Mindset – Do you REALLY believe you can learn?

According to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, this is a more nuanced question than you might initially think.  Her research shows that people operate with one of two assumptions about ability. Some people assume their abilities are innate and cannot be changed. Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. In contrast, some people assume their abilities can be grown.  Dweck calls this a growth mindset. According to Dweck’s research, even though those with a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset, most of us spend a lot of time trapped in a fixed mindset.

It may be amazing what you can do with a growth mindset…but that doesn’t mean a growth mindset is easy to find or easy to maintain

When I first read Dweck’s book, my first reaction was that the thesis was profoundly un-profound. The claim that believing in your ability to grow might make it easier for you to grow seemed obvious, but not particularly helpful. The fact that you try to learn anything at all implies that you believe you can learn, doesn’t it? Reflecting on how I responded to real learning opportunities in my life has helped me develop a clearer picture of  how my belief in my ability to grow has in fact driven my success in growing.

It’s hard to believe in something that you can’t imagine

My attempt to master a tennis backhand is an excellent example. Having struggled for several years to break some habits that were limiting my progress, I had the good fortune of meeting a coach (Bill) whose simple directions and reassuring presence helped me find the picture and feeling of future success. He helped me believe that I was capable of producing a quality backhand even though the only experience I had was of failing to do so. Once I believed that progress was possible, I was able through practice to install both the picture and feeling of the slice backhand as muscle memory.  As my belief become stronger, my learning accelerated until I felt quite confident in my ability to perform. (For an exploration of the subtle art of clear directions and expectations see Clear Directions Set the Stage for Effective Feedback and Coaching.)

On a gut level, though, I still suspected that my backhand was not good enough. The slice backhand was a standard shot for even most great professional players of the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s all top pros had a reliable topspin drive.  My coach didn’t consider this to be a high priority; he told me that it would be easy for me to learn to execute a backhand drive with a few adjustments.

Perhaps he believed in my ability to learn, but I did not. I could not imagine myself hitting a topspin drive and since I couldn’t see or feel the experience of success I didn’t know what to repeat or how to cope with the frustration I felt when I experienced failure. All I knew was that I couldn’t hit a topspin backhand now and without a topspin backhand I would never be a top tennis player. In hindsight, I realize that I was operating with a fixed mindset. I had a tacit belief that I wasn’t capable of developing an ability that I didn’t already have.

The fixed mindset expresses itself in various ways that limit growth

Nature versus nurture

When you have a fixed mindset, you see your inborn talents as a natural cap on your learning and performance.

When you have a growth mindset you see ability as something that can be nurtured.  Since you believe ability is something you can develop, you are more willing to invest time and energy in developing abilities you don’t currently have.

Performance RIGHT NOW or in the future?

When you have a fixed mindset you need immediate evidence of your abilities in the form of immediate performance and results. Since you don’t believe in growth, your current performance feels like a reliable indicator of your future performance. When you are winning, you extrapolate more winning into the future; when you are losing, you extrapolate more losing into the future. If all you have experienced is losing, you end up creating a self-reinforcing loop of failure.

When you have a growth mindset you are less obsessed with your current level of performance. You see your current performance as one spot on a learning curve. You don’t require as much proof that you are smarter or better than your peers today because you can imagine a tomorrow in which the “future you” might be smarter and better than your “future peers.” This sense of future potentialities enables you to focus on what you need to do NOW to grow LATER rather than getting trapped in the fear that what you are now is proof that you will never be good enough.

Reaction to challenges and obstacles

When you have a fixed mindset you may talk about loving challenges and obstacles, but you are probably sub-consciously intimidated by them.  Admitting that something is challenging implies that you will have to stretch your abilities to achieve it. If you don’t believe you are capable of stretching your abilities, it makes more sense to just stick to doing the things you already know you are good at.

When you have a growth mindset you may still find challenges and obstacles frightening, but you may also be able to re-frame them as opportunities for growth.  Whether you like being challenged or not, your belief in growth enables you to focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenge. You persist in searching for new options.  This persistence increases the likelihood you’ll experience some success and one you have experienced some success it is easier to believe that more growth may be just around the corner.

Attitude about hard work

When you have a fixed mindset you may be skeptical about the value of hard work. You may believe that truly talented people can produce results without that much work. You might even believe that hard work is evidence of a lack of talent.

