I wrote about Susan Cain’s Quiet, an exploration of introversion, earlier this summer. Banished is Lauren Drain’s memoir of her time in the Westboro Baptist Church, and while very simply written and ambiguous in its conclusions, a fascinating look at what happens when someone is desperate to belong.
But I think Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success will most change the way I think about myself and the way I work. Mindset came out in 2007, and some of the ideas in it will feel familiar to you because Malcolm Gladwell also touches on them in Outliers.
Dweck describes two possible mindsets: fixed and growth. In a fixed mindset, you believe traits and talents are doled out in set amounts, as a matter of nature, and that there’s not much you can do to change how good you are at something. In a growth mindset, you believe that human skills and traits are highly, possibly infinitely, elastic. Even things that we often, as a culture, think of as “natural talents,” like athletics, singing, drawing, intelligence, can be cultivated and learned.
People have fixed and growth mindsets to differing degrees and in different areas of their lives. For example, you could be growth-minded about writing ability—believing that it’s something people can learn—but fixed-minded about certain personality traits—like charisma—believing “you’re just born outgoing” or “so-and-so is a ‘people person.’”
If you have a fixed mindset about a certain skill or area of your life, you’re more likely to think there’s no point in trying after the first time you don’t do as well as you thought you should. You’re more likely to compete to “be the best” or to see success and failure as black and white. You’re more likely to give up because you “just don’t have the aptitude.
If you have a growth mindset, you’re more like to try again, many times. You’re more likely to view something as “setback” or a “challenge” rather than a failure. You’re more likely to try to figure out what you can learn from what you’re doing rather than whether you can do it better than other people.
Because of this, Dweck argues that how “fixed” or “growth” you are in a certain area plays a very large role in determining how successful you can be. People who view activities or endeavors as learning experiences and setbacks as challenges, not failures, are much more likely to put in the 10,000 hours it takes (Gladwell!) to gain mastery. Not to mention, they’re much more likely to enjoy themselves.
One thing that’s particularly interesting about Dweck’s research is that you’re not doomed to possess one mindset or another. On the plus side, you can improve your own mindset, and with it, your enjoyment of your life and your likelihood of feeling successful.
On the minus side, it takes surprisingly little to induce a fixed mindset in yourself or someone else—like a child. Dweck describes research where two groups of people (randomly selected, demographically identical groups) were given a certain challenge—a series of increasingly difficult puzzles. Beforehand, one group was imbued with a fixed mindset about the puzzles—they were told that the puzzles were an intelligence test, and that how far you could get through them would tell the researchers how smart you were. The other group was given a growth mindset—they were told that the puzzles were fun and challenging, and that if they put their minds to the problems and worked hard, without giving up, they could eventually solve all of them. The growth mindset group was much more successful at the puzzle-solving.
Dweck’s mindset research is also the reason why it’s better to praise children for their efforts rather than their outcomes, why it’s better to say, “I like how hard you worked on that and how you persisted even when it got frustrating,” rather than, “I’m so proud of your straight As.”
I grew up with a fixed mindset about writing talent. My mother was a novelist; I had inherited her talent. I had “the ear.” As obnoxious as I feel admitting it, I believed that people either could or couldn’t write stories, and all the hard work in the world wouldn’t change the fundamental equation of that. I felt lucky—I was on the right side of the equation. What I didn’t realize was that my fixed mindset would only work for me up to a certain point. As soon as I bumped up against what I perceived as “failure,” as soon as I received the first rejection, saw the first evidence that I could “write pretty” but needed some work on “storytelling,” I wanted to give up because I was “good but not good enough.”
In a classic fixed-mindset move, for years I didn’t submit my writing at all because I believed (subconsciously) that once the market judged my work, I would know my worth for certain, and if the market deemed that work (somehow a representative of everything I could do) inadequate, my writing life would be over. Of course, by not submitting my writing, I was also ensuring that I couldn’t succeed—or grow.
I was also very resistant to revision. If I had natural talent, then what flew off my fingers at the draft stage was pure and brilliant. Monkeying with it would only make things worse. And there really wasn’t much point to messing around with the writing, anyway, right? Because either I’d done a good job with it or I hadn’t. It sounds very extreme, but when I read Mindset I recognized that I really did believe some of those things
My mindset began to change three years ago, when I started writing romance. When I did, I met loads of people who had never written before in their lives. At first, I was doubtful about their abilities to overcome such a huge obstacle. Then I realized that they were succeeding in droves. Not every time, not right away, but right and left, all around me.
Slowly, my attitude toward “natural talent” changed. Now I’m not even completely sure it exists. Natural aptitude, a natural affection, maybe. But now I suspect that what looks like “talent” in a lot of people is just a love of words that has led to loads of reading and plenty of writing and tinkering. And if there is something called talent? Sure, it’s nice to have—as long as you don’t rest on it. As long as you don’t let it make you lazy. As long as you don’t assume it’s a substitute for hard work, revision, more hard work, more revision.
My next goal is to lose my fixed mindset towards promo and marketing. I have long believed—I think a lot of us do—that there are “some people” who are naturally more outgoing, more “salesy,” better at reaching out and drawing readers in. But Dweck would say that there is only a series of challenges, a series of learning experiences, that make us gradually better and better, more and more natural, at completing those tasks. The only way to master “promo” is through that series of challenges, and the sooner you start—and the more growth-oriented your mindset—the faster you gain that mastery.
The first step is to change the way I talk to myself about promo, to stop telling myself, “You’re bad at this. You don’t know how to do this,” and start telling myself, “Huh! How do I do this? Who could help me figure it out? What are the questions I need answered?”
Writing and authoring are—especially in this day and age—pursuits that require talents in many different areas. Some of them will feel “natural” to us, and some won’t. You’re probably doing some combination of dealing with writing, revising, editing, copyediting, blogging, using social media, exporting manuscripts to various formats, learning about e-readers and e-tailers, designing swag, organizing blog tours, hosting contests, and all kinds of other tasks you’ve never done before (and even more if you’re self-pubbing).
Whether you’re a writer or a reader, do you catch yourself having a fixed mindset about certain aspects of your work or life? (A big one is, It’s too late for me to learn to X.) Is there an area where you can commit to looking at yourself as more of a work in progress?