The latest in our series that uses the ‘book review’ format as a springboard into a wider conversation about the world of work—and how to do it better.
Mindset by Dr Carol S Dweck
Which mindset do you have? Read each statement and decide if you mostly agree with it or disagree with it:
1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much
2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are
3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit
4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are
If you mostly agree with statements 1 and 2, you may have a ‘fixed mindset’. If you agreed with statements 3 and 4, you likely have a ‘growth mindset’. So what’s the difference? And why does it matter?
This test comes early in Mindset, first published in 2006 by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University. In Dweck’s words ‘the fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged, the growth mindset makes you concerned with improving’.
In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
When I first encountered those initial four statements, I really had to challenge my own baked-in ideas of where achievement comes from. I found myself going back to my school and university days and thought about what I did when the going got tough. I knew I was good at verbal and numerical reasoning, but not so much in 2D representations of 3D problems. Likewise, when I was learning guitar, flute and piano, if ever I got to something really hard, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really any good as a musician and would abandon the pursuit of musical excellence in favour of what I felt were my core strengths.
At the heart of Dweck’s ideas is the perennial question about nature versus nurture. How much of what we achieve is due to our natural abilities and what is gained from the hard work of learning? The idea of always being able to do better by adopting a growth mindset has tremendous appeal. But could I ever be Usain Bolt? Surely there is a limit to accomplishment in any given field based on the effort applied to natural endowment.
It’s heartening when Dweck references the story of the kids from Chicago who, having exhausted every other possibility, learned under Marva Collins to engage with Chaucer and Shakespeare—in Year 4! (Watch an extract from the original 60 Minutes episode.) Does it really matter, then, that we may not be another Mozart or Darwin, when we are all capable of so much more if we embrace the growth mindset over the fixed?
A theme repeated time and again in Dweck’s book is the idea that when one praises someone, that praise should always be directed at the effort applied and not to the outcome. Indeed, she makes the point that much as we might want to bolster the confidence of our children, or the teams we lead by lauding their natural abilities, such an approach is poison for the growth mindset.
To be sure, Dweck makes the point that effort alone is not going to deliver a growth mindset:
The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.
Time and again Dweck talks about the development of learning strategies by both students and teachers. We all have different ways of learning, of apprehending the world around us and integrating new ideas and concepts with our existing models.
Mindsets and intelligences
I’m a fan of Howard Gardener’s work on different intelligences, and Dweck’s experience of adopting individual strategies for individual learners makes sense when you consider that we all have different mixes of what Gardner defines as follows:
Visual-Spatial – think in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors. Very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, read maps, daydream. They can be taught through drawings, verbal and physical imagery. Tools include models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, video, videoconferencing, television, multimedia, texts with pictures/charts/graphs.
Bodily-kinesthetic – use the body effectively, like a dancer or a surgeon. Keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, touching. They communicate well through body language and be taught through physical activity, hands-on learning, acting out, role-playing. Tools include equipment and real objects.
Musical – show sensitivity to rhythm and sound. They love music, but they are also sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background. They can be taught by turning lessons into lyrics, speaking rhythmically, tapping out time. Tools include musical instruments, music, radio, stereo, CD-ROM, multimedia.
Interpersonal – understanding, interacting with others. These students learn through interaction. They have many friends, empathy for others, street smarts. They can be taught through group activities, seminars, dialogues. Tools include the telephone, audio conferencing, time and attention from the instructor, video conferencing, writing, computer conferencing, E-mail.
Intrapersonal – understanding one’s own interests, goals. These learners tend to shy away from others. They’re in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence and opinions. They can be taught through independent study and introspection. Tools include books, creative materials, diaries, privacy and time. They are the most independent of the learners.
Linguistic – using words effectively. These learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words. They like reading, playing word games, making up poetry or stories. They can be taught by encouraging them to say and see words, read books together. Tools include computers, games, multimedia, books, tape recorders, and lecture.
Logical-mathematical – reasoning, calculating. Think conceptually, abstractly and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, ask cosmic questions. They can be taught through logic games, investigations, mysteries. They need to learn and form concepts before they can deal with details.
Gardner says that these differences ‘challenge an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way and that a uniform, universal measure suffices to test student learning. Indeed, as currently constituted, our educational system is heavily biased toward linguistic modes of instruction and assessment and, to a somewhat lesser degree, toward logical-quantitative modes as well’. He argues that ‘a contrasting set of assumptions is more likely to be educationally effective. Students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive. The broad spectrum of students—and perhaps the society as a whole—would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a number of ways and learning could be assessed through a variety of means.’
Gardner first proposed these ideas to the general reader in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in 1983, and his good ideas were seized on by high-school teachers who used them (and other sources) as the basis of the ‘learning styles’ approach. This has been debunked as having little relevance to positive outcomes. Other factors—such as student interest and backgrounds and learning disabilities—correlate more strongly with success than learning styles [see infographic]. In this Washington Post piece, however, Gardner makes it clear that multiple intelligences and learning styles are not the same.
Does it really matter, then, that we may not be another Mozart or Darwin, when we are all capable of so much more if we embrace the growth mindset over the fixed?
Whilst the emphasis of Gardner is on school and university students, I wonder what the implications are for those trying to create a competitive advantage in their businesses through the development of learning organisations? In fact, I am not a fan of the idea that organisations learn—people within organisations learn, and it is up to the leaders within the organisation to foster the conditions most favoured to accelerating learning. What Dweck articulates in Mindset provides us with the confidence to make the assumption that we can all substantially improve our learning and thus contribute to both our own and our organisations’ growth.
In her book, Dweck covers a wide range of areas where these fundamental ideas of fixed and growth mindsets can be applied: in schools, sports, the arts, relationships and business. In the latter, she contrasts the fixed-mindset styles of Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, Enron’s overreaching executives and a few other failed CEOs with the growth-mindset approach of GE’s Jack Welch, IBM’s Lou Gerstner and Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy to compelling effect.
Dweck uses powerful storytelling to contrast the difference between those with a fixed mindset and those with the growth. The essence of her idea is that we are all able to do better at anything we turn our minds to if we learn to love the challenge of learning. What struck me most was that not only are we all capable of adopting the growth mindset, but that access to this ultimately more fulfilling way of approaching life’s challenges is available to all people of all ages. Along with this idea is the notion that each of us is also capable of surrendering to the fixed mindset at any moment.
Like all good ideas, Dweck’s work took a while to make it into the mainstream and, as with Gardner’s ‘intelligences’, the application of mindsets as a panacea for a wide range of educational ills has attracted a few critics. But the core idea seems unassailably true and resonates strongly with me. In my domain of organisational excellence, the big question is: What might it take for senior executives to invest the time and money into shaping each individual’s learning so they can do the equivalent of those Chicago fourth-graders getting comfortable with Chaucer and Shakespeare?
You can test your own mindset on Dweck’s website. Bear in mind that you may have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and a growth mindset in another. And remember, too: you can always fix a fixed mindset—with potentially remarkable results.
To transform an organisation, don’t underestimate the importance of mindset. Mindset & Behaviour Analytics is a key part of the Ensemble Way framework that distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. They feature in my book More Than Just Work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Derril Roy on Unsplash]
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