Growth Mindset

By Sean Szeles, MA, LPC

How to Cultivate a “Growth Mindset”

“Focus on progress, not perfection.” As a therapist, I find myself saying this phrase over and over again, especially to folks who are hard on themselves in the face of setbacks. Whether it’s a student who sees himself as “dumb” for struggling with math or a hardworking woman calling herself a ‘bad mom” for a minor setback at home, my clinical experience has shown me that people who see setbacks as a reflection of who they are experience more distress.

It’s an insight that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck observed in some fascinating research on how we view ourselves in the face of adversity. Dweck identified two primary ways of responding to challenges:

The Two Mindsets

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and abilities are “carved in stone.” In this mindset, a person’s traits are static givens which we have no power to change in any meaningful way.

A “growth mindset” thrives on challenge and sees setbacks not as evidence of who we are (i.e. “I’m not smart”) but as a springboard for growth and a chance to stretch our existing abilities. The growth mindset is rooted in the belief that qualities can be cultivated intentionally.

What This Looks Like in the Classroom

In one of Dweck’s studies, researchers provided hundreds of students with fairly challenging problems from an IQ test. Most students did well. In response, the researchers provided two different types of praise to the students:

Ability praise: One type of praise focused on ability: “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”

Effort praise: The other type of praise focused on effort: “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

The result: The “ability praise” pushed students right into the fixed mindset. This was reflected in their actions. Students who received “ability praise” rejected a new, challenging task they could learn from. On the other hand, the students who received “effort praise” were eager to keep going. Ninety percent chose a challenging new task they could learn from. Further, 40% of the “ability-praised kids” lied about their scores, inflating their results to look more successful. “Ability praise” created shame. “Effort praise” led to more engagement.

Finally, as problems got more challenging, the “effort-praised” group had more fun, while the “ability-praised kids” had less fun. Learning is more fun when setbacks are seen as part of the process.

“The mindsets change what people strive for and what they see as success. . . they change the definition, significance, and impact of failure. . . they change the deepest meaning of effort.” -Dr. Carol Dweck

The Take-Away

Setbacks appear better or worse based on how we look at them. A fixed mindset sees imperfections as shameful. It creates an internal monologue full of negative labels and constant evaluation (i.e. “I am not smart,” “I can’t do this”) that keep us stuck.

With a growth mindset, setbacks are motivating, informative wake-up calls. Growth-oriented self-talk is less judgmental. It’s curious and open to new information that can be used to take new action.

The take-away? In the classroom and at home, praise effort not ability. It’s been proven to make kids more resilient.

Dweck, Carol. (2006.) Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.