Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, has been a thought-provoking read for me (Lisa). I recently heard a Russian friend describe herself as a ‘big sheep, hard to turn,’ and I immediately pictured a recalcitrant, wooly beast on a green hillside, with a tough, determined pair of shepherds in nubby berets attempting to head it back home. As a Lamb, I loved the image, though of course moments later I realized she had probably been referring to herself with the more common image of a ‘big ship.’ As an older-than-midpoint, hard-to-turn, big sheep, I am working hard to cultivate what Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. Dweck’s thesis is that our capacity to grow is hugely influenced by how we conceive of the possibilities within ourselves for growth. She strenuously questions the theory that intelligence or even talent for sport or artistic endeavors is largely innate and static. Sure, she admits, at the top and bottom few percentage points, some possess a quality we might label genius or a distinct lack thereof, but for the vast majority of us, intelligence is far more fluid than set, far more developable than fixed. The brain is much more malleable than we’ve previously understood.
Some of her research is quite sobering: researchers were able to instill a fixed mindset (i.e., a belief that success at a task came as a result of their innate ability) in children simply by praising them for their talent at solving puzzles (“Wow! You must be really good at this! You’re a natural!”). They praised another group of children for their effort, resilience, and perseverance in solving the puzzles. What came next was striking: they asked each group if they would like to try a harder puzzle or continue working the same, easy one. Those praised for innate ability chose to conserve their gains and stick to the easy puzzle, whereas those who’d been primed for a growth mindset clamored for harder puzzles. Perhaps most troubling was that when they offered the fixed mindset kids puzzles to take home and practice, they actually lied and mumbled that they already had some at home!
Dweck found that a simple test for agreement or disagreement on a series of statements (“I believe intelligence is largely innate and there is little one can do to change it”) could determine whether a person approached life’s tasks from a fixed or a growth mindset. From there, they tested for a number of other variables, and found that those with a fixed mindset had a much harder time with the following crucial life tasks: asking for help, receiving criticism, rebounding from failure, celebrating the success of others, and persevering through obstacles. Strikingly, managers with a fixed mindset were less likely to mentor others.
Since the capacity to grow strikes me as pretty darn central to becoming an effective leader, or even simply a disciple, I have been working on a seminar that integrates the best of Dweck’s insights with the teachings of Jesus and Paul about growth. I see Jesus confronting a fixed mindset in the Pharisees again and again, most strikingly in John 8:31 where he invites Jewish listeners to continue in his teaching and they reply, “We are descendants of Abraham...,” as if that negated any need for his teaching. His imagery of vines growing and plants budding in good soil give vivid, attractive pictures of growth. I see him calling Peter to receive criticism and to recover well from failure. I see Paul instilling a growth mindset in the Philippians (with his confidence that the One who began a good work in them will carry it on to completion, Phil. 1:6) and in his disciple Timothy (“Let all people see your progress,” 1 Timothy 4:15). I acknowledge that Scripture brings a twist to Dweck’s paradigm: we grow as a result of effort we make in partnership with the good work God is doing in us, and we rebound from failure as a result of the grace Christ shows us. Still, I find her insights to be profound, and relevant to a post-Soviet context which for years suppressed risk, initiative, and constructive feedback.
I have had to apply a growth mindset to my own development of Dweck’s material for college students and IFES staff. My first try at it fell a little flat. I splattered a bunch of Scripture passages out there and then tried to move inductively to build a theory of the growth mindset. It was confusing and fell short of my hopes. I reflected with Rich on what might work better, and reshaped the session with Dweck’s categories at the top, and relevant Scriptures later. I added humorous and painful stories of my own struggles to overcome a fixed mindset, and crafted a set of application questions for small group response time. On the third try, it felt like a home run. Now I just need to set that success in stone….er, stay open to new ways to further develop it. I do look forward to opportunities to teach this seminar in upcoming country visits, and I encourage you to consider where you may be stuck in a fixed mindset, or may be inadvertently instilling one in your children or those you teach and lead.
If you’d like to learn more, I recommend this TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc
Rich and Lisa Lamb