Today, we’re going to talk about the concept of mindset. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the distinction between what’s called the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset and the growth mindset are known by some other terms a little more technical—one is the static or the entity view of intelligence, and the other is the dynamic or the incremental view of intelligence—but we’re just going to use the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to make it a little bit easier to understand and a little bit more simple. And, honestly, you don’t really need the fancy technical terms to really understand what’s fundamentally kind of a simple yet powerful concept. And this concept was really popularized by the author and psychologist Carol Dweck, which she has a fantastic book. I highly recommend everybody to check it out. It’s called Mindset. And she goes into great detail about this, but the fascinating thing about the distinction between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset, which I’ll tell you all about each of those in a second… But the fascinating thing is that the difference in people’s mindset is detectable as early as age four. And they’ve actually done studies with children before kindergarten and they’ve seen that people start to exhibit traits in certain mindsets at such an early age. And, of course, the distinction continues to manifest itself throughout people’s lives the older that they get.
So, what is the fixed mindset? We’ll start there. The fixed mindset is a belief that people’s basic qualities—such as their intelligence, or their talent, their character, their abilities—are fixed traits. They’re unchangeable. It’s the belief that you have a natural level of talent; you have a natural level of ability that cannot be changed no matter what you do. And so people in the fixed mindset spend the majority of their time trying to document and prove and show everyone else how talented they are. They want to show everybody how smart they are. They want to show everybody how successful they are. Because if you have a fixed, static quantity of something… Let’s just use intelligence as an example. And you can actually have a different mindset for different areas of your life, which you’ll probably find once you understand this distinction. But the fixed mindset is just this belief that you and your abilities are fundamentally static. And that has a bunch of manifestations in the way that you behave, the way you interact in the world, the way you deal with challenges, and many other things. Let’s contrast that to the growth mindset. In the growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities—their intelligence, their talent, their skills, their character—can be developed through hard work, through process, through training, through dedication and focus.
In the growth mindset, where you are today, your current abilities, are just the starting point. So, this seems like a relatively trivial distinction. Okay, so what? So, what if I have a belief that people have fixed abilities or people have malleable abilities? Why does it really matter? Well, before we dig into that, I want to ask you…or I want to read to you four statements, and these are from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. But just take note yourself. See if you agree or disagree with each of these statements. The first statement: “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.” Statement number two: “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change much how intelligent you are.” Statement number three: “No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.” Statement number four: “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.” And here’s a bonus question as well: Would you rather have lots of success and validation, or lots of challenges? Is success to you about learning and improving, or is success to you about proving that you’re smart, that you’re better than people? Now, clearly statements number one and two were fixed mindset statements, and statements three and four are more growth mindset statements. There’s nothing wrong with being in either mindset. In fact, I was a fixed mindset about many, many areas of my life, including success, sports, athletics, all kinds of different things, and the reality is that limited me and that held me back in many, many ways, which I’ll tell you about in just a second. But there’s nothing wrong with being a fixed mindset because you can always change your mindset, and we’ll talk about how and why to change your mindset towards the end of the podcast. But take stock and really ask yourself. And, again, you maybe…you may have a different view, a different framework or a different belief for different areas in your life. But ask yourself: In the areas that are most important to you, would you rather have success and validation, or would you rather have challenges and opportunities to grow?
So, what are some of the implications of each of these mindsets? The fixed mindset—the belief that my traits, my abilities, my intelligence are unchangeable—leads to a number of behaviors which are often destructive or counterproductive. The first is how people with a fixed mindset approach challenges. In the fixed mindset, challenges are scary. You don’t want to face challenges. And, believe me, I know because this describes me to a tee in so many areas of my life, it was unbelievable. But challenges were always something that would put you on trial. They would show who you really are, and if you failed, you were a failure, and that leads to a deep avoidance of challenges. People on the fixed mindset are scared of challenge because challenge could show them to be a failure, or show them to be not gifted or not good at whatever they want to do, or whatever they have constructed a story that they’re good at. And you can see this behavior manifest itself when people sometimes will intentionally handicap themselves or won’t give it their all, and they hold on to this excuse that, oh, well, I was just playing around; I didn’t give it my all, because it’s a psychological defense, protecting their identity from the fact that if they failed at this challenge, because they believe their abilities are set in stone, their intelligence and talent is fixed, that one failure means they are a failure. It’s a state of being. It’s not a particular outcome.
