Door Anton Vanhoucke

I gravely misunderstood the Growth Mindset. Here’s what I learned.

a man and a girl wearing capes playing heroes

Carol S. Dweck’s work, ‘Mindset,’ is seminal. It is one of these must-read non-fiction books, up there with The Seven Habits, and Thinking Fast and Slow. Until recently, I did not read the book: the web is full of infographics explaining the Growth Mindset. After reading the book, however, I discovered that I had a lot to learn. Here are my new insights. I hope they will help your understanding too. It’s a long read, but readers say it’s worth it.

The basic idea is simple: having a growth mindset is believing you can improve at anything with effort. The opposite belief is the fixed mindset. It means you feel that talent is innate: it’s a trait that defines your status. These mindsets seem straightforward. Nigel Holmes’ diagram below explains it pretty well. You’ve probably seen it before.

Growth Mindset Summary by Nigel Holmes

In the bottom right corner, we see: “Higher levels of achievement and a greater sense of free will.” And all of that just by changing your mind. Sounds good, doesn’t it? If only it was as easy as this diagram.

Let’s go through the pitfalls of the Growth Mindset, starting with one of my weak points: blaming. I tend to blame myself mostly, and I thought it was ok with the Growth Mindset. I was owning my mistakes. Or was I?

A growth mindset means you blame nobody, not even yourself.

The legendary basketball coach John Wooden says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. He means that you can learn from your mistakes until you deny them or until you pin them on others. Even the successful Jack Welch made multi-million dollar mistakes, admitted them, and owned the results. Instead of blaming, he apologized personally, fixed the problem immediately, and learned to prevent something similar from happening again.

You aren’t a failure until you start to blame.

John Wooden

Did Welch blame himself? In words, he did. But not in action. He cleaned up. There is a subtle difference between blaming oneself and owning your mistakes. Owning the mistake means you don’t fret, but you double down, improving the process and increasing the effort. If the milk spills, you don’t say: “I’m clumsy,” or: “I should have paid attention.” You say: “The milk spilled. Let’s clean it up. And let’s ensure it happens less.”

Owning your mistakes is a careful balance between humility and self-confidence. You have to be humble enough to admit problems and confident enough to clean up. But How humble should you be?

Humility will tell you to put in the extra effort, not to feel superior, and not to blame others. 

Too humble, and nobody sees you. Too humble, and your ambitions will shrink. Not humble enough, and you become arrogant, overbearing, and dismissive of mistakes.

In his autobiography, Jack Welch has an entire chapter titled ‘Too Full of Myself.’ He says there is only a razor’s edge between self-confidence and hubris. And true self-confidence is the courage to be open and to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Genuine self-confidence is your readiness to grow.

From that mindset, Welch rewarded teamwork rather than individual genius: “Leaders were encouraged to share the credit for ideas with their teams rather than take full credit themselves. It made a huge difference in how we all related to one another.”

Internal relations are more valuable than you’d think. It’s not only nice. Science proves that inclusion and diversity are great drivers for team performance. Why? When you solve complex problems, having more perspectives leads to better solutions. The problem is people do not always feel confident enough to voice their perspectives. Stereotyping could be in the way.

Stereotypes stifle the growth mindset.

Stereotyping can be subtle and insidious. Experiments show that when women do work that is not traditionally associated with their gender, their growth mindset is very fragile. A careless remark, reminding them of their gender, just before a task can fill women with self-doubt and put them in a fixed mindset. 

I haven’t read experiments with other stereotypes or ethnicities, but I suppose the same thing will happen, maybe even worse. So you’d better avoid stereotypes if you want your team to learn and achieve great things. 

Avoiding stereotypes helps performance as well as diversity in thinking and perspectives. This diversity prevents groupthink and signals issues early. It helps you work smarter.

Working smarter is part of the growth mindset too. It is not only about putting in the effort. That brings us to another growth mindset myth.

Myth: with enough hard work, you can achieve anything

Hard-work-only is a brute-force approach. Some people think that if brute force doesn’t work, you’re just not using enough. Dweck – and I – disagree. A growth mindset is also about analyzing mistakes and improving the process. Say you have dyslexia. Working harder at reading texts is probably not the best solution for you. Improving the process means experimenting with different fonts or with audio material. 

You hear people say: “I foster a Growth Mindset. I tell my kids they can achieve anything.” It sounds growth-minded, but you could be misleading your kid.

It is more growth-minded and realistic to say. “You can improve at anything if you put in the work and develop the process. Want to be an astronaut? Great! Let’s find out what it takes and have fun trying to become one. Maybe it works out.”

