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The Power of a Growth Mindset

‘There’s another mindset in which … the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.’

-Carol Dweck, Mindset

Mindset is one of those books, and actually concepts, that I’m a little bit conflicted by.

The basic idea is that people tend towards one of two mindsets – the ‘fixed’ mindset, where you believe that your basic attributes (whether you’re good at maths, or sport, or singing; whether you’re smart or not; whether you work hard, or not; etc etc) are set in stone, and can’t really be changed; or the ‘growth’ mindset, where you think you can always change and improve if you work on something. To cut a long story short, people with a fixed mindset tend to shy away from challenges, and be more knocked back by hitting problems – after all, failing at something or finding it hard must mean you’re just no good at it, which is quite a scary idea; whereas those with a growth mindset see difficult situations as a chance to grow and to learn – maybe even a fun challenge. Guess which group is likely to achieve more and feel happier about life?

So far so good, and the snippet I’ve chosen above pretty much describes everything I really, truly believe about growth and learning – nothing is set in stone, you can improve anything if you choose to, though we may all have different ways of going about it and different speeds at which it happens.  If you find something hard, that’s not a big deal and it won’t necessarily be that way forever – it’s just something you haven’t learnt yet.

So where’s the conflict?

Well… it’s more about the conversation around growth mindset, than the actual idea of it. Most of what I’ve read – in this book and various other books and articles – really focuses on the ‘you can do anything if you just work really hard’ narrative. And that’s clearly better than ‘you’re just no good at maths’ or even ‘sports is obviously your thing’ (whilst writing off everything else). But I’m not sure it leaves enough space for the recognition that people do have existing strengths and tendencies, wherever those came from, and people do have different ways and speeds – and challenges – when it comes to learning particular skills.

I worry that we’re at risk of just swapping ‘you’re not clever enough’ for ‘you’re not trying hard enough’; and I worry that ‘you can get better at that if it’s important to you’ becomes ‘you should constantly be working to improve everything you can’. I think there’s also value in working with what comes naturally to us, enjoying something that you’re objectively not that great at, but you’re good enough for whatever you want to do with it, and recognising that two people can have been working just as hard at something and ended up in different places, and that’s OK.

So, yes, yes, yes, don’t fence yourself in. Don’t ever feel stuck with where you are when you really want to move forwards. Don’t think that because you don’t understand something now, you never will. And also, recognise that we each only have so much time. It’s completely valid to spend that on the things you enjoy, not the things you’ve been told you should improve. You can choose to sing out of tune instead of practicing scales if you’re good with that. Know that you can get better at whatever you want to, whether that’s in leaps and bounds or slowly slowly, and then choose for yourself where you want to focus that amazing power.

I’m talking to you, the reader, here, but you know this applies to your kids too, right? Thought so.