The New Psychology of Success
An eye-opener for everyone on how mindset could (scientifically) set you up for failure or success in life.
10 May 2020
It’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.
Growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. They believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
There were two meanings to ability, not one: a fixed ability that needs to be proven, and a changeable ability that can be developed through learning.
In one world—the world of fixed traits—success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other—the world of changing qualities—it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.
In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.
In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.
So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It’s about becoming smarter.
Believing that success is about learning, students with the growth mindset seized the chance. But those with the fixed mindset didn’t want to expose their deficiencies. Instead, to feel smart in the short run, they were willing to put their college careers at risk.
People with the fixed mindset said the ideal mate would: Put them on a pedestal. Make them feel perfect. Worship them.
People with the growth mindset hoped for a different kind of partner. They said their ideal mate was someone who would: See their faults and help them to work on them. Challenge them to become a better person. Encourage them to learn new things. Certainly, they didn’t want people who would pick on them or undermine their self-esteem, but they did want people who would foster their development.
People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.
Sometimes people with the growth mindset stretch themselves so far that they do the impossible.
When do people with the fixed mindset thrive? When things are safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging—when they’re not feeling smart or talented—they lose interest.
Actually, people with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.
The idea that one evaluation can measure you forever is what creates the urgency for those with the fixed mindset. That’s why they must succeed perfectly and immediately. Who can afford the luxury of trying to grow when everything is on the line right now?
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.
In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.
People with a growth mindset might also like a Nobel Prize or a lot of money. But they are not seeking it as a validation of their worth or as something that will make them better than others.
The fixed mindset stands in the way of development and change. The growth mindset is a starting point for change, but people need to decide for themselves where their efforts toward change would be most valuable.
It’s no wonder that many adolescents mobilize their resources, not for learning, but to protect their egos. And one of the main ways they do this (aside from providing vivid portraits of their teachers) is by not trying.
They were studying to learn, not just to ace the test. And, actually, this was why they got higher grades—not because they were smarter or had a better background in science.
Bloom concludes, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme that include children like Michael. He is counting everybody else.
We praised some of the students for their ability. They were told: “Wow, you got [say] eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” They were in the Adam Guettel you ’re-so-talented position. We praised other students for their effort: “Wow, you got [say] eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” They were not made to feel that they had some special gift; they were praised for doing what it takes to succeed. Both groups were exactly equal to begin with. But right after the praise, they began to differ. As we feared, the ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart. So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter.
Research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson shows that even checking a box to indicate your race or sex can trigger the stereotype in your mind and lower your test score. Almost anything that reminds you that you’re black or female before taking a test in the subject you’re supposed to be bad at will lower your test score—a lot.
So in the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it. When people are in a growth mindset, the stereotype doesn’t disrupt their performance. The growth mindset takes the teeth out of the stereotype and makes people better able to fight back. They don’t believe in permanent inferiority. And if they are behind—well, then they’ll work harder and try to catch up.
Those with the growth mindset found setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake-up call.
Athletes with a growth mindset find success in learning and improving, not just winning. The more you can do this, the more rewarding sports will be for you—and for those who play them with you!
Enron recruited big talent, mostly people with fancy degrees, which is not in itself so bad. It paid them big money, which is not that terrible. But by putting complete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing: It created a culture that worshiped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset. And we know a lot about that. We know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies.
What distinguished the thriving companies from the others? There were several important factors, as Collins reports in his book, Good to Great, but one that was absolutely key was the type of leader who in every case led the company into greatness. These were not the larger-than-life, charismatic types who oozed ego and self-proclaimed talent. They were self-effacing people who constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront the most even their own, while maintaining faith that they would succeed in the end.
They’re not constantly trying to prove they’re better than others. For example, they don’t highlight the pecking order with themselves at the top, they don’t claim credit for other people’s contributions, and they don’t undermine others to feel powerful. Instead, they are constantly trying to improve. They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future. And because of this, they can move forward with confidence that’s grounded in the facts, not built on fantasies about their talent.
Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this.
Collins’s comparison leaders were typically concerned with their “reputation for personal greatness”—so much so that they often set the company up to fail when their regime ended. As Collins puts it, “After all, what better testament to your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?”
Many of these comparison companies operated on what Collins calls a “genius with a thousand helpers” model. Instead of building an extraordinary management team like the good-to-great companies, they operated on the fixed-mindset premise that great geniuses do not need great teams. They just need little helpers to carry out their brilliant ideas.
Don’t forget that these great geniuses don’t want great teams, either. Fixed-mindset people want to be the only big fish so that when they compare themselves to those around them, they can feel a cut above the rest.
