Mindset – the new psychology of success, by Carol Dweck

mindsetWhy this book: I attended a workshop on high performance athleticism at the Naval Special Warfare Center and several of the coaches referred to this book and its ideas.  It seemed that most in the room had read it. I hadn’t even heard of it.  When it came time to suggest our next book for the All American Leadership Reading group,  Rob Nielsen (the CEO)  and I both proposed Mindset, and it was selected.

My impressions: In Mindset, Carol Dweck took a simple idea that the reader has certainly heard before, explained it with an extensive catalogue of vignettes in a wide variety of settings, broke the idea down into components, with implications and ramifications, backed it up with research, and convinced me to take it seriously and internalize it.  The simple and familiar idea is this:  It is better to be positive about challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than to resist or avoid challenges out of fear of not excelling or fear of failure.  In most normal settings, it is better to have tried and failed, but thereby to have learned and grown, than not to have tried at all.

Carol Dweck refers to these two opposing approaches to challenge and difficulty as a “Growth mindset”  versus  a “Fixed mindset.” She gives us examples in the worlds of sports, business, school, relationships, and parenting.   The idea is important enough and her book drives it home well enough for me to recommend it.  It has already positively impacted the way I view myself, challenges I face, and the environment in which I live and work.

I felt that chapter 7, entitled: Parents teachers coaches: Where do Mindsets come from? was the most insightful.   In particular the section she writes on “praise” opened my eyes.    She points out that our “mindset” can be so shaped and influenced by how we are rewarded with praise.  She encourages parents, teachers, coaches to praise not qualities, or success or results, but primarily effort, and the willingness to take on challenge.  Praise effort and courage, not ability or success, she insists.

When only talent, ability or success are praised, the student, or child often assumes that being perceived as skilled or successful are what makes them praiseworthy, not the effort it took to get there.  Their sense of self and identity are formed around being perceived as having these abilities, and associated successes.   This assumption can lead to unwillingness to take on a tougher challenge that might put at risk the perception of ability or success.    Where success is what matters, failure, even after great effort, is not praiseworthy.  Dweck’s point is NOT that parents or leaders shouldn’t recognize success or positive results, but that praise should be primarily directed toward effort and persistence, and when they lead to a positive result, that is a nice and satisfying by-product.   By primarily praising success, leaders may inadvertently be discouraging anything that may not lead to the result or condition being praised.

Praising ability instead of effort reinforces the fixed mindset.  In one of the experiments she describes, a group of people were told that they had been selected because they were unusually intelligent, and then were given a test with some tricky questions.   Afterward, many of them misrepresented their test scores to validate the perception of being very intelligent.  She states that the experiment had “turned into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”

Mindset argues against excuses, and for personal responsibility. The Fixed Mindset says: ” I am dealt this hand, this is my fate.”  The Growth Mindset says: “It is up to me to be as good as I can be.   The hand I’m dealt is merely a starting point.” This reminds me of the Stoic saying:  What is important is not what happens to you. What is important is what you do with what happens to you.

Mindset asks that the reader redefine success. Success = Learning, getting better, taking something away from an experience that makes you smarter, wiser, stronger, more resilient.  It reminds me of Nietzsche’s famous aphorism: That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

In many settings, there is a one word difference between the Fixed and Growth mindsets. When the Fixed Mindset faces a challenge it will often say I’m not good at this (accounting, music, climbing, math, yoga, whatever.)  The Growth Mindset person faces the same challenge and adds the word “yet.”

Carol Dweck makes the general observation that women seem to be more sensitive to criticism than men, because when they are young, they are so often praised for being cute, pretty, smart, talented, well-behaved, etc.  They may then have a tendency to build their self-image around such praise.  Boys on the other hand, are more frequently challenged and criticized, and often develop a thicker skin.  Their self-image is not as vulnerable to the criticism from others for not being smart, talented, good looking, whatever.  This is obviously a generalization, with of course many exceptions, but with perhaps some validity.  Do we praise our daughters differently and for different things than we do our sons?

Fixed vs growth mindsets have similarities to other paradigms which I list below:

Fixed Mindset                                            Growth Mindset

Risk Aversion                                                Bold action

Glass half empty                                           Glass half full

Scarcity                                                            Abundance

Consolidate our gains                                  Go for the Gusto

What’s the point?                                         What’ve we got to lose?

So much can go wrong.                               How do we make this work?

