Surely tied to my new professional challenge, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of success. What it means? What it looks like? Is it eternally elusive, as you achieve one marker and then go on to the next? All interesting questions—but they are not really the issue here. I’m pondering a different aspect of success.
Success, of course, varies depending on context. A budding tennis player finally strikes a perfect serve. An artist mixes colors for just the right shade of orange. A carpenter crafts a perfect arm on a rocker. I’m seeking a common denominator here. Why do some people thrive and even flourish while others stagnate, even those who seem successful? I believe the answer lies in perception and perspective. This determines how we accept responsibility for the challenges we face. Robert Sternberg of Yale, one of the leading contemporary thinkers on creative intelligence, calls it a matter of “purposeful engagement.”
Stanford professor Carole Dweck has spent the past two-plus decades studying this question. Her conclusion in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects how you lead your life.” Her research has shown that people fall into two neat categories: those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset. That seems simple enough. The implications are extreme.
People with a fixed mindset believe that individuals have a fixed amount of an ability or characteristic. X intelligence, y ethical character, z personality type—in this mindset, in a sense anatomy is destiny. Consequently, people place limitations on themselves. They believe that they must constantly prove they have an adequate amount of whatever quality is being assessed. In the most extreme cases, anything deemed less than total success is seen as failure.
People with a growth mindset passionately stretch themselves and stick to it. Even when things are not going well, determination allows them to persevere. In fact, they seek and revel in new challenges. Everything becomes an opportunity for improvement. When they make a mistake, they voice the philosophy advocated by Ben Zander in The Art of Possibility. Instead of becoming derailed, they say, “How fascinating!” and learn from the experience. They are constantly creating new frameworks into which they can place their learning. These people more often get caught up in what Mihaly Csikszentimhalyi has identified as optimal “flow” experiences, those moments of almost euphoric absorption.
I believe that helping children maintain such a mindset is one of the most important gifts we can give them. I say “maintain” because they seem to have it inherently. Watch young children play. Watch the chances they are willing to take. Errors and embarrassment don’t cripple them. Only as they grow older and become more aware of social norms and others' expectations does the shift occur. It’s why I dislike the t-shirts that say “Second place is just first loser.” It symbolizes many aspects of our culture—including some traditional practices in schools—that promote a fixed mindset. And neuroscience has revealed that genes and environment cooperate in human development.
Unless you have a fixed mindset, for you this should beg an essential question: How does one help children develop a growth mindset? I’m curious what you think.