Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to be growth minded in a fixed minded world

I don't read self-help books. Lord knows I probably should, but every time I see a title that promises to make me the person I've always wanted to be, it just seems full of common sense stuff that some great writer has made sound like psychological genius.

But this book is different. I'm not kidding.

If you are a parent, a teacher, a coach, an employee or a manager, you will gain SOMETHING from “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.

Authored by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. (here is the place where I could list all her credential gobbldegook, but it really doesn't matter), the book starts out by explaining the two basic mindsets in our world: fixed and growth (though each of us can in fact be a little of both). What follows is an amazing exploration into nearly every facet of the human mind - easy to read, fascinating to follow, difficult to put down.

I first heard about this book from a friend of mine, Steve Jones. He sent me an excellent summary that I have yet to replicate in my explanations of the book to others, so with respect to him, I paraphrase his words now:

"In “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Dweck says that the mindset we have about ourselves goes a long way toward determining the extent to which we reach our potential. Some of us have a "fixed" mindset, believing that our talents in a certain area are relatively fixed... they won't change. For instance, I might think I am a good critical thinker, but a lousy swimmer. Others have a more "incremental" mindset, believing that our talents in a certain area are fairly malleable. For instance, I might think that I am a slow runner, but I know that I can get faster if I work at it.

The intriguing part of Dweck's work is that she has shown that people's (to include kids') behavior is dependent upon their mindset. If we have a fixed mindset, we tend to seek out those things we are good at (because they are affirming) and run away from things that are challenging (because they threaten to "expose" us as not very talented). Because I think I am a good critical thinker, I spend all my time reading because it is rewarding. And, because I am convinced that I am a lousy swimmer, I never go swimming. (Notice how this is somewhat self-fulfilling... if I never go swimming, I never get good at it!) Challenges are viewed as threatening... things to be avoided.

On the other hand, if we have an incremental mindset, everything changes. Challenges are not things to be avoided... they just indicate those areas where I need to work harder. I know that I can get faster as a runner if I work at it, so I work at it until I get better. That is also self-fulfilling, as I act in ways that make my belief come true.

So, Dweck argues that we need to help our kids adopt an incremental mindset... especially about the challenges they face in school. One way she says we can do this is by praising our kids for their effort ("Wow, you put a lot of work into that timeline, and it really turned out great!") rather than for their talent ("Wow, you sure are smart... your timeline turned out great!"). That sounds trivial, but it is an important distinction. So often, our kids get messages that their talent is what makes them who they are."

Steve's explanation targets children only because that was the discussion we were having. But Dweck gives equal time to the mindsets of athletes, leaders, relationships, teachers and coaches. As a parent who has an athlete, works for a living, is in a relationship and deals with teachers and coaches, every chapter gave me new insights into the benefits of a growth mindset in every single aspect of my life.

And ironically, a few weeks after my discussion with Steve, a good friend of mine and teacher in District 150 mentioned in a casual discussion that he had just read a book that had changed his life. Yep, same book. He is definitely a growth-minded individual to begin with, and his goal is to teach Dweck's methods to his students in order to give them the tools to succeed in learning and life in a growth-minded way. However, he seems to be encountering much resistance from the District along the way. Go figure.

In addition to this book, Dweck is the mastermind behind the Brainology program, which helps middle school and high school students gain confidence and motivation to learn by teaching them about the brain, how to strengthen it, and how to apply brain-friendly study skills. When implemented in schools, it has completely transformed how kids think and has improved their mindsets tenfold. I believe this program would be invaluable to any school, but especially the floundering District 150, maybe via some sort of grant or perhaps divine intervention.

I urge you to check out the Brainology website, and for God's sake, buy “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. I guarantee that not only will it change how YOU think, you will be hard pressed NOT to try to change other people's mindsets as well.

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