Let’s rest on our laurels                              Let’s set the bar higher

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.                       Constant improvement

Don’t bite off more than we can chew.    Fortune favors the bold.

Restrained                                                        Unleashed

Defensive                                                         Offensive

Finite                                                                 Infinite

Cautious/Prudent                                          Bold

Paralyzing Fear                                              Reckless abandon


A criticism of her approach. Dweck admits that she simplifies the idea of mindset into the growth vs fixed dichotomy in order to make her point.  Though she says that people may have different mindsets in different aspects of their lives, (p47)  I don’t think she addresses this adequately.

My view:  Though in different settings we may have more of a growth or fixed mindset,  I believe we each have a basic set point in our personality or character on the fixed-growth mindset spectrum. Many of us may want to move our set point farther to the right, or help our charges – children, students, employees in that effort.  But there are certainly times when good judgment tells us that discretion may be the better part of valor, and that context should drive whether we should tend more to a fixed or growth mindset.  Those with perhaps too much growth mindset may dismiss fixed mindset concerns, and make decisions that have great costs to themselves and others.

I didn’t see her address the role of experience and good judgment in decision making, and a growth mindset needs to be tempered with a certain degree of practical prudence to keep from going off the rails.  Edmund Burke’s famous essay “Reflections on the Revolution in France”  argues convincingly for giving respect to tradition, custom, and behaviors that have proven successful in the past, to avoid the tragic excesses of events like the French Revolution, inspired by a growth mindset run amok.   I shared my thoughts on the tension between being bold and being prudent in my essay “A Bias for Bold Action” arguing for a bold, growth mindset, but tempered by good judgment in risk mitigation.  A person more inclined to a fixed mindset is often necessary to put the brakes on too much can-do and over-reach from the growth minded optimist.

I also think there was room for a discussion of balancing the benefits of feeling good about how hard one has tried, while still not accepting  losing.  Her point is that ideally the joy should be in the trying, the journey, not in the outcome.  Got it, but I am not willing to so readily dismiss winning as a goal, though I agree it should not be one’s ultimate goal .   Fine points perhaps- but important for leaders, coaches, parents.  I like the idea of a trophy for the winner, and a trophy for s/he, or the team which lost but showed the most ‘fire in the gut’ while  not winning.  Praising both.    But not a trophy for everyone, for showing up and trying. Come on…. That’s  un-American  🙂

There is also room for debate on the role of genetic pre-dispositions toward Fixed or Growth mindsets – there has been interesting research into how boldness or timidity may  in part (or perhaps large part) be genetically determined.

Also the recent discussion around investing in our strengths and not our weaknesses may be an argument against her thesis. Now Discover your Strengths and Strength Finder and other such books argue that we should primarily invest our energies in where we think we can succeed – in conventional terms.  Comparing that idea with Mindset would be an interesting discussion.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book.  (Numbers are page numbers in the paperback edition:)

This point is crucial: In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. The growth Mindset allows people to value what they are doing regardless of the outcome.  48

Character grows out of mindset. 93

Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. 244

The fixed mindset…makes other people into judges instead of allies.  67

Becoming is better than being.  25

This is hard. This is fun.  24

Beware of success. It can knock you into a fixed mindset:  I won because I have talent. Therefore I will keep winning. 210

…challenges you at the same time you feel like you are being nurtured. 198

In the fixed mindset, effort is not a cause for pride. It is something that casts doubt upon your talent.  99

Soliciting applications for astronauts, they rejected people with pure histories of success, and instead selected people who had had significant failures and then bounced back from them.  29

When people with the fixed mindset opt for success over growth, what are they really trying to prove?  That they’re special. Even superior.  29

Failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure).  33

John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach , says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame…you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.  37

Nothing is harder than saying, “I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.” 42

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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5 Responses to Mindset – the new psychology of success, by Carol Dweck

  1. The book offers a game plan of how to change behavior in a positive direction.

    I agree that the arguments in favor of a Growth Mindset would have been enhanced had Ms. Dweck cited examples of the advantages and applicability of a Fixed Mindset.

    The message that resonates with me: Character can be learned. An important element of the book in my view is that Character grows out of Mindset and that Mindset (attitudes; habits of the mind) derive from beliefs which derive from experiences. Ms. Dweck cites the experiences of those who were able to build Character by digging down and finding strength to turn a set-back into a win: those who had the ability to admit faults and learn from them. Hard work and a process, for example, are elements of experiences which convert to beliefs which translate to Mindset and transform Character. She cites a number of examples including Pete Sampras, Michael Jordan, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I also compliment Ms. Dweck for citing examples of those who displayed faulty Character: John McEnroe and Pedro Martinez for example.

