Mindset – Do you REALLY believe you can learn?

Do you really believe you can learn? According to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, this is a more nuanced question than you might think. Her research indicates that people operate with one of two assumptions about their abilities. Some people assume their abilities are innate and cannot be changed. Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. Others assume their abilities can be grown. Dweck calls this a growth mindset. According to Dweck, despite the fact that 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’s not always easy to find or maintain a growth mindset.

When I 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? As I reflect on how I have responded to various learning opportunities in my life, though, the relationship between my belief in my ability to learn and my actual success at learning becomes clearer.

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

My attempt to master a tennis backhand illustrates this problem. After failing to improve my backhand for several years, I met a coach whose simple directions and reassuring presence helped me form a picture of a great backhand and feel confident that I could learn how to hit it. He helped me believe that I was capable of producing a quality slice backhand and this belief enabled me to take actions that helped me overcome the inertia that came from my ongoing experience of failure.

Based on the Bill’s instructions, I practiced the stroke until I eventually succeeded in installing both the picture and feeling of the slice backhand in my muscle memory.  As my belief become stronger, my learning accelerated until I eventually felt quite confident that I could execute the stroke even in high-pressure situations. (For an exploration of the subtleties of expectation-setting see Clear Expectations Set the Stage for Effective Feedback and Coaching.)

Working with Bill on my slice backhand opened my mind to my own potential for growth. Nonetheless, at a fundamental level I continued to suspect that my backhand would never be good enough. The slice backhand was a standard shot for professional tennis players of the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s all top pros had a reliable topspin drive. Bill never considered developing a topspin backhand to be a high priority. He told me that once I had mastered the slice it would be easy for me to make a few adjustments to the shot that would enable me to execute a backhand drive as well.

Perhaps Bill believed in my ability to learn, but I did not. Since I didn’t have any experience of hitting a topspin drive, I couldn’t see the picture of success.  That meant I didn’t know what to repeat or how to cope with the frustration I inevitably felt every time I failed to produce the shot. Moreover, I “knew” that if I couldn’t produce a topspin backhand, I would never be a top flight tennis player. In hindsight, I realize that I was operating with a fixed mindset. My experience of past failure was so strong that it left me with a tacit belief that the record of failure was destined to continue in perpetuity.

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

Dweck outlines the implications of having a growth versus fixed mindset along various performance parameters. A summary of these parameters is included at the end of this article.  In this article, I provide some reflections on how I personally have experienced the fixed and growth mindset and the impact each mindset has had on my growth and performance.  For me, the biggest challenge has often been getting through the early stages of a learning curve when evidence and even appetite for growth may not be sufficient to create momentum that pushes you forward long enough to experience evidence of 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 exploring the world beyond the boundaries of the tennis court. My college offered a variety of experiential learning opportunities and I chose to join a study-abroad program to Nepal. This was the first time I had put myself in a situation in which I needed to use a foreign language as a practical tool. I had studied Spanish and French in high school and college, but I hadn’t developed much fluency in either language, so I wasn’t confident that I would become fluent in Nepali either.

In the early stages, I found learning Nepali frustrating. It seemed like the other students were learning more than I was, and I started wondering if 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 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 calm my learning anxiety. Rather than fretting about whether I had a talent for language, I just continued to plod along finding aspects of the language learning experience that I enjoyed, including struggling to communicate with my home stay family. Unsurprisingly, this positive perspective led me to take more positive action, leading to positive results. By the end of the program I was one of the most fluent speakers in the group.  Moreover, I had established a number of mindsets and behaviors that supported my success in future learning endeavors, including the belief that frustration was a positive rather than negative indicator of progress.  I started to use the severity of my headache at the end of each day as proxy for my learning curve for that day. A throbbing cranium became a sign that I had learned something new.

Replace “Fake it ’til you make it” with “Make it so you don’t (feel like you) have to fake it.”

One of the counter-intuitive insights I picked up was that I found it easier to maintain focus when I was able to convince myself that I was developing something I naturally had rather than trying to internalize something foreign to me.  When I moved from Nepal to Japan and started studying Japanese I decided to behave as though I was naturally designed to be a native speaker. I just needed to put in the hard yards until I had evidence that I was right.  

Rather than worrying that I might be making mistakes, I convinced myself that whatever I was saying in Japanese was clear enough that anyone who genuinely tried to understand me would find that it was possible to do so. The corollary to this belief was that anyone who didn’t understand my Japanese must be obstinate, stupid or biased against understanding me.  

The choice to place blame for misunderstandings on others rather than myself may sound counter-intuitive and irresponsible. Wouldn’t it have been better for me to look in the mirror, face the truth of my inadequate skills and work harder to fix my mistakes? And wouldn’t my tendency to blame others for misunderstandings create stress in my relationships?  In fact, the choice to blame others rather than myself did have unintended consequences for some of my relationships. Counter-intuitively, though, it also lowered my learning anxiety to a point that enabled me to grit my teeth and push through failure until I started to see signs of success. 