When you have a growth mindset you see effort as a necessary element of growth even for those who possess talent. You may not love pushing beyond your limits, but you probably don’t conflate superior effort with inferior ability.

Response to criticism

When you have a fixed mindset you tend to reject constructive feedback. You defend yourself saying that the feedback reflects a lack of understanding on the part of the person giving the feedback. Accepting feedback would require you to accept a flaw.  Since you see flaws – as well as talents –  as immutable, admitting to your own flaws would be tantamount to admitting the limits of your abilities.

When you have a growth mindset you probably don’t love receiving constructive feedback; it’s never fun to be told that you have gotten something wrong. Still, since you are committed to growth, after some initial resistance, you find ways to swallow your pride and calm your fear so you can make use of the feedback to plan your next charge forward.

Dealing with other successful people

When you have a fixed mindset, the success of other people can be threatening. Since your self-esteem depends upon ongoing proof that you are superior NOW, it can be hard for you to praise others or find ways to learn from them when they out-perform you.

When you have a growth mindset you may still find other people’s successes annoying or even threatening; no one likes to feel like they are second best.  Nonetheless, a growth mindset combined with competitive fire helps you to quickly shift your focus away from that frustration toward figuring out what you need to do to get back to that coveted position at the top and that usually entails learning more about what others have done that enabled them to succeed.

Reaction to performance plateaus

When you have a fixed mindset a performance plateau can feel like the beginning of the end. In the face of increasing or shifting demands, you are prone to worry that your innate talents might not be sufficient to get you through to the other side of the change.  Since you don’t believe you can grow, you hit a self-imposed performance ceiling. This may lead you to quit, burn out or disengage before you have any real idea what you are actually capable of.

When you have a growth mindset you are more likely to overcome performance plateaus simply because you continue looking for ways to do so. You continue plodding (or racing) along until you see evidence that you are growing again. This enables you to reach heights that you yourself might not have initially believed possible. (For more on this concept, see Grit, Grind Great.)

Dweck says that we all drift back and forth between these two mindsets

I have experienced both mindsets and seen the impact each has had on my attitude and performance. For my part, the biggest challenge has often been getting through the early stages of a learning curve when both evidence of growth and even appetite for growth may not be sufficient to create momentum that pushes you forward until you actually experience growth.

How do you maintain belief in future growth when evidence is lacking? 

Toward the end of my competitive tennis career, I became interested in expanding my horizons beyond the boundaries of the tennis court. My college offered a broad array of experiential learning opportunities and I chose to join a study-abroad program to Nepal. This was the first time in my life when I had actually needed to use a foreign language as a practical tool. I had studied Spanish and French in high school and college, but I didn’t speak either language with any degree of proficiency, so I wasn’t particularly confident that I would be able to learn Nepali either.

In the early stages of my experience in Nepal, I found the language frustrating. I felt like the other students were learning faster than I was, and I became concerned that I just didn’t have a talent for languages. When I expressed my insecurities to the program director, he found a novel way to encourage me.  He told me that in his experience the students who reported the most stress in the early stages of the program tended to leave Nepal with the highest level of fluency.

This story helped me transition from a fixed to a growth mindset. Rather than fretting about whether or not I had a talent for language, I just continued to plod along finding aspects of the experience that I enjoyed, including the struggle to communicate with my incomplete linguistic tool set. Unsurprisingly, this positive perspective led to positive action and positive results. By the end of the program I was one of the most fluent speakers in the group.  Moreover, I established a number of thinking and behavioral habits that supported my success in future learning endeavors, including the (masochistic?) belief that the severity of my headache at the end of a day was actually a (positive) proxy for my learning curve for that day.

The art of pretending without becoming delusional

One of the counter-intuitive insights I picked up was that I find it easier to maintain focus when I am able to convince myself that I am using a skill I already have rather than trying to acquire a skill that I don’t have.  I made use of this insight when I moved away from Nepal and settled in Japan. When I started studying Japanese I quickly decided to behave as though I was already a native speaker. I convinced myself that since what I was saying was absolutely clear anyone who didn’t understand me must have a listening comprehension problem.

