08 Nov 2015

Pop psychology books are usually not my bag, but I have had Mindset lying around for awhile after someone gave it to me and I finally broke down and decided to read it. I am glad that I did read it because it actually opened my eyes to many facets of my own personality as well as different aspects of how people in general approach the world.

This is going to be a longer post than I usually make about a book because there is a lot more that I want to say after reading this than with a typical fiction book that I have read. The short story is that Mindset is overall a very good book because of the ideas it contains. It is an okay book in terms of pure writing quality because it is written like a typical book for a popular audience. In other words, there are only a handful of main points which are repeated over and over again with a lot of anecdotal evidence. That being said, there are some real studies backing up the points but obviously anecdotes are easier to digest. Also, the handful of main points are pretty meaningful so it is worth it to really read and interalize the whole thing.

The two mindsets that are discussed in this book are termed the fixed and growth mindsets. The fixed mindset believes in statements such as

Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can't change very much.

You can learn new things, but you can't really change how intelligent you are.

You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.

You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can't really be changed.

The growth mindset believes in statements such as

No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.

You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.

You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.

I have found that one difficulty that arises when discussing this topic is basically semantics. Some people have a certain definition of intelligence as that part of you that is fixed and you are born with. Then they think that how smart you are or some other word is how much of your innate intelligence you are using. In other words, they get really hung up on the word intelligence as they think it means something that cannot be changed even if they more or less agree with the sentiment of the growth mindset. So if you are one of those people, replace intelligence with whatever word makes you comfortable and that has the meaning of your mental abilities as they pertain to solving problems and/or understanding increasingly complex ideas. The basic tenet is that the fixed mindset believes that people are born with a fixed set of skills and no amount of studying, effort, etc. is going to materially alter that reality. The growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that we have essentially unlimited potential and thus our skills can continually improve based completely on how much time and effort we are willing to devote to bettering ourselves.

I find that putting it this way causes most people to say well obviously I believe you can get better at things if you work at them. But the subconscious reality is that many people do not truly feel that way. This manifests itself in many ways which are described in the book, but one clear example is when people do poorly on a test and subsequently put in less effort as they feel that one exam defined who they are and no amount of work will substantially change that. People are then afraid of taking exams or when they do they always have the excuse that they did not study to fall back on.

I have a growth mindset, or at least I have always seen myself that way. Reading this book confirmed that I do have a growth mindset in many facets of my life, but what was especially interesting to me was my realization that I have a fixed mindset for some aspects of life which is totally crazy because it just lives right alongside my extremely growth minded view in other areas. The five big areas of life where mindset is clearly a factor are:

  • Intelligence / Mental abilities
  • Sports / Physical abilities
  • Business
  • Relationships
  • Teachers

Obviously there are others as well as crossover between these, but Mindset calls these out as the different areas where research has been done. I think anyone who has played sports or worked out consistently for any length of time understands how the growth mindset can be applied to sports and physical abilities. However, what is surprising is that most people I talk to about running still have vestiges of the fixed mindset lurking about. For instance, many people get exceptionally nervous before a race, which is normal to some degree, but the underlying cause for them is that they define their ability by the outcome of their last race. For some reason many people think of themselves as only as good as their last time. This means that when they have the inevitable off day, they think of themselves as a loser who will never be able to go faster. There is a subsequent lack of effort and practice because they think it will not matter and then a self-fulfilled prophecy. I have to admit I have had feelings like this at one time or another, not to this extreme, but I definitely have been demoralized to the point of less short term future effort because of a bad race. The growth mindset would say that this is the time for more effort as it just shows how much further you have to grow.

Now even people who clearly can see that if they work out every day for a month they will get stronger or faster believe that holds only for physical attributes. It is much more difficult for people to believe this holds for their brains as well. The book goes in to many reasons for where the mindsets come from in terms of how we are raised, how our teachers treat us, and even how society as a whole preaches the virtues of genius and innate ability. I personally thought for a long time because I was naturally good at some things and not others that this innate concept made sense. The reality is that while we all have different starting points, and we all most likely have different potential top line capacities, none of us are born at our peak, and I firmly believe that very few people ever even come close to maxing out their potential. I spent several years studying a subset of a subset of mathematics/economics when I was in grad school. Only a few other people really understood what I was completely studying and yet I think I was not even close to my ultimate potential for understanding and knowledge in that area. I had gone from not knowing about it at all to a deep understanding of the subject, but I could see I could still go so far if I just kept working on it. I think having that experience really opened my eyes to how far you can take something through concentrated effort.

All that being said, I thought interpersonal relationships were somehow wholly different. I had a growth mindset about physical abilities as well as intellectual pursuits, but when it came to interacting with people I thought in a very fixed way. I believed that friendships and romantic relationships just either were meant to be and worked or they must have been doomed from the start but I was not smart enough to see that. After reading this book, I think that any interaction between people can be made to be enjoyable if both sides want it to be. That does not mean it has to be or that both sides will actually want to put in that effort. But it is very analogous to preparing for a race or a test. You will get the time or score you deserve based on the effort you put in to your preperation (most of the time, barring some amount of luck). In the same way, you will have the experience dealing with another person that you deserve based on how much effort you put in to it. The big difference is that this relies on a two sided effort. So the amount of coordination required for things to work out is significantly harder to just work through. There are analogies in team sports that I have felt, sweep rowing being the most clear example. You can be the strongest, most prepared one in the boat, but if the rest of the team does not pull their own weight, or if you do not want to row smoothly with the rhythm that the stroke is putting down, then you are not going to have a good time. I rowed the single and in doubles, fours, and eights and I really found it to be a good metaphor for life. The single was hard because it was all on your own effort. If you prepared then you did well, if you slacked off then you could only blame yourself. In the bigger boats, you really had to have a good relationship with everyone else and even if everyone was individually putting in the effort, you also had to coordinate that effort correctly to acheive anything. I guess a relationship therapist is like the coxswain.

I could go on for a quite a while about all of the other things that I found interesting in this book and how it pertains to people I know and myself, but I think it is most instructive to just read the book and think about each situation in your life that comes up and see if you are seeing it from a growth or a fixed mindset.

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