“Oh I was never any good at maths.” I used to hear this phase. A lot. Ah the joys of parent’s evenings. Its a forgivable statement of course. Its important to be honest after all. Carole Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, would tell you this person has a fixed mindset.
I was a maths teacher until 2015. While teaching I often sought out ways to get better, including reading extensively around the subject. This book, Mindset, stuck with me and the lessons I took from it extended well beyond my work in the classroom.
I’m glad I read Mindset before getting diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and before becoming a dad – and I detail the lessons I learned below.
About The Author
Carol Dweck is a Professor Of Psychology at Stanford University. Outside of this she appears to be mostly well known for this book, and her TED talk on the same subject – A video of this is embedded at the end of this post.
Carol Dweck introduces the concept of a fixed mindset -“Believing your qualities are set in stone”. The opposite of this, she says, is a growth mindset – “The belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts”. Throughout the book she discusses famous people in business and sport, who she believes are good examples of the folly of having a fixed mindset, and the importance of cultivating a growth mindset.
The traits of a person holding either mindset include the following:
Fixed Mindset – Prone to avoiding challenges. More interested in looking smart, rather than learning. Treats success and failure as indicators of their worth as a person.
Growth Mindset – Seeks out challenge. Is more interested in taking opportunities to learn than appearing intelligent. Treats success and failure as lessons.
See the short YouTube video at the end of this post for a good explanation of the theory.
My Experience of A Fixed Mindset
The fixed mindset Carol Dweck describes resonates with me. I can certainly see my younger self when she describes traits of people with a fixed mindset. While I never consciously thought any of the following, I can certainly see in my actions that I had subconscious beliefs that resonate with the following examples of fixed mindset thoughts.
In one world (the fixed mindset), effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented.
Effort is for those who don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, “If you have to work at something, you must not be very good at it.”
I believe the main aim Carole Dweck had in mind with Mindset was to influence how people speak to children about learning. Her theory is that we should praise children’s efforts, rather than their abilities
Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong
We can praise them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence and good strategies. And we can ask them about their work in a way that admires and appreciates their efforts and choices.
I often think back to my A levels and the lack of effort I put in for my 2nd year of sixth form college. It was the first time I had found learning in an academic setting hard, and rather than knuckling down I seemed to reject the idea that I needed to try. Luckily my poor results shocked me into thinking in a different way, and my effort certainly improved at university.
Key Lessons From Mindset
‘Yet’ is a very important qualifier for anything. Yes, maybe you can’t run.. yet. Maybe you aren’t confident in your diabetes management… yet.
Just thinking about your mindset can be beneficial. If you have ever stopped trying at something it may be because you have either a) been told you are really good at it – and trying hard then seems unnecessary (in fact even insulting) or b) you think you can never become good at it, so you belittle it and pretend that it is not important. Realising this can be a big step in the right direction.
Nobody is born an expert on diabetes. The main reason I am mentioning this on a type 1 diabetes blog is I’ve seen people asking what can they do about their mindset around the condition. They feel trapped, overwhelmed and afraid. This book can help you see that anything – including diabetes management – can be learned by applying yourself to the task at hand.
Open yourself up to criticism. It took some courage to put my thoughts online, and to let other people know of their existence. But getting others thoughts can improve both my management and my writing. In the past I used to see peoples’ judgement of my abilities or beliefs as a personal attack on me. While its still not pleasant to be disagreed with, or have my efforts criticised I can see these as learning opportunities now. While also seeing the criticism as criticism of the idea or work itself, rather than of me. The main point here though is that we need to talk. When you have to take care of the amount of things we do as type 1 diabetics then its vital to ask others for advice. Also, give advice. If somebody criticises your stance it could well be a learning opportunity.
Don’t be that ‘Oh I was never any good at maths’ parent. Don’t be that person with consistently terrible blood sugar control telling everyone who will listen that its okay. If someone is asking for advice then give them ideas that can help, or encourage them to look to improve one key area for now. Don’t convince them that diabetes management – or anything else – is an innate skill that only certain people possess. Keep learning and striving for improvement. Encourage others to do the same.
If you see any shade of yourself in the fixed mindset this book will be a good read. If you’ve ever looked back and regretted not putting the required effort into something this book may help you start to realise why that happened.
Despite my overall positive opinion regarding this book, Mindset would benefit from some mentions of research that natural talent and IQ can trump hard work. This book can sometimes try a little too hard to convince the reader Carole Dweck’s theory is true. John McEnroe is used as an example of a fixed mindset person – “It was never his fault”. But as a 7 time Grand Slam winner (and that’s just singles titles) I am not so sure he is the best example to use of somebody to not be like!
The main strength of this book is pragmatic optimism. Its not a flowery self-help book aiming to convince you that anything is possible. It does show a lot of examples that might just convince a sceptic that with a little hard work they can get an awful lot better at most things than they are now. As a dad I’ll certainly take on board the warning not to praise my son’s natural abilities to the point where they become part of his identity – an identity he could find shattered the first time he encounters difficulty. That said, I’m going to take the advice with a pinch of salt. “I like the way you re-read that paragraph to make sure you understood it” is fine, but I’m sure he’ll start to roll his eyes if I answer every “Do you like my drawing?” with an expression of my enjoyment of the time he spent trying to get the shade of blue just so for the sky.
As an ex-teacher I have seen a lot of children trying to learn over the years. Carol Dweck’s desciptions of the fixed and growth mindset, while a tad black and white, seem valid enough to me, and I’m going to keep trying. Trying to improve as a person, trying to improve my management of type 1 diabetes, and trying to teach my son that anything is possible if have the right mindset.
This book can be purchased from the following (non- affiliate) link here.