When you think of what you do in your life, how do you think of yourself?
If you think thoughts such as, "I'm intelligent," or "I'm talented," or "I'm a failure," you're thinking of yourself in terms of traits. Traits are fixed qualities that do not change much, if at all.
There is a big problem with thinking of yourself – or other people – in terms of traits; this makes it very difficult to learn, grow and change. In research done by Carol Dweck and others, they found that kids who thought of themselves in terms of traits would give up easily and had a hard time bouncing back from adversity or defeat.
If you are told how smart you are, how talented you are, how gifted you are and such traits are the main focus of praise for you, then what happens when you fail a test? You shouldn't fail a test; in fact you should never do anything but great on a test. After all, you're brilliant and talented, a real natural at these things!
When a child is evaluated in terms of such positive traits, there isn't much room for improvement. You either do well and live up to your evaluation or if you fail, that failure undermines the positive evaluation of your traits. How can you be brilliant and do poorly? There must have been a mistake in the positive evaluation.
When there is failure there isn't much room for improvement, either. Failure is not a verb to a trait-oriented person. Failure is something that you are. A child with a trait-oriented mindset who experiences a setback or failure does not experience it as a failure of action; he experiences it as a failure of character – an overwhelming defeat at a fundamental level.
A trait-oriented mindset is a helpless mindset. It leaves little room for positive action to improve because you either are or you aren't … brilliant, talented, intelligent, etc.
This is a set-up for a kid to become an underachiever because, beyond easy tasks, they tend not to enjoy what they do, lose interest and avoid the more difficult challenges.
What is the alternative to a trait-oriented mindset? A growth-oriented mindset.
While a trait-oriented mindset is static and fixed, a growth-oriented mindset is changeable and dynamic. A growth-oriented mindset focuses on what you do, not what you are.
When children are praised for what they do – for the work that went into doing well on a test or the creative effort that they put into a work of art, or how well they played a piece of music – they learn that the way they bring value to the world is through their effort and actions. Because it is not something that is fixed, when something doesn't work out it's not a statement on their existential being; it's just a matter of doing what they need to do to improve for next time.
And this is exactly what children with a growth-mindset do. They are more resilient, they are more likely to persevere and they are much better able to bounce back from adversity than children with a trait-oriented mindset.
A growth-oriented mindset is a problem-solving mindset.
The great child psychologist, Hiam Ginott, made this point in his great work, Between Parent and Child. He emphasized the importance of addressing the behavior rather than the character of a child. If a child spills a glass of milk you don't say, "You're so clumsy!" You hand him a towel and say, "Looks like you spilled. Here's a towel."
Mindsets, however, are not just kid stuff.
Adults with growth-oriented mindsets are also more likely to engage in more challenging tasks, to persevere and to bounce back from adversity.
Management teams with a growth-oriented mindset outperform those with a trait-oriented mindset. People with growth-oriented mindsets make better negotiators, and managers with a growth mindset notice improvement in their employees, while those with a fixed mindset do not.
Also very interesting to note is that people with a growth-oriented mindset have a remarkably accurate assessment of their own performance and ability. Those with a fixed mindset have a remarkably inaccurate assessment of their own performance and ability.
I've been talking about these two mindsets as though we all might fit neatly into one or another but in practice it is much less, well, fixed than that. Most of us have areas where we think of ourselves in terms of traits and other areas where we have more of a growth mindset.
It's likely that those areas where you are the most competent and resilient are those about which you think in terms of growth, not of traits.
So here's the fun part: You can do something about this. You can change how you think about yourself and move away from a trait mindset and toward a growth mindset.
First of all, if you're a parent, or if you have dealings with children, you can be a positive influence if you praise them or correct them in terms of their actions and not in terms of traits. Don't praise a child for how smart they are; praise them for what they did with that intelligence. Don't correct them in fixed terms like "clumsy" or "absent minded"; identify what they did or did not do and correct them on their actions.
Now for your own mindset: Notice how you talk to yourself about your successes and failures. For a time, just notice. Pay attention to static terms like smart or dumb, talented or bad. Notice which kinds of activities tend to bring out more fixed, trait-oriented self-talk.
Once you have some idea of how you talk to yourself, just knowing that you can change this can make a difference in itself.
When you find that you're thinking of yourself in fixed terms, stop. Find another way to talk about what you're doing from a growth- and action-oriented perspective. Dispute the fixed-trait mindset and redirect your thinking toward movement.
If you're feeling insecure about a project you have coming up and you find that you're telling yourself you don't have the talent for it, think instead of what you need to do to prepare for it as best you can.
If you find yourself trying to determine who is at fault in something, rather than how to repair the problem, shift your thinking to solving the problem instead. That should be the top priority and is something that you can act on.
Look for the ways that you burden yourself and others with a fixed, trait-oriented mindset and seek to introduce movement and possibility into your thinking and communications.
Look to develop an active, growth-oriented and problem-solving approach to life's opportunities and troubles. You'll be more successful, more resilient and more delighted with the challenges of life.