Of course, in reality things that I said often weren’t clear or correct, and in my heart I knew this was the case. Nonetheless, temporarily choosing not to acknowledge or dwell on my mistakes, enabled me to maintain enough positive momentum to keep trying to behave like a native speaker.  I created a new category of learning  that I describe as:  “The _____ in becoming.”  Paradoxically, the stronger my belief became that I was a “native Japanese speaker in becoming” the more able I became to make good use of the reactions of my Japanese friends when those reactions didn’t match this belief.  Each time something I said was met with a blank stare, a laugh, or correction, I became more motivated to search for new words or phrases that would elicit more positive reactions from actual native speakers the next day.

Practice should be an exercise in aspiration not verification.

The “I am a ____ in becoming” approach may sound like a variation on “fake it ’til you make it.” To me, however, it felt more like “Make it so you don’t have fake it.”  What I mean by this is that it is much easier to get into the growth mindset when the way you frame things makes it easier for you to plan for and notice immediate progress.  I aspired to speak Japanese at a native level, so I figured that the fastest way to get anywhere close to that goal was to spend as much time as possible hanging around with native speakers while behaving as though this was a natural thing to do. I didn’t ask these people to teach me Japanese or correct my mistakes. That would have disturbed the flow of natural interaction. Instead, I set my own goals, prepared my own content and initiated conversations that I thought might be interesting to both my Japanese speaking peers and me.

The roots of this approach came a piece of advice my tennis coach (who had in fact coached several world champions) used to repeat quite often. He used to tell me that while learning things in phases (like beginner, intermediate and advanced) might sound good to teachers, it was terrible advice for an ambitious learner.  He told me that if I aspired to be a professional tennis player, I should find the closest person to a professional tennis player who was willing to play with me and I should play with that player as often as they were willing to share a court with me. He also told me that I should just keep on playing matches against that person no matter how badly I lost.  The results didn’t matter as much as the experience, even if the experience was sometimes in fact sort of miserable. A match I lost to a player who was much better than me would provide me with more learning than I could ever gain from winning a match against a player who I already knew how to beat.

I didn’t figure out how to implement this strategy very often in the real world of tennis. On a few occasions, I did give a much stronger player a run for their money and on a few memorable occasions I even beat someone who was clearly playing at a level that I aspired to. In the end, though, my fixed mindset won out over my grit; it was very hard for me to believe I was justified in asking people with much better records that it was worth their time to play with me again.

Nonetheless, Bill’s philosophy did leave a lasting impression on me, and this aspirational approach turned out to be a perfect match for learning a second language. For one thing I didn’t actually have to ask anyone to play with me. All I had to do was find a way to get them to talk with me and that was mostly about figuring out something fun to talk about, researching it a bit and just starting to talk about it with someone.  If they found it interesting, we continued to talk regardless of my level. If they didn’t find it interesting, we talked about something else or I found someone else to talk to. For another thing, it really didn’t matter that much if I screwed up the conversation because there was no score and no winner/loser aspect to my pursuit of native level fluency. Every time I had a conversation with a native, I was the winner. Every time I learned a new word or kanji or phrase, I experienced the concrete calculus of +1, (A.K.A. proof of progress toward my goal).

Rather than sitting in a classroom practicing sentences I would never use in a context I didn’t care about AND being told by a teacher that I was using those sentences incorrectly, I decided to jump right into real contexts that I did care about and do my best to use new language to keep up with partners who cared about those same things.

Most of all, taking ownership for my own fluency and progress freed me from the need to perform against someone else’s expectations. I owned my own goals, so I owned the evaluation of my progress. Using each new word as though “I owned it” in real world conversations gave me access to real-time feedback on whether I really owned it or not. It was obvious from the reactions of the other people in the conversation.  Taking ownership for my own learning freed me from wasting time perfecting skills (for a teacher) after they were more or less good enough for use in the real world. And the kicker was that jumping headlong into real interactions rather than trying to perfect skills before risking using them in the real world was a hell of a lot more fun than studying language in classroom. I used to fall asleep in Nepali class even when there was just one teacher and two students helping us master Nepali sentence structures.  I never fell asleep talking about the relative merits of free market economics with a Japanese friend in Japanese.  I got to talk about things I cared about with people I cared about using new language I had personally chosen to learn.

