Growth Mindset: You Are in Bloom Forever

Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Christopher Sirk
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“You are in bloom.

Did you know that?

You are in bloom your whole life.

Did you know that too?”

 — Cleo Wade

 

There are many kinds of people in the world, but only two mindsets.

At least that’s according to psychology researcher Carol Dweck. She’s the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), a book with a buzz that’s echoed well into the present day.

The best-selling book has influenced everyone from Bill Gates to American public school teachers, from concerned parents to bootstrapped startups.

Carol Dweck on growth and self-development

Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford specializing in social psychology and developmental psychology. Her research focuses on the role of effort in creating intelligence, and strategies for fostering self-awareness for learning and growth.

The fundamental idea behind Carol Dweck’s Mindset is easy to grasp. There are two basic mindsets, the ‘fixed mindset’ and the ‘growth mindset.’

People with a fixed mindset assume that abilities and aptitude are innate: One is born smart or not smart, athletic or not athletic, gifted or not gifted, and so on and so forth.

People with a growth mindset believe that talents can be nurtured and further developed. Like muscles trained to be less flabby and more responsive, our abilities are malleable.

We’re all wired to learn and grow, but most of us, after encountering obstacles, start to shut down along the way.

In a 2016 study Dweck co-conducted on Chilean 10th grade students, it was found that those from poorer backgrounds generally did not have a growth mindset. Faced with so many obstacles from the start, they had mentally closed the gates on expectations for themselves.

However, after being trained to adopt a growth mindset, they eventually performed at the levels of those from far better socio-economic circumstances.

Processing mistakes, rather than ignoring them, was a major factor in their rise. So too was the realization on the part of students that their brains could be trained and made stronger by challenges.

The brain seeks patterns, but these can be changed. Yes, even if you’re not a 10th grader, but rather a fully grown adult. Our brains are much more malleable than was previously assumed, as new neural pathways can be created at any life stage with practice, willpower, and the desire to get outside one’s comfort zone.

Over time, this can literally change your mind.

When you overcome mental roadblocks and learn new things, it causes the neurons in your brain to develop new and stronger connections. This is called neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to grow and change through a lifetime.

When you expend effort and face difficulty, yet still fail, it can be deeply dispiriting. But it’s important not to give up too quickly. Dweck suggests that we read a “failure” as a “not yet”. We haven’t failed forever, but just for the moment, and we can get to the result we want if we work on ourselves with discipline.

Dweck concedes that we may not all be able to reach the intellectual prowess of Stephen Hawking or crush three-pointers like Reggie Miller, but we can get way better at stuff with the right attitude and determination.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop being a curmudgeon, but rather that if you develop the resilience to struggle and use your brain, your life will improve. So yes, even if you fly into a Larry David-style rage when someone says: “you just need to have a more positive attitude,” Dweck might have some food for your thought.

Fixing a fixed mindset

“Oh, so-and-so is just set in their ways.”

Everyone, including their dogs, has heard this colloquial expression. Often directed at the middle-aged and the even-more-aged crowd, it’s a very diplomatic way of saying someone’s put the breaks on attaining personal enlightenment. They’re just going to keep buying the same brand of potatoes until the day they die.

Fixed mindset encapsulates this same frozen state of being. One doesn’t believe in growth to any appreciable extent, so one is not inclined to confront deficiencies or seek to correct them.

This philosophy for life has some interesting consequences, from the personal to the professional.

Looking outwardly, people with a fixed mindset also only “see others as they are,”  instead of being capable of growth. They might fail to see the unorthodox potential in others around them, from family to co-workers.

Take, for example, the father-son relationship in Mike Judge’s King of the Hill. Salt of the earth father Hank often concedes that his son, Bobby, has something fundamentally wrong with him: “the boy ain’t right.”

Hank has a ‘fixed’ idea of Bobby. He is what he is. A dog is a dog and a tree is a tree.

The diagnosis is set to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bobby is just too weird to succeed in anything Hank knows about in life, and he can’t bring himself to encourage his bizarre proclivities. Yet perhaps if Hank were to nurture Bobby and his penchant for toilet sounds, he may turn out to be the next Larry the Cable Guy, or some kind of unholy cross between Billy Bob Thornton and a B-grade Carl Reiner.

