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Carol Dweck will help you think differently about our capacity for learning (and other things)

Do you believe your intelligence, personality, and skills are capabilities destined from the moment you arrive in this world or are they developed over time?

A surprising number of us, and perhaps not all that knowingly, operate on the premise that how smart we are, who we are, and the things we’re able to do are things we must live up to rather than things we can develop with intention.

The issue, of course, is that if we believe that about ourselves we must believe it about other people, as well. That belief creates a cascade of consequences for how we operate at work.

Yet none of us can be blamed for this belief because it’s a learned behavior. It’s something, if you have it, you learned at home, at school, and at work. It’s something even great parents, great teachers, and great bosses have helped to spread unknowingly.

The belief is what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset and she wrote what amounts to a several-hundred page perspective-changing book on the subject. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck introduces the other side of the coin: the growth mindset and describes its benefits by illustrating the differences between the two.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple and the book is most helpful in assisting to recognize those situations where you tend to operate with a fixed mindset and those you approach with more of a growth orientation.

The irony in all of it, and this makes the book even more worth your while, is that once we recognize that a growth mindset is a thing, we understand that it is the only mindset there is. Dweck’s research supports the notion, Ericsson’s too, and a host of other psychology research has shown again and again that we’re able to develop our skills, improve our intelligence, and learn anything we want if we’re willing to apply ourselves to a learning process.

A fixed mindset is based on the belief that who you are—your personality, your abilities, your intelligence—cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Your traits are fixed and it’s those traits that are responsible for your success.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over,” Dweck writes, “If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

That’s because every situation becomes an opportunity to prove your worth, whether at work, in school, or at home. Success is proof that you are smart and talented and valued.

Failure, of course, is evidence to the contrary. That you’re not good enough. That a situation or assignment is too challenging for you. That if you fail, it’s because you were never going to be successful to begin with. Every situation is a binary opportunity to prove you’re good enough or that you’re not.

People with a fixed mindset often avoid challenge for this very reason, they hunger for approval, they ignore critique, and perhaps most damaging, they view effort in a negative light. Effort is bad, writes Dweck, “It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”

The growth mindset, on the other hand, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” she continues, “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.”

With the growth mindset, your personality, abilities, and intelligence—as they currently exist—are the starting point for further development. Viewing the world this way gives you the ability to interpret failure and challenge for what they are: learning opportunities.

Dweck gets to the core of the issue, as it relates to what we’re after at Through the Work, and it’s this: “Studies by Peter Heslin, Don VandeWalle, and Gary Latham (one, two) show that many managers do not believe in personal change.”

What a horrendous and wrong limiting belief! Can you imagine?

(Do you have it?)

She writes: “These fixed-mindset managers simply look for existing talent—they judge employees as competent or incompetent at the start and that’s that.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking for existing talent. Seeking candidates with the talent to match the position’s needs is a good idea.

But what these managers miss in their fixed-mindset that’s-that assessment of talent is what an abundance of social science research has revealed: We all have the capacity for development and growth. For anything and everything.

“A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities, quips Dweck, “It’s that simple.”

It’s how Serena became Serena. It’s how Mozart developed into the prodigy he was. It’s how the Quarrymen became Johnny and the Moondogs and then arrived in New York as the Beatles.

And it’s how any of us get good at anything.

Talent is the visible outcome of hard work. Often: lots and lots of hard work.

Are our abilities influenced by our physical characteristics or our timing or our environment or our existing knowledge or our life experiences? Yes, of course! Learning conditions are critical to development.

But absent effort, what we think of as talent wouldn’t be very talented at all.

“Managers with a growth mindset think it’s nice to have talent, but that’s just the starting point,” Dweck continues. “These managers are more committed to their employees’ development, and to their own. They give a great deal more developmental coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they welcome critiques from their employees. Most exciting, the growth mindset can be taught to managers.”

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong,” writes Benjamin Barber, “I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”

I like that idea. There’s truth in it. But it’s wrong.

Nonlearners don’t exist. Not real. You and nobody else can be a nonlearner. It’s not a thing.

The question isn’t ever are you a learner or not. It’s always: How much did you learn? As mentioned in the introduction and worth highlighting again: Once we’ve learned the growth mindset exists, the fixed mindset ceases to exist. Kaput.

“People are all born with a love of learning,” writes Dweck, “but the fixed mindset can undo it.”

If we have a fixed mindset—toward anything at work, at home, or in the world—it’s because we’ve learned it! And if we’ve learned to have a fixed mindset, we most assuredly can learn to have a growth mindset, too.

That’s important because learning the growth mindset is central to your ongoing success at work.

Here’s why: As a result of an industry in transition, we’re taking on more projects and more responsibilities without much prior experience in the subject matter. That’s normal in complex environments. Instead, we have to become experts as we do the work. And we’re expecting others to do the same.

Harold Jarche—whom I quote in just about everything I write these days—says, “Work is learning and learning is the work.” Work and learning are the same thing.

It’s actually impossible to know everything we need to know to solve a complex problem in advance of working to solve the problem. We will learn more as we solve it.

So for me, the most compelling representation of the growth mindset—the only mindset—is this idea of learning as we go and fulfilling our innate potential through the “power of yet.”

Dweck, a frequent speaker you can find all around YouTube, often shares the story of a Chicago high school where failing grades don’t exist. Instead, when a student hasn’t fulfilled the requirements to pass a course, they receive a grade of Not Yet.

It’s a not-so-subtle message of keep going, a useful approach to our own development (and problem solving, for that matter) and in our management interactions with others. “Keep going” is another way to say “keep learning.”

“As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets,” Dweck concludes, “you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”

It’s the road of growth and development and it’s open to all of us.

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