Carol Dweck has had an extraordinary career at Columbia, Harvard and now Stanford universities, and she has spent decades researching and exploring how we learn, develop and grow. She is fascinated by the perseverance of infants as they learn to talk and walk, despite the challenges and setbacks. She is also curious about why people stop challenging themselves and arrest their learning potential. She notes that contemporary brain research confirms that we each have much more capacity for lifelong learning and development than previously thought, and yet many people don’t continue to grow. What makes the difference?

Carol’s decades of work has been beautifully summarized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). Her research has shown that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (p.6). She describes two kinds of mindsets – fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities and attributes, such as intelligence and talents, are “carved in stone” and there is not much you can do about it other than you had better keep proving that you have these enough of these traits to not feel deficient. In a fixed mindset state people avoid challenges, given up or get defensive when faced with an obstacle, reject critique and feedback (too threatening) and may resent the success of others. Their reactions are not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘resistant’ or ‘passive aggressive’ but because there is so much at stake in their sense of identity! Carol notes her own school experience where IQ scores were everything. Her 6th grade teacher organized the class by IQ scores and used this to determine who could be trusted with a task and who couldn’t. The message was you are either smart (and you better keep proving it), or you are stupid (and that is the end).

By contrast, a 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 aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (p.7). She is not proposing that we all just have to apply ourselves and we can be and do anything we want. Rather, she is suggesting that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training” (p.7). Growth mindset individuals embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, value effort towards mastery, learn from critique and are inspired by and learn from others. Seems to me that Cindy Blackstock and Melanie Mark are growth mindset people.

One of my favourite excerpts from the book is this:

“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. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Dweck goes on to describe how we go from being that persistent, growth-oriented infant to having a fixed or growth mindset as we develop. She illustrates how this influences the running commentaries in our minds and how we judge our experiences and situations (remember the discoveries some of you will have made in The Work exercises and in the mindfulness practice). And in so doing, she challenges conventions and beliefs in parenting, education, hiring practices, coaching, supervision and leadership, and offers ideas and insights about how to cultivate a growth mindset, such that a “passion for learning” is encouraged. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pay attention to your own inner dialogues and whether they reflect judgments such as “I can’t do this” vs “I am not there yet”. Explore different messages you can give yourself that could inspire a growth orientation, e.g. “I am struggling, but I can figure this out in time. I have figured things out before” or “my job is to learn from critique – I am not flawed – just on the path to learn more.”
  • Exercise the brain through learning new things. This sounds simple, but the brain is more like a muscle and it develops and grows new connections and capacity through challenge and novelty.
  • Whether as a parent, coach or a supervisor, shift from recognition of intelligence, talent and achievement to recognition of effort, persistence, problem solving, collaboration, etc – whatever was applied by the person to achieve results. This is ‘process’ praise rather than ‘results’ praise.
  • If you have faced a setback such as not getting your dream job, notice your reaction (e.g. blaming such as “they are threatened by me” or self-judgment such as “I knew I wasn’t cut out for this” or shocked such as “I thought that I was the wonder-child around here” or resilient “well that is disappointing but I will try again”). Take a step back to think about your goal and what you can do to stay on track towards achieving it – e.g., “Who can I talk to to get feedback? How might I incorporate the feedback. What might I need to learn before the next try. What additional information do I need?”
  • As a leader, consider the questions, “What are the opportunities for learning and growth within my team today – for myself, for my team colleagues?” “How can I enact a plan for learning and growth?” For example, can you change the format of your team meetings so you discuss case or program challenges and help each other through them, or offer a short TED talk? Can you approach supervision differently?
  • Be mindful of fixed and growth mindset talk and behaviours and respectfully offer growth alternatives and challenges (to our family members, people we serve, colleagues, etc).

And a final example of why this matters now as we consider equality: Carol talks about how kids living in poverty, on reserves, or in vulnerable neighbourhoods are often assumed by educators and others that they will not perform well. However, her team’s mindset interventions have resulted in dramatic shifts. Schools creating a growth mindset culture have gone from the bottom of their district to the top in spans of 12-18 months. Children went from being discouraged by effort and difficulty to being encouraged when faced with situations requiring effort as they understood that their “neurons were firing and they were getting smarter” – effort makes a difference.

A brief 10-minute introduction to Carol’s work (and some of her results within the education system) is in this TED talk: Carol Dweck – The power of believing that you can improveYou can also check out her informative website.