Shifting Phases's Reviews > Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
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If you think your abilities are due to genetics or luck or "smartness" or "talent", you will be afraid to explore the limits of them. That's Carol Dweck's basic point. She makes it convincingly, applies it to lots of different situations, and gives lots of highly readable interviews and personal narratives.

I find myself using this idea over and over in conversations about learning. People often assume that certain abilities are talents that we have little control over -- notoriously in music, sports, math, and problem-solving. But when you talk to someone who is good at those things, they all work their butts off. Why are they working so hard if talent is unchangeable? Something about it must be changeable, or they wouldn't have to work. Of course, this doesn't disprove the idea that there is such a thing as "talent," but it certainly suggests that talent is not a sufficient condition for success. Dweck maintains that the people who start out "smartest" don't always end up "smartest." Hard work, perseverance, and strategic (not mindless) practise can help people improve, regardless of how much talent they have.

For a given amount of practise, some people will improve quickly and some will improve slowly. When we use this to conclude that the slow people are wasting their time, have "no talent," and will never get anywhere, that's what Dweck calls "fixed mindset." Obviously, it encourages people to give up on certain activities, or maybe not even to try them. When we assume that people who learn quickly are "naturally talented," we obscure the role of hard work in our understanding and maybe theirs too. We also take away the credit that they deserve for working so hard (how insulting, after having busted your tail, to be told that your genes are responsible).

But what I found most useful about Dweck's book isn't the effect on slow learners who become afraid to try things, or quick learners whose efforts are dismissed. It's the effect on quick learners who become afraid to try things.

Yes, you read that right. The fixed mindset causes quick learners to become afraid, just as slower learners do. What happens when you become convinced that your success is due to a talent that you have no control over? You become afraid of losing it. If talent is fixed, then you can't increase it, or rebuild it if it somehow gets "lost." You will simply be good at things until you reach the edges of your talent, and then you will be helplessly cast into the ranks of the stupid, from which you will never escape. Why risk falling off the edge of the world? Once you're acknowledged as skilled, you would be wise to quit while you're ahead, take your success and cash in your chips. Why play again? The best-case scenario is that people will continue to think you're "smart," a prize you already own. The worst-case scenario is that you will do something badly. Since smart people are just naturally able to do things, the fixed-mindset tells you, this will be proof that you are no longer smart.

The fixed mindset has all kinds of unpleasant corollaries, but one more deserves mention: besides assuming that people don't get smarter, we also assume that they don't get less smart. When a "smart" person is found making mistakes or struggling, as inevitably happens, those who subscribe to the fixed mindset are forced to conclude that the person must have been an imposter all along.

So, if you find something difficult, you must hide this at all costs. Smart people don't sweat. If you make a mistake, you must definitely hide it. If someone offers to help you get better, you must refuse. How could a smart person need help or, indeed, have any "better" left to get? It turns into a swirl of anxious, fearful denial and refusals of assistance.

Sound familiar? Yes, it's exactly what happens to many "talented" students. I have them in my classes. The harder I work to put in place support mechanisms to help them improve, the more they are HUMILIATED. How dare I think they need help? Or, worse, they become terrified that I've seen into the secrets in their hearts, their fears that they're not good enough. Having spent years concealing their mistakes and difficulties, they have a horrible fear that their deceptions will be discovered. Meanwhile, their secret knowledge that they are "not as smart as people think" violently corrodes their self-confidence and feeling of belonging. Eventually they become convinced that they are imposters, have nervous breakdowns, and end up on psychiatric meds for anxiety.

Think I'm overstating the case? Maybe. Maybe not. I've never met a woman in the trades who didn't have a bad case of this "imposter syndrome" -- even when we know it's ridiculous, the fear that we're not good enough haunts us and becomes an extra weight to carry around. Every woman who goes through my classes eventually breaks down crying in my office and, after I carefully listen past their explanations of "stress" and "just overtired," it turns out that the real story is "I'm afraid that there's a knack, and I don't have it." And frankly, I think the guys have it just as bad -- they're just more used to dealing with it, since the whole concept of masculinity basically works this way.

Or, if things are difficult and you continue to believe in your "smartness," you can always blame others. The teacher's no good. The book's badly written. Your confusion must be someone else's fault; you're smart and smart people don't get confused.

Or, you can conclude that your difficulties prove that you are "bad" at that thing. "I suck at math," you will say. And that will be a great excuse not to work hard. When your lack of work causes poor results, you can blame it on lack of talent. Then, your lack of talent can be used to justify not working hard. After all, what would be the point of working on something that's unchangeable?


Dweck tells us to stop. Stop praising kids for being "smart" or "talented." Start praising them when they work hard, persevere through frustration, or find problem-solving strategies that work especially well for them. In other words, praise them for things they have control over. That's what Dweck calls "growth mindset". Those are things that they can do more of in the future, or get better at. And stop praising them when they are not doing those things. It turns out that "self-esteem" that is based on your genes or your supposed innate abilities or just being alive is no self-esteem at all (if anyone is seeing a parallel to the fragile and violently defensive ego of white supremacists, I wouldn't argue with you).

So why only 3 stars? The book is a bit repetitive. The research is convincing to me, but sometimes overstated. It's mostly a collection of stories about individuals: in business, in school, in sports, in this, in that. And they're good stories. But the explanations could have been edited down to half the size. Someone suggested one really excellent use for this book: choose excerpts to assign for class reading, and use it to open a discussion.

Some selections that might make good reading selections:
p. 53: Grow Your Mindset. "People are all born with a love of learning, but the fixed mindset can undo it. Think of a time you were enjoying something ... Then it became hard and you wanted out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don't fool yourself. It's the fixed mindset..."

p. 55: "Try to picture Thomas Edison as vividly as you can... what's he doing. Is he alone?"

p. 57: Grades drop during transition to middle school. Dweck finds correlation to fixed mindset.

p. 71: The Danger of Praise and Positive Labels
Study where students wrote a test, then were praised for either smartness or hard work, and retested.

p. 82 about baseball star Billy Beane: "Each at-bat became a nightmare, another opportunity for humiliation, and with every botched at-bat, he went to pieces. As one scout said, 'Billy was of the opinion that he should never make an out.'... Natural talent should not need effort. Effort is for the others, the less endowed. Natural talent does not ask for help. It is an admission of weakness. In short, the natural does not analyze his deficiencies and coach or practice them away. The very idea of deficiencies is terrifying."

p. 90. "We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us." (this exempts us from any responsibility to try to be like them) About Marshall Faulk, running back for the Rams: "The article... talked about FAulk's uncanny skill at knowing where every player on the field is... How does he do it? As Faulk tells it, he spent years and years watching football... As he watched, he was always asking why... How do players and coaches see it? As a gift."

p. 108. Enron and the "talent mind-set"

p. 177 Examples of praise

p. 179. "So what should we say when children complete a task -- say, math problems -- quickly and perfectly? SHould we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, "Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let's do something you can really learn from."

p. 245 Graphic demonstrating differences between fixed and growth mindset
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Finished Reading
April 9, 2011 – Shelved

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