Mindsets and Carol Dweck

CarolDweck2The woman in the picture is Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., a professor in the Psychology department at Stanford University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Over two years ago, I read an article about Prof. Dweck’s work in the Stanford Magazine. Today, I finally read her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which I happen to own in an autographed copy purchased at the Stanford Bookstore.

Just like research on leadership behaviors, there is so much in Prof. Dweck’s research that resonates with what most leaders eventually learn at the school of hard knocks and we all wish we’d learned sooner. Because our behaviors, in the end, are rooted in our mindsets.

In a nutshell, people are usually of one of two mindsets. The “fixed mindset” maintains that people’s ability is innate and static; the “growth mindset” claims that ability is the result of hard work and a learning process. Each of us tends to apply one of these two beliefs, to other people as much as to ourselves, as we go through life; and this has far-reaching consequences for our success and our relationships with those around us.

Of course, empirical evidence from all sorts of fields (from neuroscience to athletic coaching) tells us that the brain has remarkable plasticity, that performance is far more likely to result from sustained effort, and that people are coachable. But they have to be open and willing to grow: no amount of coaching will improve performance if the subject is stuck in a “fixed mindset”. It has been proven experimentally that even toddlers have one of the two mindsets (I can certainly relate this to my own experience as a child, and some of my residual barriers as a grown-up); and that mindset strongly correlates with performance even when it is briefly and temporarily induced.

The book is filled with illustrations from the world of sports, business, and education; for example, it is interesting to contrast the career of a fixed-mindset athlete like John McEnroe with those of growth-mindset ones such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and many other less well-known athletes. But beyond this, there are some persuasive insights about how we could bring about societal change. For example, it is the combination of fixed mindsets with gender stereotyping that explain why many girls and young women who decide to pursue maths and science studies end up leaving the field. Only the women with the growth mindset feel a strong and stable sense of belonging and are able to maintain it in the face of challenges.

Read this diagram by Nigel Holmes about the two mindsets, and read the book if you’d like to learn more (if I’ve stimulated you into a growth mindset, so to speak). I’d love to hear whether it resonates with your experiences.


Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology, Stanford University

5 thoughts on “Mindsets and Carol Dweck

  1. Interesting, indeed.
    There’s also another important factor to consider: is growth a unique “entity” inside our mind, or do we have separate compartments? Is professional growth separated form personal, sentimental growth?

  2. Good question: can one be a competent and accomplished “growth” person in one domain, and a helpless and frustrated “fixed” person in another domain? Dweck does not explicitly address this issue. Yet it would seem to me that such cases would be exceedingly rare. She’s talking about “mindsets”, not just attitudes or opinions, and she observes them in kids as young as three or four. Mindsets are what generates our fundamental assumptions and beliefs, our entire outlook on life – and that’s why an unproductive “fixed” mindset is so hard to root out. On the other hand, if you believe can work hard to improve your career, why not your relationship? If your relationship, why not your health, body, or athletic performance? And so on.

  3. Interesting question. I’ve asked Dr. Dweck that question, and she has explained that yes, one can have fixed beliefs in certain aspects of life and growth beliefs in others. And the best news – we can change our beliefs, so someone with a fixed mindset can cultivate a growth mindset!

    fyi, you may be interested to know that today is the public launch of Carol Dweck’s new online program for middle school and high school students, to help them cultivate a growth mindset through learning about the malleability of the brain! The program is at: http://www.brainology.us

    Let me know if you have any questions, as I run the online program. We’re excited to provide a curriculum to help students develop a growth mindset and pursue their full potential.


  4. I agree. Many people who are successful business people do not experience the same success in their personal lives. I would like to see more explanation as to why this occurs.

    Is it that these people have a ‘fixed’ mindset regarding relationships? Or could it be that they merely spend too much time on their business, bringing about an adverse effect to their relationships?

    Interesting site though and I will visit again.

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