“You’re a natural! Great job, honey. You’re one of the best writers in the class.” At its surface, this praise is encouraging. It’s enthusiastic and it's kind. Everyone likes feeling praise. There’s something special to being called a ‘natural.’ Wow, I’m talented!
In fact, our culture is obsessed with talent. We crow over it. “She’s always been a great runner. She’s a natural.” “He was born to play the violin! Just picked it up at age 6. One of the naturals.”
Yet, what happens when our young “natural” doesn’t perform the way we expected? Or the way we told her she would? What happens when that budding writer gets a C- on his first high school essay? Or the runner doesn’t win a race she was expected to win? When the violinist gets a B in high school music class?
Identity can be shaken. If we engrain our “natural abilities” to believe that we are our talents, and we don’t measure up in a given situation, inner turmoil can ensue. This can be disheartening. Having a fixed concept of one’s self: our talents, abilities, skillsets, strengths, and weaknesses can hinder our courage to keep trying when we fail.
This is the tenant of Dr. Carol Dweck’s acclaimed book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In the book, Dr. Dweck overviews two mindsets: growth and fixed. Below is an adapted example from a scenario Dr. Deck gives in her book. Can you guess which mindset is below?
A 12-year-old student fails his first algebra quiz.
Reaction A: I’m a failure, and I’m no good at math. I’ve never been good at math, and never will be. I’m more of an English person.
Reaction B: Yikes, I didn’t do well on that quiz. I wonder why? I better review my answers and talk to my teacher so I can do better on the next quiz.
Reaction B is what Dr. Deck describes as a growth mindset. A growth mindset is always looking for ways to improve, and recognizes that abilities, skills, talents, and strengths are developed. They are cultivated, and a person can improve their weaknesses. In other words, the mantra, “Whatever happens I will learn from it” guides a person with a growth mindset.
Reaction A, in contrast, is a fixed mindset. Dr. Dweck describes someone with a fixed mindset as seeing one’s abilities etched in stone. For example, “I’ve never been good at math, and I never will be.” It’s not my innate “talent”; therefore, I will never be able to do well at it and I should avoid it at all costs. When someone with a fixed mindset fails at their perceived talent, like music or art, this can shake their identity. Wait---what?! I’m supposed to be good at this; am I a failure?
Of course, the “fixed” versus “growth” mindset isn’t a distinct duality. People will often have elements of each, and we might be “growth” oriented at work, and “fixed” oriented with family dynamics, or vice versa. People are complex, but being aware of these two mindsets can help us begin to consciously reflect on our approach to learning and how we guide others.
As a teacher, I see the fixed versus growth mindset in my students. Students who have the growth mindset applied to writing are often eager for feedback and looking for ways to improve. They want to see drafts marked up because that’s part of learning. They don’t seem to take constructive criticism personally. In contrast, I see the visible anxiety of some students when they receive a draft back with lots of feedback (both positive and constructive). Those with the fixed mindset often tell me, “I’m an engineering student. I don’t need to write.” Or, “I’ve never been good at English.”
In the classroom, I have changed how I start each semester by explicitly teaching students about fixed and growth mindsets. Again, the distinct “boxes” of “growth” or “fixed” mindset aren’t always an accurate representation. I see students on a continuum: In some subjects and assignments that might be more growth-oriented than others. My goal is to solidify in their minds that they can learn; they can improve. Writing abilities are not etched in stone, nor are public speaking abilities, time management abilities, social abilities, etc…
As parents, praise can foster either kind of mindset. You can have the same conversation with a child: explain the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset and model the difference. It’s evident that fostering a growth mindset can help kids develop an outlook about school and learning where “whatever happens, I will learn from it.” This can help your child succeed in a variety of circumstances and develop a lifelong love of learning. So how do we help kids learn to overcome challenges, rather than being intimidated by challenges?
Talent is important, but it’s not everything. In fact, embracing growth and adopting a never-give-up attitude is, arguably, in some cases more important than innate talent. Dweck offers suggestions to teachers and parents alike, who have a role in shaping children’s attitudes about themselves and learning. Dweck says to focus on effort over achievement.
Rather than, “You are so talented!”, focus on the effort exerted: “You worked so hard on that! Look at how that effort paid off!”
Or, if a child doesn’t perform well or the way we expected instead of, “That’s okay. There are a lot of other sports you can try,” focus on the growth: “That didn’t go the way you expected. What could you do differently next time?”
Don’t feel bad if you can relate to giving fixed mindset praise. Many of us fall into this type of praise because our culture values talent over hard work.
Dweck explains the view we adopt of ourselves when we embrace a growth mindset:
“You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or parents who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?” (Dweck, 2008, pg. 6).
Understanding and believing that we can improve is freeing.
The takeaway food for thought: Reflect on the type of praise and feedback you give. Awareness is the first step. Next, praise the effort, not the individual. This focus can facilitate the mindset that hard work is worth it, that learning is always an adventure, and that trying things outside our comfort zone is an opportunity, not an obstacle.
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008.