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Understanding a mindset for success

Motivational quotes and popular proverbs remind us of how important persistence, determination, and personal attitude are for achieving one’s goals. In so many aspects of our lives, from education to sports, to careers and even personal relationships, how an individual perceives their own success or failure can depend on having a positive mental outlook, and willingness to pursue their goals.

In her acclaimed book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (published in 2006), Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, brings together decades of research focusing on how self-conceptions — or mindsets — play a role in individual motivation and achievement. At the Fall 2014 Stanford WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Research Roundtable, Dweck presented new research on how praise and encouragement affect students' mindsets, and discussed ways to help students develop attitudes that lead to growth and realizing their potential. She also addressed the implications of her research for gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as for education and business in general.

Fixed vs. growth mindsets

Dweck’s research examines two opposing mindsets: a “fixed mindset” where intelligence and talent are viewed as fixed or as limited qualities that people may possess or lack, and a "growth mindset," which believes that intelligence and new skills can be developed through effort. A fixed mindset creates a need to prove oneself over and over. If you believe you have only a set amount of intelligence or ability, no matter how outstanding those talents may be, if you can’t expand them, then you must continually prove you have them. 

A growth mindset believes that a person’s true potential can grow through learning, effort, experiment, and determination. The ability to stick to something, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of a growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. 

A fixed mindset places undue importance on appearances — looking talented or “smart” at all costs and with very little apparent effort — whereas a growth mindset focuses on continual learning and improving.

According to Dweck, it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest. Effortless achievement may result in high marks initially, but fails when faced with challenge. Struggle leads to resilience and the ability to conquer even the toughest tasks. 

Dweck explains that fixed mindset attitudes can influence behavior to “never look dumb;” “avoid hard work;” “run from difficulty,“ and “cover over your mistakes.” The concern for perceived failure trumps the willingness to continue improving and self-develop. Growth mindset attitudes emphasize learning, working hard to learn, and learning from mistakes.

How you see yourself can profoundly affect your ability to accomplish the things you value in life and how you handle goals, effort, and setbacks.

It isn’t difficult to see that a growth mindset places an individual in a much better position to cope with life’s ups and downs. A focus on lifelong learning equates to constant growth and opportunity. Yet, based on Dweck’s research, many of today’s younger generation may suffer from fixed mindset values inadvertently transmitted to them early in life.

Helping Develop Growth Mindsets

Parents and teachers often offer well-meaning praise intended to bolster self-confidence that unfortunately can reinforce attributes of a fixed mindset rather than the process of effort, strategy, focus and perseverance that are essential to developing a growth mindset. Phrases like, “You’re so smart! You got an A without even studying,” or “You won that race so easily, you’re going to be an Olympic athlete!” may be intended to show support and boost self-esteem, but the hidden messages convey quite the opposite: “If I don’t learn easily, I’m not smart.” “I shouldn’t try doing anything hard, or I might be a failure.”

A healthier growth mindset can be encouraged with what Dweck calls “process praise,” that encourages perseverance, hard work and accepting challenge. “This was a tough assignment, but you stuck to it.” “You had to work really hard, but it paid off.”

Gender Implications

Dweck believes that fixed mindset conditioning can contribute to gender inequalities. In her research, she found that parents and teachers alike often gave more process praise to boys than to girls, thereby reinforcing a growth mindset among the boys, but a fixed mindset among the girls. The impact of this differential treatment shows itself around the seventh grade, when in some cases, girls start to fall back in science and math. If young women are raised to believe that these are “tough” subjects where girls don’t excel, they are reluctant to put the effort into the learning process.

To avoid this early gender stereotyping, parents and teachers need to encourage values that say “easy is boring” and “hard is worthwhile and interesting.” According to Dweck, they should praise struggle, choosing difficult tasks, learning, and improving. Based on workshops Dweck conducted, girls in particular benefitted significantly from process praise.  Encouraging a growth mindset in young girls helps break down negative stereotypes, which is especially important in encouraging more girls to pursue STEM subjects.

Dweck expanded on her findings in the Q&A session following her presentation and spoke briefly about how mindsets apply to a business environment.

What do people get wrong most often?

Saying things like “try harder.” This is not encouraging a growth mindset; it’s nagging. Trying one set approach and endlessly failing is discouraging. If the current approach isn’t working, try adjusting the strategy.

Does this advice apply to a business environment?

In its November 2014 issue, the Harvard Business Review published an article based on Dweck’s work titled “How Companies Can Profit from a ‘Growth Mindset." The article describes Dweck’s new research with Fortune 1000 companies, looking at employee attitudes and their relation to growth cultures versus fixed cultures, and how each of these impact innovation. As might be expected, employees who said their company’s culture supported growth felt more empowered and more encouraged to be creative than employees who felt their corporate culture was more fixed.

Not surprisingly, Dweck’s research also found that a growth mindset corporate culture was particularly beneficial in encouraging advancement among women and minorities in a business context.

Whether in the home, an academic environment or business, leaders need to focus on fostering a growth mindset and promoting the idea that self-development, tenacity and learning build talent. By listening to their inner growth mindset, individuals can change. And by deliberately cultivating a growth mindset in their cultures, organizations will be stronger and more likely to achieve their goals.