Carol Dweck preaches “the power of yet.”
If students don’t pass a test, it’s not because they’re inherently stupid, but because they don’t understand the material well enough—yet. If employees didn’t negotiate the best deal, it doesn’t mean all future deals are doomed. It means they haven’t honed their negotiating skills enough—yet.
Dweck, a psychology professor now at Stanford University, is known for decades of work on “mindsets,” or people’s beliefs about human qualities such as intelligence and talent, both their own and others’. She developed terms you might’ve heard before: the “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.”
“My research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” Dweck writes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the 2006 book that pulls together years of psychology research for the general reader. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Well, that sounds serious. Here’s what you need to know. Well, at least the basics.
The Ultimate Takeaway
People have drastically different ways of thinking about their own abilities, intelligence, and talent. Those with a fixed mindset believe those traits are, well, fixed. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone… creates an urgency to prove them over and over,” Dweck writes in her book, and to perform rather than develop them. People with a fixed mindset “believe that talent alone creates success—without effort,” Dweck’s Mindset site says. But “they’re wrong.”
The alternative, a growth mindset, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others,” Dweck explains in her book. And that means you can work hard and develop your intelligence, talent, and more. Dweck believes “this view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
There are two other crucial and related points Dweck emphasizes repeatedly. The first is that she frequently speaks about people as though they belong to one of two distinct groups, for the sake of clarity. But we all have some mix of these mindsets in various areas of our lives.
The second is that people’s mindsets can change. You can learn a growth mindset. In fact, Dweck says she spent much of her early life with a fixed mindset, and still sometimes catches herself thinking that way, but her research has helped her strive toward a growth mindset.
Like Dale Carnegie in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People (shameless plug—it was our first pick for The Recap Shelf), Dweck makes the research about mindsets come to life with a slew of anecdotes.
She shares stories from her own life and work and marriage as well as stories about teachers working in inner-city classrooms and children she and her colleagues have met in the course of their research. She looks at the mindsets of famous people in various industries, including John McEnroe, Michael Jordan, Hillary Clinton, Charles Darwin, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and revisits infamous moments in history like the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the Enron scandal to consider how mindsets played a part.
The Mindsets in the Workplace
As you can imagine, mindsets are hugely influential in every facet of work—from leadership to management to culture to the performance and trajectories of individual employees.
Dweck describes a study in which teams of business school students were given fixed or growth mindsets and then assigned a difficult management task. The groups with the growth mindset “looked directly at their mistakes, used the feedback, and altered their strategies accordingly,” Dweck writes. “They became better and better at understanding how to deploy and motivate their workers,” ending up way more productive than their fixed-mindset counterparts.
She gives examples of CEOs whose fixed mindsets harmed their companies in the long run (despite short-term successes), such as Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, Steve Case of AOL and Jerry Levin of Time Warner at the time of the merge of those two companies, and, of course, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron.
Many fixed-mindset leaders are also cruel bosses who “were outright contemptuous of those beneath them on the corporate ladder,” always wanting to feel superior (because if talent is fixed, anyone below who does well threatens their own sense of self).
She counters those with examples of growth mindset CEOs, such as Jack Welch at GE, Lou Gerstner at IBM, and Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, all of whom she says created “a culture of growth and teamwork.” Growth-mindset leaders tend to nurture their employees, face problems honestly, find ways to solve them and learn for the future, boost morale, and foster mentorship and hard work.
Likewise, growth mindset managers “give a great deal more developmental coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they welcome critiques from their employees.” And groups with the growth mindset tend to have more productive discussions rather than falling into the trap of groupthink, which can “lead to catastrophic decisions,” like the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The Wrong Kind of Praise
Well-meaning praise can be dangerous. “Every word and action can send a message,” Dweck writes, one that can push children, athletes, or employees toward either a fixed or growth mindset.
Some praise can backfire. Dweck gives examples that send fixed-mindset messages:
- “You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!”
- “You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”
In contrast, growth-mindset messages might sound like this:
- “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself. It really worked!”
- “I know school used to be easy for you and you used to feel like the smart kid all the time. But the truth is that you weren’t using your brain to the fullest. I’m really excited about how you’re stretching yourself and working to learn hard things.”
The False Growth Mindset
In the updated version of her book, Dweck digs into what she calls the “false growth mindset,” or the ways the research has been misunderstood and misapplied.
For example, fostering a growth mindset doesn’t just mean praising effort. The effort has to actually be there. And it has to be combined with strategy, perseverance, and progress. “In all of our research on praise, we indeed praise the process, but we tie it to the outcome, that is, to children’s learning, progress, or achievements,” Dweck writes. “Children need to understand that engaging in that process helped them learn.” The same applies to adults.
The Way to Change Mindsets
One of the key takeaways from Dweck’s book is the meta-idea that you can grow a growth mindset. Through research, she’s shown how lectures, workshops, and even an animated “Brainology” program have helped teach the growth mindset.
“Just learning about the growth mindset can cause a big shift in the way people think about themselves and their lives,” Dweck writes. But that’s not the end of it. It takes work to change and more work to maintain change.
Dweck offers a few important steps for those who want to embark on a “journey to a (true) growth mindset,” even if they don’t have access to a workshop. They include:
- “Embrace your fixed mindset,” she writes. “It’s not a shameful admission. It’s more like, welcome to the human race.”
- Figure out what your “fixed-mindset triggers” are.
- Name your fixed-mindset persona, the one that emerges as a result of those triggers.
- Educate that fixed-mindset persona when it appears.
The Thing You Should Say if You’re Trying to Reference It
“Let’s try to cultivate a growth mindset on our team. Jack’s reports aren’t where they need to be, yet, but we should focus on the strategies that might help him get there instead of writing him off for future projects. The goal is always to get better!”
Carol Dweck has devoted her career to studying the fixed and growth mindsets and how they affect every aspect of life, including education, careers, business, sports, relationships (romantic and otherwise), and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“My work has been about growth, and it has helped foster my own growth,” she writes in the introduction to the revised book. “It is my wish that it will do the same for you.”
Photo of a pile of books on a table courtesy of vtmila/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author