After a poor performance in the mid-term test (or at any other task), have your thoughts wandered in this direction:
“I’m a total failure.”
“I suck in math.”
“Everyone else seems to be doing better than me. I’m just not cut out for this.”
“Life is unfair, and my efforts are not going to make a difference.”
“The teacher is biased.”
If such thoughts often cross your mind, then you display fixed mindset, one of the two mindsets (the other being growth mindset) first articulated by Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers on achievement and success, and the author of bestseller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
When you finish an article or book on how a superstar became successful, I bet most of you wonder, “How can I emulate this guy?” You, of course, know ‘ten ways to be A+ student’ and the like, but you also know that knowledge of those ten ways is not enough. They alone won’t take you there. You need few underlying, invisible forces working like your DNA to lead you there.
(I call it dark matter. Earlier, everything in the universe – planets, stars, and other bodies – was thought to be made of protons, neutron, and electrons bundled together into atoms. But now, we know that the heavenly bodies we see constitute just 5 percent of the universe. The rest of the universe is mysterious, invisible matter called dark matter (25 percent) and dark energy (70 percent). When working on our abilities, best practices are like the visible part of the universe, the obvious stuff. And growth mindset and the like are the dark matter. We don’t see them, but they’re the glue.)
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
Next, they asked the students two questions:
Do you think this test measures how smart you are?
Do you think this test measures how smart you’ll be when you grow up?
Can a test that measures a school-ability, say problem-solving, also measure your smartness? And, to take it to an extreme, predict it in future?
In response, one section of the students believed that the test could measure their smartness not just in the present, but also in future.
However, there was also a section which believed that the test couldn’t measure how smart they were then, let alone predict their smartness in future.
The response of the first section may sound laughable, but even you may have shown the same mindset many times in the past.
Let me explain.
Have you ever marvelled at the effortless ease with which, say, Mark pulls off A+ in physics, exam after exam? Or how, say, Mary does the same in math? Or how, say, Kim decimates her opponents in chess?
And then wondered, “S/he is natural at it. Talented. I can’t be like that. I can’t hit those scores, howsoever hard I try.”
If yes, then you’ve displayed the same mindset as the one displayed by the first section of fifth graders.
Both, you and the first section, believe that ability is fixed. The fifth graders believed that what the test predicted about their ability then would continue to hold in future. And you believe that your ability in math, physics, or chess is fixed. That it won’t change howsoever hard you try, because you’ve not been blessed with the brains or talent your illustrious classmates have been with.
This mindset is called fixed mindset.
And the opposite of it is growth mindset, the one displayed by the other section of fifth graders, who believed that a test couldn’t predict their smartness and that their ability wasn’t fixed. That with effort and good strategies, they could improve and be better in future.
(An individual can have both the mindsets for different sets of activities. For example, the same person may display growth mindset when learning football, but fixed mindset when learning math.)
To summarize, people with growth mindset believe that their ability is not fixed, and, therefore, they can improve it through effort. In contrast, people with fixed mindset believe that their ability is fixed, and, therefore, they don’t make adequate effort to improve (why would they if they believe that effort won’t move the needle?).
Signs of growth mindset and fixed mindset
Here are few signs that differentiate people with the two mindsets. These signs find their roots in the variance in the belief that ability is not fixed and it can be stretched through effort and learning.
1. People with fixed mindset give up on challenging tasks easily
People with fixed mindset avoid challenges and where they do take plunge, they usually give up easily when faced with difficult situations. In contrast, people with growth mindset embrace challenges and persist in the face of difficult situations because they know that that’s the best way to improve.
2. People with fixed mindset often taken feedback as criticism
People with fixed mindset tend to take feedback as questioning their ability. Whereas people with growth mindset take feedback as just that – feedback, a means to learn.
3. People with fixed mindset are more concerned with outcome
In a study by Dr. Dweck, students first took a test, and then answers were discussed. Brain-wave tests showed that students with fixed mindset were more interested in knowing how they fared in the test (whether they got the answers right or wrong). They were much less bothered when they were presented with the information – even when they got the answers wrong – that would have helped them learn. Students with growth mindset, however, paid attention where they could learn.
