Do you think people’s abilities are permanently fixed? Or do you think that everyone can improve and change?

When it comes to training and coaching others, I definitely have what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”. I passionately believe in helping people to develop their skills and abilities.

Personally, though, I have what she calls a “fixed mindset”. This is not good! Here’s why:

1. Every lapse spells doom

The fixed mindset offers a strict either/or: you are either wonderful, or a failure. Performance is a reflection of your character: “everything is about the outcome. If you fail – or if you’re not the best – it’s all been wasted.”*

The growth mindset lets you value what you’re doing regardless of the outcome. You’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.

“Every lapse doesn’t spell doom. Just a reminder that you’re an unfinished human being and a clue to how to do it better next time.”

2. Try, fail, give up

‘Without effort, you can always say, “I could have been [fill in the blank].” But once you try, you can’t say that anymore.” Dweck describes people who are full of confidence about what they could have been, as “polishing their unused endowments like trophies”.

“You tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” Homer Simpson

When I invigilate, I notice some students give up once they realise an exam is difficult. Not trying helps them save face. I know the feeling. Finding myself in last place in the 400 yards at a school sports day, I feigned injury and limped the last half of the race. Still today, I catch myself giving up or avoiding competition, to escape the shame of failure. Successful sportspeople, as Matthew Syed shows in Bounce, use their failures to improve.

3. You’ll never learn

One of my all-time favourite films, Galaxy Quest, is a brilliant, very funny, and moving illustration of the impact of high expectations. The jaded actors from a Star Trek-type series are contacted by aliens who think the series is real-life, begging for help. They protest they’re just actors, but thrown into a dangerous conflict, they start to live up to the aliens’ high expectations.

“Never give up. Never surrender”

In education, teachers with a fixed mindset believe that students are stuck with their different ability levels. At its worst, I’ve heard teachers describe children as “a waste of space”, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But teachers with a growth mindset believe that “everyone can change and grow through application and experience”, whatever their initial talents or temperaments. They see all their students improving. Like the boy who ‘got’ the growth mindset and said, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t have to be dumb”.

“Teach children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, (they) will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

4. “Almost” is but to fail!

Writing this reminds me of the fixed mindset which dominated the evangelical churches of my youth. You were either saved, or you were not, there was no in between. You miss the target (salvation) by an inch or by a mile, you’ve still missed, proclaimed one preacher, before introducing the frankly scary hymn “Almost persuaded”. Someone considers accepting Christ, is “Almost persuaded”, but puts off the decision and goes to hell. Thus, the last verse:

“Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last!
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail—
“Almost,” but lost!

Gulp. I didn’t discover that parts of the Christian tradition stress growing and learning till much later.

No, a fixed mindset is definitely not good. I think it’s time I embraced that growth mindset for myself as well as for those I work with.

*All quotes from Mindset Carol Dweck Robinson 2012

You can see how some schools have applied Dweck’s work here.



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