Do you have a "fixed mindset?"
Although I don’t watch the news, I do scan the headlines on my I-Pad, skipping the most sensational or negative stories and delving mostly into those related to psychology, human behavior or health. In the last two weeks, that practice did not serve me well. The news stories were so overwhelmingly negative that I found myself feeling very judgmental, frustrated and frankly, concerned for our species. It prevented me from being able to write last week’s podcast, as I wasn’t able to walk my talk for a while. The political climate appears to be terrible for our future. The actual climate news is quite concerning, too, with weather patterns wildly out of sync with past patterns and ice melting at both of the earth’s poles, despite headlines decrying climate change as a hoax. The public charge debate erupted and called into question who we are as a country. The economic news doesn’t sound too good either. And then, of course, there were the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. My heart goes out to all of the families affected by those tragedies.
What I found most distressing beyond the obvious pain and loss of the shooting victims and their families was the immediate rhetoric that exploded once again after the events. Instead of coming together to try to solve what is an ongoing national problem, it sparked intense arguments about gun rights, with politicians and lobbyists all jockeying for publicity. We seem to be more concerned as a society with our “right” to bear arms than we seem to be regarding our own health and well-being. I don’t own a gun and I am not an expert in such matters, but my common sense says we have our priorities out of whack. Surely there’s a way to better handle this issue and protect innocent people. It feels like we’re approaching the whole situation quite mindlessly, completely excluding any concern about what might be for the greater good.
Speaking of mindlessness, a trivial but deeply disturbing mindless act I saw following these sad events was a Houston area shooting range and gun store’s ad claiming “Back to School Sale – 50% off firearms” less than 2 weeks after the mass shootings. The owner said it was to “celebrate teachers.”
So, I took a week to get re-centered and focus on how to be more mindful and less judgmental in the midst of all of the chaos. I spent a lot of time reflecting on why we might behave the way we do and to put some space between the world’s events and my observations of them. Could our mindsets be part of the problem?
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist who did the pioneering research on the differences between fixed mindset and growth mindset said that mindset “is the view that you adopt for yourself that determines the way you live your life, see the world and make decisions.” Mindset also includes your particular perspective. It’s the way your perceptions or your beliefs about your abilities and qualities shape the way you operate.
According to Dweck, mindset has a profound effect on a person’s life. She states that mindset is largely responsible for what shapes our individual realities, shaping our entire perception of what’s attainable and what’s out of our reach. A fixed mindset is one where we believe our general qualities are fixed traits that can’t be changed, including intelligence, abilities, creativity, moral character, talent level, and even our ability to succeed.
The limitations this creates not only include limiting ourselves, but in how we behave towards others. If we believe that our attributes and abilities can’t change, we may feel the need to constantly prove that we are good enough. This can lead to hostility, bullying, bragging, and a whole host of other character traits that further limit our abilities, as others don’t enjoy working with us or don’t feel a desire to support us in our efforts. A fixed mindset can eventually lead to a failure mindset, where we believe we simply can’t overcome challenges.
A fixed mindset can also lead to avoiding challenges because they can make someone with this mindset feel inferior. It’s also common to let one setback define us forever, whether a bad grade, a break-up, or a failure at work, and since a fixed mindset does not believe that we learn from our mistakes or failures, there is limited chance of bouncing back from a setback. Hence, we don’t take chances, further limiting opportunities available to us. In a fixed mindset state, we’re filled with interfering thoughts. Effort feels disagreeable. People appear to be judges instead of allies. In a fixed mindset, we are also less likely to notice when other people change, sticking with our original judgment about them because it’s “fixed” in our minds.
Could our polarized country be stuck in a fixed mindset? That might explain why we don’t seem to be making much progress on any front lately. It could explain why we’re not adapting to current situations effectively, digging in our heels and trying to roll back time or deny the existence of problems that seem too big to change.
One of the key tenets to being mindful is compassion. And of course, that’s what I was struggling with over the past two weeks. I was finding it very difficult to feel compassion towards angry people proclaiming that they have a right to carry an AK47 or that Texas gun store owner’s idea of honoring teachers. By the way, you can identify when you’ve slipped out of mindfulness simply by noticing that you’re judging people. I noticed, but it took me a while to figure out how to get back. What I hit upon was fear. All of these people are afraid of something. And in a fixed mindset, which basically feels like you can’t change anything without risking complete failure, you may feel you have no options other than to proclaim you’re right and others are wrong. So a tiny crack of compassion opened for me. I’m not advanced enough to feel love and compassion for people who commit terrible acts, but this little sliver of compassion helped me feel a little better about society at large. Looking at it through an empathetic lens, how would it feel to be that afraid all of the time?
Mindset is simply a continuum of self-conception with a fixed mindset at one end of the spectrum and a growth mindset at the other. We’re not stationed at one end or the other, however. We can have a fixed mindset in certain areas and a growth mindset in others. For example, many people have a fixed mindset regarding learning a new language. They don’t believe they can learn a new one, and well, that ends up being true because of their mindset. But those very same people may have a growth mindset when it comes to their belief about succeeding at work. With a growth mindset, our levels of intelligence, skill, talent and other attributes are perceived as a starting point from which to learn, build upon, and expand. This mindset includes a belief that basic qualities are cultivatable and flexible, that can grow with dedication, time and a commitment to getting better.