Moonshots are great. They drive curiosity and ambition. But you also need to enjoy the journey for two reasons: not reaching the goal is less of a disappointment, and enjoyable journeys are easier to maintain.

Look for joy in the process.

When my kids pick up a hobby, I put serious effort into selecting a teacher. I need a teacher who masters the process and can transmit the joy of playing on every level—otherwise, these hobbies never last.

For myself, I often make the mistake of giving internal feedback all the time. It may seem like a growth mindset, but it takes away my enjoyment. More and more, I try to also simply enjoy my abilities. Enjoying the moment is especially important when I perform, like in a tennis match or a presentation. The constant internal feedback is detracting.

When I practice tennis or my kids practice music, we do it for the joy of playing. The joy ensures we keep putting in the effort. And we keep things interesting by having a plan. If all the playing goes nowhere, we are sure to lose interest and joy.

So joy helps us to put in the effort. However, some people are so fixed that they fear making an effort will prove they are not exceptional. Why can success be such a blocker for the growth mindset? Let’s find out.

Myth: if you need effort, you don’t have talent.

We grow up with more fixed mindset stories than you’d think. Take, for instance, the hare and the tortoise. The tortoise wins the race through sheer focus and effort. But honestly? I want to be the hare, winning anyway, with a little effort. 

There is a stubborn myth that effort is for those who don’t have the ability. The myth is fueled by many YouTube videos where people do extraordinary things as if it’s easy for them. You never see videos about how long they practiced.

The movie Amadeus portrays Mozart as a born genius, thwarted by the jealous Antonio Salieri. Historians will tell you that this is utter nonsense. Mozart worked hard from an early age, supported by Salieri, to develop his talent. He wrote mediocre music too. But again, that is a less sensational story.

When you think of it, that makes sense. The problem is you don’t often think of it. You have emotions before you think. Your rational brain knows geniuses must have practiced, but your emotional brain remembers amazing YouTube videos or the Amadeus movie. The feeling you get is: I have no talent. Why bother?

Myth: lowering standards boosts self-esteem.

We’re having a self-esteem pandemic with YouTube, TikTok, ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia, and challenging economic times. Self-esteem and self-confidence are essential for success. But science shows that lowering the bar does not work. It’s insincere and smothers ambition. 

The self-confidence we need is not about meeting expectations, even lower ones. We need the confidence that we can improve with process and application. It’s the confidence that you can make mistakes and progress. It’s not about what you are. Clinging to what you are fosters the fixed mindset.

Even when things go well, low standards can halt the learning process. If someone picks up something quickly and flawlessly, praise is risky. A better reaction is: “Whoops, I guess that was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can learn from.”

The magic word for self-confidence is: ‘yet.’ Instead of saying: “I’m not a level 5 tennis player,” you say: “I’m no level 5 tennis player yet.” I have another blog post with tips to make people feel confident through psychological safety.

Let’s finish this paragraph with John Wooden: “Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The right question is: Did I make my best effort? If so, you may be outscored but never lose.” 

Praise the process by tieing it to the outcome.

Ok, science tells us setting high standards and praising the process fosters learning. But we still have a pitfall to avoid: praising the effort when it’s not there. Praise is not a consolation when people are not learning. People could be making no effort or the wrong effort.

If working harder doesn’t solve it, you need different strategies. You need to tie the process to the outcome when you praise the process. Set high standards and make sure people reach them.

Everyone has both mindsets, fixed and growth.

I firmly believed I had a 100% growth mindset. After reading ‘Mindset,’ I understand everyone has both mindsets. It’s not either-or. You can cultivate the growth mindset and ensure it takes the wheel more often. Your fixed mindset is there for good reasons: it wants to protect you from failure and ridicule. I called my fixed mindset Mr. I-knew-it. In Flemish, that’s Mr. Kwistet. 

Accepting both mindsets made it easier for me to prefer the growth mindset. It also showed me my Mr. I-knew-it triggers. 

Whenever I see people make impressive moves on YouTube, Mr. I-knew-it quietly tells me I don’t have talent. He knew it! The video is proof. So why bother practicing? Much better to go on doomscrolling.

Now that I’m conscious of Mr. I-knew-it, I can laugh at his suggestion and start practicing anyway. I also know this:

Just because some people can do something with little or no training doesn’t mean that others can’t do it.

When I was 16, my girlfriend had just started playing flute and was struggling. I asked if I could try. Surprisingly, I could play 4-5 songs from her book immediately. She broke up with me and never played flute again.

What happened? I had reasonable Saxophone playing skills at the time, having practiced for four years. The fingering and lip tension is very similar for the flute and saxophone. 