So, challenges are scary things and they don’t want to be challenged. And the crazy thing about this is that children in the first grade have been given a math test. And they give them a test. You know, everybody… They have two control groups. Everybody gets just a simple math test, right? It’s essentially that kind of grade level. And then they offered the students a choice: They can either take a similar math test, or they can take a much more difficult math test. And this is really when you can start see people breaking out into the fixed versus the growth mindset. Because in the fixed mindset, remember, you have a static view of your mathematical abilities or your intelligence or your smarts, and so people will shy away from the scary, hard test. They want to get another A. They want to thrive and feel successful and feel like they’re smart, because success in the fixed mindset is when things feel effortless and easy, and so they opt for the easier test because they want to be the student that has two As on both of their quizzes so that they can brag about how smart they are. The students with the growth mindset opt for the more challenging quiz because they want to challenge themselves. They want to see new opportunities. They want to learn and they want to push themselves out of their comfort zone and into a place where they may not know the answers, but they know that that’s going to make them better. That’s going to improve them. That’s going to increase their skills and increase their abilities, because they’re not worried about where their abilities are today; they’re worried about improving and getting better.
And that’s a very small example but, if you think about it, you can apply that across people’s lives. People constantly opt for the easy, safe, risk-free, failure-free path because they don’t want to fail, because failure means being labeled a failure. It means your identity is that of a failure, and that’s one of the most dangerous parts of having a fixed mindset. And so that manifests itself in the way that people with a fixed mindset deal with obstacles. Obstacles are a definition. It means I have failed. I have hit a roadblock. Now I have to give up, because if I was good at this naturally, I wouldn’t have any obstacles; because success, to me, is something that’s easy and something that’s effortless, so as soon as I hit an obstacle, I’m going to give up. I’m just going to do something else that I’m gifted at and not something that’s hard. And, again, that describes my behavior in so many areas of my life until I discovered this distinction and really discovered the book Mindset. But it’s a really unfortunate method of behavior for somebody that wants to be successful, that wants to achieve their goals, and so it’s a very dangerous mode of thought.
Similarly, the fixed mindset—the belief that my abilities are set in stone—leads people to view effort very, very differently. Somebody once told me an example of a lacrosse player who told his coach, “I’m not a practice player; I’m a game player,” because people with a fixed mindset don’t want to practice. They don’t need to practice because they’re so gifted that practice is unnecessary. And so people with a fixed mindset see effort as worthless. They see effort as for the lesser people who have to work hard, when they’re naturally gifted and talented. But, of course, we know that even the most…the greatest, most successful athletes—people like Michael Jordan—worked tirelessly, practiced endlessly. The idea that effort is fruitless or for the people who are not as well-endowed as them is a terrible way of thinking, but that’s the world of the fixed mindset. Because if you have to exert effort, you’re not naturally gifted. Similarly—and this one, to me, is maybe the most important—people with a fixed mindset really can’t handle criticism. They can’t deal with negative feedback. And it makes sense. In a world where your abilities are completely static, criticism means it’s literally a degradation of who you are. It’s a degradation of your identity, especially if it’s something important to you. The more important it is, the more likely you are to ignore the criticism, the more likely you are to subconsciously reject the criticism because you cannot accept that redefinition of your identity as someone who is good at x or someone who is successful at y. And so people with a fixed mindset shut down when they hear criticism.
And this is the crazy thing. They actually did a study at Columbia where they measured brain waves, and they found that people with a fixed mindset, when they were receiving feedback, their brain showed increased activity and excitement when they got the results of what they had done. But as soon as criticism and feedback were offered, their brain activity showed complete disinterest. It’s pretty amazing if you think about it. Again, it makes sense and it’s validated by psychological research. People with a fixed mindset do not want to hear criticism. They cannot handle the criticism because their belief is that their identity is static, and so they cannot accept that redefinition of their identity. And one of the last ways this manifests itself negatively: The fixed mindset cannot handle or cannot cope with the success of other people. They view others as a threat. They view other people—and this is a critical distinction—as judges. They feel like they’re being judged. They feel a burning need to prove something, to prove themselves to people. Other people are these threats, these judges, these people that are casting judgment down on them, and it really sabotages a lot of opportunities for them. And as a result, all of these different things cause people with a fixed mindset to plateau. It causes them not to be successful, causes them to self-sabotage. It negatively impacts their ability to achieve what they want.
