The great utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, was known to have split the world into two types of people: People who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I think most of us are the former – we’re splitting up people all the time. Ourselves included. Dr Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, certainly splits us. Although in print for a decade, it’s widely regarded by many as a ‘game-changer’ in the world of social and personality pop-psychology. I’m no self-help book promoter, but if you wanted to $10 Kindle something for the train ride home, you could do much worse. According to Dweck, and when it comes to how one approaches their life, there tend to be two mindsets: The fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Take her mini-diagnostic (p12, 2012 ed.):
From a personality and character perspective, do you mostly agree or mostly disagree with the following?
- You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that
- No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed
- You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are
Which did you agree with more? One and three are the fixed mindset questions and two and four reflect the growth mindset. Dweck says we can replace ‘character’ or ‘personality’ in the diagnostic with other attributes like intelligence, artistic, sport or business ability, to figure out our natural mindset preference. She notes that some of us might be a mixture of both, but most of us will lean toward one or the other.
We don’t need to be Tony Robbins to realize these questions point directly at how we see ourselves. Whether we can shift our IQ by two, ten or 20 points might not be debatable from a scientific perspective, but how we view our brain and body’s capacity for changing (whether our abilities, personality or character) certainly is. Specifically, and according to Dweck, how we view these things will make a difference to our chances for achieving happiness and success in the future.
A summary? Those of us with a fixed mindset believe our intelligence and talent are innate traits that don’t change. These people get caught in language like I just can’t learn accounting or I’m not a design person, and they typically worry about not looking smart, get upset by mistakes, and give up sooner on tough tasks. For those of us with a growth mindset, we believe our talent or ability can change as a result of effort, perseverance, and practice. Prefer a graphical view of the two mindsets? Print this cracking visual by Nigel Holmes for your fridge or your desk.
The thinker amongst us will probably say I’m both or it depends and, yes, it does. Although based on good research, Dweck does not argue that her mindset model is bulletproof science or applies one hundred percent of the time, and freely admits to it being a simple idea to assist us with our lives.
But simple can be good. And I can relate. When I first began working as a coach, I always seemed to notice whether someone seemed positive or negative (I could generally tell by how much energy I had left at the end of the session). At the time, it felt like having a nose for 'isms. I could smell things right off the bat, first session: Nihilism, cynicism, skepticism, pessimism, naiveism, positivism and optimism, each of these rearing their heads through the little comments of clients: Well, you can’t change that; that's what the world is like; I guess I have to do the work now; you make your own luck; or she’s just one of those people.
I began to research. I found the ‘locus of control’ psychological research, and I liked it (I still like it, and use it almost daily). Locus is Latin for ‘place’ or ‘location’ and a person’s locus is either internally focused (you believe you can control your life) or external (you believe your decisions and life are influenced by factors beyond your control). Powerful stuff.
How was your last performance review? Do you tend to praise or blame yourself for the results (I worked hard; I have some talent here), or praise or blame someone or something else for the results (boss was in a good mood; I lucked it; it’s a sellers’ market; the team held me up)? I eventually got to Dweck’s book and her references to all sorts of research, and I began to use the concept with clients:
What do you believe about your life and how it’s going to turn out?
Do you believe you are capable of learning more (and what would you love to learn, exactly)?
What about earning (do you believe you are capable of reaching up for more tangible valuation of your time and energy)? What might be even better acknowledgement for you, than money or status?
And changing? What is the most critical thing you would change in the coming twelve days, twelve months, or twelve years?
The more sessions and workshops I ran on this concept, the more I heard stories of two types of people. Fundamentally, it seemed the split could be made by how each of the two mindsets dealt with their setbacks, struggles, failures, tough times and feedback; and, whether they sought achievement for their ego’s sake or it was the result of other drivers (often the fun or challenge of the work). Childhood and parenting style seemed to influence greatly what side of the fence each client seemed to fall (or choose).