Was I talented? Not at all. I was applying something I learned in a different context. That, and my ex-girlfriend had a rather loud fixed mindset. I apologized for this embarrassment much later, and she said it still hurt. Luckily, she also never praised my talent. 

Never ever praise people’s talent (unless you want them to fail).

People say that praise fuels learning and development. And you’d think that criticism hurts self-confidence. But the truth is not that simple. Dweck experimented with praise and came to some stunning conclusions. She gave the same assignment to two groups of students. One group was praised for the process and effort. The other for their talent. What happened? The students who were praised for their talent:

  • Preferred easier follow-up challenges over harder ones. They risked losing their ’talented’ status.
  • The students lost interest sooner because they felt like they had reached success.
  • The students Lied about their test results to other students for fear of being unmasked as not talented!

Just praising kids for their talent turned them into liars! Praising intelligence and talent makes their confidence and motivation more fragile. I’m pretty sure this also happens with the grown-up kids at work. 

Praising talent may make people feel like they made it. But there is no such thing as having made it. Here’s why.

When you achieve success, there is no happy ever after

Through fairy tales and cowboy stories, we have come to believe that all is well that ends well. In reality, that doesn’t happen. Wouldn’t that be utterly boring?

If you reach the top, you must keep working and training to stay there. Here’s where the fixed mindset fails spectacularly. You cannot win a sports competition and expect to keep winning without training just as hard. You cannot launch a successful product and expect to keep market share without developing it further. It goes for marriages too. You work hard to find a partner, and it’s an illusion that you can stop when the relationship is on.

Change is not automatically maintained when people change their mindset to further their careers, heal from a loss, help their children thrive, lose weight, or control their anger. It’s astounding – once a problem improves, people stop doing what caused it to improve. Once you feel better, you stop taking your medicine. But change doesn’t work that way.

You can help others maintain change with the right kind of praise. We have seen the wrong kind, but what is the right kind?

Reacting to success and failure with the right kind of praise

Ok, praise and feedback are a minefield. We discussed all the wrong things to say. What about the right kind of feedback? When things go well, show interest and admiration for the process:

  • “That drawing has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
  • “That homework was long and involved. I admire the way you concentrated and finished it. How did you stick to it?”
  • “When you play that song, it gives me a real feeling of joy. How do you feel when you play it?”

When things don’t go as expected, try to work from the partial successes and develop experiments to improve:

  • “Everyone learns differently. Let’s keep trying to find the way that works for you.”
  • “You didn’t win because the others practiced more. They’ve been at it longer. You’ve come a long way, and if you want, you could train more and stand another chance.”
  • “Son, this looks like a boring assignment. You have my sympathy. Can you think of a way to make it more interesting?”
  • “Son, I feel sad seeing you missing a chance to learn. Can you think of a way to do this that would help you learn more?”

In summary: I’ve learned much about what the growth mindset is not.

  1. A growth mindset is not only about being open-minded and flexible. You can be ‘open-minded’ about ‘losers,’ but you would be blaming and judging. The growth mindset means you cultivate talent. Cultivating talent means no blame. 
  2. A growth mindset is not only about effort. No, it is also about continuous improvement and the smarts. It’s the process: Wax-on, wax-off.
  3. A growth mindset is not about building false self-confidence by lowering standards. You risk praising the effort when it’s not there. The growth mindset is about high standards and having fun trying to get there. The magic word for self-confidence is: ‘yet.’ Instead of saying: “I’m not a level 5 tennis player,” you say: “I’m no level 5 tennis player yet.”
  4. A growth mindset is not believing you can do anything. While setting goals is an integral part of the growth mindset, you can’t have these goals without resources and strategies to achieve them. Also, be careful with the goals. Having a talent is not a goal. Winning is not a goal. It’s about finding success in learning. I will read more biographies of my heroes and get inspiration from their goals and efforts.
  5. A growth mindset is not blaming others for having a fixed mindset. “I can’t teach this person. He has a fixed mindset.” Who’s blaming who? Try to figure out what learning strategies these people are missing.
  6. You don’t need a pure Growth Mindset. I will embrace my fixed mindset for what it is and ensure it doesn’t take the wheel at inconvenient times. I’ve named him. What’s the name of your fixed mindset?
  7. A Growth Mindset is not automatically contagious. Even with a growth mindset, you can react to the setbacks of others with anxiety. Or you could inadvertently praise talent or ability. To truly build the growth mindset of those around you, you must embrace setbacks as learning opportunities. Be interested in the process and the effort. I’ll start by keeping a log of the constructive criticism and process praise I’ve given to others. It probably won’t be much in the beginning.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Consider following this blog or following me on LinkedIn. In my next article, I will write about the Growth Mindset in a Business context.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject. 

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