What I Learned This Summer, In a Word

Mindset coverThis has been the summer of the one-word-title non-fiction books. So far I’ve read Quiet, Banished, and Mindset. My Amazon recommendations don’t know what to do with me.

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?









About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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12 Responses to What I Learned This Summer, In a Word

  1. AJH says:

    Oh this is super-interesting. Incidentally, I’m quite amused you can have a fixed mindset to fixed mindsets, which I guess means you’re doomed forever ;)

    I’ve read the thing about praise for effort versus praise for achievement before, or maybe it was connected to this, I don’t know – but what I find really interesting is the way it sort of focus from outcome to process (from fixed, to growth) which I think changes your whole attitude to the way the world is supposed to work.

    It’s why I’m a huge fan of things like Nano because it turns writing back into a process, which does not necessarily have the end goal of publication to make it worthwhile. I think a lot of fixed thinking comes from this notion that something is only worth doing if arbitrary external forces deem that you are “good” at it – that’s there’s no point writing, unless you are published, or no point singing unless you’re in a choir, or whatever.

    Although I haven’t articulated any of this stuff to myself in any sort of coherent way, I’ve always taken a weird amount of inspiration from Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She keeps going on about how’d she totally rock the pianoforte if she’d only bothered to learn and … actually … she’s probably right. A while ago, I decided I wanted to play the guitar, because why not? Except I am absolutely unmusical. This isn’t fixed thinking. I’m actively shit. Tone deaf. Mildly synaesthetic . Hopeless. But, you know, I doggedly played my guitar every single day for half an hour or an hour, and I am okay on the guitar. I am, in fact, *better* at playing the guitar that my naturally musical friend who doesn’t practice.

    I think there’s deeply comforting about the discovery of this great grey middle between being naturally good at something, and being a pile of crap. But I’ve never thought of it terms of a mindset before – I’d just connected it to a general fear of failure and looking stupid.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Yeah, NaNo is a great growth-mindset way to approach writing. And I think ultimately if you’re writing for fixed-mindset reasons (i.e., reasons other than, I love this & I want to keep doing it and getting better at it), you’re a lot more likely to get stuck (or just be unhappy) than if you can remember your growth-mindset reasons.

      I LOVE your guitar thing. I’ve done modern dance for years, starting in college, even though in the larger dance world there’s essentially no point to dancing as an adult because all your development as a dancer is supposed to take place when you’re a kid or young teenager. But I’ve stubbornly refused to care how good I am at dance, which is probably why it’s one of the areas in my life where I’ve gotten the most pleasure over the longest period of time.

      As for the fixed mindset toward one’s fixed mindset, I actually know someone like that! Most people, when I’ve told them about this book (I’ve been raving about it quite a bit) have been excited and wanted to think about how they could have more of a growth mindset toward things. But this one friend, when I told him, was like, Yeah. I totally have a fixed mindset. And that’s just the way I am, I guess.

      It was pretty shocking.

      I have to say, he never REALLY seems happy in his life …

  2. Cara McKenna says:

    This is RIGHT up my alley! Thanks for talking about it. Totally bumping this to the top of my non-fiction queue for after I finish Gulp.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Ha! I’ll have to read that, if only to continue my one-word-title trend. :-)

      I’m glad you like this–I figured you might. You’ve given me more food for thought on mental health/self-help topics than just about anyone else online. I still think a lot about what you said on Twitter in passing one day about how clinging to anger/bad feelings not only has been scientifically proven to be maladaptive, but also personally bums you out. I’ve found the same. And your Wonkopost on dealing with reviews & other ego-surfing stuff is my lodestar on all that.

  3. I love this post. I’m so reading this book. I have this mindset that writing a novel has to be this massive struggle or it’s no good, and if things go too well, they are suspect. I am actively trying to change that (complete with a little thing I tell myself every day in a ritual I will NOT GO INTO HERE lol) so this is timely. So getting this book.

    I enjoyed hearing about the way you came up as a writer. Thanks for this post!

    • Serena Bell says:

      Thanks, Carolyn! So glad it tapped something for you. It was pretty hard for me to admit (to myself and in public) how much I used to believe that you either had it or you didn’t as a writer. And I still have to remind myself to shake it off all the time! I have to say, You know what? If they don’t love this book, it’s not all over for me. Because I am going to write more, other, better, books!

      The other area of research that might interest you is positive psychology. It’s kind of controversial, but it has a lot to say about the (socially implanted, hard-to-shake) idea that if things aren’t hard/a struggle/angsty, whatever, then they somehow have less value. I don’t have a specific book to point you to but I could poke around and ask my sources to see if anyone has a suggestion.

      • Shelley Ann Clark says:

        On positive psychology, I’d read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. It’s not perfect, but it has helped me learn to reframe lots of things.

        Serena, thanks for sharing this book. It took lots of time learning how to change my thinking to allow me to ever finish anything I wrote, because I was so afraid that the end result would be a disappointment. Forget submitting anything; I couldn’t even finish it! I think this post goes really well with Mary Ann’s post about her mantra: “I am not a good writer, but I could be.” Next time I’m having a really down day, I’m going to remind myself of both.

        • Serena Bell says:

          You’re welcome!

          I also had trouble finishing. I had these boxes full of drafts because I’d get to 3/4 and start over. I still somewhat struggle with that, but obviously deadlines and expectations help. :-)

          Thanks, too, for the positive psych recommendation.

  4. Ruthie Knox says:

    Really enjoyed this post. I love it when you do psych stuff for us, Serena (and Cara, too), because I never ever read nonfiction, but I love to think about it when you post about it.

    I was raised by a growth-mindset mother, and in most things I’m a growth-mindset person. Sometimes to a fault — I’d like to have “Progress not perfection” tattooed onto myself somewhere, but at the same time Mary Ann was reminding me the other day that I don’t have to be so goddamn linear all the time, because life isn’t always linear.

    Which is to say, even “growth” can be a trap. Sometimes “being” is also good. Like, AJH can play the guitar for half an hour a day and NEVER GET BETTER, but if he’s enjoying it, that’s still a good thing.

    I, of course, am crap at reminding myself of that.

    And I have this four-year-old kid who never wants to do anything he’s not already good at. Ever. So there’s that daily reminder, as well.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Well, you’re just fixed mindset about being in a growth mindset. Nobody’s perfect.

      I also have a small boy living in my house who defaults to a fixed mindset. I am easing him out of it little tiny bit by bit. This morning, he freaked out because he is always losing & forgetting things. I had to explain that it’s OK to have lists or use your fingers to remember the number of things you’re supposed to be remembering, that no one is perfect at remembering everything without practice.

      I am really sympathetic to his woes.

  5. Jessi Gage says:

    Lately, I don’t have the attention span for non fiction, but I’m excited to read a bit about something someone else found fascinating. Thanks for sharing Serna. It’s cool to be able to draw conclusions about your writing, marketing, and promo from a psych book. Glad you learned something useful!

  6. Laurie Evans says:

    Sounds very interesting. It’s so easy to get stuck in a mindset when it comes to writing.

    I have Quiet on my list, too.