This isn’t to say I didn't hear stories of all clients struggling with a fixed mindset at times. I know I do, and it’s generally on Mondays, when I’m overtired, shattered or have received a verbal punishing on a project that I thought had gone well. Yes, I will happily admit to sometimes feeling like my world is fixed, there’s nothing I can do, except pity party, and lick my wounds in the privacy of my own home (before, generally, beer, sleep, and some downhill mountain biking). My clients are walking conflicts too. Each turns up in my coaching room like a split log of wood: Half has dragged themselves to the session with the view there must be something I can change or need to learn here, and it is obvious there is a growth mindset within them (they’re happy for that part to pay my fee). Yet it seems there’s a pipe up internally from the other half: What’s the point, people can’t change, and you should and could have spent this coin on a new coffee table.
Dweck finds this too, and in her book she promotes a way of thinking about how to see life as a long game, one of learning, gradual change and internal rewards (example, I do this because it’s challenging and enjoyable), rather than a quest to be rewarded (ideally publically and continuously, with many a trumpet) for one’s ‘talent’ or ‘calling’ (like this will drop out of the sky somehow).
I like this growth mindset idea. Yet I prefer the word craft, to growth. Craft has a sense of developing a skill, gradually building toward mastery, over years and years. It reeks of a long-term game, not short-term rewards (or self-help rhetoric). I am often paid to convince or enable clients of growth and craft, rather than fixed and daft (my word for focusing on external rewards and praise, with a combined expectation of feeling good).
What does a growth or craft mindset sound like in a person? Let’s take liberty with a celebrity (as we tend to do during times of Oscars and elections). Here’s Director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my top 5 Directors, on filmmaking:
“It’s back and forth all the way along. You definitely have moments of confidence, where you feel like, “we got something great today!” and you go home at night, completely unable to sleep, mad with enthusiasm and confidence. A couple of days later, you’re lost again and struggling to make sense out of something. But that’s okay” (The Filmmaker Says, 2013).
It’s just one quote, but with liberty taken, says a lot about Mr Anderson: He has a craft or growth mindset – there’s good and bad days, and so long as you keep moving in a direction, developing, toward a vision, well, what else can you do? And if we went by his films (first at age 26, and an average of A- by most standards), I’m pretty sure we can agree he’s done alright.
Authors in Dweck’s learning and development territory, like Robert Greene's Mastery (a personal fave), would agree. Growth folks have an apprentice-like mindset when it comes to doing great work, learning, earning, changing, and craft. And, let’s come out and say it, they’re much nicer to be around, than the daft. This isn’t to say a fixed mindset can’t achieve glory and great things, many clearly do, but it will never be enough. There is a bottomless quest for recognition, and a push against anyone who disagrees or criticises. This is tiring, for them and us. A recent fixed mindset example from art?
On the come-down from Sunday’s Oscars, we can debate why the Steve Jobs biopic didn’t receive a golden statue (even financially, it bombed). Simply, the idea was stale, and the film was outdone by fierce competition. However, what about the story itself? Truth or not (it’s been well criticized for being a one-eyed script), Jobs was certainly painted in a particular light: Fixed mindset. He couldn’t take criticism, always felt challenged by others, and loved to look smart and brilliant rather than humble and eager to learn. I was left hating and pitying Jobs (there’s that conflict again). Jobs’ character was written as the fixed mindset, his ego constantly coming before all others’ growth, or the craft of the product. We might sum up his character in the film with one of his own real-life quotes: “I want to put a ding in the Universe”.
In the film, you certainly did, Steve. But an amended quote might have been more accurate: “I want to put a ding in the Universe, as well as a whole heap of people I probably should care about”.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin pushed to remedy the tragedy of Jobs’ character arc, not by cancer as many might have expected, but by references to Steve's adoption, and an overly sentimental scene in an empty car-park where Jobs seemingly solves all with an apology to his daughter and an (almost) tearful eye. Art imitates life? Probably not, many commentators have had Jobs as a more reasonable man than this. But certainly art imitates fixed mindset. I wasn’t left thinking I want to be like him and I do hope you weren’t either (well done Fassbender, you probably nailed the brief).
Spotlight, on the other hand, Sunday’s supreme Oscar Best Picture winner, despite predictions otherwise, is a lesson in the growth mindset and what there is to learn from the long game of a deep craft, in this case, investigative journalism. Be sure to see it.
And, read Dweck’s Mindset, for something may shift within you. As Matthew Syed comments on the 2012 edition cover, it’s “essential reading for anyone with aspirations”. Surely, he's referring to all of us.
Paul Pringle is the owner of Paul Pringle Consulting.
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