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Carol Dweck: When a Fixed Mindset is Better than a Growth Mindset

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
— Chuck Close

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“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset,” writes Angela Duckworth. “It is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort.” Carol Dweck’s insights about “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets are the key.

Below find a talk Dweck gave at Google, with some excerpts that I found particularly interesting. She talks about what keeps her up at night, how to encourage children, the role of shame, and whether a fixed mindset can be more beneficial than a growth mindset.

When asked what keeps her up at night in regards to the thought of someone challenging, disproving or using her theories.

Yes. I always had this attitude of challenging my ideas and my theories because if you’re wrong you want to know it as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend your life on it. So… what keeps me up at night in a good way are different areas where it could be applied. So we have a whole program of research on peace in the Middle East where we’re using Mindset principles, I’m not minimizing the hugeness of the problem but we’re using Mindset principles to try to build some greater understanding. So I love to think of ways that we can extend it into areas we never thought of before. I love to think of ways to implement it so that more kids who need this way of thinking can benefit from it. And something that also keeps me up at night is that fear that people are developing what i’m calling a ‘false growth mindset’.It’s this idea ‘if it’s good I have it’. So a lot of people are kind of declaring they have it but they don’t. They think it just means open-minded or being a nice person or maybe they are saying it for fixed mindset reasons, I want you to judge me as being the right kind of person. So developing a growth mindset is really a journey, a lifelong journey of monitoring your trigger points and trying to approach things and a more growth mindset way of taking on the challenges, sticking to them, learning from them. Right now I’m writing something for educators that I’m calling ‘false growth mindset’ to tell them ‘no, you can’t just say it, you have to take a journey’ because we’re doing research now showing that many teachers and parents that say they have a growth mindset are actually responding to kids in ways that are creating fixed mindsets for kids. So that’s kind of the array of things that keep me up at night. But that said, I do sleep pretty well.

When asked what you should say to encourage a child when you can’t use words like smart.

The question is if you can’t say smart, what can you say? You can say so many other things. One thing is you can just show interest in the process that the child or other person is engaging in and in our research that’s what we’ve shown is effective, focusing on the process or appreciating the process someone is engaging in or has engaged in so just show interest, ask questions, give encouragement if they’ve been grappling with something and they’ve tried new strategies or stuck to the strategy. One parent said, ‘oh I hate it ’cause I can’t appreciate it when my child does something great.’ I said, ‘well where did you get that from?’ Of course you can appreciate it, then tie it to something they engaged in. ‘Oh, you couldn’t do that yesterday, you made progress, that’s so exciting, oh that’s great you really stuck to it and learned it. Or, you tried all different ways and look that worked.’ So you’re really appreciating some outcome where they are and you’re talking about how they got there. But if you don’t have that information just ask them. Never praise effort that isn’t there.

When asked how she thinks shame plays a part in a fixed versus growth mindset?

Oh, that’s a great question. We have studied that and we have shown that shame is a big factor in a fixed mindset. You don’t want to take on a challenge. It’s humiliating to have a setback within a fixed mindset, it means you’re not the person you want to be and other people aren’t going to look at you in the same way. We’ve studied it in adolescence, adolescents in a fixed mindset feel incredible shame when they are excluded or rejected and that makes them want to lash out violently. And research for many years, many people’s research has shown that shame is not a productive emotion. It makes you want to hide or lash out, both of which are not gonna get you, in the long run, where you want to be. In a growth mindset you can feel very disappointed. You can feel hurt. You can feel guilty. You can feel a lot of things but these are emotions that allow you to go forward and be constructive.

When asked if she sees any context in which a fixed mindset is more beneficial than a growth mindset?

Well, first let me say that a growth mindset doesn’t require you to go around improving everything. You can focus and you can say no I’m not gonna do that, no I’m not gonna do that. But research, not my research but research of others has in fact looked at this question and found two areas so far in which a fixed mindset is better. One is sexual orientation. People who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to be better adjusted than people who think ‘I should be changing.’ And the other is aging. So, it’s nice to feel you can stay young through exercise and so forth but people who run around nipping and tucking and the tummy tuck and the this that and the other and it’s kind of a desperate attempt to retain extreme youth that doesn’t seem to be so great either. But when it comes to skill areas it looks like a growth mindset is typically more advantageous.

Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is worth reading in its entirety.