Carol Dweck


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This report on NPR asks the question, “How do attitudes toward struggle impact learning?”  The basis of the report is research done by Dr. Jim Stigler, a professor at UCLA.  His findings echo what Dr. Carol Dweck says in her book, Mindset.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory.”

The central finding of Dr. Dweck’s research is that success is the outgrowth of an attitude that one’s potential is unknown.  If a person believes that their skills are predetermined they also tend to believe their potential is limited.  The reporter provides an example from another researcher that supports this finding (emphasis mine).

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess, and she responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown-ups?

Child: I know … talk about books.

Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.

Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence is believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

How do you overcome this view?  Drs. Stigler, Li and Dweck agree that the best approach is to focus on process instead of ability.  The quote below illustrates how an Asian parent interacts with her child.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

If you follow this blog you know that I view Dr. Dweck’s research with very high regard.  Any learning professional, whether they work with children or adults, will tell you that attitude is everything.  This report shows that its not just an attitude toward the subject but one’s attitude about him- or herself that determines success.

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Those with the growth mindset found setbacks motivating.  They’re informative.  They’re a wake-up call.

-Carol Dweck

Reading those sentences reminded me of an episode of Seinfeld where George does the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do.

By the end of the episode he has a job and is dating a girl he never would have talked to if he followed his instincts.  I doubt this is what Dr. Dweck had in mind when she addressed failure in her book.  However, it illustrates how a person can achieve beyond their perceived capabilities if they learn to respond differently to failure.

Is there a difference between teaching and learning?  Why do some participants “get it” while others don’t?  Is success dependent on natural talent?

As a learning professional, these are the things I think about.  Not all the time, but I am sure more than most people do.  I’m always looking for ways to improve the results of my work.

In her book, Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck shows how ordinary athletes became extraordinary through hard work.  By way of contrast she introduces the chapter by reviewing the career of Billy Beane.  You may recognize his name from the movie Moneyball.  Billy Beane was a gifted athlete, a natural.  He excelled in basketball, football, and baseball.  He decided to pursue baseball professionally and struggled.  He was in the fixed mindset, incapable of accepting failure and unable to correct what was going wrong.  But that’s not the end of the story.

Dr. Dweck explains how Billy Beane turned it around, not as a baseball player but as an executive.  He learned how to turn a perceived failure into a learning opportunity.  In other words, he adopted the growth mindset.  In the video below (CAUTION: strong language), you see how he applied the growth mindset to build a winning baseball team despite having the second lowest payroll in baseball.

Toward the end of the clip you see the difference in his approach.  The scouts in the room were focused on finding talented players because that is how it was always done.  But the economics of baseball prevented teams with a limited payroll from acquiring enough talented players to win.  In effect, they had lost before the team even set foot on the field.

The scouts perfectly illustrate the fixed mindset.  Your success is limited to where your talent will take you.  Billy Beane’s mindset says, find players who get the most of the talent they have and let’s see where it takes us.  I lived in Northern California during the time this movie took place and the excitement around this team was amazing.  It helped that they were winning.

So where did Billy Beane learn the mindset?  He attributes it to Lenny Dykstra, one of the least likely players to become an all-star.  Despite his lack of natural talent he made the most of what ability he had.  Billy Beane said of Dykstra that “he had no concept of failure.”  When things didn’t work out, he just kept on trying.

According to Wikipedia, Lenny Dykstra was a 13th round draft pick by the New York Mets in 1981.  After a short time in the minors he joined the major league team in 1985.  He made the All-Star team 3 times, played in two World Series, came in second in MVP voting in 1993, and had a post-season batting average of .321.

Success has not continued in Oakland and the excitement has worn off even though they are still applying the same principles.  Does that mean the principles don’t work?  Far from it.  One of the reasons they are not successful is because other teams have adopted their methodology.  Clearly that makes the job of fielding a winning team harder but their past success shows that it can be done.  It all depends on how you respond to the challenge.

Back in January Harvard Business Review posted an interview of Carol Dweck.  It lasts about 15 minutes.  Below are some teasers excerpts from the transcript (available by following the link).

CAROL DWECK: So what message should a manager or leader give to new recruits that would put them into more of a growth mindset?

First, I think the message from the top is really important, that we value passion, dedication, growth, and learning, not genius.

You have to listen to get two, three, and four.

CAROL DWECK: So the companies now that are thriving are the ones that give this message (1-4 from above). And also, my research has shown, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t praise talent. You don’t praise ability. You praise process.

