Two four-year-old children are given a simple jigsaw puzzle to complete. They both do very well.
In her book, Mindset - The New Psychology of Success, author Carol Dweck asserts that people basically have one of two mindsets in situations. And according to research, depending on their mindsets, people will be more or less open to challenges and learning, more or less successful in school and their careers, feel more or less positive about themselves and their situations, and even negotiate more or less in a salary package.
With a fixed mindset you tend to believe in nature. You believe traits like intelligence, artistic talent, athletic ability - even relationships - are predetermined, fixed, innate, stable and either there or not. Often people with this mindset make choices that will make them look smart while steering clear of taking risk.
Not having instant success or having to work at something is considered a weakness and proof of your inadequacies. Even if you succeed, if you had to put in effort it means less. Showing that you need help, that you don't understand something or that you have things to learn are detrimental to a fixed mindset's sense of self.
On the other hand, people with a growth mindset tend to believe nurturing their intellect, abilities, interests and curiosities is where the money is. Being challenged or learning something new is the definition of success. Effort is expected and making mistakes is all part of the process. Because of this, they tend to have less fear or a sense of vulnerability at being imperfect. They are not thrown off by lack of current ability or knowledge because they believe they can gain these things through effort and perseverance.
Back to the preschoolers. Obviously children with the growth mindset chose the harder puzzle, which allowed them to learn more. The fixed mindset children picked the safe bet. The one that would re-prove how smart they were.
Fast forward to two smart pre-med students up against the challenges of organic chemistry. One, discovering that they are not instantly successful may give up, while the other digs in and becomes more determined. How about two talented sports pros, two business leaders, two couples? Dweck's book has examples of all of these. Why does one flourish, find more happiness and success and rebound faster? A growth mindset.
So how do you go about instilling a growth mindset in yourself and your children? Start by asking this question: Is success more about learning or proving you're smart? Then challenge yourself and your child to see learning as success.
Another way for parents and teachers to encourage this kind of thinking in children is to notice and praise effort over accomplishment. Instead of saying your child is a great soccer player, express that they seem to really love being out there and giving it their all. "Look at all that sweat! Wow you really played hard out there!"
Of course if you want to instill a growth mindset in a child, practicing it yourself is the best way. Do you appreciate your mistakes? Do you model effort when something is hard? Expressing growth thinking about your own life can show your child how to do it.
At dinner time, instead of listing off all you accomplished in your day, how about listing off what you learned? How your curiosity was piqued? How you were engaged in a cool challenge? And ask the same questions of your child.
Living life with a fixed mindset can be a hard way to go for both the person with this way of thinking and for those around them. Luckily, a fixed mindset does not have to be fixed forever!
IQ, social and relationship success, athletic ability and many other talents are not fixed traits. They can all be increased. Those who are not bogged down in a fixed mindset actually gain more skill and are much happier along the way. It really is about practice and belief. Having models that appreciate that can help.
Annie Zirkel, LPC is an Ann Arbor, Mi relationship consultant and author of You'll Thank Me Later - A Guide to Raising Grateful Children (& Why That Matters). You can find her at www.practicehow.com. Submit your relationship question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Creative Commons License photo credit: eelke dekker