It is thought that mindsets are on a continuum with two extremes; fixed and growth.
The fixed mindset holds that we are born with certain abilities and these do not change. This thinking tends to attribute success to natural talents or prodigies, and see failures as a sign that we should do something else with our lives.
The growth mindset holds that we have grown into our abilities and will continue to change. This thinking tends to attribute success to hard work or years of practice, and sees failures as helping reveal our current limits so we can grow beyond them.
To help us understand, we can summarize studies that explored these mindsets in educational settings. Specifically, by comparing how people with these mindsets took tests.
People with a fixed mindset spent more time on easy problems and less on hard problems. This selective focus led them to over estimate their score (and capabilities).
Those with a growth mindset didn’t display the same overt attention to easy problems. Thus, they were able to much more accurately assess their level of understanding, which helped them know how their learning was progressing.
When fixed minded test takers were asked to estimate their score immediately after the test, their estimates averaged 25% higher than their actual score. The growth minded test takers also over estimated their score, but by only 5%.
This makes sense, in context.
If we believe we can grow and change, it’s useful to understand what we’re good at and what we’re not. This can guide our practice and help us become better more quickly.
If we believe our intelligence and skills are fixed, we have a vested interest in proving to ourselves (and the world) how great we are right now. We’ll never be any better. In this way, the test isn’t an educational tool, it’s a way to demonstrate our intelligence.
The same pattern can repeat for people with fixed mindsets, which can lead to extreme overconfidence or a victim mentality (I’m just not good at that).
What does being fixed minded have to do with trust?
We already talked about how the fundamental attribution principle and confirmation bias can cause us to be unable to break free of first impressions (our brain selectively serves up information to support those impressions). Fixed mindedness removes our ability to break the cycle.
If we fundamentally believe people cannot change (i.e., we’re fixed minded) then we will actively resist any attempt that others make to change our opinion. It will no longer be merely our subconscious mind filtering out contrary data, our conscious mind will become it’s accomplice in justifying our feelings.
If we ever have the misfortune of working for a fixed minded leader and we give an unfavorable initial impression, there is no recovery.
Working hard won’t matter. They’d see us as simply needing to work hard to keep up because we don’t ‘have it’.
Great results won’t count. They’ll credit favorable circumstances or luck as the reason we were able to get it done.
Responding to feedback won’t improve matters. They’ll see it as a veiled manipulation rather than a sincere effort to improve.
I think I have a fixed mindset. Am I hopeless?
Before disregarding this article and declaring yourself as having a growth mindset, take a moment to recognize that it isn’t so simple. In fact, these mindsets represent a continuum of mindsets with two extremes and our place on it may vary in different contexts.
If we believe we can get better at having a growth mindset more often, that’s a great start. Terry Waghorn and others have some suggestions on how to be more growth oriented. These have helped me.
- Look for impermanence. Change is constant in the world. The more we can let go of the way things are and accept what they are becoming, the more we ease into a growth mindset.
- Be aware of when we may be in a fixed mindset. Be sensitive of knee jerk reactions, justifications, defensiveness, stereotypes, and feelings of absolute certainty.
- Remember that we choose our mindset. We are not helpless victims. However, this choice isn’t ours until we choose to make it.
- Be humble. Accept that we may be wrong about people and give them chances to prove us wrong.
When in doubt, be a bit like Billy Joel in Shades of Grey
Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for
I won’t be righteous again
I’m not that sure anymore