This is an interesting point.  An organization that invests in assembling a great team may not succeed if it does not nurture an environment where the team can succeed.  If everyone is doing their job in their own way the team is likely to struggle.  Dr. Dweck addresses this later in the interview.

And this is a time of tremendous change where, like it or not, you’re going to have periods of confusion. Like it or not, you’re going to turn into a novice over and over again. And we need to be comfortable with struggle, not just effort, but struggle, confusion.

This struggle is due to external factors.  We all know the marketplace is constantly changing.  Often the ability to adapt to this change is what determines an organization’s success.  Don’t compound the confusion by allowing internal confusion.

According to Dr. Dweck successful organizations recognize and reward employees who stretch themselves and take reasonable risks regardless of the outcome.  I would add that successful organizations recognize team members who see an opportunity, pursue it, and succeed.  When it doesn’t succeed, take time to learn why.  This is part of the process.

I am finally getting back to reading Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck.  To review, according to Dr. Dweck there are two mindsets the differentiate successful people from others, fixed and growth.

At the end of the second chapter she uses the movie Groundhog Day to illustrate these two mindsets.  At the beginning of the movie Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, considers “himself to be a superior being.”  At the groundhog ceremony he shows “contempt for the ceremony, the town, and the people.”

In the movie he finds himself repeating the same day over and over.  When he realizes his predicament he uses the knowledge he gains through repeating the same day “to further his typical agenda, making fools out of other people.  Since he is the only one reliving the day, he can talk to a woman on one day, and then use the information to deceive, impress, and seduce her on the next.  He is in fixed-mindset heaven.  He can prove his superiority over and over.”

After repeating this cycle countless times, he realizes “he could be using this time to learn.”  In fact he has been learning all along but just using the knowledge selfishly.  The real change that happens is the realization that he can be using his time to improve himself.

Once Phil realizes this “he goes for piano lessons.  He reads voraciously.  He learns ice sculpting.  He finds out about people who need help that day (a boy who falls from a tree, a man who chokes on his steak) and starts to help them, and care about them.  Pretty soon the day is not long enough!  Only when this change of mindset is complete is he released from the spell.”

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck tells the story of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (on the left in the video above).  She is a gifted violinist.  In her childhood she was considered a prodigy.  However, in her teen years she resisted instruction and nearly threw it all away.

Everything I was going through boiled down to fear.  Fear of trying and failing…if you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse…Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I have it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’

At this point in her book, Dr. Dweck is refuting the idea that geniuses do not need to practice.  Our culture reinforces the view that the truly great do not need to work hard.  Their talents are so vast that everything they accomplish comes from talent they were born with.

This view is so paralyzing that it causes the person with a fixed mindset to give up trying because trying and failing would mean you might not actually be able to achieve what you want.  It also robbed Salerno-Sonnenberg of her motivation because actually practicing would rob her of excuses.  When faced with an ultimatum from her teacher at Julliard she decided to resume her training.

Below is a 2 minute clip of her talking about her approach to practicing years later.
(Note: YouTube has prevented this clip from being embedded so you have to watch it on their site.)

The bottom line is, you never know how good you can be if you don’t put out the effort.  It is true that you might fail to match expectations, let alone be a genius.  Remember where those expectations came from.  All a person can do is keep trying and learning.  This is the essence of the growth mindset.

John McEnroe is one of the most gifted tennis players of all time but he is better known for his temper than his championships.  I played tennis when McEnroe was in his prime and I watched him play quite a bit.  I appreciated his talent and wanted to be a fan but I had a hard time reconciling his attitude with his skill on the court.  Looking at the video above is painful.

Carol Dweck offers McEnroe as an example of someone with a fixed mindset.  According to Dr. Dweck, “people [with a fixed mindset] believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. This is wrong.”

In her book, Mindset, she contrasts a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

The implications of this simple difference in mindset has tremendous implications.  According to her research, Dr. Dweck describes a person with a fixed mindset with one goal of constantly proving themselves.  “Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character.”  She goes on to say that “people with a fixed mindset feel a sense of urgency to succeed, and when they do, they feel more than a sense of pride.  They may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s.”

By contrast, people with the growth mindset “believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that its impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.”

Dr. Dweck uses Mia Hamm as an example of a person with the growth mindset.  “First she played with her older brother.  Then at ten, she joined the eleven-year-old boys’ team.  Then she threw herself into the number one college team in the United States.”  In the clip below she expresses this mindset.

I can’t recommend this book enough.  Every page provides new insight on this simple yet profound difference.