Book Cover
  • 30th October 2018
  • 12 minute(s) read

Three Lessons I Learned From Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” {Book Review}

Carol Dweck is one of the world leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology. Professor Dweck explains why it’s not only our abilities and talent that bring us success, but also how we approach our goals. She decided between two different mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Book Cover

This week in my book club, I reviewed Carol Dweck’s Mindset.  You might have heard of this gem; it is the favourite psychology book of Bill Gates.

I stumbled over this book when I was listening to a Josh Waitzkin Interview, where he recommended this book.

Who Is Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck is one of the world-leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology.  She is currently a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Her book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development was named Book of the Year by the World Education Fellowship.

Her publications have been featured in the New Yorker, Time, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and many more.  She currently lives in Palo Alto, California.

So jab, it is fair to say that she is a total badass.

I sincerely hope that I will get Professor Dweck on my Podcast in the next few months.

What Is The Book Mindset About?

Professor Dweck explains that it is not only our abilities and talent that bring us success, but also how we approach our goals.

She identified two different mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

According to her, these are the most basic beliefs that we carry with ourselves.

A “fixed mindset” is a belief that assumes that our talent, character, intelligence, and creativity are fixed entities that cannot be changed in any meaningful way.

Therefore, success is only the product of what you were given at birth.

This is a toxic belief.

People who have a “fixed mindset” shy away from challenges because they fear failure more than anything.

A person who has a “fixed mindset”, who would pass an exam would link their success to them just being smart and talented.

There is a dangerous problem with this belief: What happens if a person with a “fixed mindset” fails? 

The problem is that their entire self-identity is bound to their results.

If you have a “fixed mindset” and you are succeeding, you feel smart and gifted; if you are failing, however, you feel stupid and untalented.

The danger of the “fixed mindset” is due to you linking your entire self-identity to your performance or to your results.

This is why a person with a “fixed mindset” will shy away from taking on challenges because they fear failure more than anything.

If you believe, on the contrary, that hard work, perseverance, the right strategy, and resource management have much more to do with what is possible for you, then Professor Dweck would say you have a “growth mindset”.

A “growth mindset” thrives on challenge, and sees failure, not as evidence that you have no talent whatsoever, but as an opportunity for growth.

A big part of our educational system is built on the belief, for example, that intelligence is a fixed entity.  This book washes the floor with this unfounded statement.  So, if you are reading this, you are not a static being!  You can decide who you want to be.

The idea that people are predestined to achieve according to their IQ and their inherent capabilities is outdated.

Another detriment of the fixed mindset is that it makes people who have it, believe they were blessed in some areas with talent and that in those areas, they are naturals and they do not have to work on their craft anymore.

A person with a fixed mindset believes that it is futile to invest in areas of their life where they are naturally not talented.

They think that effort and hard work is for people with deficiencies.  Untalented people.

This can trigger an entire domino effect of psychological catastrophes because if you define yourself by your talents, a loss means that you are nothing.

This reminded me of a lot of what I learned in clinical psychology about people with narcissistic personality disorders.  If you believe you are this great guy, and you fail, your entire self-image crumbles.  This causes depression, and in some people, even suicide.

One thing that I learned from my last book review “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin was that failure and mistakes are a necessity.

Only through failing can you identify your weaknesses and get stronger.  Many high achievers even celebrate failing.  I heard Dave Asprey, founder of bulletproof, in one of his interviews say that he asks his kids every day if they failed today, and if they say no, he motivates them to shoot higher the next day.

What is even more dangerous, are people who have a fixed mindset, but who do not believe they are particularly talented.  This is the worst combo, in my opinion.

If you think you lost the genetic lottery, and you have a fixed mindset, you have no motivation to work hard.  You think success is just not for you.  That the good things in life are not available for you.  I spotted this pattern a lot when I investigated people who were going through a depressive episode.

If you believe that life has only pain, suffering, and a whole bunch of horse crap in store for you, why even bother and try?

Why bother putting in lots of work to turn things around, if the ultimate outcome will be that you will be failing anyway?

Better save the energy and do nothing right?  WRONG!

A smart, beautiful girl very recently approached me, and after some chit-chat, she shared with me that it was her dream to study psychology also, but that she believes that she is too stupid for university.

This conversation stuck with me for quite some while, because it killed me that she had such a distorted perspective of what is possible for her.

But also, I understood where she was coming from.  It is only logical to assume that if you fail every time you start something, that after some time, you are better off stopping to try in order to stop hurting yourself.  Everything else would be self-mutilation.  Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, showed me that I am not the sum of all my mistakes, and that change is not only possible, but it is necessary.

The idea that intelligence is a fixed construct is just plain wrong.  Intelligence and basic qualities can be strengthened and trained like muscles.  I am not saying that everyone can be a Lebron James or Albert Einstein, but our brain is capable of enormous feats.

And, when you hear people, for example, say, I am too old to learn a new language, math is just not for me, or I am just not a this or that person, please remind them with a gentle slap in their face, that they are limiting themselves.

3 Lessons I Learned Mindset

Intelligence Is Not Fixed

At the beginning of Mindset, Professor Dweck kills the myth that intelligence is a static entity that cannot be changed.  She takes a closer look at the work of Alfred Binet, the creator of the IQ test.

