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some chose easy ones, which ensured they succeeded
on April 11, 2017
Knowing can change a belief, and changing a belief can change behaviour. Changing behaviour can change your career trajectory. Stanford professor of psychology, Carol Dweck has a view of human development that may well lead to behaviour change and a career boost.
Dweck’s insight has its origin in a curious behaviour she noticed in children. When given puzzles, some chose easy ones, which ensured they succeeded. Others chose to do difficult ones, which meant they had a good chance of failing. “Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”
From this she concluded that people possess two fundamental mindsets – a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset.
The fixed mindset believes that one’s abilities are a fact of birth and are unchangeable. Just as you are born with a certain eye-colour, so you are born with a certain brain strength. Your IQ is fixed and can be seen from your grade one IQ score. From then on, you are locked into an ability set. There are some who through sheer hard work can overcome their minimal ability, while others achieve as much with no effort. Having to work hard to achieve is a sign of limited ability.
Not only is this understanding incorrect, Prof Dweck explains, but the consequences of this fixed view of ability is the root cause of many problems in learning, relationships and career.
Alfred Binet designed his IQ test in the early 20th century. His purpose was to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programmes could be developed to assist them. Far from believing one’s IQ was fixed, he believed that education and practice could make profound changes to intelligence. His view that intelligence can be grown has been bolstered by the work of neuroscientists such as Gilbert Gottlieb, who has shown that not only “do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly.”
Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of intelligence, holds that the primary factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.” In fact, scientists are learning that people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than was ever thought.
What does all this imply?
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone - Dweck’s “fixed” mindset - leaves people with the all-consuming goal of proving themselves in the classroom, and in their careers. If a person was told they were smart in primary school, they tend to spend the rest of their lives trying to convince themselves and others of this. If they were told they were not smart, they are either condemned to mediocrity or to hiding their limitations.
The “growth” mindset is based on the well-proven fact that one’s basic qualities are cultivated through effort. Everyone changes and grows through application and experience.
Can anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but the growth mindset believes that a person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable. Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary as children. Golfing great, Ben Hogan, was completely uncoordinated and graceless as a child. Geraldine Page, eight-time Academy Award nominee and Best actress Oscar winner was advised to give up acting for lack of talent. Ditto for Jackson Pollock, Marcel Proust, and Ray Charles.
The erroneous fixed mindset view holds that if at first you don’t succeed, you probably don’t have the ability. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
What are the career implications of this fixed and growth mindset?
In the brain-wave lab at Columbia, students with a fixed mindset paid close attention only to whether their answers were right or wrong. When they were presented with information that could help them learn, there was no sign of interest as indicated from brain-wave activity. When they were shown that their answers were wrong, they were not interested in learning what the right answer was.
In the world of work the fixed mindset “intelligent” to spend most of their efforts showing they are special and entitled. Having to make an effort and learn is for those who are “less intelligent.”
This leads to the what Dweck calls the “CEO disease.” Rather than confronting their shortcomings these CEOs create a world where they have none. They surround themselves with worshippers, and exile critics. Some choose short-term strategies that boost the company’s fortunes, and make themselves look like heroes, rather than working for long-term improvement and risking disapproval, as they lay the foundation for the health and growth of the company in the future.
Lou Gerstner, a growth mindsetter, was brought in to turn IBM around. As he worked on the enormous task of overhauling IBM, its share price was stagnant and Wall Street disappointed. Gerstner was called a failure. A few years later, however, IBM was leading its industry again.
Darwin Smith, reflecting on his extraordinary performance at Kimberly-Clark, said that he had “never stopped trying to be qualified for the job.”
When NASA solicits applications for astronauts, they reject people with unblemished records of success, and instead select people who have had significant failures, and bounced back.
Jack Welch, the celebrated CEO of General Electric, chose executives on the basis of “runway,” their capacity for growth.
If you are ‘special’ when you are successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful? In the fixed mindset, the loss of one’s self-esteem to failure can be a permanent, haunting trauma. Even with a growth mindset, failure is a painful experience, but it does not define the person. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.
Dweck reports a study of seventh-graders’ responses to academic failure. Those with a growth mindset, (no surprise,) said they would study harder for the next test. Those with the fixed mindset said they would study less for the next test. If you don’t have the ability, why waste your time?
A study of university students showed that the more depressed those with a growth mindset felt, the more they took action to confront their problems. They made sure to keep up with their studies, and keep up with their lives. The worse they felt, the more determined they became!
People with the growth mindset intuitively believe that even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. Which is factually true.
Mindsets are not a permanent part of one’s personality, but they are an important part and one that can be changed.
“Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset—passing up a chance for learning, feeling labelled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset—making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort,” Dweck explains.
A very important insight.
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Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy