Carol Dweck on nurturing a growth mindset By Ikhide R. Ikheloa


In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success published by Random House, Inc. the author, psychologist Carol Dweck advocates that human beings must shed themselves of a “fixed mindset” and acquire a “growth mindset” in order to attain personal growth and progress. I am not a fan of motivational books; however Dweck makes sense; adults, especially those in charge of children ought to take her core ideas to heart. The book’s premise may be summed up in Dweck’s own words thus:

 “When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. Similarly, it’s not just that some people happen to dislike challenge and effort. When we (temporarily) put people in a fixed mindset, with its focus on permanent traits, they quickly fear challenge and devalue effort.” (p. 10)

Also there is a great chart by Nigel Holmes at the end of the book that highlights the difference between a “fixed” and “growth.” (p. 245). Rip it out and toss the rest of the book. Tape it to your mirror and study it daily. It alone is perhaps worth the price of the book. The book is a well-paced easy read which succeeds in engaging the attention of even the most distracted reader. Its practical tips will aid many instructors in their personal growth and in imparting knowledge to students. Dweck is right; every individual has unique gifts and gaps. We look to coaches, teachers and parents to be nurturing firm guides by the sides of malleable youngsters

As with any book, there is much to disagree with in Mindset. Chapter 7 is, for me, the most insightful part of the book; however it is the section I had the most issues with. Here, Dweck quotes Rafe Esquith, a Los Angeles second grade teacher who denigrates restaurant labor as “flipping burgers.”

“Esquith bemoans the lowering of standards. Recently, he tells us, his school celebrated reading scores that were twenty points below the national average. Why? Because they were a point or two higher than the year before. “Maybe it’s important to look for the good and be optimistic,” he says, “but delusion is not the answer. Those who celebrate failure will not be around to help today’s students celebrate their jobs flipping burgers.… Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up.”” (p. 198)

“Flipping burgers” is an honest, dignified living that can lead to leadership positions, either as manager or owner of the restaurant. There are special needs children for whom “flipping burgers” would be a major milestone to be celebrated. Indeed, many parents fleeing troubled lands toil with pride in these jobs in order to provide for their offspring. I think that school systems should be ensuring that children are college and career ready. Messages like this send mixed signals to teachers and demoralize whole populations of students who may not be going to college.

Dweck relies on several scholars, thinkers and corporate leaders to make her case about the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth” mindset. However besides Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins there are few minorities of note in her examples.  On the other hand, the vast majority of her examples of entertainers and sports jocks are minorities. If this was a teacher’s resource I would urge that the examples be supplemented by a diverse group of examples. By the way, Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins were not without controversy. Jaime Escalante was rightly eulogized by the world when he passed as this New York Times obituary shows. But his methods did not always meet with approval. There is a good analysis here of Escalante’s efforts. Also, this Reason magazine article does a great job of analyzing the complex man that Escalante was. Similarly, Marva Collins was also steeped in controversy as this biography shows.  It is true that corporations are headed exclusively by white males in today’s world; however that may be changing as Carla Power’s illuminating article in Time magazine shows. “India’s Leading Export: CEOs” (August 1, 2011).

Dweck’s message is compelling, but the frequent recourse to non-clinical experiments diminishes the credibility of her conclusions. Example: There is a puzzling experiment with African American students who were asked to write an essay to be graded by Edwards Caldwell III, who Dweck describes as “a distinguished professor with an Ivy League pedigree… a representative of the white establishment.” The professor grades the kids harshly and many of the kids respond with similarly harsh feedback of his grading. Dweck concludes somehow that these kids have a fixed mindset about a “white establishment figure.” How she concludes in the experiment that all the black kids saw was a “white establishment” figure rather than merely a cantankerous adult is unclear to the reader. The notion that because they are black, they would all see him as part of a “white establishment” seems patronizing. There are many such “experiments” in the book that reek of pseudo-science.

Mindset is about 200 pages too long, stretched relentlessly to make the same point ad nauseam. It is an uneven, preachy book that focuses too much on the power of individuals to change complex organizations. Robust institutions rely on structures and talented people but Dweck cites numerous instances of organizations and corporations felled by powerful leaders that were hobbled by a “fixed mindset.” There is little reflection on the corporate structure and culture that deified one individual.  Structural issues in complex organizations seem glossed over to make an admittedly compelling point. Indeed, it is the case that structural imperfections amplify what she rightly refers to as “CEO disease.” Dweck should probably have collaborated with scholars of corporate systems and structures.

Many people would disagree with Dweck that the great John McEnroe was burdened with a fixed mindset; he may have had a fixed bad attitude, but a fixed mindset? Similarly some of the examples that Dweck cites glowingly as having a “growth” mindset have since met different and unfortunate fates; for example, Jack Welch. Robert Trigaux, writing in the St Petersburg Times had this to say of Welch:

“…the Myth of Jack Welch — Superhero of Corporate America — has long needed serious deflating. (Manager of the 20th century? Get real.) Welch also acquired the nickname “Neutron Jack” — a dubious monicker much like the one owned by less revered cost-cutting champ,”Chainsaw” Al Dunlap — for introducing to GE the policy of routinely firing the “bottom 10 percent” of the company’s work force. Welch reasoned that fear was the best way of keeping GE’s minions on their toes.”

Human beings are complex manifestations of what many would call multiple intelligences. Mindset raises many questions. Does genetics play a role in resilience? Does wealth or the lack of it sustain a willingness to thrive in the face of adversity as in the case of Christopher Reeve? Is the inability to accept failure a function of society’s expectations? How do parents view failure? What about cultural norms? Is there an immigrant perspective? I found Dweck’s analysis of mental health issues too glib. A celebrated chef commits suicide and she ascribes that to a “fixed mindset.” Depression, suicide, etc. are mysteries that are yet to be fully unraveled by modern science.

Dweck advises against praising for ability rather than for effort. “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.” (p 175) Many would disagree and say that kids should be praised for using their innate intelligence for the good. From my experience, the problem has been selective praises for what society accepts as accomplishment. As the book suggests, children do need honest and constructive feedback. The influence of adults makes a difference.  We should not praise kids as smart because we run the risk of turning them into “liars, simply by telling them they were smart.” (p 73)

I did learn something new about Alfred Binet’s motivation for inventing the IQ test:

 “… Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early twentieth century, designed this test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track. Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.” (pp. 4-5)

I did not know that.

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  • Martins udeinya, NEMA, Abuja

    As a human development specialist, I am particularly excited by this effort to differentiate between the fixed and growth mindset. The book is very significant because it touches on a sensitive aspect of human development – thinking which influences mindset disposition. However, one of the critical challenges facing Nigeria today is how to achieve mindset change especially among young people as a catalyst for national development