A rational approach to the Growth Mindset

Is our potential fixed at birth, or unlimited? The jury is still out. Regardless of the answer, when it comes to Mindset it’s best to ignore the uncertainty and believe you can do anything.

A short summary of the growth mindset

In Mindset, Dweck lays out 2 mindsets that people tend to inhabit: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. Your mindset is often assessed by the extent of your belief that traits and abilities can be developed, or are fixed.

In the growth mindset, you believe that you can improve whatever aspect of yourself that you put your mind to. You view failure as an opportunity to improve, and readily invite feedback pointing out your mistakes to accelerate your improvement. You relish challenge as an opportunity to improve.

In the fixed mindset, you might believe that your potential within a particular ability or skill is set from birth. You might see failure as a disaster; since your abilities are fixed, a failure labels you as forever bad at that thing. That alos makes you more more reluctant invite feedback or take on on a challenging task you might fail at. The fear of outing yourself as not-very-good at something often self-fulfils, as you’re less likely to put yourself in situations where you can improve.

Dweck is quite black-and-white about the growth mindset being better to inhabit, and it does provide some good experimental evidence that a growth mindset leads to better outcomes. However a good portion of the book is also devoted to anecdotes about celebrities or individual achievement. I found those portions less satisfying, and you have to stay alert to detect what’s an empirical finding and what’s included as a story meant to personify the research the author has done.

In my opinion (and many Goodreads reviewers‘), there isn’t much more to the book than this summary. It might be worth listening to it to see which examples resonate with you to help you internalise the message, but I wouldn’t see it as much more than chanting: “growth mindset good, fixed mindset bad” along with understanding the definitions above.

Nonetheless, I think one’s mindset does say something predictive about the outcome of the life you’re likely to lead, so it’s still worth engaging with the idea.

But hang on, surely not everyone can be maximally successful?

If you’ve been involved in communities like business or academia, you might also be more used to the colloquial belief that some people are just stars or geniuses. Often the rest of us are prone to set ourselves apart from those standout people saying things like “I could never be like that, they’re just different”.

More personally, you might be thinking of 1 or 2 people who you know personally that just seem to be qualitatively different or think on another plane to you and other people you know.

How do we marry that observation with the message that anyone can grow, if they have the right mindset?

It would be wrong to deny that some people are far more talented in certain areas than others, at a given moment in time. The claim to examine is instead around people’s potential for growth.

On the question of the extent of one’s potential, it seems to me the jury is still out. Nature versus nurture is still hotly debated, and appears far from decided in any domain. In all domains, my take on the consensus is it’s a little bit of both.

The book does not handle the nature versus nurture debate with much nuance, or very humbly. Dweck regularly returns to a question which is used by mindset research which is supposed to help test if you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset:

“To what extent do you believe your intelligence is fixed, or something you can develop and improve?”

I found myself irked by the over reliance on this question; it leaves no room for you to hold uncertainty about the true answer to that question. It also comes with the heavy implication that not believing that to the maximal extent makes you a worse person than those who believe it’s fixed, thus bringing moral judgement against those who are uncertain about the truth.

If you are like me, and go out and try to pin down the true answer to questions like the quote above for intelligence or any other trait, you might be left questioning whether the thesis of the book is true at all. I think that’s a shame, and that the true answer to that question should not be a crux for which mindset you try to inhabit.

Casting judgement against people that are uncertain is not very helpful for talking people around to your viewpoint. I’d therefore like to spend the rest of this post telling you how and why I think you should believe in the growth mindset, whilst acknowledging uncertainty about the extent of the underlying truth.

You’re more likely to limit yourself with your mindset, than to be limited by an unchangeable factor

Despite the uncertainty about the nature versus nurture debate, I now believe that it’s better to ignore that debate, and swallow the book’s message wholesale.

Instead of seeing this as ignoring the truth, I present the case that believing the book’s message is akin to adopting a personal policy that yields the best outcomes in your life and everyone else’s.

The optimal policy is to believe in your ability to grow; you will either reach your fixed potential, or the sky is the limit.

There are 2 more arguments that I think add to the case for why you should let go of any temptation to label yourself as “good at X, bad at Y”.

There’s no reliable way to measure ability, so how can we hope to predict the cap?

Fortunately for the fabric of society, we haven’t devised a method of perfectly predicting an individual’s potential in a way that could be thought of as reliable. With luck, it’ll be an impossible task.

Let’s again consider ‘intelligence’ as an example of an ability or trait, since it’s often discussed in the book. Intelligence is most commonly measured by IQ tests. However IQ can’t be measured in isolation; testing ability is a skill, and is prone to the conditions of the day. Testing ability is therefore an unavoidable coefficient on the intelligence trait variable that the test score is supposed to reflect. IQ tests can only be a noisy snapshot of ‘intelligence’ for an individual, at a given point in time.

Devoid of any means of making measurements that would let us conclude whether intelligence is fixed, or what yours is, you might as well believe that it’s fluid. It’s much more likely that you end up limited by your belief that you can’t improve your intelligence or other traits. Believing such a thing would amount to not seeking out the opportunities that will help you to develop the most. You’d believe it to be futile to apply for a particular university, or taking a particular course, if you thought you’d never get far in that domain anyway.

It seems much more likely to me that limits are imposed by failing to try, or failing to find the right learning methods or environment (including mentorship & high quality feedback) than you are to run up against any hard limits on your ability to learn new skills.

Skills compound to result in overall competency

I also think fixating on intelligence, or any particular single ability, is misdirected. The actual thing that determines your success (after luck & opportunities afforded by your social situation) is the sum of your competencies. In other words, the breadth and degree of skills you’ve obtained, including experience you have, at a given point in time.

It’s common wisdom that intelligence does not equate to competency. My rough model is that intelligence (as I understand it) might increase the rate at which you can pick up competencies assuming you pursue the right practice. I think the key is coming about the environment in which you’ll get to develop the fastest.

The right practice to develop skills is broadly achieved by employing good learning techniques. That involves trying stuff out, failing from time to time and, crucially, getting feedback and actively taking that on board. It could also involve other science of learning techniques, like active recall and spaced repetition. These tools are open to everyone, regardless of their intelligence, and they will yield results at whatever rate your circumstances afford.

The rate at which you pick up those skills largely will not matter; I expect even the most ‘intelligent’ people are not always afforded excellent opportunities or environments to develop a particular skill, and if you put work into developing skills that matter to you, you’ll likely have a unique combination of competencies that make you by far the best candidate for what you set out to achieve.

Believing it’s futile to set upon developing the skills that you’re motivated to obtain is much more likely to inhibit your potential than any underlying trait.

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