Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck first came to my attention a few years ago in a fascinating invention session on education with my friend Nathan Myrhvold, similar to the sessions Malcolm Gladwell described in his article “In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare?” Dweck’s research had a big impact on our thinking that day.

And in the years since, Dweck and her research have helped my foundation colleagues and me understand more about the attitudes and habits that allow some students to persevere in school despite big challenges.

Here is Dweck’s thesis: Our genes influence our intelligence and talents, but these qualities are not fixed at birth. If you mistakenly believe that your capabilities derive from DNA and destiny, rather than practice and perseverance, then you operate with what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.”

Our parents and teachers exert a big influence on which mindset we adopt—and that mindset, in turn, has a profound impact on how we learn and which paths we take in life.

In experiment after experiment, Dweck has shown that the fixed mindset is a huge psychological roadblock—regardless of whether you feel you were blessed with talent or not. If you have the fixed mindset and believe you were blessed with raw talent, you tend to spend a lot of time trying to validate your “gift” rather than cultivating it.

To protect your self-identity as someone who’s super smart or gifted, you often steer clear of tough challenges that might jeopardize that identity. Here’s how Dweck puts it: “From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies…. If you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you.”

If you have the fixed mindset and believe you lost the genetic lottery, you also have little incentive to work hard. Why bother putting in a lot of effort to learn a difficult concept if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re lousy at it and nothing is going to alter that basic equation?

When I was visiting with community college students in Arizona, one young man said to me, “I’m one of the people who’s not good at math.” It kills me when I hear that kind of thing. I think about how different things might have been if he had been told consistently “you’re very capable of learning this stuff.”

In contrast, people with the growth mindset believe that basic qualities, including intelligence, can be strengthened like muscles. It’s not that they believe that anyone can become the next Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan if they just work hard enough on their physics homework or fadeaway jumpers.

Instead, in Dweck’s words “they believe 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.” As a result, they have every incentive to take on tough challenges and seek out opportunities to improve.

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