Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

mindsetWhen I started reading «Mindset…» I wasn’t impressed from the start. Not that I disagreed with the message, it just seemed too obvious. What the author was saying was that all of us people belong to one of the two groups according to which mindset, which set of beliefs we stick to.

The first one she calls «fixed» mindset. People who have it think of their abilities and personal qualities as a «given» — something they’ve always had and aren’t able to change. People with the «growth» mindset, on the other hand, feel that their natural ability is just a starting point from which they can improve and learn. The former prefer avoiding challenges, cannot stand failure and generally keep doing whatever they are already good at, rather than trying new things. They also give up faster when forced to deal with something difficult. The latter welcome challenges and view them as opportunities for learning and development.

When I started reading this, my first reaction was to place myself confidently into the «growth» group, dismiss the whole thing as too simplistic and move on.

So, some people love change and others are afraid of it. What’s new? I was curious though, what the remaining several hundred pages were about so I kept reading. What I discovered was a vivid narrative with plenty of real-life examples how «this thing really works». I realized the distinction between mindsets can be traced in various aspects of our daily life, from learning new skills to maintaining a relationship, and it affects us more widely than it seems at first thought. More important, to me, was the way Carol Dweck explained why people lock themselves into the fixed mindset, what it is they seem to gain by staying there, how to recognize these self-imposed limitations and, hopefully, get over them if one wants to.

Lots of stories of people I know and myself at a younger age popped up in my head as I was reading «Mindsets» . When was the last time my best friend, well into her thirties, try to convince me she was a slob because her mother never taught her to clean her room? Or how come I always thought of myself as totally uncapable of comprehending anything that has to do with biology, chemistry, mathematics, computers, etc.? Was it really some brain deficiency or more like the case of never training my mind in any of these things because I didn’t believe I could?

Dweck shows how people with the fixed minset identify themselves closely with every success and failure, which makes them too sensitive to the outcome of their efforts. Everything they do they see as a test that measures them personally, and so every failure becomes a blow to their self-esteem. People with the «growth» mindset manage to avoid feeling permanently labeled by their failures, so there’s more room for them to keep trying.

I believe Dweck’s ideas to be especially valuable for parents and teachers. A large part of the book describe the ways children develop one of the two mindsets and how it affects them. She says, for example, that praising children for their abilities — telling them they’re smart, talented, naturally good at something — pushes them into the fixed mindset. Children feel they’re not allowed to make mistakes and they no longer want to tackle difficult activities — what if they don’t do well and everyone realizes they aren’t really that smart? The book recommends praising the kids’ effort and learning strategies rather than inherent abilities, because it motivates them to focus on the process of learning and helps them to stop worrying about having to prove their abilities over and over again.

I liked Dweck’s suggestion to change the way you talk to your kids about their achievements. Not: «How did you do on the test»? but «What new things have you learnt?» Of course, the importance of learning versus the importance of grades is a subject for a whole new article, but I do believe too much focus on results often takes the enjoyment out of the process. We all know how often school kills off one’s interest in a subject, and it’s often hard to reverse this even long after you’ve graduated. Keeping an open mind, preserving your natural curiosity, being able to cope with failure and create new strategies — in short, flexibility is, to me, extremely important in the long term.

Another aspect explored in the book which I found revealing is the link between mindset and the way people behave in relationships. Dweck demonstrates how people with the fixed mindset are often unwilling to work on their relationships since they believe everything between themselves and their partner should be perfect from the start. That often leads to a break-up even before trying to communicate with each other and to find some solutions together. What I see among my friends is often a similar problem — people view their own qualities, as well as their partner’s as something totally unchangeable, as if no personal development is possible at all.

To sum it up, I’d recommend «Mindsets…» to anyone interested in self-development. Even though I felt the problems and situations discussed in the book are too complex to be explained by a single theory, the mindsets framework will certainly provide you with some fresh insights. Who knows, it might even give you inspiraton to change your life in ways you don’t expect!

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