Thursday, 12 November 2015

Are Your Beliefs About Talent and Skill Holding You Back? The Difference Between Fixed and Growth Mindsets

My mother has lived in Wales for nearly 40 years. Despite 85% of the local population speaking
Naturally talented, or the result of hours of practice?
Welsh as their first language, she still can't hold up much of a conversation in the language (sorry Mum!). While she partly blames this on my refusal to speak Welsh to my “English mummy” during childhood, another reason that she likes to give for her lack of linguistic prowess is - “well, I was never very good at French at school”.

I've heard things like this from all kinds of people; “Oh, I can't do that – I'm hopeless at writing essays”, “Well, I can't sing”, “I'm really bad at sports.”

These statements are given with the same casual matter-of-factness as if we were telling each other about our nationality or eye colour. Yet we surely know plenty of people who have taken up a language, hobby or job and picked it up pretty well, and we all know that nobody comes out of the womb able to play classical music on the piano or speak ten languages.

Let me ask you this: have you ever stopped yourself from doing something because you didn't think you could do it? This might mean you gave up at the first hurdle, or that you didn't even start.

Sometimes, we expect to get things right the first time, and when we try and don't succeed we get frustrated and give up. I've certainly tried new things, like a new exercise class or trying to understand a complicated piece of information, and given up as soon as things got tough, thinking "well, there's something I'm no good at!". Underneath this kind of thinking is an assumption that if we can't get things right at the beginning, we must not be made for that activity - so we stop, or don't even try.

This isn't true of everybody - there are some who will keep on trying. The psychologist Carol Dweck argues that there are two types of mindset - the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset. The mindset that you have could determine how you behave towards challenges and even predict how happy you are.


If you have more of a fixed mindset, you tend to believe you should be automatically good at everything (and if you're not, it's not worth doing). If this is your mindset, you might equate hard work and effort with a lack of skill or intelligence - the idea that if you have to work hard at something, it must mean you're "stupid". You're likely to avoid taking on things you know are hard because failure would reflect badly on you; you don't want to look foolish in front of others. If you do try at something, you're quite likely to be devastated by any setbacks.

For my mother, or anyone else learning a language, there's an inevitable point where you've learnt tons of words and grammar, yet you don't feel that you can understand anything. This is one of those "make or break" points, where you can start to doubt yourself and wonder why you've put so many hours in. For those with a fixed mindset, this may be the time to declare that you're no good at languages and give up. If you have a Fixed mindset, Dweck believes you're also likely to carry an unhealthy, neurotic perfectionism. At school, she felt she always had to be perfect - this meant she was distraught when another pupil did better than her, and also meant she often didn't try things that she knew would be too hard.

When you think about it, someone who believes that they're as smart now as they can ever be is likely to be upset when they fail or lose at something. On the other hand, those with a Growth mindset know that skill and success come from hard work. If you have this mindset, you're more likely to thrive on challenges and choose tasks that are a little more difficult in order to help yourself learn and grow. You'll feel that practice makes perfect and devote yourself to working towards the goals you want.

Do you think you have a fixed or a growth mindset? E.g. do you think that talented people are just lucky or gifted, or do you think they worked hard for years to achieve what they have?

When you believe that someone's skills and talents are just something a person is "born with", you're looking at things with a fixed mindset. It means you're less likely to try achieving your goals because you feel, deep down, that there's no point trying when you don't have the brains/talent to achieve what you want. People with fixed mindsets often feel jealous or disheartened when they see successful or talented people, while growth mindset people are more likely to feel inspired and look up to them.

Of course, some perfectionism can be healthy - it's important to be aware of your weak areas, so you can work on them or pick activities that maximise your strengths. However, people with a fixed mindset often try to avoid things they're not good at so they can avoid looking stupid - meaning they're unlikely to get better. When perfectionism becomes an obsession with what others think of you, it can suffocate you and leave you afraid of ever trying anything new.

The good news - which fixed mindset people might find hard to believe - is that you can learn a growth mindset. One way is to unravel and challenge your inner beliefs about other people's talent, intelligence and success; for example, if you look at somebody successful and talented - do you really think they popped into the world like that? It can be helpful to read about the failures and hard work of "successful" people to remind you that what you see on a magazine cover is only the end product of what could be years of hard work, rejection and perhaps a little plastic surgery.

Another thing to remember is that neural pathways in the brain are a little like muscles (to make things simple) - the more you exercise them, the stronger they get. We are obsessed with the idea of the child prodigy, yet psychologists Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer suggest that it takes at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expert performance in any domain.

Let's not lie to ourselves; of course there are some successful people out there who have only got where they are because of who they know, perhaps they were born into a certain family. We're not all born equal - some will have far more difficulties to overcome than others. But what we're talking about here is intelligence and talent; some people were given more opportunities to learn, while some kids were pushed around class after class, but at the end of the day skill and hard work come through learning and challenging your mind.

Vanessa Mae, world-renowned violinist (in the picture), revealed in the BBC's documentary The Making of Me that she was taught the violin from the age of five; from the age of eight she spent half a day in school, and half practising. By the time she was twelve she was only attending school between once every fortnight to a month, and was made (by her mother) to practice at least four hours a day.

So practice really does make perfect - of course, it's far more sensational and romantic to imagine that some people are "gifted", which is perhaps why the idea has taken such hold of our minds. The downside is the idea that it's pointless for others to even try; because they were not bestowed with the same talents.

So, if I can only persuade my mother that she CAN learn a language (and that she probably just had a crappy French teacher), she might start to adopt more of a growth mindset and look for learning techniques that work for her. In the same way, you might be able to learn that skill (whether it's playing an instrument, coding, marketing, cooking or running) that you've been telling yourself you can't do!


See Carol Dweck talk about "being perfect" and mindsets here:

http://www.theschooloflife.com/library/videos/2013/carol-dweck-on-being-perfect/

Other references:

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential. Constable & Robinson. 

Vanessa Mae: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/3558008/Vanessa-Maes-journey-from-prodigy-to-performer.html

Picture source: http://www.foxsports.com/olympics/story/violinist-vanessa-mae-to-ski-at-sochi-for-thailand-012014

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