4. People with fixed mindset look to guard their self-esteem
People with fixed mindset guard their self-esteem at any cost. In a study by Dr. Dweck and Dr. Nussbaum, college students were given the opportunity to look at the tests of other students. Those with fixed mindset preferred to look at the tests of those who fared worse than them, whereas those with growth mindset preferred to look at the tests of those who fared better than them. The former wanted to preserve their self-esteem, whereas the latter wanted to improve. Another way people with fixed mindset guard their self-esteem is by blaming others for their failings.
Since ‘our ability is not fixed’ is the key premise of growth mindset, and because ‘our ability is fixed’ is so ingrained in our psyche, it’s important to delve into this at some length.
Your abilities are not fixed
To quote Dr. John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
The brain acts like a muscle: The more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become. Whether that equates to more intelligence is another issue, but one fact is indisputable: What you do in life physically changes what your brain looks like. You can wire and rewire your brain with the simple choice of which musical instrument – or professional sport – you play [emphasis mine].
Let’s understand this at the fundamental level.
Any task you perform – from as mundane as raising your hand to as complicated as juggling six balls at a time – happens when related neurons in your brain fire signals. There are over 100 billion neurons in our brains, and a tiny fraction of those would govern raising your hand. Another tiny fraction will govern sticking your tongue out, and so on.
When we perform an activity for the first time, we struggle at it (remember, as a toddler, you once struggled to even walk) because we haven’t yet developed the related neural connections for that activity. And with practice, our neurons rewire and fire related signals better and better.
Eric Kandel, who shared Nobel Prize in 2000 for his research on memory storage in neurons, showed that acquiring even small pieces of information rewires the brain by altering the structure of our neurons. He first discovered this fact when studying sea slugs. And then found that human beings and most animals in between learn the same way.
Here’s a short video to make the concept of rewiring clearer (duration: 2:03 minutes):
Here’s one from Khan Academy (duration: 3:04 minutes):
Let’s go through few real-world examples to illustrate how people – and animals – rewire their brains through practice and expand their abilities in their fields.
1. Taxi drivers have enlarged brain region responsible for spatial navigation
A study of taxi drivers in London found that the hippocampus section of their brains, crucial for long-term memory and spatial navigation, was larger than that of normal people because they had to memorize labyrinth of streets and landmarks in the city. And when these drivers retired, this section shrank.
Regular navigation through the streets of London and stressing the brain to remember the streets and landmarks improved the ability of the drivers to remember spatial details (by rewiring their brains).
2. Even the best sportspersons struggle when playing conditions are changed
In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed, a former British number-one table tennis player, describes a promotional tennis match he played with Roger Federer at Hampton Court Palace in the summer of 2005. It wasn’t regular tennis, though. It was an ancient form of tennis played indoors with sloping roofs, hard balls, and very different technique. To quote Matthew Syed on this match:
I found that, for all his grace and elegance, Federer could scarcely make contact with the ball when it was played at any serious speed (neither, for that matter, could I)
Why did Federer play ordinary?
Because of the changed format, Federer had to play the game differently than he normally does, which means, to dissect this at the fundamental level, he had to also rely on neurons which weren’t as well connected as his regular ‘tennis neurons’.
In 1994, Michael Jordan, unarguably the greatest basketball player of all time, quit basketball to pursue baseball. He failed miserably in the one full season he played. He posted the league’s worst: .202 batting average and 11 errors in the outfield. Given his magical physical ability and athleticism, this was a completely unexpected outcome.
Why did he perform so miserably?
Because his ‘baseball neurons’ weren’t developed enough.
Researchers have observed similar patterns of underperformance in other sports and crafts, most notably chess, when regular patterns were tweaked.
