Mindsets: Is Talent Like a Hard Piece of Rock, Or Like a Stretchable Muscle?

Researchers have done extensive studies on the effects of one’s approach to learning on her ability to attain mastery. Dr. Carol Dweck—a leading researcher in this field who wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—makes the distinction between fixed and growth mindsets.

People with fixed mindsets see their overall intelligence, talent, or skill to be a fixed entity—something that cannot grow. They are prone to give too much of importance to their natural knacks, abilities and talents.

People with growth mindsets believe that difficult material can be grasped with hard work. The novice can indeed become the master—incrementally, with small consistent steps.

Fixed mindsets are prone to think in terms like, “Maybe I am not smart enough,” when they fail at something. Whereas growth mindsets would think like, “I should have tried harder.”

In one study, a group of children were given a series of easy math problems, which they were able to solve correctly. Then all of them were given a series of problems that were too difficult to solve. Some among them were excited by the challenge, while the others were dismayed.

Everybody got these problems wrong eventually—but evidently the experience of being challenged had very different effects. What is most interesting is the third stage of this experiment: all the children were once again given easy problems to solve, and nearly all of the growth mindset oriented children breezed right through them, but those with fixed mindsets had been so dispirited by the inability to solve the hard problems that many of them foundered through the easy stuff. Their self-confidence had been shattered.

It’s compelling to know that results—success or failure—usually have nothing to do with intelligence level. Very smart people with fixed mindsets tend to be far more brittle when challenged than people with growth mindsets who would be considered not quite as sharp.

In fact, some of the most intelligent leaders, managers, and executives prove to be the most vulnerable to becoming helpless, because they feel the need to live up to, and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered.

Lee Iacocca, during his time at Chrysler, serves as an illustrious example for this. Freshly ousted from Ford, Iacocca had his ego severely bruised. Chrysler, the once thriving Ford rival, was on the brink of death, but Iacocca as its new CEO acted quickly to hire the right executives, bring out new models, and was able to eventually save Chrysler.

He revelled in his triumph and was able to prove to Ford that they did the wrong thing by letting him go. He did it for spite, and in the process failed to acknowledge that the race wasn’t over yet.

The Japanese automakers were challenging the U.S. automobile market, and Chrysler needed to respond to the competition. But instead of listening to the advice of his people, and delivering better cars, Iacocca, mired in his fixed mindset, delivered blames and excuses.

He went on a rampage, spewing angry diatribes against the Japanese and demanding that the American government impose tariffs and quotas that would stop them.

But how are these theories of intelligence programmed into our minds? Often subtle differences in feedback or instructions from peers, teachers, parents, managers can make a huge difference.

In one study, children were given different instructions about the aim of a test that they were given. Some kids were told that solving certain problems would help them get better at studies, and other kids were told that they would be judged based on their results. In other words, half the kids received growth oriented instructions, and the other half received talent oriented instructions. Needless to say, the kids who were growth oriented did much better on the tests.

People with growth mindsets are given feedback that is more process-oriented. After doing well on an English essay, a student might be congratulated by her teacher with, “Great job! Keep up the good work!” And if she does badly on a Math test, her teacher might say, “Study a little harder for the next one and you’ll do great!” So she learns to associate effort with success, and feels that she can become good at anything with some hard work.

Fixed mindset people, on the other hand, tend to have been told that they did well when they have succeeded, and that they weren’t any good at something when they have failed. So when a kid does well in a Math test, she hears, “Wow, How smart she is!” Next week she doesn’t do well in an English test and hears from her teacher, “Maybe English isn’t your thing. It definitely doesn’t come naturally to you.” So she figures she’s good at Math and bad at English, and what’s more, she links success and failure to her ingrained “natural” ability.

She begins focusing on quick results as opposed to a long-term process—but what happens when she does badly on a hard Math test down the line? Will she be prepared to learn the right lessons from that experiences, and from other countless challenges that life will present? Unfortunately, it is not very likely. Such is the case with adults as well.

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity.”

— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. Josh Waitzkin (chess player, martial arts competitor, and author) illustrates this in is excellent book with the example of the hermit crab. As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. Unless a new shell is found quickly, this soft creature that is used to the protection of its built-in armour must risk getting exposed to predators. Someone stuck with fixed mindset of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell and thus endanger itself in all its mushy vulnerability.

Lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glories. All successful people know that. That is why they are ready to put their hearts on the line in every battle.

The process of building a growth mindset sets you up for failure, pushes you out of your comfort zone, puts you at a risk of being wrong and loose face in front of others. But there’s tremendous upside to this minor hiccup. And as the saying goes, if you manage the downside; the upside will take care of itself.

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