I’ve been reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset on fixed and growth mindsets. This is a simple, yet powerful idea. If you have a fixed mindset you believe that you have a certain amount of generally unchangeable talent, capability, intelligence, and skill. You may have this mindset if when you have done well you’ve been praised for your talents like being smart, strong, or a good person. This praise although rewarding in the moment, can deter you from taking on new challenges because you see them as tests of your capability. The fear of not passing the test and then revealing that you are not capable can lead you to avoid challenges. A fixed mindset leaves us fearing our own mistakes, failures, or misses because it says something about who we are at our core.
If you have a growth mindset you believe that you can grow, learn, and develop your talents and skills. You may have this mindset if when you have done well you’ve been praised for working hard, learning, or trying again and again. This praise helps you see each challenge as an opportunity to develop your talents and learn and grow. The desire to grow helps you see challenges as exciting opportunities, even if you may fail.
Shifting from Blame to Responsibility
A fixed mindset often results in a pattern of blame so that the individual can maintain their image of themselves as a good capable person despite the fact that things didn’t go as they had hoped. Deep down we blame so that we don’t have to be responsible for what has happened or take responsibility for what needs to happen next.
Shifting from Judgment to Compassion
At an even deeper level a fixed mindset helps keep us in a place of judgment rather than compassion. Judgment keeps our focus on our superiority to others whereas compassion focuses us on our shared common humanity. When we are afraid we might not measure up we tend to preempt other’s judgments by judging them first.
Even if you’ve been socialized into a fixed mindset you can, with some effort, shift to a growth mindset. Dweck outlines this applicability of this idea to parenting, teaching, athletics, leadership, love, and more. This week I’ve been especially focused on the application on some of my favorite subjects: student learning, leadership, college men, and social justice.
Student Learning: Many college students have been successful academically prior to college without much effort. They have been praised for their smarts and intelligence, resulting in a fixed mindset. They may even have standardized test scores rating their capabilities. A fixed mindset can see any significant challenge as a chance to invalidate all that positive feedback. When there are obstacles in the form of a B- on that first quiz, experiencing depression, identifying a learning disability, struggles making friends, or experiencing oppression on campus, a fixed mindset will interpret these challenges and ones inability to immediately conquer them as signs that one is not capable. A growth mindset would see these as challenges to be learned from and an opportunity to develop new skills. Growing research on non-cognitive variables such as resilience and work ethic, show that they are better predictors of college success than the usual standardized tests and GPA.
Leadership: A growth mindset helps us understand that mistakes are not to be avoided but embraced. Avoiding mistakes because of our fear of what it may say about us and our organization, leads to a lack of risk taking and innovation. A growth mindset embraces these things and values mistakes because of what can be learned. A growth mindset embraces responsibility and is able to set aside judgment for compassion. Fixed mindset leaders are fearful, mistake-phobic, seek blame, and find themselves expressing judgment over compassion (perhaps in spite of themselves).
College Men: One of the more surprising findings from my research on college men was that they understood the external expectations of them to be that they should be successful without preparing. The notion that buying the book, studying, preparing, and putting in effort in general could undermine their manhood and be emasculating didn’t make sense to me at first. Then I remembered every action movie I had ever seen. The action hero is able to speak every language, hack every computer system, operate every military weapon (including those that have yet to be invented), and do every fighting move ever invented, yet he never learns any of that or practices. Men are socialized that we should be fully capable naturally, and if we have to practice, learn, study, or work at something then we are somehow less of a man.
Social Justice: In working toward social justice, it can be overwhelmingly tempting, especially when we have been hurt by oppression, to substitute judgment for compassion. Rather than take responsibility for addressing our own complicity in systems of oppression or take responsibility for doing something that makes the world a more just and equitable place, it can be overwhelmingly tempting to blame and judge others for being part of the problem or not being part of the solution. I’ve found in my own life that my own self-righteousness (not helpful) is often at its peak when I recognize in someone else my own past or, worse yet, current failings. Self-righteousness may get us lots of social justice street cred but it does not foster greater dialogue, understanding, justice, or equity.