I was talking to Lance one day about some particularly impressive client — I don’t remember, exactly, but maybe this client had just deadlifted 600 lbs. or something like that. I casually said, “I’ll never be able to do that.”
I’ll never forget what Lance said to me then: “That’s a fixed mindset!”
I opened my mouth to argue with him, then closed it when I realized what he was saying.
Sure, maybe I’ll never deadlift 600 lbs. Maybe my genetics and my prior injuries (not to mention a lack of work ethic or dedication) do, in fact, make it impossible for me to accomplish that particular achievement.
But Lance’s general point was exactly right. I was, like so many people, setting myself up for failure just by saying, or even thinking, that I could “never” accomplish something.
A person with a fixed mindset is, above all, afraid of judgment. A great example of this is a child who has been told that she is “smart.” Her parents and her teachers praise her for being smart and for getting good grades because she is smart.
Pretty soon she starts to believe that she is smart, and being smart leads to praise. But what happens when she runs into a math/literature/science/whatever class that she isn’t immediately good at?
She hates it. She finds reasons to avoid it. She doesn’t want to do anything that will jeopardize her image of herself as smart. She says she doesn’t “like” math any more, when in reality she’s just terrified of it because it doesn’t come easily to her.
In contrast, a growth mindset is focused on learning and development.
Growth mindsets are okay with running into things that are a challenge at first. Mistakes and struggle = opportunities for learning.
A kid with a growth mindset understands that sooner or later, you’ll run into something that doesn’t come easily to you. Math, kicking a soccer ball, cooking, dancing — whatever it is, it’s okay not to be “good” at something right at the beginning.
Struggling doesn’t mean you’re stupid, or not talented. It just means that you have to put in your work before you’ll improve.
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, popularized the notion of growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets in a series of influential studies. Here’s a short summary of her most famous studies:
In many of our studies (see Mueller & Dweck, 1998), 5th grade students worked on a task, and after the first set of problems, the teacher praised some of them for their intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”) and others for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”). We then assessed the students’ mind-sets. In one study, we asked students to agree or disagree with mind-set statements, such as, “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t really change.” Students praised for intelligence agreed with statements like these more than students praised for effort did. In another study, we asked students to define intelligence. Students praised for intelligence made significantly more references to innate, fixed capacity, whereas the students praised for effort made more references to skills, knowledge, and areas they could change through effort and learning. Thus, we found that praise for intelligence tended to put students in a fixed mind-set (intelligence is fixed, and you have it), whereas praise for effort tended to put them in a growth mind-set (you’re developing these skills because you’re working hard).
We then offered students a chance to work on either a challenging task that they could learn from or an easy one that ensured error-free performance. Most of those praised for intelligence wanted the easy task, whereas most of those praised for effort wanted the challenging task and the opportunity to learn.
Next, the students worked on some challenging problems. As a group, students who had been praised for their intelligence lost their confidence in their ability and their enjoyment of the task as soon as they began to struggle with the problem. If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not. The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash. Only the effort-praised kids remained, on the whole, confident and eager.
When the problems were made somewhat easier again, students praised for intelligence did poorly, having lost their confidence and motivation. As a group, they did worse than they had done initially on these same types of problems. The students praised for effort showed excellent performance and continued to improve.
Finally, when asked to report their scores (anonymously), almost 40 percent of the intelligence-praised students lied. Apparently, their egos were so wrapped up in their performance that they couldn’t admit mistakes. Only about 10 percent of the effort-praised students saw fit to falsify their results.
So there you have it: praising kids for their “intelligence” doesn’t boost their self-esteem in the long run. They’ll feel good until the first time they struggle with anything. Then they lose confidence, avoid challenges, and even lie about their achievements.
In contrast, praising kids for their effort and work ethic leads to kids who embrace challenges. They persevere when things are hard, and they grow.
How does this fit in with training at IFAST?
We’ll always challenge you to do things that are outside of your comfort zone. They’re good for your body, and they’re good for you as a person.
We’ll encourage you not to say things like “I’ll always be fat” or “I’ll never be good at this.” In fact, we won’t let you even think those things. Because if you’re not “good” at squats, I’ll tell you to reserve judgment until you’ve completed 6,000 reps of squats. Believe me, if you put in 6,000 careful reps under the eye of a good coach, you’ll get good at squats.
Watch Dr. Dweck’s short (and awesome) TED talk below for more details.