The Ins and Outs of Growth Mindset

So, here’s a thing that happens:

Something becomes trendy, for better or worse. People start saying it’s the best thing since sliced whatever. It gathers attention. Some of that attention turns critical.

This is natural and good, of course. Popular ideas are worth exploring. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes the trendy stuff is bad. Thank goodness that there are people that investigate what others blindly accept.

But not all Devil’s advocates are virtuous. You can usually spot the pretenders. Their writing reeks of insincerity. They write ‘Trendy Thing is Bad’ on a scrap of paper, then start wracking their brains for reasons why. It’s a cry for attention (or clickviews) and it shows. Nothing is clumsier than a forced opinion.

Which of course brings me to Salon. Why am I about to link to a two-year-old article? Well, because people still use these arguments. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, read this article where Carol Dweck, champion of the growth mindset movement, talks about a false growth mindset. It’s safe to assume that Dweck thinks growth mindsets are great. Even so, she has seen it misused:

  • Praising effort alone. Results still matter; pointless effort is still pointless.
  • Telling students ‘You Can Do Anything’ if and only if you try more. A growth mindset supports success – it is not the sole cause of it.
  • Blaming the student’s mindset. Ditto.

So, like all tools, encouraging a growth mindset only works if you aren’t an idiot about it. Believing that you can grow is not a substitute for hard work, luck and talent – if you think that it is, you are wrong. It is not something that Dweck, or any other serious advocate for the growth mindset, has ever claimed.

Keep that in mind as you (re)read Salon’s article criticising growth mindset.

If growth mindset is misused, it’s bad. Great. If I drive a hammer into my eyeball, that’s pretty bad too. And you know what that says about the value of a hammer? Absolutely nothing. The article doesn’t say that growth mindsets don’t work, only that false ones are bad.

Well, duh. Hardly warrants the headline.

That’s not to say that the idea is beyond criticism. Like I said, some people investigate the trendy to expose truths and falsehoods. Here is one example of that. Notice that, despite strong biases, it is less biased than the Salon article. Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack about this post (read Part V if you’re short on time). The point is that there’s the right way and the wrong way to argue against something.

So, what’s my takeaway from this? Firstly, it’s always helpful to read the criticisms of any idea. It’s easy to get carried away. Popular ideas will attract quality criticism. Even clumsy criticisms, if read with a proper outlook, can temper the more extreme claims.

Secondly, a growth mindset helps. Believing that you can improve with effort is true and useful. But effort and outlook are not the only variables… and acting like they are is dangerous. This makes it hard – if people are holding themselves back because they have fixed beliefs, then a growth mindset is the best thing for them. If they already have this mindset or are putting in a lot of effort, then saying they need more growth mindset is the wrong approach.

I taught myself some basic chess strategies. To test myself, I’d play against my phone. I got better, then I plateaued. I believed that I could get better and I was putting in the effort. Even so, I was stuck. Smarter effort, like learning better strategies, would have lifted my game more than trying harder. This should not be surprising to anyone.

Life is complicated. Who would have thought? A better question: what can we do about it?

  • Record your results. Quantify them if possible; if not, be as specific as you can. It’s amazing how often I felt like I was plateauing while I was steadily improving.
  • Check your internal dialogue. If you find yourself using fixed descriptors, whether positive or negative, it might be worth readjusting.
  • Notice your reaction to failure. If you flinch away from your failures, I understand. But your failures are a bitter pill that’s worth swallowing. If you think your abilities are fixed, then failures expose your limits. If you can grow your abilities, then failures expose opportunities to do so.
  • Accept that, sometimes, more effort and a better attitude aren’t enough. Necessary, sure, but not sufficient.

There. A pretty balanced approach, don’t you think?


This post is part of Mindset Month at Mindwalker Training.

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