On Mindset

mindset-1February 27, 2017. At the start of the new year, I told myself I’d read at least one non-fiction book per month and blog about it. Thanks to today’s class suspension, here I am blogging about Carol Zweck’s (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I had planned to finish Jo Boaler’s (2016) Mathematical Mindsets first, but halfway through it I found myself reading and finishing Carol’s book instead.

The basic idea of Carol’s book is that there are two so-called mindsets (or powerful beliefs about one’s qualities) – a fixed mindset, which is the belief that one’s qualities are “carved in stone,” and a growth mindset, which is the belief that one’s qualities can be developed through effort. There are several implications of this idea for the teaching profession as well for parenting. For example, it is better to praise students/children for their effort or process, thus encouraging a growth mindset, rather than their attributes such as intelligence or beauty, which only strengthens a fixed mindset. Carol’s studies show that not only can the latter lead to rejection of new tasks (for fear that these would expose their flaws); praising them for their attributes or abilities rather than effort could even lead to the formation of unethical habits like cheating or lying. Carol discusses clearly what I view as mindset principles, and backs these up with results of her own quantitative studies (as a Stanford psychology professor) as well as those of others, and rich stories (qualitative research?) of individuals and, to a lesser extent, companies.

carol-dweck-1What I liked about the book is that it describes in many ways the various facets of a single basic gem of an idea. These different descriptions are like different pathways to understanding. Carol also makes clear that she doesn’t have all the answers (e.g., “Can anyone do anything? I don’t really know. However, I think we can now agree that people can do a lot more than first meets the eye.”) In addition, Carol writes with honesty and humility about herself (e.g., “Until I discovered the mindsets and how they work, I, too, thought of myself as more talented than others, maybe even more worthy than others because of my endowments”, “Late one night, I was passing the psychology building and noticed that the lights were on in some faculty offices. Some of my colleagues were working late. They must not be as smart as I am, I thought to myself.”). I also liked the “Q&A” section, where she engages readers’ possible skepticism. In the last chapter (Changing Mindsets: A Workshop), the book also presents a series of dilemmas to help the reader understand his or her mindset, and work toward strengthening the growth mindset.

What I didn’t appreciate so much in this book was its identification of certain unpopular individuals (CEOs) as having fixed mindsets, and the attribution of their companies’ failures to their fixed mindsets. I’m more inclined to think, though, that mindset is not a binary thing, that one can only have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset, but not (a bit of) both. Instead, I think that mindset is a spectrum, and most of us are somewhere between two extremes. Moreover, it is not clear whether one can so easily transfer the mindset principles from the classroom to the running of a conglomerate. There are probably so many other factors that led to the demise or decline of these CEO’s companies, not just their CEO’s mindsets.

Overall, Carol’s book and her ideas and their application to teaching, mentoring, coaching, parenting, and learning are excellent. All those engaged in these endeavors would do well to read this book and apply her ideas.

little-house-on-the-prairie-main-cast-1Weeks ago, I began watching Little House on the Prairie, a popular American TV series from the 70s about a farmer’s family and community in rural Minnesota in the 1870s. The series is loosely based on Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s Little House books. It’s interesting that Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the parents, “knew” and taught the mindset principles to their children. Charles and Caroline, and their children’s families, were relatively poor compared to the other mainstays of the series, but they had one happy family despite the usual problems of life. Aah, the good ol’ days! (I will blog about this series, too!)

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