To begin, I’m going to ask you a few questions. Today’s topic applies to every age, including kids, teenagers, and adults, so feel free to ask yourself and your child these questions.
Do you believe your traits, such as intelligence or talent, are pretty much set in stone and unchangeable?
Do you believe that talent is innate, and practice can’t change it much?
Do you avoid challenges in order to avoid failing or being embarrassed?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you might have a fixed mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset views their traits, intelligence, talents, and personality as unchangeable. They believe their qualities are set in stone. It is possible and quite common for a person has a fixed mindset about some domains, but not others. Your child might say “Oh, I’m not a math person,” demonstrating a fixed mindset about this topic, but they may be more willing to practice soccer every day in order to get better.
When a person has a fixed mindset, they label themselves with words such as “smart,” “stupid,” “angry,”… and on and on. These labels can come from anywhere – a comment a parent or teacher makes, a grade earned on a test, an experience in gym class – anything! The person takes this label to heart and believes it to be a characteristic about themselves that is unchangeable, or fixed.
This attitude leads to several negative ways of approaching new and challenging tasks. People with fixed mindsets often find themselves trying to prove how smart or good they are and trying to minimize or hide their mistakes. They often will put forth a lot of effort to try to hide their “deficiencies” rather than try to overcome them. This may be because they believe they shouldn’t have to work hard at something, or it may be because they don’t want to be seen as having a negative quality that’s set in stone.
People with fixed mindsets often want to quit when things get difficult. They don’t understand that by working really hard at something, they will be able to improve. They have a really hard time admitting that they don’t know something or accepting constructive feedback. School becomes about proving they are smart rather than learning, and sports or hobbies become about proving how good they are rather than improving.
In addition, people with fixed mindsets seek out the tried and true rather than trying new things, because there’s more risk of failing at new things. This can be true for both positive and negative attributes. For example, a child labeled “good at sports” may decline to try a new sport such as lacrosse if he has never played it before, because he is afraid that he won’t be good at it and it will show that he’s actually “bad at sports.” Conversely, a child who sees himself as “bad at sports” may not want to try lacrosse because he believes he won’t be any good at it.
The other option is to have a growth mindset. A person with a growth mindset believes that traits, intelligence, talents, and personality can be modified with hard work and effort. They believe that their basic qualities can be cultivated with hard work and effort, and that everyone can change and grow through practice and experience. So if they were labeled as a “bad artist” as a child, instead of giving up on art, they might practice a lot, take art classes, and work hard at improving their artistic abilities. They don’t see the label or a previous experience as definitive.
People with growth mindsets approach the world differently. They tend to enjoy learning more. They tend to seek out opportunities to challenge themselves more because they understand that by doing this, they will improve at whatever they’re working at. They aren’t as afraid of failure, because it doesn’t say anything about them as a person. They tend to put in a lot more effort even when things are hard. They also tend to take more risks in their lives. They admit mistakes easier and accept feedback so that they can learn and grow more. School is about learning, and sports and hobbies are about improving.
I came across a great quote that describes the difference between these two mindsets. The only problem is that I can’t find the original source! So here is the quote and if I ever find the source I’ll add it back in here.
Growth mindset kids understand that they are becoming. Fixed mindset kids don’t have that luxury.
So what do you do if you or your child has more of a fixed mindset than a growth mindset? Stay tuned – that’s coming up next!
(Most of the information in this post is from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you found this interesting and want to learn more, I’d highly recommend checking it out. She also has pages of references to the actual scientific studies behind these ideas in the book as well.)