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Mindset. Written by Carol S. Dweck. Summary by Dan Fraser.

Updated: May 12, 2022

Carol S. Dweck has spent more than twenty years studying the mindsets that individuals adopt in their life. She has found “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

The Mindsets

Dweck divides mindsets into two categories, fixed and growth mindset. Often people will have a mix of both mindsets, applying a fixed mindset to some areas of their life and applying a growth mindset to others.

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are carved in stone. They believe that they will only ever be as smart, skillful, socially adept, or strong of character as they are in the current moment. They believe that they have qualities that are ‘fixed’ and are not going to change no matter what they do.

The saying everything is hard before it is easy does not commute to a fixed minded person. They believe that if they find things hard in the beginning then it will always be so. This seems somewhat illogical, because all of us can think of times in our lives where we experienced difficulty in the beginning but overcame it, for example learning to tie our shoelaces. Yet it is easy to resign to the idea that we can’t change or improve. Society itself often encourages a fixed mindset by emphasising the greatness of individuals in society and down playing the amount of work that it took them to get there.

People with a fixed mindset protect their ego’s, because if they can’t control their qualities then the only thing they can control is their self-image. Ego protection can include inaccurate estimations of one's ability, believing that their strengths are bigger and their weaknesses smaller than they actually are; by choosing friends, partners, colleagues, and employees that would rather tell them what they want to hear versus how it actually is; and by avoiding challenges that might demonstrate that they aren’t as good as they think they are. Putting in effort can be terrifying for someone with a fixed mindset because if they truly try they can never say '’'I could have been [fill in the blank]', eliminating the chance of making excuses.”

Accepting defeat before trying any simple tactics is the fixed mindset. “When things go wrong, they feel powerless and incapable.” Also, they can be harsh in their words, using judgemental statements like “This means I’m a loser”, “This means I’m a bad husband”, or “This means my partner is selfish”. And even success can create judgemental statements like “This means I’m a better person than they are.”

A fixed mindset is often developed through the words that the individual receives from others. Criticism of a judgemental nature (e.g. stupid, clumsy, lazy) teaches individuals to be judgemental when they make mistakes, rather than a problem solver. For example, if James rushes through his homework, misses several questions, and doesn’t put in his best effort, his father might say “This is your homework? Can’t you ever get it right? You are either dense or irresponsible. Which is it?” But instead of judging and criticising his intelligence and character, his father should provide non-judgemental criticism like “Son, it really makes me upset when you don’t do a full job. When do you think you can complete this?”

Unhealthy praise can be as equally detrimental as unhealthy criticism. Dweck writes: “Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow - but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”

Another way a fixed mindset is developed is through lowering standards. Many teachers believe that lowering standards helps to boost student self-esteem and raise student achievement. However, Dweck writes: “Well, it doesn’t work. Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.”

Often we may hold onto a fixed mindset because there is a short term benefit of doing so. However, in the long run, it will be detrimental to our happiness and success in life.

Growth Mindset

Individuals with a growth mindset believe they can improve their qualities through their efforts. People with a growth mindset do not waste their time trying to prove to others how good they are. They also don’t try to hide their deficiencies or settle with what they know is comfortable and unchallenging. They have a passion for challenging themselves and are less likely to give up when faced with setbacks. For growth minded individuals, failure is not growing, not pursuing the things they value, and not fulfilling their potential.

The growth mindset “allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” When faced with problems or setbacks, they may still feel upset just like those with a fixed mindset. However, the difference is how they use the failure to drive them forwards. They will say “I need to try harder” and are willing to modify their approach to achieve success. Even in a study of depressed patients Dweck found that having a growth mindset made individuals work harder to solve their problems the more depressed they became. This led to lower levels of depression than their fixed minded counterparts.

Growth minded individuals require an accurate estimation of their abilities contrary to fixed minded individuals, because they prioritise learning over looking good. Accuracy in one's abilities leads to a greater understanding of learning opportunities.

To highlight how far we can go if we learn to adopt a growth mindset, Dweck paraphrases:

“Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, studied 120 outstanding achievers. They were concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. Most were not that remarkable as children and didn’t show clear talent before their training began in earnest. Even by early adolescence, you usually couldn’t predict their future accomplishments from their current ability. Only their continued motivation and commitment, along with their network of support, took them to the top.”

Dweck lists several outstanding achievers that were ordinary before they were extraordinary. They include:

  • Jackson Pollock - Artist

  • Thomas Edison - Entrepreneur and inventor

  • Wilma Rudolph - Sprinter

  • Judit Polgar - Chess player

  • Muhammad Ali - Boxer

  • Michael Jordan - Basketball player

  • Babe Ruth - Baseball player

  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee - Heptathlon athlete

After reading their stories it is obvious that the mindsets that these outstanding achievers adopted helped them to go from ordinary to great. The growth mindset was a key in their success.

How To Develop A Growth Mindset In Others Or Ourselves

Dweck offers several tips in developing a growth mindset:

  • “Think about your hero. Do you think of this person as someone with extraordinary abilities who achieved with little effort? Now go find out the truth. Find out the tremendous effort that went into their accomplishment - and admire them more.”

  • “Think of times other people outdid you and you just assumed they were smarter or more talented. Now consider the idea that they just used better strategies, taught themselves more, practiced harder, and worked their way through obstacles. You can do that too, if you want to.”

  • “Are there situations where you get stupid - where you disengage your intelligence? Next time you’re in one of those situations, get yourself into a growth mindset - think about learning and improvement, not judgement - and hook it back up.”

  • Do you make judgements about a student based on one test result or performance? “Test scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don’t tell you where a student could end up.” Have a growth mindset and never set limitations on what you think your students can accomplish.

  • “Do you label your kids? This one is the artist and that one is the scientist. Next time, remember that you’re not helping them - even though you may be praising them. Remember our study where praising kids’ ability lowered their IQ scores. Find a growth-mindset way to compliment them.”

  • “Athletes with a growth mindset find success in learning and improving, not just winning. The more you can do this, the more rewarding sports will be for you - and for those who play them with you!”

  • To promote the growth mindset, praise the effort, the strategies used, and the perseverance that went into an individual's success, and not their intelligence or talent.

  • “When we praise kids for speed in finishing a skill or the absence of mistakes in a task, we are promoting fast and perfect, which means anything that is difficult will be met with failure because the child will be too slow or make too many errors.” Instead, when a task is completed too fast or if there are no errors say “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologise for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”

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