What is a fixed mindset?
It took me many years to discover that being labeled "talented and gifted" was more of a curse than a blessing. This contributed to my developing a fixed mindset.
Definition of a fixed mindset
Carol Dweck popularized this phrase in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.
Many people tend to think of certain people as being innately talented or gifted. We hear phrases all the time such as:
- "He's a born leader."
- "She's a genius."
- "I'm not a math person."
- "I'll never be good at that."
Statements like these indicate a belief that certain talents are innate. We either have them or we don't.
Individuals manifest a fixed mindset in response to challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and failure. It is a set of beliefs that affect how the person views effort, feedback, personal success, and the successes of others. Let's examine these further.
What characteristics indicate a fixed mindset?
People with a fixed mindset tend to think of themselves as superior to others. This idea is confirmed every time they do better than someone else. But when other people do better it has the opposite effect, so such individuals tend to avoid situations that challenge their superiority.
On the other hand, individuals who believe in their ability to learn (a "growth mindset") view challenges as opportunities for growth. They gravitate toward people who are more skilled than they are because they can learn more from them.
People who think talent is innate tend to give up more quickly than those with a growth mindset. Thus obstacles become insurmountable walls.
Setbacks and failure
Failure is highly undesirable to people who think they are born with talent because it clashes with their view of themselves as skilled and successful. They personalize failure. Instead of thinking, "I failed, so I should try again," they think, "I'm a failure." They shouldn't fail because they are talented.
This belief encourages constant evaluation of oneself and others. If the individual is self-focused, their self-worth will suffer. If they are other-focused, they will constantly blame others for their failures.
Having a fixed mindset is like thinking you will always look like you did in your high school graduation photo.
People with a growth mindset believe they can overcome failure with the right amount of time and effort.
Talented people are successful. Success is effortless for them, according to a fixed mindset mentality. So effort is undesirable because it means you’re not smart or talented.
A person with a growth mindset realizes that success requires effort. They understand that succeeding at more difficult challenges requires more effort.
A 2011 study found evidence that individuals with a growth mindset are receptive to corrective feedback.Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y.-H. (2011). Mind Your Errors. Psychological Science, 22(12), 1484–1489. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611419520 Twenty-five student subjects were asked to click a mouse to identify letters that were quickly flashed on a computer screen. Using electroencephalography (EEG), a procedure that measures the electrical activity of the brain over time using electrodes placed on the scalp, the authors measured the response in each student's brain after receiving information about errors they made. This data was compared to their responses (agree/disagree) to statements such as, “You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really cannot do much to change it.”
The results provide evidence that the students with a fixed mindset tended to tune out information that could help them learn and improve.Those with a growth mindset showed a higher Pe (error positivity) waveform response, which is correlated with a heightened awareness of and attention to mistakes.Ng, B. (2018). The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain Sciences, 8(2), 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8020020 The authors wrote, "For individuals with a fixed mind-set, who believe intelligence is a stable characteristic, mistakes indicate lack of ability." They weren't interested in learning the right answer after they got the question wrong because to them, it was a failure, and the thought of failure is unpleasant.
A person with a fixed mindset is concerned with finishing a project, reaching a goal, rather than the process involved. A person with a growth mindset learns to enjoy the process and is more likely to set smaller goals and persevere despite unexpected setbacks.
With a fixed mindset, success means proving you’re smart or talented, validating yourself as superior.
Success of others
A person with a fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others. With a growth mindset, the success of others is inspiring. We identify with the successful person because we realize that if they can do it, we could too.
A fixed mindset is detrimental to healthy self-esteem. According to Dweck,
In the face of similar outcomes, a fixed mindset creates a meaning system in which a negative judgment is forever and people act accordingly. A growth mindset, regardless of current difficulties, leaves open the possibility of a brighter future and motivates people to work for it.
What beliefs are associated with a fixed mindset?
"I'm too old to learn"
if we are alive, we can still learn. Sure we won't learn as fast as we did when we were younger. But just because we may never be as good at something as someone else was who started learning it earlier, is not a reason for not starting. What if everyone in the world had to be the best at what they did? We'd quickly run out of qualified people.
I'm going to fail, so there's no point in trying
The growth mindset is similar to weight lifting. Weight training "to failure" is very helpful for maximum muscle growth.
The fixed mindset says, I'm going to fail. The idea being, I'll fail every time I try.
The growth mindset says, I might fail. But I'll get further than if I didn't try. I might fail most of the time, but each time I'll get better. Then I'll get to the point that I can succeed every time. And I'll be more successful because it was hard. Fewer people will be able to get to the point where I'll be.
This reminds me of public speaking. Learning how to speak publicly was nerve wracking. Giving a 5-minute speech was hard, but once I got to the point of giving a 1/2-hour talk, a 5-minute speech didn't seem hard at all. Then I starting giving speeches in Chinese. That was super hard, but once I got to the point of giving 1/2 hour talks in Chinese, giving a 1/2 hour speech in English seemed quite easy. None of this would have happened if I had a fixed mindset.
I already know everything I need to know
Everyone is learning. But someone with a growth mindset is more likely to realize they are learning. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to assume they've always known what they currently know. They also tend to assume they'll never change their mind.
Do I have a fixed mindset?
Ask yourself the following:
- How do I feel when I face challenges? Do I generally tend to avoid them?
- Do I feel defeated or incompetent when I fail at something?
- Do I look for excuse?
- Do I become defensive, angry, or crushed when I receive critical feedback?
- How do I feel about the successes of others around me?
Dweck points out that the kind of encouragement teachers provide students has an effect on their mindset. Telling students they are smart encourages a fixed mindset. On the other hand, appreciating their efforts ("You worked hard on this") promotes a growth mindset.
Be willing to fail. Recognize that the road to success is paved with failures.
Embrace the belief that growth happens through small, incremental steps, rather than big overnight victories.
Recognize the true power of beliefs
I'll end with a quote from Dweck:
People’s beliefs are a fundamental part of their personality and motivation, although this is often unrecognized. People’s foundational beliefs about themselves, others, and the world can powerfully shape their goals, the vigor and effectiveness of their goal pursuit, their recurrent patterns of behavior, and, in the end, their well-being.From The Psychology of Thinking about the Future
Some people say, "If you believe in yourself, you can do anything." I don't agree, but I'm hoping this article has impressed you with the importance of taking a regular, close look at our beliefs. They really do have the power to enable us or limit us.