The Growth Mindset

Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google, spoke at this year’s TED conference. Physically, he looks just like you’d expect a software engineer to look: Rather portly, with glasses and his brown hair parted to one side. You’d never guess that he had scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro (among other impressive feats).

His secret? Try something new for 30 days*.

He found that you can make yourself do anything for 30 days. If you really stink, you just keep doing it. If you don’t like it, you can stop on the 31st day and never do it again. After trying this, he realized that he was capable of much more than he originally thought. What’s more, trying new things gave him confidence to pursue more difficult things. Line upon line, he grew by trying new things he never thought he’d be able to do. Fundamentally, he had adopted a “growth mindset”.

Stanford Psychologist and author Carol Dweck has done extensive research on how we perceive talent and skill. This article from Stanford Magazine discusses differences between those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed mindset. It reads:

“Take a group of adults and ask them to draw a self-portrait. Most Americans think of drawing as a gift they don’t have, and their portraits look no better than a child’s scribbles. But put them in a well-designed class… and the resulting portraits look so skilled it’s hard to believe they’re the work of the same ‘talentless’ individuals. The belief that you can’t improve stunts achievement.”

The essence of the growth mindset is that knowledge and skill is dynamic and malleable. People who adopt it believe that their capacities are expandable. They enjoy challenges, seeing them as opportunities to stretch and grow. Others who adopt a fixed mindset prefer to credit innate ability. They believe that natural talent is the best indicator of future success. They say things like “I wish I could understand technology”, or “I’m not a people person”.

And they are wrong.

They can understand technology. They could be a ‘people person’. One BYU article, The Growth Mentality, discusses learning from a neuroscience perspective. With each thing we learn, we physically grow new neural pathways in our brain. From a biological perspective, the brain develops like a muscle that grows stronger with exercise. While it is true that some start out with more talent than others, natural talent is only a small part of the equation. Consider the graph below:

Skill as a function of Time

The red line represents somebody initially more talented than the blue line. However, blue (who has a growth-mindset), embraces learning to eventually become more skilled than his red compadre (who has a fixed mindset). Far from a pipe dream, this is a real outcome that has been exemplified by Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison, and other “famous failures”. Consider the statement made by Heber J. Grant:

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1901, 63).

This quote lines right up with the concept of The Sticky Platform. Hard things aren’t hard to the people who learn how to do them. And with the resources we have today, there is nothing preventing us from becoming an ubermensch. We can do anything. So now that we’ve gotten this far, it is time to break down some misconceptions.

  • Anyone can learn computer programming; not just the uber-nerds who love to use Linux and collect Star Wars cards.
  • Anyone can learn to sing with skill and confidence. In fact, after several years of high school choir, my buddy (who originally couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket), became one of the top singers in our Symphonic Choir.
  • Anyone can be good at math! You don’t need a Voyage 200 to rise to the top of your trig class. You don’t even need this bad boy (although it may help you attract the ladies).

Carol Dweck, who I mentioned above, takes her growth mindset to break other preconceived notions. Practicing what she preached, she took up piano as an adult and learned to speak Italian in her 50’s. This stands as a lesson to all adults who push away opportunities, assuming the old dog is unable to learn new tricks. Perhaps one reason that the growth mindset is hard to digest is the fact that it ultimately makes us accountable for our inabilities. It is far easier to ascribe them to a lack of God-given gift than confess that we have chosen to remain incapable. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it is one that will do us a world of good. With increasing technology the world is evolving and changing faster than ever before. Futurist Alvin Toffler is quoted saying,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Having a growth mindset is more important than it has ever been before. For fear of being left in the dust, I decided that for my “30 days of trying something new” I would learn how to use Drupal. And I’m excited about it! I mean, it’s no Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it’s a start.

* Will you try something new for 30 days? If so, then I commend you! Please leave a comment and let me know what you want to do.