Even though I finished most days with terrible headaches, this was probably the most fun I had ever had acquiring a new skill.  The “Make it so you don’t have to fake it” approach enabled me to push through thousands of hours of confusing interactions, writing and rehearsing phrases, memorizing kanji, reading novels and editorials whether I understood them or not and all of this grind work I did on my own gave me more grit when I was testing my progress in real conversations with others. I learned to put up with the unending series of headaches and dings to the ego that are part of the language acquisition process.  All of these things were only possible for me because I was able to maintain the illusion that I was a “native speaker in becoming.”  Every day I added new words, phrases or nuances to my native Japanese repertoire. My belief accelerated my growth curve and my growth curve deepened my belief.  I became quite fluent in Japanese quite quickly.

The experience of having successfully grown my Nepali abilities helped me to simulate an image of myself as a successful Japanese speaker, even thought there was no evidence outside my mind that this would ever be the case. Committing to belief in the existence of the “simulated native speaker in my mind” even in the face of overwhelming evidence that that native speaker didn’t exist in the real world enabled me to keep working hard long enough to get results.  This “growth” experience seemed to raise my “growth readiness” and I became able to bring a similar mindset to other domains as well.

I don’t care about finance

The experience of successful growth in second language acquisition triggered a shift in my appetite for growth, but it took many years for me to confront and overcome what I have found to be the most subtle and insidious articulation of the fixed mindset: “I don’t care enough to invest in growing that ability.”

I’ve been consulting to organizations on learning and leadership for many years. Based on that experience, I feel comfortable claiming to be something of an expert on organizational leadership and learning. I would not feel comfortable making a similar claim about my level of expertise in finance. For the first 20 years of my career I learned enough about “the language of business” to listen to and occasionally comment on finance-related decision-making.  Still, I found finance boring and I went out of my way to frame my consulting projects in ways that allowed me to focus on qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of organizations. Moreover, since I was able to help many clients make significant improvements without resorting to use of financial analysis, I didn’t feel a compelling need to invest time and energy in growing in this domain.

This worked for many years, but there came a time in my career when most of my consulting projects required me to have a little more knowledge of financial levers driving business. When I realized that my credibility on these projects depended on my ability to speak coherently about finance, my reaction was not positive.  My first reaction was despair: “I am doomed.”  Then came denial:  “This is a waste of my talent. I’m better at other things.”  Then came dismissal:  “I don’t care about finance anyway. Why do I have to learn it?”

But eventually, reality broke through my resistance with a bracing shot of terror: “Holy ___, next week I have to use financial analysis to help a customer who probably knows way more about finance than I do!?!”

The last reaction pushed me into the growth mindset. I realized I had a choice. I could either continue to find ways to avoid growing this ability which would probably result in losing my job. OR I could overcome my fixed mindset and commit to trying to learn to talk coherently about the financial levers as a core part of my projects. Since I needed to feed my family for the foreseeable future, I realized it was time for me to at least try to develop a working knowledge of the numbers.

By this time, I had been a father for over a decade and I had come to realize that caring for my family was actually the central purpose of my life (at least until my two boys matured to a point when they would be able to care for themselves). Connecting something I believed I didn’t care about (finance) with something I absolutely knew that did care about (feeding my family) made a profound difference. The sense of purpose that was triggered by associating finance with the purpose of feeding my family enabled me to push through the hours of memorization, preparation and learning on the fly required to speed up my learning curve in my new role, which was the key to feeding my family.

Luckily, once I started playing with the numbers I came to see how finance serves as a language describing core aspects of what an organization does and how it creates value. The same core abilities and perspectives that had helped me learn Nepali and Japanese helped me to become more fluent in speaking the language of business as well.

We are often told that in order to grow we need to move out of our comfort zone, but I find it more effective to change my perspective so that I see more zones as fitting with my comfort zone. 

At some point, I stopped thinking about finance as an unknown territory and began thinking of it as a language that could be used for telling stories. The revenue and costs on the P&L became the plot line of a hero’s journey: I made up a story of and used the various sections of the P&L to tell the story of an entrepreneurial ex-tennis player pursuing a lifelong dream of starting a revolutionary tennis racket design business. I used the sections of the balance sheet to tell the story of how he got funding for his dream and acquired treasures as the dream started to come true. And with the cash flow statement I recounted the tragic cautionary tale of how a sudden change in the economy shut off his access to cash, thereby ending his Quixotic adventure.

