The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” were coined by Carol Dweck to describe the underlying beliefs that people have about learning and intelligence. These beliefs greatly impact on the way people approach things and the results they achieve in the long term.
During her research, Dweck gave students problems to solve, then praised each one for his or her performance; most had done pretty well, as the problems were fairly challenging. However, she offered two types of praise. Some students were told “Wow, you got a really good score. You must be clever” while others were told, “Wow, you got a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, students in the first group were praised for their ability (being), whereas those in the second were praised for their effort (doing).
In the second part of the experiment, Dweck proposed a set of more challenging tasks, and this is where things became more interesting.
The ability-praised students showed what Dweck later called a fixed mindset. “When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent” she said.
As the problems became harder and all the students started to fail, the ability-praised students kept getting worse, as if discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset. As a result, they started to believe that they weren’t so smart or gifted after all. Dweck observed: “If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.”
In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from. “For the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect”. They also showed significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder.
As students believe that how smart they are is not fixed, they realise that they can grow this ability by putting in more time and effort. This leads to higher achievement.
Importantly, the two groups showed a different level of enjoyment. Everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions. However, as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised students no longer had any fun, while the effort-praised ones still enjoyed the problems, even increasing their level of fun as the challenge increased.
When the researchers asked the students to write private letters about their experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems, Dweck’s discovered that forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their results, inflating them to look more successful. “In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful – especially if you’re talented – so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”
The following table illustrates the main attitudes of someone with a fixed mindset versus someone with a growth mindset.
As Dweck concludes, for those with a growth mindset “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed mindset, “success is about establishing their superiority”.
You can nurture your growth mindset simply changing your mental approach:
Be open to learning
Don’t say: “I’ll stick to what I know, either I’m good at it or not”
Say instead: “I want to learn new things, it’s OK to take risks”
Raise the bar
Don’t say: “This work is good enough. There is nothing to change”
Say instead: “Is this really my best work? What else can I improve?
Don’t be discouraged
Don’t say: “This is a waste of time; there’s too much to figure out.”
Say instead: “I know this will help me even though it’s difficult”
Don’t say: It’s easier to give up. I’m not smart enough”
Say instead: “I’ll try a different strategy, my mistakes help me learn”
Don’t say: “I can’t do this”
Say instead: “I recognise my weakness, and I know what to fix”
Learn from others
Don’t say: “It’s easy for her/him. They were born smart”
Say instead: “I wonder how they did it. Let me try to figure it out”
Don’t say: “This is too hard”
Say instead: “This may take some time and effort”
Believe you can do more
Don’t say: “My potential is predetermined”
Say instead: “My effort and attitude determine my abilities”