Monday, July 28, 2008


I'm jumping this book to the front of the queue even though I have yet to post about dozens of other books I read before it. I posted a couple of times last year about the right way to praise kids. One of the researchers, Carol Dweck, whose work put out a book a couple years ago called "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." The sub-title is hokey, but accurate.

Dweck divides the world into two types of people: those with what she calls a "fixed" mindset, and those with a "growth" mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes you either have it or you don't. You're either smart or you're dumb. You have natural athletic talent or you're a klutz. You and your beloved were either meant for each other, or you're wrong. Not only that, but those traits are rigid and, well, fixed. On the other hand, the growth mindset sees all those things as changeable if you have the right attitude and put in the effort.

That's what the aforementioned article about praise got to the heart of. When kids were praised for being smart, they became reluctant to stretch, because they became afraid of failure. Failure meant that they weren't as smart as they thought they were. It meant they were losers. They were defined by those failures. A more subtle consequence was a desperate need to blame their failure on something else, anything at all that could allow them to continue thinking of themselves as natural winners.

Kids who were praised for their effort, on the other hand, were primed to have a "growth" mindset. Initially, they were no more and no less successful than their fixed mindset peers. The difference became apparent over time. Whereas fixed mindset kids were reluctant to challenge themselves, the growth mindset kids actively sought out more difficult work. They may have failed just as much, but that failure did not define them. It happened, and they tried to learn from it to get better.

That, in a nutshell, is the general point that Dweck is trying to get across. It's a good thing she wrote a whole book about it, though. The fixed mindset is pernicious and insidious. It pops up all over the place, whether it's athletics, art, academics, or personal relationships (anybody know a synonym starting with 'a'?). Her chapter on counter-productive messages from parents is especially valuable. She describes in number of possible situations where parents can hamper their child's development by encouraging the perception that ability and talent are innate and unchangeable. Her dialogues are a little cheesy, but they get the point across.

Less successful is her use of well-known figures like Bill Clinton and Jack Welch. That could be my cynicism at work, though, as the only ones I had a problem with were her positive examples, often politicians and businessmen who had written best-selling autobiographies. I didn't have a problem with her mentions of Rafe Esquith and Marva Collins, two teachers who were very successful with techniques like Dwecks applied to kids others had given up on. I found the fixed mindset examples to be more effective, possibly because they were dramatic ones like Enron and Bobby Knight.

Perhaps part of the reason I found this book valuable is that it felt biographical. When I was in first grade, I had a special tutor for advanced math instruction; when I worked by myself in the library, I put up a sign saying, "Don't ask me what I'm doing because I won't tell you." That hostility is characteristic of the fixed mindset, according to Dweck. I also had the experience of coasting through high school and then hitting a wall in college. For a long time, I was reluctant to try hard things because the idea of failure was too intimidating. Now I've come to understand that the what matters isn't what you can do today, but that you do the best you can to be capable of more tomorrow.

Even if you're not me, and chances are you're not, it's still a good book to read if you ever have kids. You in your life may not have a problem, but you want to make sure you send the right messages. Even if you aren't sending the wrong messages, you have to work hard to send the right ones to compensate for our society's misguided values. Dweck suggests with some credibility that our society values natural, effortless ability, which can be pretty discouraging to anyone who doesn't measure up. She points out how the public mythology around so many so-called natural geniuses like Michael Jordan or Thomas Edison fails to mention their tremendous dedication. Teachers and managers would also benefit; it's disturbing how many teachers give up on many students practically the moment they meet them. It's not just about identifying these negative attitudes. Dweck discusses how to change these attitudes, both in yourself and in others. It's a difficult task requiring constant attention, but it can be done.

This is more than self-help babble. It seems like every day there's a new discovery attesting to the plasticity of the human mind. You can be better at everything you do, but only if you're willing to try. In a couple hundred pages, Dweck ably describes her findings, supports them with references to academic studies, narrates illustrative anecdotes, and provides a prescription for the reader. It's hard to ask much more.


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