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Mindset: Changing your approach

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:00
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Before reading this blog, take a look at the below scenario and think about how you'd feel and what you would do. If you want, comment down below what your response would be, then have a read through the blog:


One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’ve very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.


Can we change our intelligence, skill, creativity or personality? Or are we stuck at a fixed point with regards to these attributes and many others; unable to have the aptitude for mathematics, the eye for drawing or the coordination for sport.

‘I can’t do maths’

Perhaps the best illustration of this point can be seen in school children learning mathematics. Almost everyone who has attended school has at one point heard some variation of the phrase: ‘I can’t do maths’ or ‘I just don’t get maths’. But can it really be possible that some people simply can’t learn mathematics. Sure, people are different and some might have a natural aptitude for the subject, but anyone can learn something if they approach it correctly, right? Perhaps, by saying they are unable, they are sabotaging their learning before it’s even begun.

Putting nature v nurture aside

The age-old debate of nature versus nurture rages on and will certainly continue for many years to come. But, regardless of whether talent exists and whether we are or aren’t ‘talented’, are we all missing out on a far more fundamental point? That we can improve our abilities no matter where we start out.

This is one of the central questions addressed by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. In the book Dweck (a world-renowned psychologist and lecturer at Stanford) explains from decades of research, observation and personal anecdotes how a person’s mindset can aid in their improvement at any task. Often marking the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Not only that but the mindset a person adopts can influence anything from their self-esteem to their ability to face challenges and their resilience to setbacks.

"For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt of yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life."

Carol Dweck

Okay...what is a mindset?

The Oxford English dictionary defines it as:

The established set of attitudes held by someone.

The word attitude is particularly important here. Synonyms of the word include: belief, bias, perspective, philosophy, prejudice and stance. Substitute one of these words into the definition and you’ll see that a mindset is a powerful thing which can permeate a person’s being in wide ranging ways, ways they won’t always be able to see or consciously perceive. A mindset could define everything about a person.

Back to Dweck

In her book Dweck explores this idea and goes on to identify two mindsets a person may belong to; which she terms the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Dweck’s research shows that by adopting a certain mindset a person’s beliefs and outlooks can change dramatically. It is important to note that the two represent extreme ends of a spectrum and that a person may have one mindset when approaching everything but could have a mix of different aspects of each or adopt different mindsets for different activities. So, what are these two mindsets?

A fixed mindset stems from the belief that qualities are essentially fixed. With the view that intelligence, personality, creativity and other abilities are fixed traits, rather than developable attributes. That’s not to say a person will actively say these things, but might subconsciously feel this way without ever realizing it.

A growth mindset in contrast comes from the belief that basic qualities can be nurtured and developed. They don’t necessarily believe that talent doesn’t exist, but rather that everyone can improve upon their basic ‘talent’ and that a person’s ceiling is unknown and unknowable.

Viewing the world through tinted frames

When a person has a certain mindset as Dweck states they seem to see the world through that mindset.

In the case of the growth mindset this can mean they believe hard work will get you to where you want to go. They will be more determined to work and often see challenges as constructive learning tools and thrive from them. They will see criticism as a feedback method and failure as a momentary delay on their journey of improvement. They are therefore likely to persist with things even in the face of setbacks and flourish with opportunities.

In the case of the fixed mindset, a person will see talent as everything. They will try at all costs to appear talented and feel incredibly threatened if this label is under attack. This can often mean they will avoid challenging tasks, see failure as an endpoint to something. Why work hard at something if you aren’t good at it. And even see hard work as something negative; talented people don’t need to work hard.

To illustrate this better here is an example from the book:

Dweck and her colleagues offered some four-year-olds the chance to either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or try a harder one. The results illustrated perfectly the difference between the two mindsets. Some children – with the fixed mindset – chose to remain with the easy one stating that smart kids “don’t do mistakes”, while others thought the choice was bizarre, why would someone want to continue doing the same puzzle, instead choosing one hard puzzle after another.


But passing up the opportunity to do a puzzle is hardly a life changing one, so what happens when adults are approached with this sort of dilemma. In one of her studies Dweck conducted an interesting experiment. At the University of Hong Kong everything is taught in English, even support materials and exams are in English. The entrants to the university differ greatly in their fluency. With this in mind, Dweck asked a number of students, who were not as fluent at English, whether given the opportunity they would take a class to improve their English. The students’ mindsets were first measured using a series of tests. What did the results show? Students with the growth mindset jumped at the opportunity, but those with the fixed mindset were not very interested; as Dweck states, they were willing to potentially jeopardize their future learning to hide their deficiencies.

Failure and the opportunity for development: two sides of the same coin

How do you view failure? Do you see it as a small setback in the road to something bigger or do you see it a sign to stop doing something? That it’s not for you. How about repetitive failure, how would you deal with failing again and again? Michael Jordan, widely considered one of the greatest basketball player to ever grace the court, stood in front of a camera and proudly claimed, in the famous Nike advert:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

This is the growth mindset at its highest; whenever he faced adversity, Jordan knew that he could learn from and develop his skills. He didn’t fail and think - maybe basketball isn’t for me? Rather, he thought - okay I didn’t play great this time, but what can I improve next time? Where was I weak and what do I need to do to work on those weaknesses? I’m not saying everyone can become Michael but that you shouldn’t feel disheartened at the first sign of trouble and rather see difficulty as a learning tool.

"The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will."

Vince Lombardi

Where does this leave you and me?

You may be thinking this whole idea of a mindset seems a little simplistic. Surely, we’re more complicated than that? Surely, such a simple belief can’t have that much impact on our lives?

It’s very possible to be somewhere in the middle, and to lean a certain way in one area of life, and a different way in other areas. Dweck’s book explains these ideas in far greater depth than I can go into in this short blog and her writing is littered with examples, observations and testimonies from people who have changed their core beliefs based on her writing; I would strongly recommend reading it.

To conclude

I’m sure many of you have created new year’s resolutions and have, when creating them, dwelled on how past year's resolutions weren’t achieved. Maybe it’s not the targets you’ve set but the way you’ve approached them?

The scenario:

The scenario at the top is taken from Dweck's book. Having read the blog, look back at your answer; which kind of mindset do you have?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson


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