When it comes to work and hiring practices, a manager with a fixed mindset would be likely to fixate on candidates’ high-end education credentials and work experience with big multinationals. Went to Harvard, interned at Goldman Sachs? You’re hired!

There’s nothing innately wrong with this scenario in and of itself. People who graduated with awards from a good school are probably pretty driven and adept at learning. Credentials might be a good way to sift out the truly unqualified.

Yet it’s a monocausal view. Demonstrated talent is important, but so is a demonstrated growth mindset. That means perseverance through struggles, a willingness to embrace change and challenge, and a willingness to take risks and learn from failure.

Does the hypothetical Harvard graduate also demonstrate a willingness to keep learning and an acceptance and openness towards past failures? If so, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Fixed mindset people will do their best to “look smart at all times and at all costs,” rather than “learn at all times at all costs.” It’s likely you know this type of person.

A lot of students avoid language classes and other difficult, but possibly very interesting, courses in their college careers because they want to have a good GPA. That’s particularly the case at elite institutions, where grades can clinch a grad school admission, a postdoc, a much-needed scholarship, or any other number of life-altering things.

People who have failed before they succeeded can bring new strengths and ideas to a business venture, as can oddball CV’d people who demonstrate a knack for left-of-center thinking.

It’s no great secret that some very influential, forward-thinking people dropped school to plow a new precarious path, *cough* Steve Jobs *cough* Bill Gates *cough*.

Additionally, the fixed mindset results in a defensive attitude, where one is keen to validate one’s gifts, rather than further develop them. That often manifests in the creation of adversarial relationships with ‘threatening’ competition.

In Mindset, Dweck gives the example of leadership at AOL/Time Warner at the time of their 2000 merger. Both enterprises were run by fairly megalomaniacal CEOs—Steve Case ran the former, and Jerry Levin the latter.

Levin was a big believer in the ‘digital revolution’, which at the time AOL seemed destined to play a major role in. He tussled with management over the merits of merging with the hot dot.com company. Many argued it was a big mistake, a move both too expensive and too risky with AOL’s stock soaring to ‘severely overvalued’ heights.

In the end, Levin’s stubbornness and strong-armed business maneuvering won out. Then he had to sit down with fellow business genius Case to develop a new power-sharing arrangement. You can probably see where this is going.

Everything fell apart in a head-spinning blur. Levin was forced out of AOL / Time Warner in 2001 for brokering “the worst deal ever.”

Meanwhile, the new CEO of the merged company, Richard Parsons, tried to get fresh leadership assigned to fix all the problems at AOL, upsetting Case. Case held up all of Parson’s new initiatives, preferring to see the company crash and burn, rather than give credit for a turnaround to a newcomer.

Case got kicked out too, and AOL/Time Warner ended in 2002 with the biggest losses in American economic history, a figure of about $100 billion.

Growing a growth mindset

For Dweck, encouraging growth in others, either as a parent, a manager, or a teacher, is all about praising the process, rather than praising widely. Dweck suggests we should place emphasis on strategies, focus, progress, and perseverance.

By rewarding someone for growth, rather than for having all the answers right, right now, you create an atmosphere of forward motion.

Time and effort lead to better performance.

Nathan Myhrvold’s all-over-the-place life is a great example of growth-mindset in action.

Myhrvold is most certainly what you’d call ‘a genius.’ At age 14 he enrolled at UCLA. He finished a Ph.D. at Princeton in theoretical and mathematical physics, then did a postdoc at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking. Afterward, he made hundreds of thousands of dollars working at Microsoft, rising to the title of Chief Technology Officer.

In other words, his life is a pretty “point A to point B”-kinda success story. He was good at scientific thinking, pursued top-tier academic credentials, and had a career in a relevant field.

But because he was also a growth mindset person, he was never quite ‘finished’. His interests were all over the place, and he pursued them.

In 1996, he hung out on the set of Jurassic Park because he was very rich and liked dinosaurs. There he met a famous paleontologist. He was invited on an expedition with him and subsequently got quite good at finding T-Rex bones on his own initiative.