  2. Rick Rochelle says:

    Bob and R.L., I enjoyed the All American Leadership staff discussion of Dweck’s book this morning. I look forward to more advanced work, addressing two questions: (1) How should we reward effort vs, results in high-consequence situations? And (2) What of those suffering in the aftermath of tragedy?

    In response to #1, the leader of a creative endeavor should reward effort and creativity, not just short-term bottom line, but how should a leader reward differently to encourage a growth mindset in high-consequence situations? Rob Nielsen had at least part of the answer, referring to post-incident after action reviews leading to a superb safety record in the aviation industry.

    In response to #2, Dweck seems to imply that if one simply practices, makes it a habit, and has enough will, no tragedy is big enough to set off a depressive, post-traumatic, or other normal but maladaptive response. I think the answer DOES lie in a growth mindset (indeed a deep-seeded growth mindset is analogous to a healthy immune system), but the book does not address how to regain that after a major setback if not as strong as, say, POW Stockdale.

    Today is the 30th anniversary of the tragic Challenger space shuttle incident, and therein my two concerns collide. Morton Thiokol engineer Bob Ebeling decided to share his name today, regretting for three decades that he did not have more influence to abort the launch. He told his wife that night, “It’s going to blow up.”

    See Howard Berkes’ NPR article: “30 Years after the Challenger Explosion, Engineer Still Blames Himself,” upon which much of the following relies heavily. “NASA ruled the launch,” Ebeling explained. “They had their MIND SET on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing.” (My capitalization, but Dweck argues the drive to prove is characteristic of a fixed mindset).

    Ebeling suffered major depression and said, “I could have done more.” Despite being over-ruled by managers, and the presidential Rogers Commission Report citing, “a conflict between engineering data and management judgments,” Ebeling lamented, “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’ ” (This is a deeply sad, fixed mindset from a high-achiever.)

    Organizationally, NASA has worked hard to overcome this. They purposefully do team-building that crosses various cultural divides: engineer-manager, astronaut-ground, Russian-American. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield talks of trying to imagine everything that can go wrong when “sitting on a bomb,” (launching on rocket) or “falling from the sky like a meteorite” (landing in Soyuz), and practicing those scenarios until responses are rote, with a muted adrenal response. They are also practicing the communication independence necessary to go to Mars. Astronaut Reid Wiseman sees 3-D printing as critical for building spare parts millions of miles from home. (This is an organizational growth mindset for high consequence situations.)

    Intra-personally, it is interesting to look at the case of another Thiokol engineer, Roger Boisjoly. He also suffered years of depression. At the behest of a therapist, Boisjoly found ways to speak out, lecturing to engineers about ethical decision-making and the importance of data: “This is what I was meant to do…to have impact on young people’s lives.”

    NPR reporter Howard Berkes reminded Ebeling of what Boisjoly told him, “We were talking to the right people. We were talking to the people who had the power to stop the launch.” Ebeling responded to Berkes, “Maybe. Maybe Roger’s right.” (Berkes empathetically nudging Ebeling towards a growth mindset)

    So, I wholeheartedly agree we should should internalize a growth mindset into our own character and teach the next generation its importance. But when tragedy, health, or other circumstances set an employee or ourselves back, we need the empathy to lend a helping hand and the patience to allow healing, even three decades later.

    • schoultz says:

      Rick – great points and a great example. The idea of a ‘growth mindset’ when dealing with tragedy, or dealing with evil is a real challenge and her book would have been stronger had she given it more attention. She addressed mostly people wanting to go from good to great. But your examples, and the idea of growth mindset being a psychological immune system are insightful. I am reminded of both Stoic and Buddhist responses to tragedy, death of a loved one or sadness. We have to let ourselves grieve – have empathy with ourselves in the grieving process, in order to then eventually move to a growth mindset, and be able to learn and grow from the experience. But shit -what do I know about this? Nothing! I’ve never had to really experience that type of tragedy and sadness – yet. But I’m aware that it is certainly out there and nearly all of us experience it eventually. Thanks again for your insightful perspective. And your great friendship. Bob

  3. schoultz says:

    Thanks RL – you offer a more concise explanation of some aspects of Mindset than I did. Esp the character piece. Thanks Bob

  4. Pingback: Living Heroically (Part II) | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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