What determines how good you are at what you do? Is it nature or nurture? This is an age old debate that falls into the either/or trap, but one researcher has done more than most to show that nature – your genetic make-up – is nothing more than the starting point to your success. To what extent you fulfil your potential is, says Carol Dweck, largely about your mindset.
Very Short Biography
Carol Dweck was born in 1946 and grew up in Brooklyn New York. She was an exceptionally bright student at school, but this did not hold her back. She had a love of learning that enabled her to continue to develop. Her first degree was at Barnard College in 1967, followed by a PhD from Yale in social and developmental psychology, awarded in 1972.
This was followed by a string of academic appointments at prestigious universities; the University of Illinois, Columbia and Harvard, before her current appointment, in 2004, as Professor of Psychology at Stanford.
In 2012, Dweck brought her most important work to the attention of the reading public with Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. The ideas in this book apply in all walks of life (the cover of the UK edition lists business, parenting, school and relationships) and I think it would be a brave manager or organisational leader who wilfully ignored them. If that’s you, Dweck would describe you as having a fixed mindset, and that would not be good for your future success!
Despite the wealth of research and the long history behind the ideas, the concept at the core of Dweck’s research is simple. We do all have some form of capacity or genetic heritage that we are born with, but this is nothing more than a starting point from which we can leap toward our fullest potential or near which we can remain. The difference that makes the difference is not our innate intelligence, physical prowess, musical talent or artistic aptitude; it is the mindset we apply to these.
At one extreme is a ‘fixed mindset’ that believes these traits are set from the start and will hardly vary: ‘some are born great’ – others are not. We are either talented or we are not. The sports star who was told from an early age that they are great, can acquire a sense of entitlement that means they believe that all their success comes from their talent. They don’t need to work hard at it; there’s no point. And if you wonder how that affects you, a manager or leader, then here it is: ‘leaders are born, not made’ is a common belief. So too is the ‘talent agenda’ in many organisations, that seeks out the talented, lauds them and then promotes them against the ‘merely hard-working’.
The problem with this ‘talent myth’ is that it breeds a need to constantly prove your worth. And from this arises the fear that, if people think you are talented, the biggest threat to that is failure. So perhaps the best thing is to avoid taking any form of risk, or stretching yourself in any new direction. From that arises stagnation and a failure to recognise that you have any need to develop. You are great as you are and you don’t need to do anything different.
For me, the Peter Principle rushes to my mind: ‘managers rise to the level of their incompetence.’ That is, they reach the point where they can no longer succeed, because they reach the limit of their talent and, without developing themselves, they start to fail. What is the solution?
At the other extreme from a fixed mindset is what Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’. Here, your innate capabilities are nothing more than a start point and you believe that you can develop any of your fundamental abilities by hard work, dedication, practice, and learning from your experiences: success and failure. People with a growth mindset embrace challenges, are persistent even when they encounter repeated setbacks, and take failures and criticisms as valuable feedback from which they can learn. They develop a love of learning and a resilience that keeps them developing, evolving and growing as individuals throughout their lives.
Many of the great names in any field of human endeavour started life as ordinary kids with special levels of talent. Some were even written off as potential failures. But it was their growth mindsets that enabled them to build steadily on an average or below average base, day by day, month by month and year by year, to exceed their classmates and to dominate their fields.
The Growth Mindset Pocketbook
It is no surprise therefore, that it is Management Pocketbooks’ sibling imprint, Teachers’ Pocketbooks, that has produced a best-selling book on the subject of Growth Mindset: The Growth Mindset Pocketbook.
But once again, don’t for one minute think this doesn’t apply to you; a manager, professional or business-person. For me, the best chapter in Dweck’s Mindset is Business: Mindset and Leadership. Maybe it’s because my interest in education is personal rather than professional and because sport holds no interest for me. Or maybe it’s because a growth mindset is one of the most important characteristics of the best managers and leaders.
The power of believing that you can improve
Carol Dweck’s TED talk is short (10 mins) and compelling.