A prisoner of your mind

Prisoner of your mind - image for article by Greg Alder

Two students. Michael believes he was born with the gift of intelligence. He believes his intelligence is fixed and there’s nothing he can do to change that. Tania believes intelligence is a mindset. She feels she has the power to increase her intellectual ability.

So, which is the better student? I think you can guess the answer. Research shows that people like Tania perform better (especially in difficult subjects) and gain more knowledge than people like Michael. She’ll also develop a lifelong passion for learning that people like Michael don’t.

This growth mindset is so powerful that it can overcome economic barriers to learning. A Stanford University study of 147,000 students shows that poor kids with a growth mindset perform as well as rich kids with a fixed mindset.

Michael’s fixed mindset is the product of his upbringing, his schooling, his environment and his desire to fit in with his friends. His parents told him he was smart. They told him he could be a lawyer or a doctor. His school tested his logic and memory. His test scores confirmed his intelligence. He lived in a neighbourhood surrounded by equally smart kids whose parents held similar ambitions for their kids. His circle of smart friends dressed alike and thought alike.

On graduation, Michael joined a company with a good reputation, and fitted right into the culture by becoming a junior clone of senior partners. And there he stayed, rising through the ranks until he was senior partner.

Tania’s parents taught her to believe she could be anything she wanted to be. Her school placed equal importance on creative subjects as logical ones. Her friends came from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. They celebrated eccentricity and social exploration. By 40, she’d worked in musical theatre, graphic design, event management and as a medieval arts tour guide.

So, is Michael stuck in his fixed mindset? No. Experience shows that whether of school age, at university or at work, anyone can develop a growth mindset.

How to get a growth mindset

  1. Step outside
    Fixed mindset people are uncomfortable with anything different. It usually takes outside influence to drag them outside their comfort zone. I have one never-fail technique that gets even the most habitual fixed mind thinkers coming up with wild, crazy ideas – ideas they wouldn’t normally let themselves think. The transformation in 30 minutes is revelatory. How do I do it? I push them so far outside their comfort zones that any future slightly less extreme adventure is a walk in the park.
  2. Remove your hat
    I don’t mean literally, but each of us wears a hat by which we’re known, and these hats label and constrict us. The woman who wears the CEO hat suffers the same prejudice as the woman who wears the fork lift driver hat. The CEO’s suggestion to improve warehousing efficiency is met with the same ‘what would she know?’ barrier as the fork lift driver’s suggestion to improve board meeting efficiency. To grow, you need to be free from typecasting, from labels and from hierarchical straight-jackets. The forklift driver who believes she can be CEO has a chance. The forklift driver who believes she’s a lifelong forklift driver will be.
  3. Change your friends
    Researchers found something interesting when they looked at people’s social circles. People whose social network is wide and shallow (they mix with people from diverse backgrounds, careers and societal levels) are three times more creative than people whose social networks are narrow and deep (they mix almost exclusively with people just like them). Why? The mixers are exposed to ideas they wouldn’t experience if mixing with like-minded peers.
  4. Be less brilliant
    Being less brilliant seems counter-intuitive. However, one research study found a correlation between mindset and bias. When it’s commonly believed that leaders in a field of science are inherently brilliant (a fixed mindset), that field is dominated by white men. Fewer women and fewer African Americans earn PhDs in these fields. Women report that they feel excluded by this fixed mindset. So, a growth mindset is more inclusive.
  5. Try, fail, try again
    There is no growth without failure. Parents who encourage kids to try again after a setback raise kids with a growth mindset. Those who respond with “well, that will teach you a lesson” instil a fixed mindset. Same with teachers. If they simply fail a student, they instil a fixed mindset. If they help kids understand where they went wrong and then let them resubmit their work, they are helping kids develop a growth mindset.

So, what’s the payoff for developing a growth mindset?

People with growth mindsets worry less about trying to appear intelligent. They challenge themselves more frequently, take more risks, learn from failures and give up less easily than fixed mindset people.

In a world where yesterday’s rules are often irrelevant today, and where the pace of innovation accelerates exponentially, people doing things as they’ve always been done aren’t as useful as those who push the boundaries.

If you suspect that you, or your organisation, has a fixed mindset, change it. A single training session is all it takes to kickstart your growth mindset.

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