Last Thursday Carol S. Dweck spoke to a packed room about growth mindset in Budapest at an event organized by HVG Extra. (You know someone’s serious when they have their own Wikipedia article). These are my notes from the talk.

She led with an introduction to what growth mindset is, and posed the big tough question of how to "get" and "keep" it. In other words: how do you keep people learning? It’s a hard problem, because there are a lot of triggers that make us switch into a fixed mindset (more on that later). At the same time it’s quite important; it’s been shown in various studies how huge a difference it can make.

One interesting tid-bit was that the inventor of what today we call the IQ test, Alfred Binet, never intended his work to be used to measure people against each other, or a standard. It started out as a tool for finding which children in a class need extra help, to help them grow; basically focusing the efforts of teachers on helping those children get into a growth mindset, as we’d say today, who needed it the most. He was quite bitter about the fact that it was hijacked as a tool of telling who is smart and who is not, which is a perfect example of the fixed mindset. Professor Dweck seems to share some of that sadness; she’s doing her research at the Stanford, the same place where Binet worked; they’re trying to fix the damage done by this abuse of the IQ test.

A recurring theme of the talk was that it’s important to realize that everyone is always in a mixture of the fixed and growth mindsets. But that’s fine, since you can change your mindset. This is a very powerful idea, realizing that you can change your mindset, demonstrated by the story of a kid who was usually disruptive in class, near the bottom in terms of results. When he was introduced to this idea, his eyes lit up and said this very quotable thing: "You mean, I don’t have to be dumb?".

In daily life, as you go about your business, you don’t necessarily always keep an active eye on what mindset you’re in, so it’s useful to know about the major triggers that force us into a fixed mindset:

  • Going way out of your control zone, because of fear of failure; what helps is focusing on the learning experience
  • High effort work, because "if you were smart enough, you wouldn’t have to work as hard". We were introduced to an idea that was very exciting to me: the idea of a "fabulous struggle". It’s the feeling you get at the end of a long and hard but successful debugging session; let’s celebrate that feeling, it’s the very essence of the growth mindset.
  • Setbacks, criticism. Your fixed mindset half just wants to run away; focus on learning from them instead. Some companies (I failed to catch names if there were any) have a "failure of the year" award for projects that failed, but still provided immense value to the company via the learnings gathered from them. Another way to look at it, a method that Professor Dweck used when addressing the UN: when you encounter a setback, think "I haven’t reached my goal yet". Adding "yet" is the difference between "I’ve failed" and "I’ll succeed".

Besides companies, another focus of research is the effective teaching and the results of the growth mindset on children; the lessons gathered here can usually be translated back to adult life as well. Imagine, if you will, helping someone in primary school with their homework. To focus on the learning experience, praise process instead of talent: "you worked hard and got it in the end, great job!" Instead of: "you’re really talented at this".

Easy things are boring, they don’t contribute to learning. When they finish an assignment faster than expected, the growth mindset thing to say is definitely not that you’re impressed by their speed. It carries the undertone of "if I hadn’t finished so fast, you wouldn’t be impressed". Instead, go for something like "it looks like you aren’t learning much from this, I’m sorry for wasting your time; let’s find something that’s actually interesting".

One typical pitfall when you start focusing on praising process: don’t praise if there’s nothing to praise. This sounds obvious in theory, but it’s harder in practice. If they didn’t work hard, saying you’re proud of them working hard is counter-productive. On the topic of effort: effort isn’t, in itself, valuable. The ultimate value is progress, learning, so be sure to link process to progress: "you worked hard, tried multiple things, and so solved this problem nicely and learned X in the process".

If they didn’t actually succeed after a considerable amount of hard work, then that hard work is, while useful in some sense, not something to be praised. Remember, the ultimate value is learning and progress. They may have learned a way that doesn’t work, or not even that; and definitely didn’t progress much. Ask instead questions like "what have you tried so far? what are you going to try next?". You want to focus on learning; one aspect of that is learning to choose the right strategy to approach a problem.

Towards the end of the talk Professor Dweck introduced a new phenomenon: the false growth mindset. It’s basically the result of the growth mindset becoming the "right way" to think in a community or culture. As a result, people go "well, if I can choose, I’m just gonna go be growth mindset". But it turns out you can’t actually skip the journey from fixed to growth mindset. This has the unfortunate side-effect of teachers trying to teach growth mindset, while themselves still being very deeply entrenched in a fixed mindset. They speak about focusing on learning instead of just results, but they still don’t provide the right kinds of exercises, tests, activities to really teach growth mindset to their pupils.

The current best approach to this problem, and a generally healthy thing to do, is to acknowledge and legitimize the fixed mindset. It’s not a sin, and we all have it; we’re all always in a mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets. A very fresh way to do this, that worked nicely with the board of a major bank - people who wear suits all day and definitely don’t do sockpuppets - was naming our fixed mindset selves; noticing triggers that bring it out; and then talking about it, like you would about a person: "when she gave me all that negative feedback, Mammon came out and got all defensive". Once you start consciously noticing these, the next step is setting small goals to achieve, baby steps to improve in this regard.

This was followed by questions from the audience, with plenty of interesting answers:

  • In the IQ tests, the ceiling was however many IQ points. Now that we say that’s not useful, where’s the ceiling? The answer: we don’t know. We can’t foretell the potential of a person. For example, students in a school that consistently had the worst results in the district were given growth mindset teaching. They went from having the worst to the best results in the district. Kids from minorities, whose families struggled with money daily and so had very limited resources, outperformed the children of people working at Microsoft. And all that changed was the mindset.
  • Speaking of Microsoft, the new CEO of MS is introducing growth mindset in a top-down fashion. This has in fact worked quite well for many companies. Which of course begs the question: how do you measure the success of such an initiative?
    • Employee satisfaction
    • How empowered do the people who are minorities in their field feel at the company?
    • How people work together
    • The number of real innovations
  • When it comes to companies, sometimes success itself, with the accompanying growth, can drive companies that used to have a collective growth mindset towards a more fixed mindset. (I imagine the same can happen to individuals as well.) This can have various reasons, like getting afraid of failing after all the successes, or just believing that they really are the geniuses everyone says they are (emphasis on being great, as opposed to working great)

All in all, it was a very interesting talk with plenty of new ideas I haven’t met so far in this area.

If you're looking for more, the first place I'd check is the book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" by the very same Carol S. Dweck who gave this amazing talk: