Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck takes a look at traits that lead to success in "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success."

The question Dweck asks is similar to the one Malcolm Gladwell investigated in last month's book, Outliers. Gladwell evaluated the nature vs. nurture debate, and told us to pay more attention to nurture, that innate skill can be overcome by luck as well as cultural and locational advantages.

Does Dweck agree? What are the most important factors in success?

Let's find out.

Defining Failure and Success

Although people may differ in every which way - in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments - everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

The whole thing started when Dweck began studying how people cope with failure. She describes an experiment with grade schoolers, where she gave them a series of increasingly difficult puzzles. She expected the kids to freak out when they got to the puzzles they couldn't solve. But they didn't. Instead, they got excited. One kid told her he loved a challenge. Another kid was glad the whole exercise was informative and not a waste of his time. Since that wasn't the result she was expecting, it made her think - what made these kids so happy about what was, essentially, a failure?

Turns out, it's all in the way the kids viewed the exercise. To them, it wasn't a failure at all. They were learning - and they knew that learning made them smarter. Instead of being stressed or angry because they failed to solve a puzzle, they were happy because they knew they were getting smarter just by trying.

As adults, many of us have lost that mindset. We get caught up in defining success and failure in absolute terms. Success is good, failure is bad. We forget that failure can be a learning experience that makes the next success a bigger one. For some of us, we need to retrain our minds to view challenges the same way a kid does - as a valuable learning experience that makes us better, not as a chance to fail and embarrass ourselves.

The Two Mindsets

Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?

Like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, this book takes a stand on the nature vs. nurture debate. Dweck believes mindset and intelligence are fluid. The more you practice at something, the more likely you are to achieve expertise. In other words, the smartest kids don't always turn out to be the smartest adults. It all depends what you do with the natural gifts you're given.

So what does this have to do with your chances of success? That depends which mindset you have. According to Dweck, here are the two core mindsets:

  • Fixed mindset: you believe your personal qualities, like intelligence, are set in stone. For example, someone with this mindset probably believes their IQ score determines their level of success. They're also likely to view life events as tests - either their natural intelligence will carry them through and prove them right (success), or it won't (failure). Situations are often black or white for the fixed mindset - they are smart or dumb, accepted or rejected, a winner or a loser. People with this mindset tend to feel like they need to prove themselves again and again.
  • Growth mindset: you believe your personal qualities, like intelligence, are a starting point because you can develop them if you try. It doesn't mean you're guaranteed success in your chosen endeavor, but it means you'll get the chance to find out. Instead of trying to prove you have a given amount of talent or intelligence, you'd rather work to increase it. Dweck cites examples of people who weren't always considered special or talented, yet who went on to accomplish great things in their fields: Darwin, Tolstoy, golfer Ben Hogan, and actress Geraldine Page. The bottom line is that growth mindset folks want to stretch their limits and stick to a task even when it's not going well. This is what allows them to see failure differently than someone with a fixed mindset.

Obviously, in this context, a fixed mindset is a negative thing. The core of this book explains how people with the growth mindset are better able to face and adapt to challenges, both in their personal lives and in the workplace. Dweck believes we all have the power to change that mindset, which can lead to more fulfilling relationships, a healthier competitive spirit, and of course, more success in business endeavors.

Identifying Harmful Thought Patterns

In fact, it's startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.

So how do you identify which mindset you have? It all starts with your core belief about who you are and how likely it is you can change your essential personality traits.

  • If you believe you're a certain kind of person and you can't really change, you have a fixed mindset.
  • If you believe you can change, either in small or substantial ways, you have a growth mindset about your personality.

The same line of questioning holds true when we're talking about intelligence instead of personality. If you believe you're born with a set quantity of "smarts" or intelligence and you can't change that, you have a fixed mindset. If you believe you can change how much intelligence you have, you have a growth mindset.

Let's say you're a fixed mindset type. What types of thoughts might be holding you back from accomplishing more?

  • fear of challenges
  • fear of effort that won't pay off
  • feeling that success or failure is predetermined
  • fear of showing your inadequacies
  • fear of being judged
  • fear of making mistakes

Because the fixed mindset defines success and failure so rigidly, they tend to shy away from challenges that might result in failure. To them, any challenge they can't conquer is like a big red "F" on the report card of life - and they'll feel less worthy as a result. Fixed mindsets want to succeed, but because they feel they're expected to succeed, they often seek out an easier path to make sure they never fail. This also means they're less likely to grow as a result of a challenge. On the other hand, a growth mindset views a challenge as an opportunity to learn and get better - and what's more, their self-worth isn't tied to the result.

Why Make the Switch to a Growth Mindset?

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.

According to creativity researchers, growth mindset folks have several advantages when it comes to business or creative endeavors:

  • more likely to estimate their abilities accurately
  • more effective learners
  • more in touch with their strengths and weaknesses
  • more likely to feel inspired by a challenge
  • more able to convert setbacks into success

In fact, Dweck cites a poll of 143 creativity researchers who all agree on the #1 trait needed for creative achievement: perseverance and resilience. Growth mindset folks just keep going, despite setbacks and even failures. They don't quit, because they know there's something they can take away from every failure.

To reach your full potential in today's business environment - where it's all about changing with the times - you're going to need a growth mindset.

The good news is that you can change your mindset to become the person you want to be. Your belief about yourself is the foundation for everything you do, say, or think. Things you think are ingrained in your personality (fear of being judged or fear of failure, for example) may actually be part of your mindset, not a part of you.

If you can change your mindset, your actions will naturally change, too.

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