3. How do animals pull off acrobatics which are almost impossible for their ability?
I’ve seen animals perform in circuses and on television, but I haven’t seen anything as mesmerizing – and as drenching – as Shamu show at SeaWorld, Orlando way back in May 2009. Shamu is a killer whale, and the species is no way wired to perform stunts that it pulls off so effortlessly and gracefully. (You can watch the show on YouTube.)
What’s happening here?
Here, even a killer whale, through sheer practice, has rewired its neurons to pull off such ‘impossible’ feats, in this case of course forced by the instructors. And all other performances of animals that we see live or on screen is a similar extreme leap of rewiring of neurons. In comparison, learning math or tennis should be much less daunting.
Rewiring of brain among animals was known long time back. Charles Darwin found that the brains of wild animals were 15 to 30 percent larger than those of their domestic counterparts (example: wild dog vs. pet dog). The tough conditions of the wild force the wild animals to be in constant learning mode which wires their brains differently.
4. Even shyness can be improved
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, refers to The Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, California. To quote Nicole Shiloff, the therapist at the clinic, from the book:
We believe that people are shy not because they lack social skills but because they haven’t practiced them sufficiently. Talking on the phone or asking someone on a date is a learnable skill, exactly like a tennis forehand. The key is that people have to linger in that uncomfortable area, learn to tolerate the anxiety. If you practice, you can get to the level you want [emphasis mine].
Even shyness, widely believed to be a fixed, ingrained ability, is not a fixed ability (or rather inability), and can be improved through practice.
5. Even artistic ability can be acquired
Those who can’t draw think that either you have it in you or you don’t, and if you don’t then you just can’t draw. (As far as artistic fields are concerned, I too held this belief till recently.) Dr. Dweck, in her book Mindset, narrates how dramatically people improved their drawing skills after taking a five-day course on the subject.
On the left in each of the two columns in the image below is the drawing before the course, and on the right is, after the course.
Artistic abilities too can be expanded with effort.
6. Top achievers were once average
Michael Jordan wasn’t always the Michael Jordan the world reveres. He was cut from his high school team. He wasn’t recruited by North Carolina State, the college he wanted to play for. He was passed by the first two NBA teams that could have picked him. They were not idiots, though. They ignored him because he didn’t match their standards then. He was only Michael Jordan then.
Then. And then he raised his level, and became MICHAEL JORDAN we know. He worked harder than anyone possibly could, always looking to improve his game, and expanded his ability.
Chuck Yeager, who became the first pilot to travel faster than sound in 1947, famously said in The Right Stuff:
There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning experience … The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they are the best [emphasis mine].
The best pilots fly more than others. Their better ability is a direct result of greater effort.
Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, studied 120 outstanding achievers from different fields – pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. He found that most of them were not remarkable (in their future fields) as children. Even by early adolescence, it was difficult to predict their future accomplishment from their current ability. It was their continued motivation and commitment, and network of support, which made them world class. He says:
After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.
How does growth mindset benefit you?
If you display growth mindset, you’re more likely to persist on arduous tasks and learn from mistakes. As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this post, these are precisely the qualities, the dark matter which turn ordinary abilities into extraordinary.
How to develop growth mindset?
Dr. Dweck has shown that growth mindset can be learnt. Simply put, you’ve to change the way you respond to different situations: “I can improve” vs. “I’m not smart enough to do it”. And act accordingly. It’s actually that simple. As we saw in several examples, you can improve almost any of your ability by rewiring your brain through hard work and improvement.
And remember that struggle, frustration, and confusion is natural when you pursue challenging goals. That’s the way everyone learns and expands their abilities.
Mark, Mary, and Kim were no different from others when they started learning physics, math, and chess, respectively. They too sucked in the beginning.
But they’re at the level where they are, because they showed growth mindset. They believed that effort can expand their ability… and they made effort. What seems genius to you today is a result of several months, or maybe years, of well-directed effort.
People don’t have natural ability in any field. Ability is developed through hard work and improvements, which rewires the brain for that activity.
Your ability too is not fixed (growth mindset). You can stretch it through hard work and improvements. You’ll face setbacks on the way. You’ll get frustrated on the way. But that’s normal.