Your "mindset" may determine genuine success. Mindsets that are characterized by a commitment to growth, flexibility and adaptability continue to develop your brain and develop reservoirs of untapped potential. They are the key to continual learning and success.
It was once thought that the brain becomes fixed at an early age and no new connections are made. This has cultivated an erroneous belief that people either can't change for the rest of their lives. Another misconception is that the brain cannot not learn to do things after trauma such as learning to speak after a stroke. Recent research shows that the brain has an enormous capacity to grow, learn and rewire itself. This means that people who have suffered damage to certain areas can improve their performance. For example, stroke victims can learn to speak and move again. It also means normal people can learn new things at any age. Research shows that the brain's capacity can be improved by the application of certain interventions. One study shows that musicians have auditory centers of the brain that grew through practicing, and learning about, music. Each time we learn something new connections are being made, and these connections can be strengthened. Just like lifting weights builds muscles, learning creates brain mass and deep learning.
The notion of mindset and how it can affect performance is outlined by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dweck argues that everyone has one of two basic mindsets. If you have the "fixed' mindset, you believe that your talents and abilities are fixed or set in stone--either you have them or you don't. The fixed mindset kind of persons are driven to prove themselves repeatedly, trying to look successful at all costs. However, this mindset actually leads to stagnation and declining performance. If you have the "growth" mindset, you know that your talents and abilities are built over time, so you seize every opportunity for growth--and success.
For people who have a fixed mindset, success can be a way to validate themselves and show how clever and talented they are. It is also a way to prove they are superior to others who don't have a fixed mindset. Failure is toxic for those with fixed mindsets as it proves that they aren't talented or clever. This means that failure, and mistakes, have to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, Dweck argues that for people with fixed mindsets, "the loss of oneself to failure can be a permanent and haunting trauma." By extension, fixed mindset people feel they must be careful with anything that might be challenging and risky as it may increase the risk of failure and thus show their lack of ability. This perspective can also lead people to be very touchy about any critical feedback as it suggests an innate lack of ability. Tests, exams and assessments are seen as a valuation, not of a specific set of skills, but how clever or capable they are.
Dweck shows how the growth mindset develops in childhood and early adulthood and drives every aspect of our lives, from work to relationships to parenting. Much of her work is based on brain science which shows that we have "plastic" brains, capable of learning until we die. She describes how creative geniuses in all fields of endeavor, apply their growth mindset to achieve results.
Dweck describes a number of powerful examples of people who have succeeded in life through effort, determination, good teaching and effective learning strategies. For example, Michael Jordan is often seen as a naturally talented athelete, but, according to his coach, Jordan did not show a great deal of promise initially. However, he persevered, trained harder than anyone else, developed his strengths and minimized his weaknesses.
Dweck states "the top is where the fixed mindset people hunger to be, but it's where many growth-minded people arrive as a by-product of their enthusiasms for what they do." In other words, growth mindset people are enthralled by the learning process, not the destination. Becoming super successful is an added bonus but not their primary goal. Fixed mindset people see effort in a negative way. According to this perspective, people who are naturally clever and gifted don't have to practice and try too hard. Fixed mind set people see those who need to put effort into something are showing their deficiencies or weaknesses.
In the eyes of those with a growth mindset, tests are not measuring your basic intelligence or potential; tests can only give a snapshot of how capable you are at something now specifically. Even more important, criticism, particularly from someone who is respected is a gift - a way to accelerate learning - and not something to be feared. Finally, for people with a growth mindset, learning and development is all about one thing - effort. Learning grows and accelerates with effort. What's more, growth mindset people value learning for its own sake, irrespective of the outcome. Achievement is usually a byproduct of having a growth mindset. This means that someone adopting a growth mindset will seek to gain a deeper understanding of a subject, rather than shallow knowledge in order to look good or pass a course, for example.
Some of Dweck's other research projects also show that young people given fixed mindset feedback are less keen to keep trying to improve their learning or their abilities and, if asked to repeat the original task, will often not do it as well. In other words, their performance can often erode rather than improve as a result of being told they are talented or clever. This finding has huge implications for parents, teachers and anyone working with young people.
Dweck and colleagues found a particular aspect of their research worrying. Following up on fixed mindset feedback, young people were asked to tell others of how well they had done. A staggering 38 % lied about their score by saying it was better than it actually was. The equivalent figure for the control group was 14 % and the growth mindset group 13 %. Dweck writes "what's so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart."
