better person than they are." People with a growth mindset are also constantly monitoring what's going on, but their internal monologue is not about judging themselves and others in this way. Certainly they're sensitive to positive and negative information, but they're attuned to its implications for learning and constructive action: "What can I learn from this?" "How can I improve?"
In the end, many people with the fixed mindset understand that their cloak of specialness was really a suit of armor they built to feel safe, strong, and worthy. While it may have protected them early on, later it constricted their growth, sent them into self-defeating battles, and cut them off from satisfying, mutual relationships.
Is someone in your life trying to tell you something you're refusing to hear? Step into the growth mindset and listen again.
Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail. These concrete plans--plans you can visualize--about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success. As you encounter the inevitable obstacles and setbacks, form a new plan and ask yourself the question again: When, where, and how will I act on my new plan? Regardless of how bad you may feel, do it! And when you succeed, don't forget to ask yourself: What do I have to do to maintain and continue the growth?
You can feel miserable and still reach out for information that will help you improve. It might be easier to mobilize for action if I felt better, but it doesn't matter. The plan is the plan.
It's amazing--once a problem improves, people often stop doing what caused it to improve. Once you feel better, you stop taking your medicine. But change doesn't work that way. These changes have to be supported or they can go away faster than they appeared. Maybe that's why Alcoholics Anonymous tells people they will always be alcoholics--so they won't become complacent and stop doing what they need to do to stay sober. It's a way of saying, "You'll always be vulnerable."