This can lead to creating significant motivation and productivity in business, education, relationships and more. This in turn boosts self-esteem and further strengthens the belief that we can continue to grow and learn, and of course, succeed. People with a growth mindset tend to thrive on challenges, knowing that even if they fail, they’ll learn from the experience and do better the next time.
Research has shown that having a growth mindset can also increase successful coping with change, increased self-regulation, higher resiliency and pro-social behaviors. Those more on the growth mindset side of the spectrum also appear to be less aggressive and have fewer symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.
It’s important to note that when we’re at the high growth mindset end of the spectrum, it doesn’t mean we enjoy failing or that we don’t get miserable over something going wrong. It’s all about our belief in the ability to bounce back, learn, and succeed - despite set-backs. A good example of this is depression. Fixed mindset people show more depression, but growth mindset folks get depressed, too. The difference is that with a growth mindset, the worse they feel, the more determined they become to feel better.
So if we turn this back toward our societal culture today, it’s easier to see that people who have worked their whole lives in coal mines, for example, may have a fixed mindset about their abilities to learn technology or some other skill set in order to change careers. If they feel that all they can do is work in a coal mine, it’s truly not an option in their minds that they could do something else. It then makes more sense that they would fight against the idea of climate change because that creates a personal threat to them regarding their ability to make a living. Research shows that mindsets are developed in early childhood and most adults are not even aware of what their mindset is or how it was established. If your grandfather and your father were coal miners, and the concept that coal mining is what a family does, why would you even think you could become a computer technician? And of course, this mindset then skews something that threatens this way of life as a personal attack.
Perhaps the same fixed mindset exists with the issues of guns. Family traditions, distrust of governments, fear of outside influences, I’m not sure of all of the origins, but it feels like a fixed mindset. I would never own a gun, but I can see that I am also on the fixed mindset end of the spectrum on the issue of guns. I can try to respect that there are people in this country who still hunt for food, and at least try to understand that taking away their guns could be felt as a threat to their livelihood. I cannot, however, understand why anyone needs an automatic weapon that fires a hundred rounds in less than a minute, which I see as just plain common sense. But again, if I’m truly being mindful, that’s a fixed mindset. The point here is that by being in a fixed mindset state, we’re unable to compromise, to see beyond our own individual needs and to move forward as a society not only on this issue, but all of the other issues that are dividing us as a citizenship.
A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities. It is not about being open-minded or flexible; great qualities can exist in both growth and fixed mindsets. It is not only about effort or praising effort. Praising the process can be important, but the process includes more than just effort like trying new strategies when the one being used isn’t working. It’s about asking for help or input from others when needed. A growth mindset is not focused on only the outcome, but tying the process to the outcome.
Consider that all people keep a running account of what’s happening to them, what it means, and what they should do. Our minds are constantly monitoring and interpreting. Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in our heads. The great news is, we can change our mindsets. The first step is self-awareness regarding where we are on the spectrum on various issues. This is not an exercise in self-judgment. Remember, much of what we believe about ourselves and our abilities was developed as young children. This is more of an inventory – simply taking stock to identify areas where we have opportunity for growth. Once you’ve identified areas where you have a fixed mindset, you can take some pretty simple steps to start shifting those areas toward a growth mindset.
Start by acknowledging and embracing imperfections. Hiding from our weaknesses means we’ll never overcome them. Try different learning tactics. There’s a plethora of information online and in books on developing a growth mindset, but there’s no one-size-fits-all model for learning. What works for one person may not work for you, so experiment. Replace the word “failing” with the word “learning.” When you make a mistake or fall short of a goal, you haven’t failed; you’ve learned. Take risks in the company of others. Stop trying to save face and just let yourself mess up now and then. It will make it easier to take risks in the future. Use the word “yet.” Dweck says “not yet” has become one of her favorite phrases. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, just say you haven’t mastered it, yet.
I haven’t overcome my fixed mindset on guns, yet. But I stay on the growth mindset end of the scales most of the time, so I’m sure I can work on improving my understanding of how people who don’t share my beliefs feel. I may never agree with them, but I can learn to be less judgmental which could lead to helping solve the problem instead of exacerbating it. And I might consider giving the I-Pad a break and remember that most good news doesn’t make the headlines. Most people are performing acts of kindness every day in large and small ways. Most people do care about the well-being of others as well as themselves. And I suspect most of us really want everyone to prosper and be well.
We can all do better in trying to understand and empathize with those we disagree with. Developing a growth mindset is a powerful strategy to help us cope with the unprecedented changes we are all facing as a society and reduce our individual levels of fear and anxiety. Human life is a precious gift and if we start with that as our top priority, we can surely succeed at making the world a better place.