Musings on Mindsets

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mindsetCarol Dweck’s research on the nature and ramifications of different mindsets is one of those ideas that has percolated through our culture quite thoroughly over the last few years. I have found myself in conversations about it with friends in teaching, and friends with small children, as well as coming across it in miscellaneous ephemeral self-help type articles online.

The general outline is probably as familiar to you as it is to me: there are two broad mindsets or belief-systems about human capability, the fixed mindset (belief that capacities are essentially innate) and the growth mindset (belief that capacities are largely learned). These shape how you go about what you do, and how you respond to others.

But eventually there comes a time when you realise you’d better actually read the book itself, not just rely on second-hand knowledge.

Overall impressions: the general idea you get of her work second-hand is actually pretty accurate – if you don’t read the book, you’re probably not radically misunderstanding anything. But there were some psychological and behavioural consequences of the fixed mindset that I hadn’t previously linked directly to it, and which reveal it to be more damaging (rather than merely limiting) than I had imagined.

The book itself is a very easy read. The main conceptual content is in the opening chapters and towards the end, with a middle chunk largely consisting of anecdotes of examples from different areas of life – sports, business, relationships. I wouldn’t say these don’t add anything – they help you live with the ideas, and some new facets do emerge from the stories – but if you’re short of time you could skip them and still grasp the key concepts.

Do read the last chapter, though. My critique at the early stage of reading was that the two mindsets were treated as very either-or, as if they subsumed, and to an extent defined, the entire person. She acknowledges briefly that this is for ease and clarity of story-telling, but it does give a rather simplistic, and dare I say it fixed-mindset view of people. At the end of the book, when describing strategies to develop a growth mindset, she handles the co-existence of both much more flexibly. Both belief-systems are culturally available to all of use, after all, and we may find ourselves applying one or the other in different circumstances.

The other critique I had was that it was very focused on the individual in the way it considered the two mindsets. I suppose that is to be expected from someone working in the field of psychology. But standing back from the personal stories of individuals in their interactions with their immediate families and co-workers would give some perspective on how these two mindsets are promulgated.

The addition of concepts from cultural studies such as discourse or ideology would immediately provide the tools to explain how these mindsets circulate, as they would be reframed as shared worldviews that then play out in individual lives. Dweck seems almost surprised to note that an entire organisation can share a mindset.

As I read Dweck’s stories, I found myself reflecting in two different dimensions. On one hand, inevitably, there was the personal dimension: how the two mindsets had been present and shaped my experiences in youth and adulthood. And on the other, there were all the resonances with the work of others who have contemplated various aspects of skill-acquisition and learning, both internal and interactional.

I’m certainly going to invest another post in the second of those two areas. It will help me organise my knowledge base to integrate this thoroughly with things I’ve previously been thinking about. Expect lots of hyperlinks to previous posts.

I’m not sure how much, and what type, of more personal reflection will emerge in the blog. I can tell I’m unsure because I have spent 10 minutes starting the next sentence, stopping and thinking for a bit, then deleting it. Time I stopped going round that loop – we’ll see what comes out in due course.

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