When my planning and controlling strategies stopped working a little over two years ago, I realized that I spent a lot of my mental energy convincing myself that I had “everything figured out.” A sense that things were knowable, controllable, fixed, so to speak, was very comforting to me.
My friend Laura suggested a book to me quite a while ago called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Miss Laura had been one of Sienna’s preschool teachers and I’d been telling her that I was struggling to motivate Sienna. “She only seems to want to do things that she’s already mastered. She doesn’t want to try new things and gets frustrated if she doesn’t do something perfectly the first time,” I’d told Laura.
So, while I read this book to help me learn how to motivate my children, it actually spoke loud and clear to me.
The author Dr. Carol S. Dweck argues that there are two mindsets – the fixed trait mindset and the growth mindset. The mindset you hold dictates how you see yourself, others, and particularly how you view challenges and learning. In the fixed mindset, people believe that their qualities – intelligence, talent, and innate characteristics are set. The “growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience,” (pg. 7).
People who have a fixed mindset are focused on showing how capable they are, whereas those with a growth mindset are interested in learning, taking on new challenges, and growing their knowledge and skills. Dweck says: “When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself,” (pg. 15).
Interestingly, one of the consequences of these mindsets involves the way people view effort. In the fixed mindset, effort is seen as unnecessary. If you’re smart and talented, you don’t really have to try. For those with the growth mindset, effort is essential. You can learn and grow through applying yourself and trying to tackle new challenges.
Man, can I relate to that distinction! When I was in my first semester of graduate school at SDSU, I had a very challenging professor. He was in his last semester before retirement and had very high expectations for his students. I had never taken a collegiate history class and was starting a Master’s Degree in History! Dennis can attest, I cried every week that semester. It was hard. When I got real with myself I realized my fear was not so much that I’d fail, but that I had to really try. I was used to getting through school by giving not quite 100% effort and thinking that my natural intelligence was enough. Not anymore. If I didn’t try, and try hard, I wasn’t going to be successful in this class.
One of the parental takeaways from the book is that we should be praising effort and diligence instead of intelligence and natural ability. She argues effectively that kids who are praised for being “smart, special, talented, or a natural” at something are actually less likely to put forth effort or take on new challenges. Instead, they see those opportunities as a threat because they might show that they aren’t really that gifted and special.
As I sat with Sienna while she worked hard on her math homework last night, I focused on encouraging her effort. When she finished I hugged her and said, “Sienna, I’m so proud of how you kept trying when the work was challenging! Are you proud of yourself?” She agreed that she was.
When I look back on the past five years or so, it’s been a time of extreme growth for me. I’ve been raising children, learning to be a manager, and taking on new responsibilities at our church. At every turn it’s been clear that the skills and knowledge I had at one stage were not going to be sufficient for success in the future. I had to learn, grow, and keep putting forth effort toward challenges that I hadn’t faced before.
A primary focus was on giving and receiving feedback. Through that process I learned how powerful it is to discover aspects of yourself that are holding you back from achieving growth and learning new skills. I witnessed the growth of others that surpassed my expectations as a manager. By embracing my own growth and talking about it candidly with my Team, I was able to show them that the need to grow and learn is a safe process with me.
As I relinquished the old coping strategies of control and excessive planning, I’d often remind myself that I was growing. It became comforting to remember that growth was a continual process, not something that I’d achieve. I’d never “have everything figured out” in life. Reframing that idea in a growth mindset made it much easier to embrace.
This change, for me, was accompanied by a deep appreciation for my faith in Christ. As Lutherans, we emphasize that Christ accomplished everything for our salvation. We simply receive his grace through faith. This proper understanding that my works are not earning God’s favor and that I do nothing good without God’s blessing, helps me to submit to God’s will. It’s the antithesis of believing I have “everything figured out.” That phrase actually sounds rather ridiculous now!
Reading this book has given shape and distinction to many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had about growth the past few years. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to describe my “awakening” in terms of a mindset shift from fixed to growth.
What about you? Do you see yourself in either the fixed or growth mindset? I’m interested in hearing other people’s perspectives!