An even more important conclusion to draw from Dweck's research is that we have to be very careful about how we praise young people. Dweck quotes research which shows that 85 % of parents think that praise is very important for children's performance and confidence. She warns that this type of praise could undermine intrinsic motivation. Dweck also acknowledges that children love being praised for being intelligent and talented but that the benefits are short-lived. Indeed, she argues that "if praise is not handled properly, it can become a negative force, a kind of drug that, rather than strengthening students, makes them passive and dependent on the opinion of others."
Dweck, like psycholgist Martin Seligman, argues that praise for nothing is damaging to children. Dweck says that children know that if they are given lavish praise for very little it means that nothing or not enough is expected of them. In other words, unwarranted praise undermines children by communicating low expectations. However, Dweck goes further than Seligman by arguing that praising for high achievement often carries a big risk. Her research suggests that when children are praised for how intelligent they are, they become focused on retaining this label rather than on continuing to learn.
Dweck argues praise for intelligence often leads children to become more interested in how they are seen by others than in the learning itself. So praising for intelligence, or talent, may seem a positive thing to do but can distort children's attitude to learning and get them dependent on how they are seen by others and can result in not opting for challenging tasks or trying new things if it might involve failure.
Dweck argues that many professionals working with children have come to realize the danger of labeling children through criticism. (eg: "You are a naughty boy," rather than "that was an inappropriate thing to do.") But her argument is that positive labels such as "you are very clever" also undermine children in the longer term as it gets them to focus on things which the praise is unwittingly telling them is not under their control. It also erodes their belief that effort is a good thing. Instead of praising for ability or innate talent, Dweck argues we should praise children for effort, concentration and the effectiveness of the strategies they use.
One of the most compelling aspects of Dweck's work is that it is essentially arguing that we need to stop judging. The fixed mindset leads to a fixation with labels and judgments -" he's clever, she's good at sports, she can't count, he's a genius and so forth." These type of judgments of young people's ability aren't simply made at school but also by parents at home. It leads young people to feel that they are continually being measured. They know that what is really at stake is their worth as human beings. This is why Dweck argues that children with fixed mindset parents know that their concern is whether they show or appear to be smart or the "best." Often these young people feel that they never quite live up to their parents' ideal. Even when they are successful they are worried about losing this status if they fail.
The judgment inherent to the fixed mindset can also be part of our internal dialogue. Dweck argues that people, whether they are conscious of it or not, keep a running account of what's happening in their lives and what they should do about it. Dweck says that their research reveals that people with fixed mindsets create ‘an internal monologue that is focused on judging'. These judgments can be about themselves or others and they will tend to be very black and white. Growth mindset people are also attuned to positive and negative messages but they are more likely to look for the learning in it and decide what to do differently rather than label themselves and others. Dweck argues that techniques such as cognitive behavior therapy can be helpful in encouraging people to make more realistic judgments. However she says that such techniques do not necessarily "confront the basic assumption - the ideas that traits are fixed." In other words these techniques do not ‘escort them out of the framework of judgment and into the framework of growth."
Dweck argues that it is much better for young people if teachers and parents adopt a growth mindset and stop "stop judging-- teach." In some of the most powerful passages of her book, Dweck argues that good teachers don't have to love the young people they teach but they have to respect them and see them as capable of getting better if they put in effort and employ better strategies. For Dweck, the really great teachers are those who don't just pay "lip service to the idea that all children can learn" but have a "deep desire to reach in and ignite the mind of every child."
In an article in the June 19, 2009, BusinessWeek, John R. Ryan, the President of the Center for Creative Leadership, discusses how we might apply Dueck's ideas to leadership in organizations. He suggests that first, a growth mindset must drive leaders' management of the organization's human talent, focusing on the long-term development of people. Second, Ryan argues that leader's must create an organizational culture that permits risk taking and allows for mistakes, citing Dweck's research that shows that people's fixed mindsets come from early childhood experiences of being judged and criticized for making mistakes. Finally, Ryan argues that leaders all too often rest on their laurels and accomplishments of the past, basing their performance on their ego rather than an attitude of continual learning.
As an executive coach that works with leaders who are trying to move to the next level of achievement, happiness, productivity or fulfillment, I have often encountered the fixed mindset, frequently possessed by naturally talented people who have no desire to learn and grow,and see achievement often as just a reflection of their ego, their capacity and willingness to change can be stilted and difficult. In contrast, the growth mindset leaders, thirsting to learn, grow and disconnect this process from their ego, change often as rewarding and welcome experience.
Professor Dweck's mindset research challenges leaders to develop their growth mindset regardless of age and experience, and challenges educators and parents to examine how they are developing growth mindsets in our children.
Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services. www.successiqu.com