I want to alert you to an article and a book that recently came to my attention with some compelling empirical evidence that shows how effort and attitude really DO matter and that learning to “embrace failures” appears to be a discerning factor of those who succeed.
Carrie Bustillos, a long time Autodesk colleague and a Stanford alumni, passed along a recent article “The Effort Effect” from Stanford magazine about Carol Dweck’s research and her book Mindset:The New Psychology of Success. This book definitely makes it onto my highly recommended reading list.
Dweck proposes that we typically have one of two types of “mindset”: fixed or flexible/growth. Those with a fixed mindset think that their talents and abilities are preset. They simply are what they are and you just have to accept them. Intelligence and talents are basically what they were born with. This group, according to Dweck, is destined to go through life avoiding challenge and failure and not reaching their potential. On the other hand, those with a flexible or growth mindset regard their intelligence and talent as something that is malleable and can be developed over time. This group is destined for growth and success.
Dweck was led to this research because she was curious as to why talent is not a good predictor of success. Why do some people achieve their potential while others who are equally talented don’t? And she also asked herself, “What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?”
It is important to note that the title “Mindset” is a play on words and Dweck is NOT recommending that we have a “set mind.” Nor is she simply championing “the power of positive thinking”. Rather, Dweck is proving how much of a difference it makes for those who choose to think about their abilities, intelligence, and talents as being very flexible.
What I really want to emphasize is that this means WE are in control! Being more successful, and realizing more of our individual potential, is a choice each of us can make. To me, some of her most fascinating experiments were those where she demonstrated that simply by changing the attitude or expectation that individuals had over their abilities (fixed versus flexible) completely determined the outcomes. Her research shows that those who have a flexible mind rather than a set or fixed one are more often successful.
“The Effort Effect” article recounts just such an example. Last November, Dweck served as an advisor to a top soccer team school from the UK whose performance director was concerned that many of their top players had a large gap between their actual performance and their potential. Of note was the fact that these top players were the most resistant to the school’s century old motto—arte et labore—“skill and hard work” and had the least motivation for serious training. With Dweck’s help, they identified the problem as somewhat cultural, since many believed that “star players are born, not made”, so what was the point of practicing?
The Stanford article outlined a recent study that Dweck and her colleagues conducted:
“‘Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient,’ Dweck explains. Students may know how to study, but won’t want to if they believe their efforts are futile. ‘If you target that belief, you can see more benefit than you have any reason to hope for.’”
I was also immediately drawn to Dweck’s work when she cited one of my favorite examples and topics, Betty Edwards classes and book on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Dweck noted how Edwards' results show that tests are typically poor at measuring potential because most adults think they can’t draw and for the most part I’d add that the majority feel they are very “left brained” and logical and only a rare few are “gifted” with artistic and other so called “right brain” talents and tendencies. Yet what Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has proven to thousands of adults who have taken the course or used the book, is that anyone can advance from the typical kindergarten-like attempts at drawing say, a portrait, to astoundingly accurate and beautiful portraits by these same “talentless” adults in just a few classes. That would certainly shift your mind set!
One of the things I really liked about Dweck’s book and work and why I’m recommending it for your consideration is that unlike so many others, her conclusions are grounded in over 30 years of solid and rigorous research with many different groups. She is not just theorizing or stating her opinions.
For more insights from Carol Dweck on how this plays out in education and training, I recommend reading the interview with her in Education World, “How Can Teachers Develop Students' Motivation—and Success?” In the interview she explained:
“This is a really interesting question, and the answer is surprising. There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.
This is something that really intrigued me from the beginning. It shows that being mastery-oriented is about having the right mind-set. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mind-set will help students become more able over time.”
Now for some additional reading that takes Dweck’s work in very different directions, you may want to look at the following:
- Guy Kawasaki picked up on Dweck’s work on his blog How to Change the World, which generated a lively set of comments and discussion. They took this off into a whole different direction and to my way of thinking, missed much of the key points of Dweck’s research, but I still recommend it for your reading.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s blog and his New Yorker article “The Talent Myth:Are smart people overrated?” highlights a common and very troubling myth that is rampant in much of the business community. This was expounded upon at great length, and unfortunately to great effect in the book The War for Talent, written by a group of McKinsey & Company consultants who meticulously researched what made top performing companies different from the others. They concluded that:
“Success in the modern economy requires "the talent mind-set": the "deep-seated belief that having better talent at all levels is how you outperform your competitors."
Unfortunately this “talent mind-set” became the doctrine of many managers and companies, the shining (for a moment) example being a company that was entirely built upon this model and had this embedded into the corporate DNA and culture. The company was Enron.
As you can see Dweck and her research have definitely sparked a lot of interest and diverse applications. To bring us back to Dweck herself and a focus on learning, here are some of Dweck’s tips from the Stanford article's sidebar "What Do We Tell the Kids, which I thought many of you would find very useful. Although they are aimed at children they can easily be adapted for adults and applied to many situations both professionally and personally.
- Listen to what you say to your kids, with an ear toward the messages you’re sending about mindset.
- Instead of praising children’s intelligence or talent, focus on the processes they used.
Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
Example: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”
- When your child messes up, give constructive criticism—feedback that helps the child understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.
- Pay attention to the goals you set for your children; having innate talent is not a goal, but expanding skills and knowledge is.
Dweck continues, "Don’t worry about praising your children for their inherent goodness, though. It’s important for children to learn they’re basically good and that their parents love them unconditionally. The problem arises when parents praise children in a way that makes them feel that they’re good and love-worthy only when they behave in particular ways that please the parents."
Whether it is your children, your co-workers, employees or yourself, I hope you enjoy reading more and find this topic intriguing and valuable. Here at Off Course - On Target, I'm aiming to help shift your mindset to the flexible setting!