Let’s contrast that to the growth mindset. Again, the growth mindset — the idea or the belief that intelligence, talent, skill, or ability can be developed; that what you are today is only a starting point. Now, let’s go back through that same list and see how the growth mindset thinks about it. People with the growth mindset embrace challenge. It goes back to the kids taking the math test. They know that taking the more challenging test, while you may get a lower grade, you’re going to be objectively smarter. If you learn, if you try, if you take test with the more difficult problems, you’re improving yourself; you’re challenging yourself. Challenges don’t label you in a negative fashion. All challenges do are enable you and empower you to become better and to improve, and they know that no matter what—any task that you embark on—you’re going to have challenges, and the only way to get better is to embrace and to face those challenges head on. Similarly, the growth mindset approaches obstacles as something that they need to persist and that they need to conquer, and they know, no matter what course you’re going on, you’re going to encounter dozens and dozens of obstacles, and giving up is absolutely the worst thing you can do. And an obstacle isn’t a bad thing in the growth mindset. It doesn’t mean that you’re not successful. All it means is, just like everybody else who’s trying to learn, who’s trying to improve, you’ve encountered an obstacle. Guess what: Everybody encounters obstacles. We’ve talked about that on the podcast before and we’ve talked about how to overcome obstacles, too.
But the growth mindset really enables you to view obstacles as nothing more than a learning process. It’s not about your identity. There’s nothing at stake. Your core definition of yourself isn’t at risk, and so there’s no fear. There’s no need to clam up and give up. Instead, you just persist and you know that, of course, if I’m a beginner, if I’m a novice and I know that hard work and effort and training and practice are necessary to get better, of course I’m going to have obstacles; of course I need to seek out challenges. And that’s how the growth mindset feels about effort. Instead of viewing it as something for the weaker people or something that naturals don’t need, they know effort is the path to mastery, and that’s proven. If you look at Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink—the 10,000 hour rule—effort is the true path to mastery, and people with a growth mindset don’t view effort in a negative light. They know that effort is what you need to exert. They know that training, that practice is how you get better, and there’s no stigma around that. There’s no fear. There’s no ego attached to: [Gasps] If I practice, that means I’m not as good, that means people won’t perceive me as a natural, people won’t perceive me as being talented. That all melts away and they simply approach practice as a necessary step on the path to mastery.
Similarly, criticism. The growth mindset — criticism is a blessing because criticism is what empowers you. It’s what gives you that critical feedback that you need so much to get better. And you’re completely transparent, completely open to criticism because it doesn’t…there’s nothing wrong with being criticized. Criticism only makes you stronger. Feedback only makes you stronger. If you don’t completely believe that, you really, really need to rethink your relationship to criticism and feedback. People who hide from feedback, who hide from criticism, are most definitely locked in the fixed mindset, and they’re doing it because their identity is tied up in the fact that they cannot accept that criticism. But if you let go of the belief that your identity today is a permanent, unchangeable definition of who you are, and you realize that through work and improvement and criticism and feedback about what you’re doing so that you can get better, you can achieve what you want, suddenly criticism…the fear of criticism washes away and you openly seek it out. And if you look at successful businesspeople, successful entrepreneurs, in most cases, they want to be criticized. They need criticism because they know that that’s the only way that they will get better.
Lastly, the success of others. The growth mindset — you view other people as allies on the journey, allies on the path. There are no… There’s no jealousy; there’s no judging; there’s no looking at other people as threats, because other people can help you and you can help them and you can improve. Again, it stems fundamentally from what is your identity? What defines your identity? Is your identity something static? Is it something fixed, that’s unchangeable? Because if it is, that’s a very scary place to be — a place where every little activity, every conversation, everything is about proving “I’m smart. I’m successful. Oh, I have to look good. I have to be good right here.” But in the growth mindset, there’s no fear, there’s no anxiety about that because you know that what I am today can change, and the way to change it is through work and it’s through effort and it’s through practice and it’s through seeking out feedback.
So, here’s an awesome quote from Carol Dweck from the book Mindset: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it even—or especially—when it’s not going well is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”
So, I wanted to share a real-world example with you. In the journal Child Development, Carol Dweck and some of her associates published a study called Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across Adolescent Transition. It’s a pretty wordy title but, of course, most scientific studies have wordy titles. But the research was pretty fascinating. They looked at a New York City junior high school and they found that the mindset of the students… And, again, they can use psychological testing to validate the various…whether people fall into a fixed or growth mindset. They found that the mindset of the students predicted how they would perform in math class. And over a two-year period, students with a fixed mindset had a downward academic trend, while students with a growth mindset had positive upward performance trend in their math skills. So, this is not something… This is not mumbo jumbo. This is backed by scientific research. It’s an incredibly powerful, validated concept.
And if you want to think about the fixed versus the growth mindset… You know, it can be even an organizational mindset. Or if you’re an executive in a company—you know, the CEO, the executives’ suite—those people’s mindsets fundamentally impact the direction of the company. One of the greatest business meltdowns of the 20th century—the Enron collapse—is a textbook manifestation of the fixed mindset. And it’s funny because once you truly kind of understand the distinction between the fixed and the growth mindset, once you really have internalized that difference, it’s as plain as day when you meet somebody, when you spend a little bit of time with them, what mindset they’re in. You can see immediately if somebody is hiding from criticism, if they’re concerned about constantly proving and showing to you how great they are and smart they are, versus if they’re concerned about learning and improving.
Back to Enron. Enron was obsessed with talent—they worshiped talent—and they were obsessed with proving how great they were, showing how smart they were. If you remember the documentary, which is awesome—on Netflix—about the collapse of Enron… It’s called The Smartest Guys In The Room, right? Enron was obsessed with their image. They were obsessed with their fixed perception in the world so much so that the internal pressures eventually snowballed into an epic collapse. Contrast that to the growth mindset and how that impacts businesses. Carol Dweck references the classic business text Good to Great in showing how the most successful business leaders epitomized the growth mindset. Here’s a quote: “These were not larger-than-life, charismatic types who oozed ego and self-proclaimed talent. They were self-effacing people who constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront the most brutal answers, that is, to look failures in the face—even their own—while maintaining faith that they would succeed in the end.” So, this not only impacts your personal performance, but this can impact your business. This impacts your life. The difference between the fixed and the growth mindset is all pervasive.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself… You may be concerned: What if I have a fixed mindset and I can’t change it? And I’ve heard that from people. People have told me that all the time, actually. Funny thing is: People who think that, who think they can’t change their mindset, have a fix mindset about mindsets. And I know that sounds kind of redundant, but there is a fascinating field of research called neuroplasticity, which shows just how much the brain can change itself. There’s a PhD psychiatrist named Norman Doidge—D-O-I-D-G-E—and he’s studied the brain deeply. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Doidge talks about the science behind neuroplasticity and how brains are constantly evolving, changing, and remapping themselves.
Your brain is not a static entity. It’s not a fixed thing. It can change and it does change, and the way that you think and the thought process that you have remap and change your brain. The science of neuroplasticity proves that you can change your mindset. You can switch from being in the growth mindset…from being in the fixed mindset to being in the growth mindset. You can change the way that you perceive reality, that you perceive yourself, that you perceive your fixed abilities or your ability to learn and grow. And, really, at its core, fundamentally, it’s a shift from proving to improving. I think those two words, that’s the simplest way to think about it. Instead of worrying constantly about validating who you are today, focus on learning, focus on improving, because in a world of learning, it’s not scary anymore. There’s no fear of challenges or obstacles. There’s no fear about criticism. In a world where you’re optimizing and focusing on learning and improving yourself, you know that you’re going to have setbacks and you know that you’re going to ask dumb questions and that you’re sometimes going to look stupid, but you realize that the process to learning, which everyone goes through, is filled with those roadblocks and challenges. But if you’re focused only on proving yourself, on demonstrating how great you are, and you’re scared of feedback, you’re scared of what you might look like or what people might think of you, you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re holding yourself back.
The difference between the fixed and growth mindset is a critical distinction to understand. And, again, the book Mindset by Carol Dweck is an incredible read. Highly recommend checking it out if you really want to drill down on this. She also has a TED talk where she talks about this that I would recommend digging into if it’s something that you want to learn more about. But, to me, this is one of the most fundamental shifts that I’ve made in my life, and really understanding this. And, again, this is something… This is not mumbo jumbo. This is not hearsay. This is validated and backed by tremendous amounts of psychological research and studies. This is something that’s been validated, tested, shown, and proven in the research, all the way up to the fact that you can change your brain and you can change your mindset with the science of neuroplasticity.
So, I want you to really think about this. I want you to internalize this. If you go back to the questions at the beginning of this podcast, if you are in a fixed mindset; if you’re stuck in a fixed mindset even at certain areas in your life; if it’s an area that’s important to you and you want to change and you want to improve, it’s fundamentally essential that you transition into a growth mindset and that you start thinking about the world differently.