Mindset: The New Psychology of Success [Book Review]

“Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.”

When I was a kid, I always scored well on those standardized tests they like to give children. I remember taking an IQ test when I was no more than seven or eight, and while I was never told the results, I was put into a ‘gifted program’ shortly after that. I was routinely praised as intelligent, as ‘the smart kid’, as all those kind and not-so-kind terms we use for so-called over-achievers. I was placed in an environment that told me I was smart — that defined me as smart — and created expectations from that stereotype.

Then I reached high school and, without being too nice about it, fell apart. I quit caring, and since I didn’t care I didn’t try. I didn’t care about school work, I didn’t care about learning, and threats of working at McDonald’s forever didn’t faze me. That attitude, of defining myself by a stereotype and its expectations, of treating failure as a personal trait, of judging things in strict good/bad terms, stayed with me for most of my adult life. It bled over into college, into relationships, and into my lifting.

Though I didn’t realize it, I operated under what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck divides our mentalities into two distinct mindsets. Those like myself hold to the above-mentioned fixed mindset; you’re born with certain gifts, and if you aren’t good at an activity, then that’s that. People don’t change, and if you suck you just suck, so you might as well give up. The fixed mindset focuses on ability as an unchanging (and unchangeable) quantity.

But there are others who see things differently. These people don’t shy away from challenge. They see it as a chance to excel, and if they fail it’s not a big deal. Why should it be? They believe that people can change. Failure isn’t a reflection on their ability. Failing only highlights a gap in their knowledge or skills and offers a chance to fill it. They believe that people can change, and that people can change themselves by putting forth the effort. Dweck labels this the growth mindset.

The growth mindset isn’t about trite glass-half-full optimism. Dweck’s case is that people who believe in change and in personal growth are more likely to achieve in any given field because they don’t take failure personally. They see failure as a chance to learn, an opportunity to highlight weakness and improve their deficiencies.

Compare that to the young me. Failure was always personal. Failure was always a negative reflection on my ability and my character. I’d adopted the identity of Smart Kid, and when any challenge threatened that self-image, it was easier to avoid it rather than risk failure and embarrassment. If I couldn’t do it, that was just that. The fixed mindset explains a whole lot — about myself and about overbearing, abusive, or plain old poisonous people we all know. When you think you can’t change, you’re always looking for validation, and that expresses itself in various forms of jackass behavior.

Dweck cites copious research in making her case, looking at the behaviors of young children to college students, athletes to high-powered CEOs. Circumstances aside, success always comes down to the growth mindset. From Jack Welch of GE to Tiger Woods, it’s belief in personal growth that brings us to success.

Believers in the notion that talent and natural ability are forever fixed tend not to fare so well. She tells us about inner-city kids, forgotten by the system and written off as stupid, who learn calculus or cite Shakespeare; she tells us about Lee Iacocca, who nearly destroyed Chrysler with his ego-driven behavior; we learn about coach Bobby Knight, renowned for his domineering antics and how it was his own drive to never fail that left his players loving and hating him at the same time.

The same facts, the same situations, filter through two different lenses and yield two different outcomes. Reality really is about our mental framework, about how we approach our life circumstances. When you believe you can change and improve, you don’t take failure personally. You don’t have to walk through life in constant search of validation, trying to live up to the stereotype of the faultless rock-star. You don’t avoid doing things that might lead to failure and challenge your self-image.

It starts in childhood. She speaks of parents and teachers who reinforce by ability, rather than effort. Children who are told they’re smart, or talented athletes, or anything else, develop fixed mindsets. They live up to their labels, and when anything challenges that label, they fall to pieces. We wind up defining ourselves by our traits, by what we’re told we are, rather than our ability to work for change. The label defines us, and we’ll do anything to preserve it. Kids who are told they’re smart are more likely to cheat or lie about their test scores. Athletes judged by talent are less likely to achieve or enjoy themselves compared to those who place value on effort and improvement.

Success and happiness are about growth, effort, and belief in your ability to change. Success in all areas of life — creativity, academics, business, relationships, and even sports — happens when you let go of labels and judgments and focus on effort and growth.

Mindset confirms and expresses many of the ideas I’ve had marinating on the role of talent and our thought processes in shaping our outcomes. Given our tendency to focus on talents and ‘genetics’, Mindset is a wakeup call for those (including, unashamedly, myself) who write off failures as a matter of biology. Belief in our ability to improve — and thus our effort spent on chasing that improvement — is a far greater determinant of success than any other factor. We can wallow in the knowledge of the forums, which tell us what we can’t do, or we can ignore that and put in the effort to see what really happens. I think more often than not we defeat ourselves before we even start, by constraining ourselves to consensus views and never bothering to try.

Otherwise you end up a failure, always judging, sitting alone in an apartment in your 40s and flaming people to validate how smart you are while never measuring up. That’s a miserable way to live your life.

This book spoke to me in a lot of ways, going well beyond the elements of sports performance. There’s wisdom and perspective to be found here, and a lot of explanatory power for both failure and success. You can change. You can improve. You can make things better. You just have to believe it can happen, and change your point of view.

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12 thoughts on “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success [Book Review]”

  1. Like you Matt, this book spoke to me. If I had read this when I was younger, say in high school, and acted on it, I think it would have really changed my life for the better. Even now it has made a big difference, but it would have been ideal to read when I was going through school as the bits about students with the fixed mindset was exactly how I thought/felt. Another book that compliments this nicely is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – at least to my mind they go together well.

  2. While I can easily recognize myself as a "fixed mindset" type guy, and I share some big commonalities with your story Matt (though I failed badly at University, not at high school), I still think and believe that there's a limit on how much far we can push ourselves in a certain area if we lack the "talent".
    And I also think that is utmost important to discover this limit if we want to grow as mature human beings, who can bear with the weight of the responsabilities that we carefully choose to take.

    On a tangent note (see what I did there? :)), I think I got who you're referring to in this article.

    • Of course there are limits. The mindset issue is exactly that: getting away from rating yourself by what you can or can't do. It's about how you contextualize your life information and get rid of the trait-centric thinking that can limit you, well before you reach any innate boundaries. The actual ability or lack thereof isn't relevant. It's all about adjusting your filtering lens.

  3. Love this push into the mental side of things, Matt. Very good reading. Have you read into cognitive behavioral therapy at all?

    • Only a little. I recently read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt and he goes into CBT as a way of adjusting your 'happiness set-point' (which would be your genetically-determined baseline for happiness and 'positive affect'), which I found interesting. I'm pursuing more material on the topic, as I've found it's one of few ways I can break a vicious cycle of negativity in my own head.

  4. http://complementarytraining.blogspot.com/2011/01http://complementarytraining.blogspot.com/2011/01

    I have yet to read them, but I guess you could find those posts on Mladen Jovanović's blog very interesting.

    Two other blogs that I like a lot about neuro-things :
    http://mindhacks.com/ http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/

    Keep up the good work Matt, and please keep up (well, me at least) updated on your thoughts and "experiments" on strength training, conditioning, autoregulation and stoof.

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