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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Success and the Bruised Ego
I've been thinking hard about this whole fixed/entity or growth/incremental mindset theory, which I've been talking about in my last few posts. It’s got to be one of the most significant theories of succes I’ve read so far. For me, anyway, it’s been a revelation.

Embracing the growth mindset seems to me the only possible way for me to leap off that asymptote of striving to the axis of arriving. Striving to arriving. What a great (accidental) rhyme. Before I began this investigation of success, I felt as if there was this Thing, maybe a gulf, maybe an invisible and unbreakable plexiglass wall, between me and successful people. I felt like they were They. Other. Maybe they had some kind of birthmark that earmarked them for success. Maybe they were born with some innate knowledge of their special specialness. I scoured my body, but only came up with the same kite-shaped birthmark I’ve always had--currently obscured by sun damage, by the way. I scoured my history, hoping to find somewhere some indication that I was Meant to realize my dreams. Alas.

But no, not alas. For here comes Carol Dweck and her protégé Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, and they’re telling me that I can succeed, if I’m motivated, if I believe I can changegrowadaptimprovelearn, and if I persevere. Which means those Theys, those Others, those “real” successes, are just regular people who figured it out before me.

This is really good news, this theory. You can get your growth mindset in place (by buying Carol Dweck's book and doing her helpful exercises--cha-ching) and you can roll. Right? I mean, then anyone can do it. Right? And that’s great and good and fair, right? I mean, we want anyone to be able to succeed, right?

We do. Really, we do. Except, embracing this theory does bruise the ego just a little. The mindset theory is another notch in the belt of the success scientists who have started this whole vogue for the  10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. They claim that the right kind of effort matters more than intelligence. 

Which really does hurt just a little. Ouch. I mean, hello, I’ve already admitted that I spent part of my twenties trying to prove to myself that I was smart. Was that all wasted time?

Uh, yeah. Apparently.

And what about those marvelous extensions of ourselves, our children? What about their successes in school? That score in the top quadrant of the 99th percentile of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test?   Do these things not mean glory for us? Does not our child’s intelligence, demonstrated by report cards and awards, confer glory upon us by default?

Does Carol Dweck wish to deprive us off this stuff? Does Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, like kicking us when we're down?

Are we only allowed to kvell over our children’s ability to work hard and persevere? Yes, as any good parenting book will tell you. Now Carol Dweck comes along with Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, to prove it. Are we not allowed to take their grades and awards as proof of our own worth as well as of theirs?  No?


How the hell are we supposed to rank ourselves and others if everything comes down to who can hang in there the longest? Who's the hardest worker is just much less sexy than who is effortlessly brilliant.

Okay, breathe.

Despite the efforts of the success scientists, no one is saying there's no such thing as native intelligence (or talent).  Dweck and Halvorson skirt this issue, but they don’t totally ignore it. They point out that yes, intelligence has a genetic component. However, environment plays a huge role. An enriched environment will produce an enriched child. Regardless of environment, however, a child who’s not encouraged to work hard will eventually fall behind the kid who is praised not only for being smart, but for effort, and who is taught how to analyse mistakes and improve her performance. Does this sound familiar? Tiger mom-ish? Indeed, HGH Ph.D and Carol Dweck posit that it’s mindset that accounts for the so-called superiority of Asian students. That joke in “Glee” about an A-minus equaling an “Asian F?” That’s because the emphasis is on improving improving improving. And the only way to improve is to face your problem areas and hone them.

Yet I find it significant that both Carol Dweck and Heidi Grant Halvorsen “confess” to possessing very fixed (entity) mindsets all the way until they were in graduate school. Coincidence? I do not think so. Consider for a moment that the fixed mindset is the perfect mindset to drive you to achieve good grades. With the fixed mindset, every A, every improvement, every award is yet another proof of your worth. And of course that sort of work, getting As and winning awards is just the thing you need to compete for those spots in top colleges and graduate programs. Sadly, traditional education is not about taking risks, so the downside of that mindset doesn’t become apparent until later on, after getting As gets you into the college and grad school of your choice. Then, out in the real world, you need a more flexible, creative, motivation-based approach to make a real difference in the world. Innovation requires risk, and the fixed mindset is risk-averse.

Let me also mention that in Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success, Matthew Seyd argues that practice and the right kind of coaching are more important than talent in reaching the top in athletics. Howevs, he glosses over one eensy fact in writing about his own experience becoming a world champion table tennis player. He casually mentions that every year, the coach in his school had everyone who had any interest in table tennis try out, and he picked the ones he wanted to work with.

Do you think he picked them because they were so bad that he thought he could make a real difference in their playing? Neither do I.

So let’s not throw out all those awards just yet. The fact is, there is some sort of inborn talent factor that does set you on a course towards achievement. The fact is, there is a strong correlation between IQ and academic achievement. I can’t remember which scientist guy said so, becuz apparently my IQ isn’t that high, but trust me, he did say so. And there is also a strong correlation between academic achievement and income level. (Okay you professors, don’t laugh ironically and say, yeah, the more degrees you get, the less you get paid. That’s only true in academia.)  So IQ does predict some kinds of success. What it most definitely does not predict, is whether you’ll feel successful or happy or content or peaceful, whether you’ll create a masterpiece of art, whether you’ll have successful personal relationships, or any of the most important things in life. 

Those things require the growth mindset. 


  1. So there's truth to the old Hollywood saying, "You're only as good as your last movie."

    Speaking as a product of a classic Tiger Mom upbringing, yes, motivation that's rooted in besting our own last achievement is the healthier kind of motivation. And it's the kind that gets us out of bed all springy and eager in the morning.

    I forgot this for the first quarter of this year, and sank into a funk. When I quit trying to regain my former status of "elder stateswoman" where I work, and focused on learning new skills without tying them to increased income or respect, the joy came back.

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