Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: You Choose

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The jigsaw puzzle experiment

A group of four-year-old kids has been given easy jigsaw puzzles to play with. It was an easy game and all of them completed it without much struggle. Afterwards they were offered a difficult puzzle. Some kids were eager to figure it out, while other hesitated and decided to stick with the first one. How come the second kids backed off this small intellectual challenge? The answer lies, according to the psychologist Carol Dweck, in the difference between a “fixed” and “growth” mindset.

When the researchers asked the hesitant kids why they did not try the second puzzle they said “Kids who are born smart don’t make mistakes.” They were afraid to fail. In their young minds, succeeding equaled intelligence and failing was a sign of doing something wrong, or perhaps even a sign of being stupid. These children had acquired a fixed mindset.

The other kids, happily jumping at the challenging puzzle, had another way of thinking. One girl shouted out: “Why would anyone want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over?” For her and the other “let’s-go-for-it” kids, success was about stretching themselves, about becoming smarter. They had a growth mindset.

The difference between mindsets

In her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential Dr. Dweck reveals how our mindset affects the way we learn, succeed or handle failures.

She defines the “FIXED MINDSET” as a belief system that suggests that a person has a predetermined amount of intelligence, skills, or talents.

The “GROWTH MINDSET”, on the other hand, suggests that one’s intelligence can be grown or developed with persistence, effort, and a focus on learning.

There are plenty of examples to show that a growth mindset makes it much easier for us to develop skills and overcome setbacks. If you are convinced that failure is a part of the learning process and does not make you look stupid, you’re on the right track. If you believe that talent is developed rather than born, you’ll have more courage and a positive attitude towards any “talent” you decide to work on.

Physics and me

Sadly, many parents and teachers fail to get across the right message that would encourage children to try again and again. When I was thirteen there was a subject at school I almost failed: Physics. The teacher was none other than the director of the school. It scared the hell out of me to repeat, so my mom went to talk to him and asked for some learning tips. After a moment of Dalai Lama silence and deep thinking, the enlightened physicist said: “Look, some kids got it, some don’t. Jana doesn’t.” Game over. There is nothing dummy Jana can do about it, she’s a lost case.

Mr. Physics, if you read this now, I want you to know I am alive. I don’t stick my fingers in electric sockets and I am quite sure I can’t fly. And… sit down … I have Einstein’s Theory of Relativity at home on my shelf! Toma! 

(Ok… I admit it’s my boyfriend’s.)

The game changer

The fixed mindset can overtake you. It might be that your parents have the same mindset as you, and your kids will have yours. But these are just likely scenarios. The important thing to know is that you can change your way of thinking any time. You alone decide what you believe about success, failures, learning or talents. Think in a way that is useful for you and people around you. If you’re convinced that in order to learn something you don’t need talent as much as deep and focused practise, it’s a game changer.

Kids hear their growth-minded parents say: “Wow, you studied really hard! I am proud of you,” instead of “Wow, you’re smart, that’s daddy’s genes!” And when the Math assignment went wrong these parents choose to say “You’ll get there! This is just a matter of practice,” and not “No worries kid, you’re not talented at Math, but you’re good at sports!”

Mindset and relationships

Relationships are, by the way, not much different. People who think that if you have to work at it, it wasn’t meant to be, are stuck in their fixed mindset and might have troubles to keep relationships going. In order to maintain it, you have to work on your relationship the same way you work on a skill: see what goes well and what doesn’t, make mistakes, get feedback, understand, adjust, improve, keep on learning. Or as Dweck puts it: “As with personal achievement, this belief – that success should not need effort – robs people of the very thing they need to make their relationship thrive. It’s probably why so many relationships go stale – because people believe that being in love means never having to do anything taxing.” 

This “fixed” and “growth” mindset theory is just one of many models to understand how people think. You can use other terms if you prefer. You may realise that in some topics you have an open mind, in others you’re dogmatic and stubborn. As I like to say, nothing is black or white.

But if there is one thing I’d like you to take from this article, it’s this:

Take a moment and think what you believe about success and failure. What’s your opinion about what you’re good at and what not? Do you think that talent is born or grown? Question those beliefs. Whatever your mindset it, decide if it’s useful to think this way or not.

You choose.