Do You Have a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset?

June 17, 2015

2:00 pm

Psychologist Carol Dweck starts out her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success with a story that’s too cute not to share. She recounts an experiment where she gave puzzles to 10-year-olds – first easy ones, then hard ones.

“Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his laps, and cried out, ‘I love a challenge!’”

This story is not only cute, but a bit sobering. If you’ve ever conducted a job interview, you’ve surely heard candidates say something along the lines of “I love a challenge.” You may have even uttered these words yourself. But how many of us actually mean it?

Dweck discovered that people of all ages have one of two mindsets: she called them a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.” Like that 10-year-old, people with a growth mindset savor challenge and learning. Like the insincere job candidate, people with a fixed mindset are simply trying to prove how great they are already.

Our mindsets stem from our beliefs about abilities, traits, and intelligence. Fixed-mindset people think intelligence or skill is fixed – it can’t be fundamentally changed, so every encounter is simply a test. “Every situation calls for a confirmation of intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” Dweck writes. 

Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset believe they can cultivate their intelligence or skills through effort. They focus on growth and improvement; they see challenges (and failures) as a learning opportunity, not an intimidating test. When they fail, they can turn their attention to doing better next time rather than soothing their fragile self-confidence.

But someone with a fixed mindset feels threatened by challenging tasks – this means I’m not skilled/savvy/intelligent enough! So they tend to give up, make excuses, cheat, or shy away from these tasks altogether.

For example, Hong Kong university students who need to know English for school are more likely to want to take an English class if they have a growth mindset. Fixed mindset students, who know they need the language skills but are intimidated by the challenge, are more likely to decline. Pre-med students with a growth mindset do better in a grueling chemistry class and bounce back after a bad grade on the first test because they don’t take it personally – it’s valuable feedback, not a judgment of their intellectual worth.

In the business realm, teams with a growth mindset tend to be honest and communicative, while fixed-mindset teams tend toward groupthink. MBA candidates fare better in a negotiation if they have a growth mindset (and earn higher grades in a negotiation course). In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that great companies have leaders who try to learn from failure rather than assigning blame.

Clearly, then, people with a growth mindset are better prepared for success. Which mindset do you have? What about your coworkers? Your spouse? It’s possible to have a growth mindset at work and a fixed mindset in your relationship, for example – honing your job skills and tackling obstacles with gusto, but feeling hopeless about improving your relationship. 

Luckily, mindsets are malleable (the subject for a future article). In the meantime, just remember that you don’t have to believe all that self-doubt in your head. “Genius” and “talent” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and effort and dedication matter more than you think. Now hunker down and get to work.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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