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  • Dan Connors

Are your abilities fixed or fixable? Mindset and the next wave of self-help thinking.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck- updated edition 2016

It's a popular idea- just so hard to put into practice. The basic structure of your mind- your beliefs, attitudes, likes and dislikes, affect everything, and if you want to see real change you need to do real work re-arranging your mental framework. Our mindset is what helps us survive, and it gives us vital critical shortcuts that help us navigate the world- but it can also be a trap.

Self-help gurus from Norman Vincent Peale to Wayne Dyer, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, Rhonda Byrne and Dr. Phil have all written libraries full of books on how to change your attitude about life and let more good in. Given the alternative belief- that life is meaningless and not worth improving, these books are compelling and valuable, and have sold millions of copies and affected millions of lives.

Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck came along in 2006 with her book Mindset and introduced a whole new scientific and psychological power to the motivational book industry. This book has one message that she repeats many different ways: there are two mindsets that guide people through life- fixed and growth.

With a fixed mindset, your qualities and abilities are basically carved in stone. You feel a need to avoid mistakes at every possible turn if they risk damaging your self-esteem. And to justify your existence, you feel a need to prove yourself all the time- just not in any new or challenging ways. Those with a fixed mindset do not welcome criticism or feedback, giving up easily if things conflict with their comfortable views of themselves. Fixed mindset leaders are more interested in assigning blame, making excuses, and comparing themselves with others. They protect their turf and believe it is an entitlement that no one else can have.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that your basic qualities are things you can improve upon with your efforts. People with a growth mindset welcome new challenges and learn from mistakes to propel them beyond what they knew before. Growth minded leaders welcome feedback, experimentation, and learning. They have no turf to protect because they are always changing it around anyway.

Most of us are a mixture of both mindsets, but the fixed mindset is the default mode because it feels safer. In the famous hierarchy of needs pyramid, safety and physical needs are at the bottom- the most urgent. We all need those before we can feel comfortable enough to expand our horizons. At the top of Maslow's pyramid is self-esteem and actualization, which are things that the growth mindset aspires towards. Only those who feel safe and secure in themselves have the mental toughness to face the risks inherent with the pursuit of growth.

Dweck takes a look at the fields of sports, business, relationships, teaching and parenting to show how each area can change with more of a focus on the growth mindset. Since the book's publishing, her theories have especially helped change the educational field.

Perhaps the best part of the book deals with children and how important it is to focus on effort and not ability. In several studies, Dweck chose two groups of students to take some tests. Half of the group were praised for their scores and told how smart they were, which prodded them into a fixed mindset.("I am smart") The other half were praised for their effort and hard work, which primed them into a growth mindset. ("I tried hard") When the two groups were then given a set of harder problems to solve, the ability students avoided them, while the effort students attempted them and weren't worried about losing ground from their newfound praise.

In other words, praising your kids for no reason hurts them more than helping them. It makes them feel entitled and special and saps their interest in growth. Praise is different than love- all children need to know that they're loved unconditionally by their parents and friends. Praise, in contrast, is given out in the areas of work and school, where our performance needs to be judged and improved if we're ever to grow and excel. Unearned praise destroys motivation, as does undeserved criticism. Rather than give a child a participation trophy for sitting on the bench of a team, perhaps they need different kinds of challenges that spur them to want to put in the requisite effort to succeed.

Since this groundbreaking book, many of Professor Dweck's ideas have been tried in schools, with disappointing results. A program called Brainology has been developed and introduced in many schools. Studies of the effectiveness of mindset instruction have showed only a minor improvement in grades and test scores. This is not surprising. Changing something so basic as a mindset takes much time, energy, and effort in conjunction with parents and teachers, and the programs being used so far have not been up to the task.

Reading one self-help book is not likely to transform your life, and neither is a short program in school that tells students how the brain works. Children are products of the world they live in, and much of that judges them on their looks, athletic ability, and intelligence, with little regard for potential. They internalize all of this and it becomes the core of their being, wrapped tightly inside not matter how wrong or damaging they might be. God bless the teachers and coaches who take the time and trouble to recognize effort and spirit of the students who are struggling. Dweck recognizes people like Marva Collins and Jaime Escalante, John Wooden, and Jack Welch- all growth minded teachers, coaches and mentors who saw the potential before them. They are the true heroes of our educational system.

Mindset is an important book that contributed greatly to the discussion of human psychology and motivation. Much more needs to be done to foster growth mindsets in workplaces, families, and schools. Dweck and her self help colleagues make it sound easy, but it is anything but. Getting to the bottom of bad attitudes and reversing them can take years of therapy or tons of encouragement to make a change. This book is a great introduction to a world where anything is possible, backed up by science, and provides hope to all who read it.

Realizing that your abilities aren't set in stone is liberating in a sense because you no longer have to live up to the labels from childhood. You can spend your time re-inventing who you are and what you want to become. Having a growth mindset is a good start.

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