by Jen Murphy
Picture this: while in an airport, you praise your child for being a “genius”. To which, a woman interjects and warns you of the perils of praising your little cherub for their intelligence. This is what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has been known to do. But why? Seems a bit extreme, ey? Yet, there is logic to this… In the 1970’s, Dweck set-out to study how children cope with failure. But discovered that for some children, ‘coping’ was the wrong frame. In fact, they seemed to thrive on failing as an opportunity to learn.
“What is wrong with them?” I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?
Yep, they were on to something. These children aided Dweck’s discovery of ‘mindset’. Mindset helps us understand the internal beliefs we hold about our intelligence, talents and abilities. Dweck identifies two types of mindset in children (and adults): 1. Fixed Mindset and 2. Growth Mindset.
In a fixed mindset, you believe your intelligence is finite. You’re born with a certain amount of innate intelligence, which you can’t grow. You’re naturally good at some things but not others. Any endeavour that requires effort is a sign that you don’t possess the natural ability to do this well. So for example, if you’re a Mathematics whizz-kid, you’ll relish praise that reinforces how awesome you are at Math and seek to maintain this status. Being great at Math becomes part of your identity, of who you are. Whereas if you have to make more effort at say, Art, you believe you’re ‘bad’ at it. It’s not one of your talents so why expend your efforts on it? How many adults have you heard say,”I can’t draw”. This belief got fixed as a child and so they accepted it and never tried to improve.
A growth mindset on the other hand, has grit. You believe that your intelligence and talents can grow and evolve through hard work and perseverance. Your destiny isn’t predetermined by your IQ. Effort is what activates your ability to do something well not natural talent (although it can help of course). This fosters a love of learning and an appreciation of criticism as guidance to do better. Failures are learning. In fact, by trying things out, testing your ideas, making mistakes, and adapting as a result; your brain forms new neural pathways – it literally grows!!
Have you ever wondered why naturally gifted people often don’t reach their full potential? Yet, those who are less talented go on to achieve incredible things? Growth mindset might be your answer. Research shows that effort and perseverance are better indicators of success in life than intelligence. Exciting, right? This means we don’t need to be Einsteins to achieve great things. As Angela Duckworth puts it in her book Grit:
“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”
In one of Dweck’s studies, 11-12 year olds were given puzzles to solve. After the puzzles, one cohort received praise for their intelligence. “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” Other children received ‘process praise’. They were praised for the effort they put into solving the problems, the strategies they used and how persistent they were. “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard.”
Students then had the option to work on an easy problem or a difficult one. Those whose intelligence was praised, chose the easy option as they wanted to maintain their label as “smart”. Whereas, students praised for their effort were up for the tougher challenge. They were hungry to learn. Finally, all of the children were tasked with a difficult set of problems. Those who received intelligence praise lost their confidence quickly while their process peers flourished.
If you can spare a worthy 9 minutes 59 seconds, watch this compelling animation that explains Dweck’s research:
Another of Dweck’s studies shows that mother’s praise for their babies can predict the child’s mindset and appetite for challenge five-years later. OK, so slightly alarming for me and tiny o, my little 2-year old social guinea pig. But as parents we have agency. We can use process praise to help nurture a growth mindset in our kids. In the Danish Way of Parenting, Jessica Joelle Alexander points out how we (understandably) think that telling kids how brainy they are boosts their confidence. Yet, when faced head-on with difficulty, it can actually undermine their confidence. So instead, keep praise focused on the effort the child has made rather than innate ability.
She provides a number of examples… as opposed to saying: “You did great on your test because you’re so smart”, say, “You studied really hard for your test, and your improvement shows it. You went over the material many times, made cue cards, and quizzed yourself. That really worked!”. This helps children understand that, to quote Einstein himself, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” This also means that when your child struggles you can acknowledge their feelings and help them come-up with solutions rather than using praise to make them feel better. “When your friend says those things it hurts your feelings and I can tell you feel sad. What might help you right now?” (Mother.ly)
Growth mindset is critical for us adults too. Having a fixed mindset can hold you back in your career and life goals whereas a growth mindset can help you thrive and ‘live your best life’ 😉 Most of us have a mixture of growth and fixed traits. Observe yourself in work over the coming days and see if you can notice your default. I’ll be dedicating an upcoming blog to exploring this more…
BBC Radio 4 Mind Changers Podcast – Interview with Carol Dweck and visit to a UK primary school where growth mindset is part of the curriculum