In reality my Japanese pronouncements often were neither clear nor correct, and in my heart, I knew this was the case. Nonetheless, temporarily choosing not to acknowledge or dwell on my lack of perfection, enabled me to maintain enough positive momentum to keep trying to communicate like a native speaker.  As my belief that I was a “native Japanese speaker in becoming” grew stronger, my resilience in the face of failure also increased. My belief in my eventual success enabled me to calm my anxiety enough to make use of the real-time feedback I gained through each interaction with native Japanese speakers. Each time my communication was met with a blank stare, a laugh, or correction, I became more motivated to search for the words or phrases that would elicit more positive reactions from the native speakers I met 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 (feel like you) have fake it.”  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. But I couldn’t expect these people to hang out with me just to help me with my Japanese. I had to find ways to make it feel natural for native speakers to be comfortable talking with me.

I didn’t ask my Japanese friends to teach me or correct my mistakes. That would have disturbed the flow of natural interaction and raised my learning anxiety to an unsustainable level. Rather than looking to others to teach me Japanese, I set my own goals, I prepared my own content, I studied independently on my own schedule and I evaluated my own progress. Part of this routine included initiating conversations with Japanese native speakers on topics that I thought might be interesting to them. When I was with other people, I set aside concerns about learning and just focused on communicating with the person in front of me. I assumed that a good conversation between two people would be a more positive experience for both of us than a Japanese lesson. 

It’s easier to start with the end in mind when you experience something as close as possible to that end.

The roots of my “_____ in becoming” approach are based on advice from Bill about how to speed up my learning curve on the tennis court.  Bill – who had coached several world champions – used to tell me that while learning things in phases (e.g., beginner, intermediate and advanced) sounds good in theory, it doesn’t work well in practice.  He told me that if I aspired to be a professional tennis player, I should find the best player who was willing to play matches with me and play as many matches with that player as possible, regardless of the outcome. He also told me that no matter how badly I lost I should just keep on playing matches against that person as long as that person was willing to share a court with me.  The results didn’t matter as much as the experience, even though the experience would inevitably sometimes be miserable. I would learn more from losing a match to a more skilled player than I would ever learn from winning a match against a less skilled player.

I never quite figured out how to carry through with this strategy in the world of tennis. On a few occasions, I gave stronger players a run for their money and on a few memorable occasions I even beat someone who was clearly playing at a level that was still aspirational for me.  In the end, though, my fixed mindset was more powerful than my grit. The stress of constantly asking stronger players to play with me eventually overwhelmed my belief that I was “a professional tennis player in becoming.”

Most of life’s challenges are not win/lose propositions.

Still, 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. I didn’t actually have to ask anyone to talk with me; all I had to do was find out something fun to talk about.  If my partners found the topic interesting, we continued to talk regardless of my level. If they didn’t find it interesting, we talked about something else or the conversation ended and I found someone else to talk to. Moreover, it didn’t matter that much if I screwed up a conversation because no one was keeping score. There was no winner or loser in my pursuit of native Japanese 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 growth mindset calculus of +1, (A.K.A. proof of progress toward my goal).

Owning your own learning can free you from the constraints that often sap your appetite for growth.

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). Instead, I constantly tested whether 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 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 economies 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 feel like you 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 that I was learning accelerated my growth curve and my growth curve deepened my belief.  I became pretty fluent in Japanese pretty quickly.

Experience of growth can be translated into a more global belief in potential for growth.

The experience of successfully growing my Nepali abilities helped me to simulate an image of myself as a successful Japanese speaker. 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 increased my “growth mindset resilience” and enabled me to bring a similar mindset to other domains.

I don’t care about finance.

The experience of successful growth in second language acquisition triggered a shift my growth appetite and growth mindset resilience, 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, so 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 expertise in finance. For the first 20 years of my career I learned enough of the language of business to occasionally contribute to conversations involving finance.  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 the qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of organizations. Moreover, since I was able to help many clients make significant improvements without financial analysis, I didn’t feel a compelling need to invest time and energy in growing my expertise in this domain.

My “no need to talk about finance” strategy eventually hit its limits. There came a time when most of my consulting projects required more than a passing knowledge of the financial levers driving business. When I realized that my credibility on these projects depended on my ability to speak coherently about the numbers, 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?”

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

The last reaction pushed me into the growth mindset. I realized I had a choice. I could continue to find ways to avoid growing this ability, but the end of that story would probably be that I lost 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.

In this case, my discovery of the will to grow was a matter of clarity of purpose rather than strength of belief.  In the midst of a significant recession, most clients were more interested in numbers than ideas.  If I intended to keep my family fed and housed through the downturn, I would have 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. Connecting something I didn’t care about (finance) with something I did care about (feeding my family) increased my growth mindset resilience and 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.

Luckily, once I started playing with the numbers I came to see how finance works as a language full of stories about what an organization does and how it creates value. Once I had reframed finance as a set of stories, 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.

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 make new domains fit within 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 to tell stories about organizations. 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 on finance.  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 in becoming” enhanced my depth and range as a 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 take action to learn.
  2. When you take action to learn you become more likely to experience learning.
  3. When you experience learning you become more likely to continue taking action to learn.
  4. As your learning deepens, your sense of purpose also deepens.  
  5. This sense of purpose enhances your commitment to believing you can learn.

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

The biggest insight I gained from this reflection on my growth experiences is not that a growth mindset is a good thing to have. That was obvious from the start. What I have learned is that you can’t just expect a growth mindset to emerge by accident. The growth mindset itself is something you can and must intentionally grow as you encounter the many peaks, valleys, curves and forks in the road of the long journey we call life. 

_______

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.)

 

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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