A mindset is a belief that orients the way we handle situations — the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do. Our mindsets help us spot opportunities but they can trap us in self-defeating cycles.
This essay isn’t about all the beliefs we might hold. It is about the beliefs that make a difference in our lives — the beliefs that distinguish people who are successful at what they do versus those who continually struggle.
The Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck (2006) popularized the idea of mindsets by contrasting different beliefs about where our abilities come from. If we have a fixed mindset that our ability is innate then a failure can be unsettling because it makes us doubt how good we are. In contrast, if we have a growth mindset then we expect that we can improve our ability — and a failure shows us what we need to work on. People with a fixed mindset are out to prove themselves, and get very defensive when someone suggests they made a mistake — they measure themselves by their failures. People with a growth mindset often show perseverance and resilience when they’ve committed errors — they become more motivated to work harder. You can imagine how much this fixed vs growth mindset can affect our lives.
My investigation of the nature of insight turned up a major difference between people (and organizations) who concentrate on ways to reduce errors versus others who, in addition to worrying about errors, are also excited about chances to make discoveries. The preoccupation with errors — the belief that the only way to improve performance is by reducing errors — seems to fit the fixed mindset, and the interest in discoveries — the belief that performance improvements depend both on cutting errors and on making insights — maps onto the growth mindset.
Other types of mindset can also make a big difference.
A few years ago my wife Helen and I studied police officers, soldiers and marines who had shown outstanding skills in dealing with civilians. We wanted to see what set them apart from colleagues who typically intimidated civilians in order to get them to comply. We discovered that these "Good Strangers" (as they were called) shared one trait — they all had a mindset that their colleagues didn't. Sure, they worried about their own safety, and that of their buddies. Sure, they wanted to achieve the mission, and to follow the rules. But in addition, the Good Strangers sought to gain the trust of civilians. One police officer explained to us that in every encounter with civilians, even when he was arresting a lawbreaker, he tried to conduct himself so that the civilian trusted him more at the end of the encounter than the beginning. He believed that being a professional meant doing his job in a way that fostered trust. Think back to your encounters with police — I suspect some of these encounters did not increase your trust in the officer.
We found a fourth important mindset in our work with police and military. Many of them believed that the way to get someone to do what you want is to command obedience, through intimidation or in other ways. But the Good Strangers believed that they often could get cooperation voluntarily. It took skill and took more time but it had a long-term payoff. And it built trust.
Mindsets aren’t just any beliefs. They are beliefs that orient our reactions and tendencies. They serve a number of cognitive functions. They let us frame situations: they direct our attention to the most important cues, so that we’re not overwhelmed with information. They suggest sensible goals so that we know what we should be trying to achieve. They prime us with reasonable courses of action so that we don’t have to puzzle out what to do. When our mindsets become habitual, they define who we are, and who we can become.
We’ve looked at four mindsets that distinguish people who are doomed to struggle versus those who can be successful: a) fixed/growth, b) preoccupation with failure versus eagerness for discoveries, c) wanting to build trust, and d) seeking voluntary cooperation. Here is a fifth mindset that emerged from a project my research team did with Child Protective Services caseworkers. The mediocre caseworkers believed that their job was to follow procedures, but the best caseworkers saw the job as continually solving problems.
We found this same following procedures/solving problems contrast in other groups such as nurses and petrochemical plant operators. We also found it in another study of police officers. Recent academy graduates tried to add to their playbook, believing that if they learned enough procedures they could do the job. In contrast, the seasoned police officers appreciated that there were never enough procedures, and they had to be ready to solve unique problems. In fact, some of the seasoned police officers got a little bored when everything went too smoothly. They appreciated a good challenge — obviously they had a growth mindset.
The wrong mindsets can get in our way. A fixed mindset about our ability will inhibit our progress. So will a procedural mindset, governed by the belief that adding more plays in our playbook will turn us into experts. A mindset to eliminate mistakes will stifle our curiosity. A mindset about dominating civilians will damage a police officer’s interactions with civilians and will result in more physical fights and reduced safety.
One of the most powerful aspects of mindsets is how quickly they can be shifted, and how powerful the consequences can be. Unlike skills that have to be practiced again and again, mindsets sometimes show dramatic shifts. Reading Dweck’s book Mindset for an hour or two is enough to alter our beliefs about our abilities and motivate us to change to the growth mindset. In my work with police officers I heard many stories of officers who expected to demand obedience until they saw a supervisor speaking quietly and getting compliance.
One police officer remembered an event, decades earlier, at the beginning of his career. It was a dark night in a dangerous neighborhood. He and his supervisor, Raymond, had spotted a suspect and were closing in to make the arrest. On the way, they passed a mildly inebriated homeless man, sitting on a stoop, and the man whispered, “He’s got a gun, Raymond.” Sure enough, the suspect was armed and they were able to make the arrest safely. Afterwards, he asked his supervisor why the vagrant had warned them. Raymond explained that the man was harmless and he had tried to look out for him and get him to shelters when necessary. And in that instant, the rookie officer decided he wanted to have that kind of Good Stranger relationship with the people in the community. He wanted them to trust him and look out for him, rather than fear him.
Of course, it doesn’t always go this easily — some of the police and military I encountered were just too determined to take no unnecessary risks. And I suspect some of the people Dweck has encountered couldn’t let go of their fear of failures. But others are able to shift their beliefs and mindsets. Dweck tells the story of Jimmy, a junior high school student who had shown little interest in his classes. Then he sat through a session describing the growth mindset and tearfully asked, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” From that point, Jimmy became a hard-working student. Mindsets are powerful, and shifting them can be sudden and transformative.