Wednesday, February 24, 2010


After writing about my struggles with my son, who responds to many learning opportunities with doubt that he will be able to get it ("I Can't, It's Too Hard"), one of my readers recommended that I read the book "Mindset" by Dr. Carol Dweck. I am so glad I did! The book talks about the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset and lays out what how both act and respond in business, athletics, music, and education.

Those with the Fixed Mindset believe that you cannot significantly change a person's talents or intelligence and they are constantly trying to preserve their self-image. They tend not to take risks because it would expose holes in their innate abilities and that is insufferable. When they make a mistake, they take it very personally, as if it is a character flaw exposed. They are constantly worried about being judged and coming up short - that would be failure.

Those with the Growth Mindset think that you certainly can improve talents and intelligence through hard work and they are willing to do the work to make those improvements. When they make a mistake, they do not dwell on them, nor do they attribute them to character flaws. They often make a plan of action to improve by looking at what might have gone wrong and how they can learn from those mistakes to better the outcome next time around. They believe failure is not learning or growing.

The author talks about ways to foster the Growth Mindset in anyone. This is done through talking about scenarios where someone has suffered some sort of set back and then shows how the two mindsets handle the situation. She also talks about how to praise children so that they develop the Growth Mindset. In one intriguing passage, she lays out a scenario of a young girl who has her first gymnastics meet and is confident of doing well. But, she does not win any ribbons and is very disappointed. She then offers five different ways her parents could respond to her and how that affects mindset. I will paraphrase them below:

1. Tell her you though she was the best
2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers
3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important
4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time
5. Tell her she didn't deserve to win

Here are the ways those responses can affect mindset:

1. This response is insincere and offers no help for improvement.

2. Places blame on others for her performance and encourages a life time of blaming others for her own deficiencies.

3. Teaches her to devalue something if she doesn't do well in it right away, which does nothing to cultivate tenacity and perseverance.

4. Ability doesn't automatically take you where you want to go. Effort and will should be encouraged, rather than discounted. This response is the most dangerous in the author's opinion and is the most likely to encourage a Fixed Mindset.

5. While you wouldn't say it quite like that, it is the best response to foster a Growth Mindset. She gives a longer, more gentle version of this response that seemed like the best way to support the child: "I know how you feel. It's so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best then not win. But you know, you haven't really earned it yet. There are many girls there who've been in gymnastics longer than you and who've worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it is something you'll really have to work for. If you want to do gymnastics just for fun, that's OK, but if you want to win in competitions, more is required."

The author makes it clear in this response and in a study she set up, that praising kids for effort, rather than ability is the way to create a Growth Mindset. This means skipping "good job" or "you did really well" for something more helpful, like "you really tried hard" or "that must feel so good to have learned that". Her study concluded that praising effort made kids willing to try harder and do more work. Praising ability, speed, or outcome made kids very resistant to learning more and even encouraged a LOT of lying to preserve self-image.

The book is a great read for parents, managers, teachers, and coaches. It also is helpful to know where your own mindset is and how that affects your own success and self-image, not to mention how it affects others in your life.


  1. Very interesting. I often find myself wondering how my words are affecting my kids in the long run. This is yet another way to look at it. Thanks for reading it and sharing.

  2. That was all very thought-provoking. It is daunting yet empowering to be faced with how much we can shape the way our children will interact with the world as grownups. I look forward to implementing this strategy at the next soccer game and swim meet. Thanks, Tracy!

  3. my son's kindergarten teacher this year has focused on such themes with her class... they speak often about effort, practicing, making plans and strategies for tackling things that they think are beyond they're reach & her class is thriving. she has spoken to us about just this topic and the importance of praising effort vs. outcomes. she is helping the kids be o.k. with their mistakes and have the courage to takes risks. quotes like "mistakes are the portals to discovery" - are talked about and practiced. she also recommended a book called The Optimistic Child - i've only read some excerpts so far, but have found it helpful with regards to this topic. i wish i could spend a year in her classroom :)