Who can resist feeling self-satisfied over an A+? Isn’t a score of 100 percent a trophy-rewarding talent? Shouldn’t we praise children, students, clients, and ourselves for being smart people who earn top marks?
According to renowned motivation expert Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and bestselling author of Mindset, the answer is no. Over the past few decades, she’s produced a widely influential body of research that’s shown how all too often praising intelligence creates fragile people, devoid of resilience and motivation. Her work has attracted growing attention among parents, educators, and mental health professionals by demonstrating that, rather than focusing on talents and abilities, it’s far more important to enhance people’s ability to tackle adversity and persevere. In other words, reward hard work and good strategies, not talent.
In the following interview, Dweck discusses the implications of her research for psychotherapy.
RH: Your work is based on the overriding importance of mindset in helping people deal with life’s ups and downs. How did you first get interested in that subject?
DWECK: My research started out looking at how people cope with failure and setbacks, especially students who were asked to solve challenging problems. Some students acted as though a failure was a catastrophe, while others actually relished the challenge. I was particularly interested in the latter group. I vowed that I’d figure out what their secret was and try to bottle it.
RH: So what turns out to be the main difference between those who relish the challenge and those who remain fixed on the outcome?
DWECK: It comes down to whether you focus on growing your abilities, as opposed to proving and validating them all the time. When you’re in what I call a fixed mindset, your goal in life is to prove you’re a smart, competent, worthwhile person and avoid doing things that could undermine that image of yourself. In the growth mindset, you believe these abilities and talents can always be developed, so you’re not on the spot every second to prove yourself, and you can focus on developing those abilities through taking on challenges and seeing them through. You can be more resilient from setbacks because they don’t define who you are. In other words, the fixed mindset is the idea that you have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, or talent, and the growth mindset is the idea that you can always develop these abilities and talents. Of course, people differ in their abilities, but the underlying premise that separates people is the degree to which they believe they can develop their talents and capacities further.
RH: As a clinician, I can see how the fixed mindset could contribute to guilt, regret, and shame in our clients.
DWECK: All of us are a mixture of fixed and growth, but our research has shown that when people think their personal qualities are fixed and they experience a rejection, they think, Oh, I’m not a likeable, worthy person, instead of How can I understand what happened? What can I learn from it? What can I do now? It’s the guilt and shame of I’m a bad person for having done something negative versus I don’t like what I did. It’s not consistent with my values. How can I act in a more consistent way in the future? How can I make up for it?
RH: I hear some overlap with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Was that an important influence on your work?
DWECK: CBT is based on the idea that if you change beliefs, then emotions and behaviors can change, too; however, CBT often says, “Don’t think you’re not a smart person because you didn’t get an A on that test. Look at all the other A’s you got—you’re a smart person.” But we’re not saying that. In the mindset framework, we’re saying, “Get out of that smart-person framework entirely. Don’t just try to boost yourself up or beef yourself up within that same old problematic framework, get out of it. Stop thinking that the good or bad measures you, and think of yourself as a work in progress.” They’re asking you to find evidence to challenge the argument, and we’re saying it’s the wrong argument.
RH: You’ve been quoted as saying, “Becoming is better than being.”
DWECK: Yes. It was a saying in the ’60s and ’70s, but now it’s attributed to me. It’s a good quote, so I don’t mind.
RH: When you write about the fixed mindset, I can’t help but think of it as a pretty Western idea. Are other cultures better at the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset?
DWECK: Eastern cultures are more effort and self-improvement oriented.
This orientation might encompass more of the “becoming,” but it’s often in a framework of duty and obligation, instead of a love of learning.
RH: This seems to relate to another one of your quotes: “Genius is not enough: we need to get the job done.”
DWECK: We see so many people who are extremely talented and never fulfill their potential because they were so lavishly praised for their genius in childhood and led to believe it would automatically take them someplace great. So they sat with it and nothing happened. You actually have to develop those abilities and take them to a place of fruition.
We love to celebrate genius and talent: the extraordinary young athlete, the chess prodigy, that sort of thing. But many of them fizzle out as a result. They think their whole claim to fame is being a genius, rather than accomplishing anything in the long run. So we have a whole line of research on how often praising intelligence or talent backfires and puts kids into a fixed mindset.
RH: Well, I have a 6- and 4-year-old, and after reading your work, I’m definitely taking a different approach with them. In fact, you say if a kid gets a math problem done quickly, you should apologize for that and say, “Whoops, I missed an opportunity for you to grow.” It’s so different from American academia. You’re saying the praise feels good, but it’s fleeting.
DWECK: And it’s actually undermining. The child is being fed by the praise instead of the growth. I think it’s a legacy of the self-esteem movement that we think we can hand someone self-esteem and confidence by telling them they’re smart and talented and special. The overfocus on self-esteem creates kids who are fragile. We’ve shown in our work that once you praised them like that, they don’t want a challenge, and they don’t fare well in the face of difficulty.
RH: Your book created quite a stir when it came out, several years ago. What are the latest developments in your research?
DWECK: Lately, we’ve been looking at the question of how best to communicate the growth mindset. Sometimes people who grasp it only at a more superficial level wind up communicating a “false growth mindset.” So if you just tell kids to try hard, you may think you’re instilling a growth mindset, but you’re just telling them something that adults always say. Instead, you should teach kids that when they do hard things, they grow their brains—that the neurons in their brain form new, stronger connections when they take on challenges and stick to them, and that this helps them become smarter over time. Or when they’ve mastered something difficult, link that progress to their strategies and perseverance. This way, you’re teaching a link between hard work and progress, not just nagging them to try hard.
Another example is that a lot of parents say they have a growth mindset, but then they react negatively to their kids’ mistakes and setbacks. This conveys that mistakes reflect badly on one’s ability and teaches the child more of a fixed mindset. Our research shows that it’s only when parents back up their growth mindset ideas with consistent behavior—like treating mistakes as exciting, interesting opportunities for growth—that their children develop more of a growth mindset.
RH: Do you have any thoughts about how clinicians might be able to take some of this work into their office?
DWECK: A number of therapists have told me that a majority of their clients are grappling with having a fixed mindset: feeling inadequate, crushed by setbacks, and thinking of themselves unable to improve and grow. I think the idea of a growth mindset is central to the therapeutic process. It’s not just convincing someone they’re good, talented, worthy, but it’s showing them that the things that happen are opportunities for growth.
RH: Let’s say someone comes to therapy after a fight with a spouse and says, “I’ve failed again and fallen into that same rut.” You want them to see this as an opportunity for growth?
DWECK: Yes. I want them to think about what happened, what set the stage for it, what they can learn from it, and what they can do differently next time. In fact, we’ve done work on relationships showing that when people are in a growth mindset, they’re likelier to problem-solve when issues arise. When they’re in more of a fixed mindset, the more serious the issues are, the less likely they are to broach them—which puts the relationship in jeopardy.
Our research in the Middle East shows that both Israelis and Palestinians have a more positive attitude toward each other when they think that groups are capable of growth and change and don’t have fixed, inherent natures. We also have a whole line of research on willpower, showing that people who think willpower is fixed and finite are less able to self-regulate in times of temptation or stress.
RH: I have just one final question. Did I do a good job in this interview?
DWECK: (Laughs.) I think you developed interesting questions that led to a fun interview. And, of course, there’s always room for growth!