The American political theorist Benjamin Barber said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.” The more I think about this quote, the more I appreciate its intense optimism--the belief that we may have more control over our destiny than we are socialized to believe. I don’t think we can discount the role of genetics and to a lesser extent, the influence of family wealth and luck, but beyond those intransigents, hard work and dogged determinism can unlock the door to great personal and societal success.
I was reading Jonathan Field’s book “Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance” where I came across the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck on personality and its connection to success. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, professor Dweck identifies what she labels fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Someone who identifies with a “fixed mindset” supports the idea that success is the outgrowth of talent more so than of hard work. Based on this, talent is viewed to have a finite ceiling, and once that has been reached, there is a corresponding cap on success. Criticism and blow-back are viewed as fatalistic and as assaults on self.
The other end of the spectrum are those who espouse to a “growth mindset”. This group believes that success is forged through hard work, and that criticism has a value because it offers the opportunity for improvement through hard work. I’m sure at this point, you’re trying to align yourself with either the “fixed mindset” or the “growth mindset”, and if you’re anything like me, you’re trying to desperately convince yourself you’re firmly entrenched in the “growth mindset”. Well… not too fast.
As Dweck points out: “Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning?”
If you’re a parent, you may want to avert your eyes because you’re not going to like the answer to this question. That's right folks… As if we didn’t already have enough parental guilt, it turns out we may have been doing our child a disservice every time we praised our little preschooler for a stick-figure drawing by saying: “Oh it’s beautiful. You’re quite the artist.” And every time you congratulated your t-baller for safely making it to first base by screaming “That’s my boy. He’s got a real gift when it comes to sports.” Those seemingly innocuous comments from a proud parent may have rewired our child’s brain from a “growth mindset” to a “fixed mindset”. According to professor Dweck, when we offer praise, we ought to focus more on the process and effort, rather than on the outcome or talent involved. It’s through this language that we foster a mindset that growth and success are attainable through hard work, and therefore, are always within our reach.
So, what’s my take-away from Dweck’s groundbreaking research? Well, to be honest, if I simply throw up my hands and say “It’s too late. The damage is already done”, I’m placing myself in the “fixed mindset” camp, and that’s too depressing! However, if I acknowledge that my words have transformative power not only in my son’s life but also in my own life, then I begin to align myself with the “growth mindset” camp. I can recall so many occasions in my life where I gave up at the first obstacle and convinced myself I didn’t have the skill, talent, or intelligence to attain a particular goal. It’s frightening, but I would have to say that my default mode is “fixed mindset”. I’m not going to beat myself up over this; however, now that I’m aware of this underlying influence, I can start to consciously counteract it with positive self-talk, visualization, and by validating all the times I’ve overcome personal adversity in my life. One of the huge lessons I learned going through a treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, is that I am not a “victim”… I am a “survivor”! And this is one survivor who is firmly on his way to embracing a “growth mindset”.