Even now, I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable claiming to be an expert in financial analysis.  But I have developed a stronger sense of how to integrate references to financial levers into the work I do related to organizational design, leadership and culture transformation. My painful (and thankfully brief) foray into life as an expert on financial levers to business strategy “in becoming” enhanced my depth and range as an organizational leadership, learning and transformation consultant.

Reflecting on my “growth” experiences has left me with some obvious conclusions that have come to feel more profound with time:

  • Just because you do not believer you have an ability now does not mean that you cannot develop it.
  • Finding a reason to believe you can grow is often the first step to growing, and if you generate enough belief to take a few steps, in most cases you eventually start to experience evidence of growth.
  • Even if you think you don’t want to grow a specific ability, sometimes growing it is your best viable choice, so you might as well take the plunge and find out.
  • Framing growth as “building upon an ability you already have” may help you get past your initial resistance to a growth opportunity (even if framing things this way feels borderline delusional;)
  • The abilities you have are often portable. Connecting the thing you want to learn to something you are confident you already know how to do can help you expand your comfort zone, and that can make it much easier to cope with the discomfort that comes with learning.
  • Connecting an unwelcome learning opportunity with a greater purpose sometimes gives you access to an inner drive that helps you push through the fear of uncertainty or even distaste (usually coming from bias) that often accompany early stages of a learning curve.
  • Once you have pushed through the fear that you can’t grow an ability, you may be surprised to find that you enjoy the experience of actually growing it.
  • Even if you don’t enjoy the experience of growing it, you may later enjoy the benefits of having grown it.

So what about that topspin backhand?

When my older son started playing tennis I decided to take up tennis again so I could help him develop his own game. As part of this commitment, I decided to test my ability to grow the ability that had frustrated me most as a young player.  It was time to find out whether or not I was capable of learning to hit a topspin drive backhand. I resolved to grit it out through a period of frustration to find out.

After a few years of experimenting, repeating, succeeding, failing, experimenting some more, repeating, succeeding and failing, I eventually developed a higher level of confidence in my topspin backhand than I had imagined possible.  My drive never became as dependable as my slice, but I did become confident enough to use it as a passing shot, which was the main time I needed it.  It didn’t come easily, but it wasn’t a terrible struggle either.  I eventually installed a new set of memories and associations connected with my drive backhand so that at times it even felt almost automatic. A little hard work and perseverance in fact yielded much more success than I initially had thought possible.

Regardless of your talent baseline, it is always possible to grow 

Dweck points out that the growth mindset is useful, irrespective of your talent baseline.  I sometimes wish I had made the shift from fixed to growth mindset during my teen years when my movement was nimble and my back was strong. Still, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with realizing that it is still possible to develop new skills even as my physical abilities decline.  It has been nice to confirm that the most important factor in learning is the belief that learning is possible. And it has been even more fun bringing that belief to growth opportunities in other domains.

I began this article by noting that I was initially somewhat skeptical about the importance of having a growth mindset. Over time, though, I have concluded that Dweck has indeed hit upon a simple but profound driver of growth.  Choosing to have a growth mindset seems to trigger a virtuous learning-by-doing cycle:

  1. When you believe you can learn, you become more likely to try to learn.
  2. When you try to learn you become more likely to experience learning.
  3. When you experience learning you become more likely to continue trying to learn.

The biggest insight I gained from my reflection has not been that a growth mindset is a good thing to have. That was obvious from the start. The most valuable thing I have learned is that you can’t just expect a growth mindset to happen by accident.

The growth mindset is something that you must plant, tend and harvest over and over again with each new challenge and opportunity.

I suppose that in a sense, life might be designed for this very purpose.

Reference:

Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success
Carol Dweck

For a more recent consideration of how the growth mindset may be more useful than passion as a foundation for career planning, see:

“How a ‘growth mindset’ can lead to success” by David Robson https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200306-the-surprising-truth-about-finding-your-passion-at-work

For an exploration of how excessive emphasis on immediate results can lead to a form of perfectionism that undermines growth, see interview with Thomas Curran on Ted Radio Hour: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/825910251

For an explanation of how cognitive disciplines can support the maintenance of a Growth Mindset see the following article by Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner:

Goodbye Growth Mindset, Hello Efficacy and Attribution Theory

© Dana Cogan 2009, 2018-2020, all rights reserved.

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