Saturday, April 3, 2010


Consider the following hypothetical day in the life of a hypothetical student (you) and imagine how you would react:

You go to one of your classes in which the mid-term exam is returned, and you receive a C grade, not something you expected at all.  You are shocked and disappointed. Later, you go to the lab to check on an experiment that has been percolating and find that you forgot to turn on a key piece of equipment. Your samples are lost and now you are going to have to start all over. At the end of the day, you pull out of your parking space and hit another car that you did not see because you were not paying close attention (you were thinking about your samples). You end up spending a couple of hours dealing with the situation before finally being able to go home.

How would you feel? Like a loser? A total klutz? Unlucky?

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, people tend to fall into two groups or mindsets: 

Those with a "fixed mindset" overreact to bad news and tend to see mistakes as a sign of imperfection or weakness. People with a "growth mindset" view mistakes as opportunities to learn; some thrive on turning setbacks into successes.  I see these two mindsets as products of inflexible vs. flexible brains.  The fixed mindset tells a person that talent, intelligence, or personality are fixed traits and cannot be changed. Therefore, any event that challenges their self-image (as a talented, intelligent, or popular person) leads to discomfort, and they try to rationalize their failures. Such people tend to dislike learning and avoid opportunities to learn (because it requires them to acknowledge that they are not as smart or as talented as their self-image).  They dislike challenges (because if they fail, their self-image will suffer).  They end up playing it safe; repeating things that they are good at and avoiding the ones that might show their weaknesses.

The person with a growth mindset reacts quite differently. They don't believe that such traits as intelligence are fixed, but instead can be improved with time and effort. They may not be happy after the hypothetical day described above, but their reaction to those events differs dramatically from that of the person with a fixed mindset.  They consider what went wrong, gather information (talk to the instructor to go over the exam questions; change their study habits), and develop a plan to avoid becoming distracted (leading to lab mistakes or accidents).  These people love learning and when faced with a setback throw themselves with relish into a program to acquire whatever skill is lacking. People with growth mindsets love challenges, because these are seen as opportunities to learn.

Some people fall into one or the other category, but others may be a mixture of the two (fixed mindset about intelligence, but growth mindset about athletic ability).  According to Dweck, it's possible to change your mindset.  Simply being aware of it and how it affects your behavior can help you begin to change.  The point is not that someone with average intelligence will become a genius, but that anyone can improve their skills with experience and effort.

A good example is artistic talent.  People who think they cannot draw believe that those who can are born with this talent and that it cannot be learned. This idea is false. Anyone can learn to draw--and quite well.  It's really a matter of learning to perceive relationships, lighting, edges, and this can be taught. See these examples of self portraits that people drew before and after a 5-day course in drawing. Those who seem to be naturally talented learned early about the relationship between seeing and drawing and simply improved with practice. I've always been good at drawing and often tell others that I can teach them.  Most react with disbelief and refuse to try.  They have a fixed mindset.

As Dweck puts it, "Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn't mean that others can't do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.

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