That inspired him to try other big idea ventures he was a total novice at, approaching them with an open mind. After leaving Microsoft in 1999, he co-founded a company called Intellectual Ventures. The basic idea behind it would be to get a bunch of really smart people together, from a range of disciplines, and see what ideas came out of the massified brainpower.

Turned out the combination of people had a multiplier effect. The company files about five hundred patents a year, relating to everything from cancer research to battery-powered glasses.

The lesson here? Growth is key in leadership is important too. Good leaders have some universal qualities, including self-effacement and the ability to confront failure.

One legendary example is seen in Fujifilm vs. Kodak. Both were big photographic film companies from the analog era confronted by big changes, i.e. digital technology at the end of the 20th century. However, they met diametrically opposing fates, with Kodak teetering on oblivion and Fujifilm still chugging along.

Kodak’s leadership didn’t stick their heads in the sand, as some generic accounts of the company’s decline would have us believe. But what they did do proved to be just as bad.

Basically, the company’s top execs tried to pull some alpha moves, throwing their massive cash reserves and infrastructure behind aggressive efforts to crush competition in new verticals like digital printing and digital cameras. Yet by committing to head-on battles with market newcomers, on a terrain the newcomers had chosen, they found themselves consistently outmaneuvered.

Kodak thought they could keep winning big, just like old times. The company had been around since 1888 after all and dominated the photography market for over 100 years. But that success ultimately fed complacency.

And so the company fell victim to a fixed identity of being on top, leading to inflexibility and a lack of reality-based, iterative decision-making.

Meanwhile, Fujifilm displayed a growth mindset and survived. They parlayed their chemicals research into a line of cosmetics products and invested heavily in medical research and pharmaceuticals.

By accommodating learning, failure, and all the uncertainties that come with innovation, Fujifilm defied the digital onslaught and thrived. The company nurtured innate talents, faced weaknesses straight on, and found new outlets for their strengths.

Adding some salt to Dweck’s argument

A legit criticism of Dweck’s book is that it simplifies the differences between fixed and growth mindset. In what is likely a concession to writing for a popular audience, she sets up a binary where you’ve either got one or the other.

Of course, in real life, we’re probably a mixture of both types depending on what we’re talking about. Even Dweck admits this in her book: We all hold the keys to both a fixed and growth mindset, wavering between the two, depending on the scenario.

For example, some of us are pretty bad at math and hate it passionately. We have no interest in developing our differential calculus skills because we’re grown up and do other stuff, like graphic design, writing and editing, marketing and strategy, and so on.

For a lot of us busy, math-disliking humans, it’s a pretty hard sell to get us to develop our withered ‘math muscles’ in our free time, although it certainly is possible. At the same time, we could develop a growth mindset-approach to math, which would include learning and managing our budgets, scaling a business, investing, cooking, or any other number of areas.

It’s also worth noting that her notion of praising effort can (and has) be taken out of context, and taken too far

Applauding kids just for trying has become a parenting cliche. It's a bad idea because it ends up making praise look like a consolation prize.  

We have to be careful with our positivity blasts; empty praise is different than constructive praise, after all. Dweck thinks we should definitely encourage kids for creating a strategy and trying it out( even if it fails), but we also need to coax kids towards finding new strategies that might secure a better outcome next time.

If you’re in the business of iterative development or running a lean startup, your survival and success will be based on the ability to embrace feedback. It’s a vital part of the process of finding your value and scaling up.

There’s still a lot of meat to her argument, and a lot of takeaways highly applicable to everyday life. We just have to add a few grains of salt.

Fixing your wagon to a growth mindset

Incrementally improving is good. Complacency is bad. Reading about Dweck’s mindset concepts may not exactly feel like re-inventing the wheel.

But often we do forget to take stock of the fundamental meanings behind our actions, the pre-programmed, unquestioned parts of our personalities, and the deeper reasons behind why we do we what we do.

And so it is absolutely worth considering how a fixed or growth mindset conditions your perception of personal life, work, and success. Change is always tough, but without it, there would be no growth. Try failure on for size sometime, it’s worth it!

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