Alfred Binet designed the IQ test to help children who fell behind to get back on track.  Let that sink in: The founder of the IQ test did not believe that intelligence was fixed.

A few modern philosophers… assert that an individual`s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased.  We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism….  With practise, training, and above all, method we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally to become more intelligent than we were before”.

Alfred Binet

I have met friends where their teacher put the kids with the highest IQ score in the front row because obviously, those were the only ones that would ever amount to anything.  So why bother investing in the other “untalented” ones.

In the following quote, Professor Dweck writes about what she found out in her long research:

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.  It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.  How does this happen?  How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.  If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships.  Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character.  Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail?  Will I look smart or dumb?  Will I be accepted or rejected?  Will, I feel like a winner or a loser?.

The Power Of “Not Yet”

Professor Dweck uses a beautiful example where a high school in Chicago hands out the grade “not yet” to students who did not pass an exam.

In that way, students can frame this setback into their “growth mindset”.

Many students who do not pass their exam, internalise that they are a failure, a nothing.  Too stupid to pass the exam.

If you try really hard at something and fail, it is key to realise, although you did not pass yet, your work was not for nothing.

When I was studying psychology, I was living in F city.

I failed exams left and right, ultimately, I dropped out, and I took a 2-year break from academia where I travelled the world.

After having not succeeded in my academical career, I felt that I was now officially stupid.  Inferior to everybody who had a college degree, and that there was absolutely nothing that I can do about it, and that it will stay like this forever.

In those 2 years, I did not understand that I was on a learning curve, that studying was actually not for nothing, but that I was getting better, that I was growing.

The finality of a loss that is linked to your own lack of abilities is a painful process to go through.

Professor Dweck calls this the “Tyranny of now“.

To investigate this phenomenon, she did an experiment, where she gave children a task that was too hard for them to solve.

What happened to the children with the “fixed mindset” when confronted with a task too hard for them to solve?

Children with a “fixed mindset” were more likely to cheat and tried to find worse children than they were.

They wanted to feel good about themselves, and avoid challenges and ran from difficulty to not put their self-identity in jeopardy.

Professor Dweck showed me in Mindset that our grades, results, and achievements are not final judgments that estimate the value of a person, but a photograph of a moment in that person’s life.

You can argue that the system that we are living in has a “fixed mindset”.  If you graduate, this means you are forever smart.  If you have no degree, you are stupid.  Our system is built on such assumptions.

Somebody-Nobody Syndrome

Case Study: Iciss Tillis Fixed Mindset

“It was in 2004.  Iciss Tillis is a college basketball star, a six-foot-five forward for the Duke University women`s basketball team.  She has a picture of her father, James ”Quick” Tillis, taped to her locker as a motivator.  “But the picture is not a tribute”, says sportswriter Viv Bernstein.  “It is a reminder of all Tillis hopes she will never be”.

Quick Tillis was a contender in the 1980s.  In ‘81, he boxed for the world heavyweight title; he was in the movie The Colour Purple (as a boxer), and in ‘86, he was the first boxer to go the distance (ten rounds) with Mike Tyson.  But he never made it to the top.

Iciss Tillis, who is a senior, says, “This is the year to win a national championship.  I just feel like I’d be such a failure . . . I`d feel like I am regressing back and I am going to end up like my dad: a nobody”.

This is my favourite case study from the book Mindset.  It shows a psychological catastrophe in sports that many people view as a necessity: the somebody-nobody syndrome.

If I win, I will be somebody.

If I lose, I will be nobody. 

Not only in sports is this true, but in life also.  So often people have the misconception that their self-worth is determined whether or not they are successful.  Constant self-validation is highly dangerous, in my opinion.  The classic if-then psychology.  If you become successful, then you will finally be happy.  As much as I am for aiming high, seeing yourself as a person who is, at the moment, not special enough is highly dangerous.  People who have the “one day I’ll be somebody” disease are constantly in repair mode.  They internalised that they are broken and that at the moment, they do not have any worth.  That they are not enough.

Yes, you seem to need at least a little bit of discomfort to motivate yourself for some things, but other sources get your ass into gear.

You can be driven by inspiration, contribution, and your dream without connecting your self-worth to your progress.  If you are reading this right now, you are somebody.  You matter, and you are enough, and you always will.

What I Do Not Like About Carol Dweck’s Mindset?

In this book, you will constantly evaluate and question yourself and check whether or not you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, and you will realise that we all have mixed mindsets.  I think Professor Dweck could have put more psychological exercises in this book.  I learn best by doing, and I would love to have a workbook from Professor Dweck with practical exercises for every day that strengthens my growth mindset.



Call to Action

Here is some homework for you.

Which mindset do you have?  Answer these questions about intelligence.  Read each statement and decide whether you mostly agree with or disagree with it.(1)

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic that you cannot change very much.
  2. You can learn new things, but you cannot really change how intelligent you are.
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

Questions 1 and 2 are the “fixed mindset” questions.  Questions 3 and 4 reflect the “growth mindset”.  As always, thank you for reading and go kick ass in life!  Write in the comments what the book is that you have recommended the most in the last 12 months!


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