You’ll see they all start with the belief that some people are superior; they all have the need to prove and display their superiority; they all use their subordinates to feed this need, rather than fostering the development of their workers; and they all end by sacrificing their companies to this need. The fixed mindset helps us understand where gargantuan egos come from, how they operate, and why they become self-defeating.
Iacocca, Dunlap, Lay and Skilling, Case and Levin. They show what can happen when people with the fixed mindset are put in charge of companies. In each case, a brilliant man put his company in jeopardy because measuring himself and his legacy outweighed everything else. They were not evil in the usual sense. They didn’t set out to do harm. But at critical decision points, they opted for what would make them feel good and look good over what would serve the longer-term corporate goals. Blame others, cover mistakes, pump up the stock prices, crush rivals and critics, screw the little guy—these were the standard operating procedures.
When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged. It starts with the bosses’ worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being judged. It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive a companywide fixed mindset.
Even when those leaders are globe-trotting and hobnobbing with world figures, their world seems so small and confining—because their minds are always on one thing: Validate me!
As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and development—both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth—for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.
If we’re managing good people who are clearly eating themselves up over an error, our job is to help them through it.
Jack, Lou, and Anne—all believing in growth, all brimming with passion. And all believing that leadership is about growth and passion, not about brilliance. The fixed-mindset leaders were, in the end, full of bitterness, but the growth-minded leaders were full of gratitude. They looked up with gratitude to their workers who had made their amazing journey possible. They called them the real heroes.
In the early 1970s, Irving Janis popularized the term groupthink. It’s when everyone in a group starts thinking alike. No one disagrees. No one takes a critical stance. It can lead to catastrophic decisions, and, as the Wood study suggests, it often can come right out of a fixed mindset.
Many organizations believe in natural talent and don’t look for people with the potential to develop. Not only are these organizations missing out on a big pool of possible leaders, but their belief in natural talent might actually squash the very people they think are the naturals, making them into arrogant, defensive nonlearners. The lesson is: Create an organization that prizes the development of ability—and watch the leaders emerge.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait —a character flaw.
When you fail at other tasks, it’s hard to keep blaming someone else. But when something goes wrong in a relationship, it’s easy to blame someone else. In fact, in the fixed mindset you have a limited set of choices. One is to blame your own permanent qualities. And one is to blame your partner’s. You can see how tempting it is to foist the blame onto the other guy
Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people’s self-esteem. Ego-wise, it’s easy to be sympathetic to someone in need. It’s your assets and your successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being superior.
For one thing, the shy growth-minded people looked on social situations as challenges. Even though they felt anxious, they actively welcomed the chance to meet someone new. The shy fixed people, instead, wanted to avoid meeting someone who might be more socially skilled than they were. They said they were more worried about making mistakes. So the fixed- and growth-mindset people confronted the situation with different attitudes. One embraced the challenge and the other feared the risk.
Bullying is about judging. It’s about establishing who is more worthy or important. The more powerful kids judge the less powerful kids. They judge them to be less valuable human beings, and they rub their faces in it on a daily basis. And it’s clear what the bullies get out of it. Like the boys in Sheri Levy’s study, they get a boost in self-esteem. It’s not that bullies are low in self-esteem, but judging and demeaning others can give them a self-esteem rush. Bullies also gain social status from their actions. Others may look up to them and judge them to be cool, powerful, or funny. Or may fear them. Either way, they’ve upped their standing.
After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation. Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
Praise should deal, not with the child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.
Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.
Some educators try to reassure their students that they’re just fine as they are. Growth-minded teachers tell students the truth and then give them the tools to close the gap.
When teachers are judging them, students will sabotage the teacher by not trying. But when students understand that school is for them—a way for them to grow their minds—they do not insist on sabotaging themselves.
The fixed mindset makes people complicated. It makes them worried about their fixed traits and creates the need to document them, sometimes at your expense. And it makes them judgmental.
Beware of success. It can knock you into a fixed mindset: “I won because I have talent. Therefore I will keep winning.” Success can infect a team or it can infect an individual.
Remember that having innate talent is not a goal. Expanding skills and knowledge is.
Instead of seeing your time at the bottom of the corporate ladder as an insult, you slowly see that you can learn a lot at the bottom that could help you greatly on your rise to the top. Learning the nuts and bolts of the company could later give you a big advantage.
People in a growth mindset don’t merely make New Year’s resolutions and wait to see if they stick to them. They understand that to diet, they need to plan. They may need to keep desserts out of the house. Or think in advance about what to order in restaurants. Or schedule a once-a-week splurge. Or consider exercising more.
If someone stays inside a fixed mindset and uses the growth strategies, it can backfire.