Skip to main content

Nate’s Notes 11: Fixed Mindset

By May 6, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

Take a moment to think about which of the following statements you agree with most:

Statement 1: Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you cannot change very much.

Or Statement 2: No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.

These statements were developed by Carol Dweck, the Stanford Psychologist, and it turns out that our responses to these simple questions can have a profound impact on virtually every aspect of our life.

People who agree with the first statement have what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, artistic skill, athletic ability, leadership ability, etc., are all carved in stone, predetermined at birth, and therefore cannot be developed very much.

People who agree with the 2nd statement, however, have a growth mindset. These people believe that there is always room for substantial improvement in virtually every area of their life, especially if they’re willing to work at it.

The mindset we choose to adopt is no small matter.

One of the most dangerous consequences of having a fixed mindset is that it leads to counterproductive beliefs about effort and hard work. For example, people with a fixed mindset believe that if you have to work hard at something, it means you’re not very good at it…that you’re either not smart enough or not talented enough. I saw this type of attitude all too often in sports…some teammates believed that hard work was a sign of weakness. Truly talented people don’t have to work hard, they thought. Only the scrubs have to work hard.

People with a growth mindset on the other hand love effort and hard work. They believe that it’s only through effort and hard work that you can reach your potential.

A fixed mindset not only impacts beliefs about effort and hard work, but also it can affect our motivation. When someone with a fixed mindset performs poorly at something, it can be especially demotivating. For example, in a study of 7th graders, the students reported how they would respond to a poor test grade. Those with a growth mindset said they would study harder for the next test. But those with a fixed mindset said they would study less for the next test. A fixed mindset led them to do the exact opposite of what they should have done. “If I don’t have the ability to score well”, they reasoned, “why waste my time studying?”

Both my wife and I can relate. In high school when we took the ACT, neither of us scored as well as we’d hoped. Rather than study to try to improve our scores, we chose the opposite. We were afraid that studying, and then scoring poorly again, would prove that we weren’t that smart in the first place.

The fixed mindset is the enemy of effort and hard work. The fixed mindset can also lead people to focus on looking smart or talented, therefore leading them to avoid new challenges. Challenges are risky for someone with a fixed mindset, because if they fail at a new challenge, it’s just more proof that they don’t have what it takes to be successful.

However, a growth mindset gets people excited about taking on new challenges, because challenges are the way to improve ability. Why waste time proving over and again how great we are when we can take on new challenges and get better? And if someone with a growth mindset fails at something new, it doesn’t mean they’re a failure. It simply means they need to work harder and/or get smarter.

One of the core problems with the fixed mindset is it implies that if we fail at something, we must be a failure. Successes and failures can come to define us, which can lead to the thought, “If I’m somebody when I’m successful, then I’m nothing when I’m unsuccessful.”

People with a growth mindset view the issue of failure entirely differently. Not only are they not discouraged by failure, they don’t even think in terms of failure…they think they are learning each time they get feedback, regardless of performance.

Rather than defining ourselves by our outcomes, I think the healthier approach is to define ourselves by our processes, by focusing on the age-old advice: becoming is better than being.

One way to become better is through hard work and effort. But another is through seeking out, and learning from feedback. For example, college students who scored poorly on a test were given the option to look at the test of other students. Those with a growth mindset chose to look at the tests of people who scored better than they had. The growth mindset students wanted learn and figure out how to score better.

Those with the fixed mindset, however, chose to look at the tests of those students who had scored really poorly. That way those with the fixed mindset could feel better about themselves. “At least I didn’t I score that bad,” they thought to themselves.

It’s important to note that people with a growth mindset don’t believe that anyone can do or be anything. Of course there are natural limitations that bind us all to some degree. However, a growth mindset means that we believe our true potential is both unknown and unknowable. It’s impossible to predict what can be accomplished with years of hard work, effort, innovative strategies, persistence, and feedback from others.

It’s also important to note that in reality, everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. We might have a growth mindset when it comes to our athletic ability, but a fixed mindset when it comes to our academic ability. Or vice versa. The goal, however, is to have a growth mindset in every area of our life.

For example, I had a growth mindset in sports, but I didn’t have a growth mindset in school. Right before graduating from college I took the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. My father and brother were both attorneys and I wanted to be like them. But when I got my score back, and saw that I had scored in the 55th percentile, I knew I wouldn’t be going to law school. I had the same reaction that I had had after taking the ACT. Several years later, however, after learning about the growth mindset, I decided to take the LSAT again. And I worked hard. I studied for 2 hours per day for 4 months, and then spent 8 hours per day for two more months. I believed the words of Benjamin Bloom, the educational researcher,  who said,: “What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn.”

After 6 months of studying, I retook the LSAT and scored well enough to be accepted into Stanford Law School. Though numerous classmates at Stanford were innately more gifted than me, and earned perfect LSAT scores without months of practice, I’m proud of the hard work it took me to get in. I’m not embarrassed that I had to work harder than others. Only the fixed mindset says that effort is a bad thing. In reality, there’s nothing heroic about inheriting a gift anyway. While I certainly appreciate innate gifts, I admire effort more, regardless of ones innate ability.

Furthermore, just because some people are more naturally gifted than others, does not mean that the gifted people will always outperform those who are less gifted. Hard work and great training can often close the gap in natural ability. A fixed mindset tells you, incorrectly, that early performance is all you need to know about future performance.

All of this talk about the growth mindset leads to an obvious question: If the growth mindset is so important, how can we develop it? The simple, but profound answer, is to be like a baby. Babies stretch themselves every day. They never decide that it’s too hard to walk or talk, no matter how many times they fall, no matter how many times they speak nonsense. They have no concern about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. And they will always keep trying. Babies love effort, even if they don’t know it.

We can also help other people develop the growth mindset by praising their effort, rather than their innate gifts, especially when their effort leads to progress. When we praise people’s gifts, or even their accomplishments, we may be unintentionally reinforcing a fixed mindset…emphasizing the gift, rather than the process that helped them make progress toward their goals.

But so what. Why does all of this matter? Well, there are two distinct moments in my life when I saw the power of switching from a fixed to a growth mindset. The first was when I realized that I could score well on the LSAT. That moment changed my professional life forever. But the second moment came when I was reading Dweck’s research on mindsets, specifically when she was discussing growth mindsets in regard to relationships. I had been happily married for 6 years at the time, but it had never occurred to me, until the moment, that I had a fixed mindset about marriage. I loved my wife, she loved me, but I had believed that whatever happened in our marriage would simply result from the love that we had. It had not occurred to me that a growth mindset in marriage could change our marriage, make it even better. Aaron Beck, an expert on marriage and relationships, claims that one of the most destructive beliefs in marriage is that “If we need to work at it, there’s something seriously wrong with our relationship.” Maybe this is one of the reasons so many relationships fail…because people believe that being in love requires no effort. But it is the fixed mindset that is opposed to effort. The growth mindset, on the other hand embraces effort and hard work. Living happily ever after requires working together happily ever after. Adopting the growth mindset in my marriage, made my happy marriage even better.

So, in summary, please remember that the growth mindset loves effort and hard work. The growth mindset embraces challenges, seeks feedback, and doesn’t define itself by failures.

Strive for the growth mindset not only in school, your hobbies, your job, and your religion, but also in your relationships. Strive for the growth mindset in every area of your life. It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

Get Nates Notes In Your Inbox

Subscribe to Nates Notes to receive a summary of each podcast episode delivered to your Inbox.