Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? You may have come across this question before, or you may have children who’ve been asked it at school. The paradigm of fixed vs. growth mindsets has become increasingly popular in educational settings and beyond, as a way of highlighting the importance of the self-image we have when we set about learning something. Do we see ourselves as more or less set in our abilities? Or do we think of ourselves as capable of growth? When it comes to acquiring skills and knowledge, the difference in the two outlooks is enormous.

The popularity of this idea comes almost entirely from Carol Dweck’s hugely influential 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck is a psychologist based at Stanford University, and her book has become essential reading for anyone looking to run a classroom, improve a business, or simply become a smarter, more capable person.

Read on for five key insights from Mindset. To listen to the audio version of this Book Bite, download the Next Big Idea App today.

1. Think of failure as a training manual.

As part of her research, Dweck gave a group of children a series of puzzles of varying difficulty, and gave them some choices as to which ones to do. She saw that some of the kids stuck to the easy puzzles, repeating the ones they had already figured out how to solve. But other kids—even if they couldn’t figure out all the simple puzzles—wanted to try tougher ones.

Those kids weren’t any smarter. According to Dweck, they just had a different attitude. They could still get frustrated and angry when they screwed up a puzzle, but they didn’t take it personally. For those kids, messing up a puzzle wasn’t a failure—it was just learning.

“No matter what goal you’re pursuing, and no matter how old you are, you can learn how to shift your attitude and realize your true potential.”

Dweck started referring to this attitude as a growth mindset. And according to her research, children who displayed it grew up to be adults who were more capable of self-improvement. These are people who can easily admit that they don’t know things, which vastly increases the chances that they’ll learn. Fixed-mindset people, on the other hand, even those who are very intelligent and naturally talented, have a much harder time reaching their potential. Because they won’t admit their limitations—because they see them as failures—they routinely miss opportunities to get better.

The good news is that these mindsets themselves aren’t fixed. In other words, Dweck says, you can cultivate a growth mindset. No matter what goal you’re pursuing, and no matter how old you are, you can learn how to shift your attitude and realize your true potential.

2. Stop judging and blaming.

One of the hallmarks of a fixed mindset, says Dweck, is a tendency to judge everything that happens as either strongly positive or strongly negative. “That was a terrible party,” you say. Or, “I played that game perfectly!” Looking at the world this way can create a lot of stress, since you are constantly holding yourself and others to impossible standards. It can also poison relationships, as you end up becoming a judge to your friends, rather than an ally.

Perhaps most importantly, the judgmental attitude makes it harder to grow, since you’re focusing attention on how you think things are, rather than what they might become. You end up blaming those around you for difficult situations, deflecting responsibility and undermining your own potential for change. As basketball coach John Wooden said, “You aren’t a failure until you start to blame.”

“The judgmental attitude makes it harder to grow, since you’re focusing attention on how you think things are, rather than what they might become.”

To shift toward a growth mindset, pay attention to when you’re in “judge and blame” mode. Try to notice if you’re falling into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking: “Either I’m a success, or I’m a failure.” “Some people are naturally talented, and the rest have to work hard.” “If I win this game I’m a somebody; if I lose it, I’m a nobody.” Recognize that this kind of binary thinking is hardly ever accurate. Most of life is lived in the gray zone, between black and white—and by recognizing this, we allow for the potential of change and growth.

3. Think in terms of “we,” not “I.”

Some people with a fixed mindset get caught up in the idea that they are special—and in their minds, special people don’t need help. If you have this outlook on life, when problems arise, you try to prop up your sense of superiority rather than ask for advice or support. Ironically, fixed-mindset people can end up self-sabotaging by refusing assistance when they need it most. For example, leadership at the Enron Corporation knew their company was failing, and they had countless opportunities to come clean and get help. Instead, certain that they were “the smartest guys in the room,” they dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole by keeping up a deceptive façade of success.

To cultivate your growth mindset, open yourself up to guidance from those around you. Remember that “no one is an island,” and every accomplishment has a team of people who contribute to it. In her study of athletes, Dweck observed that a superstar’s talent can win games, but it’s teamwork that wins championships. And this idea doesn’t just apply to sports; Thomas Edison had a team of 30 assistants working under him when he invented the light bulb. He may be thought of as a solitary genius who tinkered on projects alone in his room, but he never could have accomplished what he did without the help of other people.

“Ironically, fixed-mindset people can end up self-sabotaging by refusing assistance when they need it most.”

4. When things feel bad, take action.

When life is going well, people with both fixed and growth mindsets do fine. But when the going gets tough, the differences between the two mindsets become clear.

Fixed-mindset people tend to freeze up the moment things feel slightly out of control. They don’t want to ask for help, but they also don’t believe that their own efforts can make things better. When people with a fixed mindset experience depression, they move into deeper passivity. But when people with a growth mindset experience depression or other difficulty, they take action.

What does this action look like? Regardless of the situation, it involves a concrete goal and actionable steps. Parents with growth mindsets don’t just hold their children to high standards—they tell them what has to be done to reach them. Teachers with a growth mindset don’t see their students as smart or stupid—they come up with learning plans based on a given student’s individual level.

If you tend to feel paralyzed by difficult situations, follow in those teachers’ footsteps and treat yourself as your own star pupil. Instead of seeing setbacks as threats, see them as, well, just setbacks: something that interrupts your trajectory or poses a problem, and puts you a bit further back than you had been. Nothing in that definition reflects poorly on you as a person or indicates a permanent block.

5. “Happily ever after” takes work.

From early childhood, we’re told stories of true love. It’s supposed to be singular and effortless—“when you know, you know”—and it always ends in “happily ever after.” But what these stories fail to capture is the complexity and struggle inherent in all human relationships, even deeply loving ones.

“Focus on honest and clear communication, instead of expecting that partners should be able to read each other’s minds and anticipate each other’s needs.”

When Dweck and her colleagues asked people to describe a terrible rejection and its aftermath, the stories of heartbreak were similar. But how people interpreted rejection changed considerably depending on their mindsets. Some people were hurt by the experience, but focused on things like understanding, forgiving, and moving on. But others felt the rejection left them permanently labeled as “unlovable,” and they harbored fantasies of revenge.

Dweck’s research supports the idea that an overly romantic view of love and marriage can lead to trouble. People with this outlook think that if a relationship was “meant to be,” it should be good right away, and stay good forever. The first sign of trouble leads them to think, “This must not be the relationship for me.” People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that a good, lasting relationship comes from effort and working through inevitable differences. This sets them up for greater success over time.

To cultivate a growth mindset in your relationship, a first step is to focus on honest and clear communication, instead of expecting that partners should be able to read each other’s minds and anticipate each other’s needs. Such magical thinking only leads to disappointment and resentment.

Second, embrace the differences between yourself and your partner. Even your wildly conflicting opinions can be a source of interest and connection rather than a threat.

And third, remember that difficulty and struggle are part of any healthy relationship. They are not a sign of character flaws in you or your partner.

Dweck points out that in a romantic relationship, you can apply your mindset to three separate entities: yourself, your partner, and the relationship itself. Suddenly, there are three things that can grow and change—or remain stuck. So for happiness over the long haul, try the three-pronged growth-mindset approach to romance: You can change. Your partner can change. Your relationship can change.

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