The Growth Mindset: Learning As The Primary Motivation

4. September 2015



Once upon a time there were two girls. The first girl always aced her exams, including an important exam she sat at eleven to decide which high school she could attend. Everyone told her that she was smart, and she came to believe that this smartness was a thing that she had inside her (what psychologists calls innate or “fixed”). Then, when she started her new, smart school with lots of very smart children, and very hard exams – so hard she failed a few – she decided that she mustn’t be so smart after all. After a while, she stopped studying completely. What’s the point of working at all if you don’t have smartness?

The second girl was more average in her academic attainments. She envied the first girl’s smartness and wished that she had it too. Then, one day, her teacher told her that the mind was like a muscle, and the more she worked on it, the stronger it would become. In other words, she was told that her intelligence was what psychologists call incremental or “growth” orientated in nature. The second girl then decided that she would work her hardest, and she started to do better in tests, which made her work even harder. What’s the worry in failing the odd time if smartness is a thing you can grow?

The Growth Mindset: Learning As The Primary Motivation

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Like most, I’m a bit of both these girls combined, only I didn’t know it, until I read Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s no exaggeration to say that her ideas changed my life. There are only a handful of books that could do so, and this is one of them. I’m pretty fussy when it comes to what I read. I often feel like I read enough books at university to do me for the rest of my life. So any book I read now has to grip me from the start, like all the best detective novels I love.

The prime suspects in Dweck’s book are educators, teachers, parents and ultimately ourselves, as we reinforce one of most the negative messages of our early learning years: which is, that our skills and capabilities, and by implication, our intelligence and very personality, are all fixed at birth. Dweck proposes the opposite, that all of these can be developed, stretched and grown throughout life.

The ‘fixed mindset’ encourages a belief that exams are the best, or possibly only, indicators of capability. This might explain our Western fascination with testing and qualifications, at least in the UK. Our current situation is one where university graduates are formally qualified, at least in some disciplines, but employers frequently complain that their skills are not transferable, and that they are not ready for the workplace. There is little encouragement or guidance on how to develop those skills – grow them – in a new environment.

In contrast, Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ is the idea that your intelligence and personal traits, skills and character, are abilities that can be cultivated through your own efforts, especially by hard work, a love of learning, and sheer determination. Those who promote this mindset don’t care about looking smart or attaining a set, and recognized, level of smartness. Rather, this radical position fosters an enthusiasm for learning as the primary motivating force. And once established, neither age, nor situation, nor adult responsibilities can diminish it.

One characteristic of the ‘fixed mindset’ people we encounter is that they tend to refuse to take even small risks to overcome their difficulties. They are paralyzed by a fear of failure as well as a faulty belief that their destiny is fixed no matter what effort they put forth. For them, one failure is interpreted by them as permanent, personal and even pervasive. Therefore further effort (so they reason) is pointless; you either have success or you don’t, and they didn’t, so why bother trying again? Dweck cleverly conflates risk and effort; one without the other would be either dangerous (persistent risk-taking) or exhausting (endless effort).

In the business world, it is the companies and entrepreneurs that take risks who prosper. For example, they might introduce an innovative idea or product to the marketplace, thereby inviting praise or censure. That does not mean they are immediately successful. But it does mean that by both bounce back and learn from short-term failure. They use it as a learning stage in a positive cycle of growth. They combine risk with effort and innovation, by redesigning that idea or product and re-launching it. This is the spirit of Edison, who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This is illustrated by my own experience of launching two business networks that subsequently “failed” by low attendance and disproportionate effort for small results. The results of our risk-taking initially appeared embarrassing and many gave space for negative voices – internal and external – to make themselves heard. We almost immediately ceased all efforts. Then I realized that a growth mindset allowed me to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, learn from criticism, and find lessons to apply to future ventures.

Subsequent success with another business network resulted in introducing another related idea to the marketplace. Risk paid off over time when combined with consistent effort and a willingness to adapt. Naysayers this time caused less pain. Our growth mindset was growing! We learned that failure is never final. We took further risks by responding positively and objectively to criticisms, inviting suggestions, and tweaking the service rather than folding under the pressure. Further innovation in our business has caused less stress due to the inevitable, expected road bumps. We’ve grown, stretched and taken risks combined with effort. And, so, we are prepared to do so again.

One person in my life displays the fixed mindset so well. He insists on perfect conditions before travelling even the smallest distance. He plans every journey out, to the extent that there will be no possibility of any drama, attempting to reduce all risk to zero. But if it rains heavily, as is likely in our country and climate, he will cancel the trip rather face the possibility of failure. Such people fear learning, and facing new challenges. They fear their skills and personality – which to them are fixed and set in stone – are not suited to cope with rapidly changing or less-then-optimal circumstances.

In contrast to this, another person I know either prefers not to bother with a map at all, or uses it only when completely lost. And the map, when needed, is invariably sitting at home or in a dusty drawer in the caravan. With such people, there is an inherent understand that life will include regular risks, and that every challenge offer an opportunity to learn and grow. Combined with this is an acceptance that life will include effort, something that is welcomed. Such people will learn, always, and love it. They might not like all the new things, but they will have confidence in their proven capability to deal with new experiences.

There are some detractors to Carol Dweck’s views on mindset. My husband is one of them! His review of the book Mindset is rated as the most helpful one on Amazon. But his complaint is not with Dweck’s idea, so much as with her explanation of it. He dislikes Dweck’s heavy use of anecdotes and stories in book in the book, whereas I love them. He would have preferred some hard, how-to type information on the best practical ways to develop a growth mindset.

My secret suspicion is that that might just be exactly what Dweck intended. If I was to take her out for an Earl Grey and a Fifteen (exclusive Northern Ireland tray-bake), I’d bet the bill on the fact that Dweck intended for us to take her idea and grow our own minds and skills, not depend on her (or other educators) to do it for us. The growth mindset will seek out its own opportunities for learning. We grow it by applying it to our own differing learning situations. If Dweck had provided a model or manual or list of instructions, then that would have become a ‘fixed’ way to develop a growth mindset – hardly consistent with the main idea!

Our minds need to be open to developing a growth mindset. We must reject the fear that comes with new experiences, people and places. Let’s embrace instead the lifelong opportunities for growth and learning. Take risks. Work hard. Explore. Learn. Grow. I’ll let Dweck herself have the last word, as quoted form her book, to take us back to those two girls at the start.

The Growth Mindset: Learning As The Primary Motivation

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“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence… Praise should deal, not with the child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.”

And what is true for children is true for adults too. As I have found out, it’s never too late to start growing your growth mindset!