Carol Dweck’s Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential


Jason Collins


January 10, 2019

I did not find Carol Dweck’s Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential to be a compelling translation of academic work into a popular book. To all the interesting debates concerning growth mindset - such as Scott Alexander’s series of growth mindset posts (1, 2, 3 and 4), the recent meta-analysis (with Carol Dweck response), and replication of the effect - the book adds little material that might influence your views. If you want to better understand the case for (or against) growth mindset and its link with ability or performance, skip the book, follow the above links and go to the academic literature.

As a result, I will limit my comments on the book to a few narrow points, and add a dash of personal reflection.

In the second in his series, Alexander describes two positions on growth mindset. The first is the “bloody obvious position”:

[I]nnate ability might matter, but that even the most innate abilityed person needs effort to fulfill her potential. If someone were to believe that success were 100% due to fixed innate ability and had nothing to do with practice, then they wouldn’t bother practicing, and they would fall behind. Even if their innate ability kept them from falling behind morons, at the very least they would fall behind their equally innate abilityed peers who did practice.

Dweck and Alexander (and I) believe this position.

Then there is the controversial position:

The more important you believe innate ability to be compared to effort, the more likely you are to stop trying, to avoid challenges, to lie and cheat, to hate learning, and to be obsessed with how you appear before others. …

To distinguish the two, Alexander writes:

In the Bloody Obvious Position, someone can believe success is 90% innate ability and 10% effort. They might also be an Olympian who realizes that at her level, pretty much everyone is at a innate ability ceiling, and a 10% difference is the difference between a gold medal and a last-place finish. So she practices very hard and does just as well as anyone else.

According to the Controversial Position, this athlete will still do worse than someone who believes success is 80% ability and 20% effort, who will in turn do worse than someone who believes success is 70% ability and 30% effort, all the way down to the person who believes success is 0% ability and 100% effort, who will do best of all and take the gold medal.

The bloody obvious and controversial positions are often conflated in popular articles, and in Dweck’s book the lack of differentiation is shifted up another gear. The book is interspersed with stories about people expending some effort to improve or win, with almost no information as to what they believe about growth and ability. The fact that they are expending effort is almost taken to be evidence of the growth mindset. At best the stories are evidence toward the bloody obvious position.

But Dwecks’s strong statements about growth mindset through the book make it clear that she holds the controversial position. Here are some snippets from the introduction:

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.

[I]t’s startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.

It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown that this comes directly from the growth mindset.

Although Dweck marshals her stories from business and sports to support these “controversial position” claims, it does’t work absent the evidence of beliefs. Add in the survivorship bias in the examples at hand, plus the halo effect in assessing whether the successful people have a “growth mindset”, and there is little compelling evidence that these people held a growth or fixed mindset (as per the “controversial position) and that the mindset in turn caused the outcomes.

To find evidence in support of Dweck’s statements you need to turn to the academic work, but Dweck covers her research in little detail. From the limited descriptions in the book, it was often hard to know what the experiment involved and how much weight to give it. The book pointed me to interesting papers, but absent that visit to the academic literature I felt lost.

One point that becomes clear through the book is that Dweck sees people with growth mindsets having a host of other positive traits. At times this feels like growth mindset is being expanded to encompass all positive behaviours. These included:

I need to better understand the literature on how growth mindset correlates with (or causes) these kinds of behaviours, but a lot is being put into the growth mindset basket.

In some of Dweck’s examples of people without a growth mindset, there is a certain boldness. John McEnroe is a recurring example, despite his seven singles and ten doubles grand slam titles. On McEnroe’s note that part of 1982 did not go as well as expected when little things kept him off his game (he still ended the year number one), Dweck asks “Always a victim of outside forces. Why didn’t he take charge and learn how to perform well in spite of them?” McEnroe later recorded the best single season record in the open era (82-3 in 1984), ending the year at number one for the fourth straight time. McEnroe feels he did not fulfil his potential as he often folded when the going got tough, but would have he had really been more successful with a “growth mindset”?

Similarly, Mike Tyson is labelled as someone who “reached the top, but … didn’t stay there”, despite having the third longest unified championship reign in heavyweight history with eight consecutive defences. Tyson obviously had some behavioural issues, but would he have been the same fighter if he didn’t believe in his ability?

On a personal angle. Dweck’s picture of someone with “fixed mindset” is a good description of me. Through primary and high-school I was always the “smartest” kid in (my small rural then regional) school, despite investing close to zero effort outside of the classroom. I spent the evenings before my university entrance exams shooting a basketball.

My results gave me the pick of Australian universities and scholarships, but I then dropped out of my first two attempts at university, and followed that by dropping out of Duntroon (Australia’s army officer training establishment, our equivalent to West Point). For the universities, lecture attendance alone was not enough. I was simply too lazy and immature to make it through Duntroon. (Maybe I lacked “grit”.)

After working in a chicken factory to fund a return to university (not recommended), I finally obtained a law degree, although I did so with a basic philosophy of doing just enough to pass.

Through this stretch, I displayed a lot of Dweck’s archetypical “fixed mindset” behaviours. I loved demonstrating how smart I was in domains where I was sure I would do well, and hated the risk of being shown up as otherwise in any domain where I wasn’t. (My choice of law was somewhat strange in this regard, as my strength is my quantitative ability. I chose law largely because this is what “smart” kids do.) I dealt with failure poorly.

It took five years after graduation before I finally realised that I needed to invest some effort to get anywhere - which happened to be a different direction to where I had previously been heading. I have spent most of my time since then investing in my intellectual capital. I am more than willing to try and fail. I am always looking for new learning opportunities. I am happy asking “dumb” questions. I want to prove myself wrong.

Do I now have a “growth mindset”? I don’t believe that anyone can achieve anything. IQ is malleable but only at the margins, and we have a very poor understanding of how to do this. But I have a strong belief that effort pays off, and that absent effort natural abilities can be wasted. I hold the bloody obvious position but not the controversial position. If I was able to blot from my mind the evidence for, say, the genetic contribution to intelligence, could I do even better?

Despite finding limited value in the book from an intellectual standpoint, I can see its appeal. It was a reminder of the bloody obvious position. It highlighted that many of the so-called growth mindset traits or behaviours can be valuable (whether or not they are accompanied by a growth mindset). There was something in there that suggested I should try a bit harder. Maybe that makes it a useful book after all.