How do you think about people’s abilities?

fixed vs growth mindsets1I’ve been facilitating discussions on mindsets for a few years now, but I’ve not yet written a post specifically on the subject. So here goes with a basic introduction…

You may have heard of the work of Professor Carol Dweck in respect of the mindsets that people adopt. She has devoted decades of her life to the study of how we think about ourselves, and wrote the first edition of her best-selling book ‘Mindset’ back in 20061.

The book compares and contrasts what Dweck labels as Fixed and Growth mindsets.

What do these labels mean?

Dweck noticed that there is a major divide between how people think about their abilities2. She explains that:

Someone within a Fixed mindset believes that people are born with (or without) their ability i.e. that our ability is innate (as if ‘given to us’) and therefore static. You either ‘have it’ or you don’t3.

If you believe in innate ability, then your actions will necessarily be about judging yourself and others, to determine who fits where in some sort of pecking order.

Someone within a Growth mindset believes that people are on an incremental journey, and that any and all of our abilities can be developed. They believe that people can substantially change what they are capable of.

If you believe in the possibility of ever-changing abilities, then your actions will be concerned with learning and development.

I should note that you or I probably don’t realise which of the two paradigms we (truly) believe. It would likely have to be (carefully) shown to us before we could clearly see it.

Whichever mindset someone adopts leads to some prevalent behaviours and predictable outcomes.

An enlightening experiment

Before revealing these behaviours and outcomes, I think it is useful to summarise one of the foundational pieces of research performed by Dweck and her colleagues:

Working with a group (numbering in the hundreds) of early-adolescent students, they started by giving each of them the same set of problems to work on. The students did reasonably well in solving them.

They randomly assigned each student to one of two categories, in order to treat them differently:

They told students assigned to (what I’ll refer to as) Category A that they must be really smart/ talented to have done so well i.e. they praised them for their ability.

Conversely, they told those assigned to Category B that they must have done well because of the effort they had put in.

They then gave each student the choice to undertake some further problems of a similar difficulty.

Those in Cat. A rejected the choice, not wanting their (supposed) talent to be called into question.

However, 90% of those in Cat. B wanted to undertake the further problems, such that they could learn from them.

They then gave each student some harder problems to complete, which (as might be expected) they didn’t do so well on.

Those in Cat. A (the ‘ability’ praised) now thought that perhaps they weren’t so clever after all. They took their poorer performance on the harder problems as a sign of deficiency on their part.

Those in Cat. B (the ‘effort’ praised) didn’t see it as failure or a reflection on their ability. They simply saw it as requiring more effort and a need to try out new strategies.

They then asked the students about their enjoyment of working on the problems.

All said that the first set of problems (those they had been successful at) had been fun.

The students in Cat. A said it wasn’t fun anymore once it became difficult. They hadn’t enjoyed their ‘talented’ status being in jeopardy.

Those in Cat. B still loved the problems, with many saying that the harder ones were the most fun.

They then returned the students to some more of the easier problems (i.e. like the first set that they had done well on).

Surprisingly, those in Cat. A (the ‘ability’ praised) did worse than they had at the start. They had lost confidence in themselves.

Those in Cat. B (the ‘effort’ praised) got better and better. They had used the harder problems to learn and had moved way ahead.

Finally, they told each student that the researchers would be repeating the study at other schools and asked them to write a short note about the problem exercise that they had just undertaken so that these other schools could read about it. They asked each student to write their overall score at the top of their note.

Some 40%4 of the Cat. A (ability-praised) students lied about their score, where this lie was always an exaggeration They felt a degree of shame in their score and wished to hide it.

Dweck summarised the experimental outcomes as follows:

“So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think this is what we’re aiming for when we put positive labels (‘gifted’, ‘talented’) on people.” (Dweck)

Putting people into a mindset

The experiment is a sobering demonstration of our ability to put people into (or at least direct them towards) a given mindset by the way we talk to and interact with them. This is especially true with young people.

The following image nicely sets out Dweck’s findings of the predictable behaviours and outcomes of each mindset:

fixed vs growth mindsets2

You can probably see that the simple act of learning about these ‘mindset’ concepts can be a catalyst for a constructive shift in the way people see themselves and others. It is the beginning of understanding that:

“Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind” (Dweck)

Dweck’s ‘Mindset’ book is an excellent place to continue this thinking.

A clarification

Dweck isn’t saying that we are all born with the exact same potential and that anyone can do anything. She’s not denying the effects of our unique genetic make ups.

What matters is what you believe about where you could take yourself:

 “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” (Dweck)

Personally, I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, paint as well as Michelangelo, or think as deeply as Stephen Hawking….and so on.

But I do believe that: if I put the effort in; am happy to seek out knowledge and be taught; don’t mind making mistakes; want feedback and will act on it….then I can get much better than I am right now at anything.

A person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable). It’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.” (Dweck)

It’s not about comparison with others, it’s just about continually developing yourself (and others) and enjoying doing so.

An over-simplification

The image above presents a binary Fixed vs. Growth picture. However, in reality, we are all a mixture of the two mindsets and it’s important to recognise this. Events and circumstances might trigger us to move in one direction or another.

The need is to recognise if and when we have adopted a fixed mindset and then ‘talk to ourselves’ about it. We won’t move out of it through denial.

A caveat

It’s not just about you. It’s also about what you believe about others!

You might have a fabulously growth mindset about what you can achieve but think highly limiting thoughts about those around you.

You can help people towards a growth mindset through the discussions you have with them. How about conversations along the following lines:

“What did you put effort into today?”

“What mistakes did you make that taught you something?”

“What did you learn?”

They may surprise you – there’s likely far more to them than you (currently) realise and, with the right environment, this will continue to emerge.


1. Dweck has written a more recent 2016 updated edition

2. Abilities: I’ve deliberately used the generic ‘abilities’ word, rather than perhaps the more emotive ‘intelligence’ or even ‘talents’ because I want to get across that this is about any and all of our abilities, whether it be intellectual, emotional, physical, …etc.

3. Fixed Mindset: If you were in any doubt…Donald Trump sits squarely in this camp as evidenced in this article.

4. Lying: Dweck doesn’t say if any Cat. B (‘effort praised’) students lied but I presume that it wasn’t appreciable given that she signals out the ‘ability praised’ lying as being striking.

5. Praise: This post ties in very well with a post I wrote years ago about the research on praise



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s