How Mindsets can Help or Hinder Learning (Book Review)

It was inevitable that I would read Mindset. Having recently read two books Give and Take by Adam Grant, and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough) which referenced this book, and having heard mention of it in other contexts as well. As promised on the cover, Mindset provides advice that you can apply whether you are a manager, worker, parent, teacher, or some combination. Carol Dweck does a great job of explaining an idea with a lot of research behind it in a popular book, without glossing over too many points. There were a few places where I thought the book dragged a bit, but those sections were brief and far between, and on net it was a quick enjoyable read.

The point of Mindset is that people have one or two mindsets: fixed mindset which is premised on the idea that you abilities and qualities are carved in stone, and the growth mindset which is based on the belief that your basic qualities are cultivated through effort. The 2 mindsets in Dweck’s model provide a powerful framework for understanding how people approach challenges. Those who approach situations with a fixed mindset are likely to see failure as a reflection of their value. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to see a set back as an opportunity to learn and improve.

People can have different mindsets in different aspects of their lives (work, relationships, artistic, technical). Dweck also explains that mindsets are “just beliefs” so you can change them if you want. Mindsets are not just a way people are. From the names you can guess that the growth mindset is the one that can lead you to better things. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the discussions about you can develop (in your self) and nurture (in others) a growth mindset.

While the fixed mindset v growth mindset concept seems simplistic at first glance, it is seems extremely powerful. While reading I found myself thinking “so maybe that is why I do that…” or “maybe I should consider the mindset model when dealing with a colleague.” Since the book wraps up with a focus on education, it led me to consider my approach to encouraging an motivating my (as I write this) third grader .

Since mindsets are not innate, one might ask why anyone would stay in a fixed mindset. The discusson of why that happens lie the most interesting lessons for self-improvement. Your mindset can be re-enforced early in life, and like all things that connect back to childhood experiences, the messages you get early in life are hard to get past, even if they are slowing you down. Dweck shares both data and anecdotes of how various mentors tried to help students ended up moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, with various degrees of success. That all of the stories are not “fairy tale” success stories grounds the concepts in reality. All change is hard, and not everyone can success absolutely. But you can benefit from trying.

Dweck discusses the application of mindsets in many realms, including business, relationships, and education. The book ends with an explanation of a program for elementary schools to help develop growth mindsets, which is appropriate given the focus of Dweck’s research and the value of improving mindset early on. The area that is most interesting to me professionally is how the mindset model relates to leadership approaches.

We often think of leaders in terms of raw ‘talent’ … and that “effort” is for those who don’t have talent. In reality it takes both effort and talent to be continually successful. Dweck explains that more often than not great leaders are the people who were constantly trying to improve, and who don’t have all the right answers starting out. What leads to success is willingness to make a effort to improve. Raw talent helps, to be sure, but it can’t sustain success.

One thing that the book didn’t address for me, though perhaps the answer is obvious, is the question of sustainability. If a growth mindset is good, and is all about meeting challenges, would a growth mindset lead to you overextend your self? Is what we might call “knowing your limits” a manifestation of a fixed mindset? I suspect that the answer is no. There’s a difference between having a perspective that obstacles can be overcome, and having the energy or bandwidth to meet all challenges head on.

There are number of lessons I felt that I could apply immediately to understanding my personal life, helping my (as I write this) third grader, and understanding how to work with teams and people at work. Mindset can inspire you to meet challenges with more confidence, and help you to better understand your interactions with others.

Books mentioned in this article: