What Every (Great) Parent Should Know About the Mindset of Success

(This article is part of our series on Mindset.)quote_teach_your_children_that_strength_doesnt_come_from_what_you_can_do

How many of you woke up this morning thinking “I wonder what I can do today to undermine my children, subvert their effort, turn them off learning and limit their achievement”?

Not one of you, I bet!

Almost universally, what we parents want is — a) for our kids to grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted in life and b) to find success in whatever it is they do. And we want to do our best to help them get there.

Yet, according to Dr. Carol Dweck, psychologist and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, many of the the techniques we use to “help” our kids, boomerang. Often, we end up sending our kids the exact opposite message than what we intend to!

[Note: If reading the lines above gave rise to a sudden uneasy feeling in you and your fingers are twitching to hit the back button or close this browser page, hang in there. This article may be more helpful to you than you expected…]

The Big Idea


Dr. Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success has created quite a stir among social/behavioral psychologists, education reformers, business leaders and parents alike.

The idea presented in this book is profound. And yet, like many profound ideas, at it’s core, it is very simple. According to Dr. Dweck, most people have one of the two possible mindsets — a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is one where we believe that our core personality, character, talent, abilities and intelligence are fixed. We are either smart, or dumb. We are either talented at something (art, music, sports, math, logic, etc.) or we aren’t. The world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. In the fixed mindset world, we have no problems issuing statements like – “He couldn’t dance if he tried — he’s got two left feet” or “She’s got a green thumb – anything she touches, blooms” or “She couldn’t fry an egg without burning the house down” and so on.

A growth mindset on the other hand, is the opposite, where we believe that everything about a person is malleable. Through resilience and effort, anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. So, there are no smart or dumb people — only those who have unlocked the potential of their intellect and those who haven’t. There are no talented geniuses, only hard-working ones who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level. You don’t have to ever stand in the sidelines merely admiring someone – you could turn yourself into that person if you are really passionate about it as they are and willing to put in the effort. And just about anyone can learn to dance, garden or cook.

How Our Mindset Impacts Our Life

As you may expect, the particular mindset we have shapes the lens through which we view our world and impacts every single thought and action we take. For instance consider how the different mindsets deal with success/failure –

In the fixed mindset, since people believe that they are one thing or the other, every little success validates them as a person and every little failure tears them down. Consequently, they have the need to look smart at all costs. Success makes them bloat up with pride. When they fail, it’s the opposite. Consequently, as soon as they face a setback, they scramble to find someone/something to fix the blame on and are constantly making excuses. Since success/failure are so tightly tied to a sense of identity, people with the fixed mindset tend to develop an irrational fear of failure and tend to take less risks. This in turn limits how successful they can potentially be. In case they do go on to be successful, that success is extremely tormented and needs to be guarded fiercely. Think for example, the cantankerous tennis champion John McEnroe.

In the growth mindset, people believe that success is a result of effort rather than just raw talent. So, people with the growth mindset work hard to constantly grow and improve. Success is earned and never taken for granted. On the flip side, setbacks are seen as the inevitable side-effects of pursuing any endeavor. They are treated as opportunities for further improvement. Since success and failure are seen as separate events that are not directly tied to their identities, people with the growth mindset tend to wear their success with humility and handle failures gracefully. Think for example, the charismatic basketball champion Michael Jordan.

Here are some other examples of how the fixed vs. growth mindset impact our lives –

The Situation People with Fixed Mindset People with Growth Mindset
When faced with a new situation… They generally prefer to stay out of unfamiliar situations and would rather not take a chance or risk failure. Alternately, they may jump into it with false bravado, feeling queasy and uncomfortable the entire time, until they come out the other end with a victory. They are better able to judge the situation based on its merits and decide more objectively whether to jump in or not. If jumping in, they will be more comfortable leaning into the uncertainty of the situation and working through setbacks until they eventually reach a desired outcome.
When something needs effort… They snicker. Because those who are smart and talented don’t need to put in effort. Things are supposed to come naturally to them. They roll up the sleeves and get cracking. Anything worth having is worth striving for.
When faced with criticism… They lash back. Deny. And try to make the source of criticism go away. Criticism brings out a deep fear of “I’m not good enough”. (Remember the little “Note” at the top of this article?) They take a deep breath. And then evaluate the criticism for any merit. If baseless, they brush it off and move on. If it contains merit, they accept the criticism as feedback and learn what they can from it.
In the classroom/learning setting… They will not ask any questions that might make them look dumb. On the other hand, you can’t stop them from asking questions that make them look like they have a better grasp on the material than the others in the classroom. The goal is to look smart at all costs. If they have not understood the material, they will not hesitate to ask questions — irrespective of whether it makes them look smart or dumb. Understanding something is more important. Most often they are not even aware of how dumb or smart asking the questions makes them look.

 

What This Means to Us…

In view of these examples, two things become immediately obvious –

#1) We want to raise our kids to have a growth mindset. As parents we don’t just want our kids to be successful… we want them to enjoy the journey to that success. We want them to be successful for all the right reasons. We want them to be resilient in getting to that success and handle any setbacks on the way gracefully. And when they are eventually successful, we want it to bring them deep satisfaction and fulfillment, instead of giving rise to fear, paranoia, arrogance or self-conceitedness.

#2) We can’t raise our kids to have a growth mindset unless we have a growth mindset ourselves. You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? It’s sad, but some of us inherently have a fixed mindset. And unless we change our own mindset first, we cannot raise children to have a growth mindset.

Do you ever treat the way your kids behave as a validation of the kind of parent you are? Are you plagued by self-doubt when you mess up as a parent and some random stranger gives you “the look”? When your kids misbehave, does it trigger in you an inherent urge to “discipline” them? Do you find it hard to stop nagging and instead look for ways to motivate your kids?

Well, that’s the fixed mindset in action. As it turns out however, you are not alone. Here, in the AFP community, none of us were born perfect. Neither do we have the perfectly right mindset (yet).

Alright so now we have two things to pursue – (a) how do we cultivate the growth mindset in ourselves and (b) how do we raise kids to have the growth mindset. This is what we will focus on through the rest of this month (If you haven’t already done so, sign up here to receive free notification of the followup articles directly in your mailbox.)

4 Steps to Cultivate the Growth Mindset

On her website, Dr. Dweck suggests these 4 steps to cultivate the growth mindset.

Step #1: Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”

Step #2: Recognize that you have a choice.

Step #3: Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice.

Step #4: Take the growth mindset action.

To be able to make any progress, the first thing then, that we need to do is get better at identifying the fixed mindset in action. Let’s do just that this week. Let’s focus on being more mindful about what mindset is in play in any given situation.

If you get a chance, grab a copy of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success from your local library. If you are pressed for time and can’t do that just yet – not a problem. As long as you do your best to implement whatever possible from what we talk on this blog through the rest of the month in your life and your family, I promise you, you will find a noticeable change in the way you and your family deals with stressful situations and setbacks!

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Alright, it’s reflection time. Take the next 2 minutes to answer these questions honestly. Remember, this is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers. All we are trying to do is get a handle on the kind of mindset we have and how we can improve for the better!

  • Suppose your child flunked a test. Would that be an indication that your child is dumb or lazy? Would that be an indication that you are not a good parent? Suppose your child consistently flunks a few tests, what then?
  • Suppose you are learning something new (eg., pottery, patience, mindset…). And after a few weeks you find yourself failing miserably. Does it mean you are not “cut out” for this? Would you be tempted to give up and justify your way out?
  • Your spouse forgets your birthday. Does it make him/her an uncaring, unloving monster who takes everything you do too much for granted?
  • One of your friends has great marital relationship and the most well-behaved kids ever. Is that person lucky and more fortunate than others?
  • If someone was raised in a strict, stifling environment, or if they were raised in a very toxic, self-defeating, negative environment, do you think they are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have a fixed mindset. The intensity of the “yes” will give you a hint of how strong or entrenched the fixed mindset is, and how much effort you will need to put in to grow into the growth mindset.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Next week we will look at ways for us (the parents!) to grow into the growth mindset – for instance with the above questions we’ll start to see that flunking tests has nothing to do with intellect; when you learn something new, failing a few times is par for the course; your spouse is just forgetful or cares about different things; your friend made a set of choices and has an attitude that makes her reality what it is; and no matter what the past, the future can be different.

And in the weeks after that, we’ll focus on finding ways to help our kids grow into the growth mindset as well — specifically, we’ll focus on the two cases of how best to praise our kids and how to handle their setbacks with tonnes of examples.

For this week though, let’s focus simply on awareness and our ability to identify the fixed mindset when it starts to wreak havoc in the little mundane everyday situations. Pay attention to when you are being defeatist or judgmental, and stop to think — is this really a fixed situation with a fixed outcome?

 

 

Image Credit: First picture quote is from an image from fotolia. John Mc Enroe’s and Michael Jordon’s images are courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons search.

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Comments

  1. Vikram says

    This post nailed me!

    A critical error that happened to my upbringing was the assumption by my parents and educators that a gifted intellect was assumed to be mature. No one taught me how to handle failure (and the subsequent anger/depression), that focusing on my talents and ignoring any weaknesses yields a shaky personal infrastructure (socially, academically, everywhere), that social and emotional intelligences are actual things (I even think my dad had some form of Asperger’s). Wrap it all up with strict and stifling parenting, I was the model a fixed mindset and one failure sets up the next failure and then next….

    But as I was forced to deal with deep failures in my 20s and 30s, some real doozies brought me to realize that I actually thought I was a growth mindset type of person. That dissonance (who I am and who I think I am) was massive and nearly destroyed me (and those close to me).

    I now believe the darkest days have passed and green shoots are starting to grow. I check in with myself every week and feel more and more like a grower, though slow at times. I’ll click on the link now and buy the book :)

    Thank you for another great post.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Wow, thanks for sharing that, Vikram! I’m so glad that you have turned the corner and are on a journey of constant growth. I can totally relate to “feel more and more like a grower, though slow at times” sentiment you mentioned :) I think you will love the book. I think most libraries carry copies of it. It is also available on audible if you like listening to books during long drives (which is what I did with this one) and I think it should be available at local half price book stores as well.

  2. Geeta Krishnan says

    Hi Sumitha,
    Mind blowing article. Hats off to Vikram for his post.
    I too, am a fixed-mindset, low self-esteem person, who has to work a long way towards the growth-mindset. I too relate to “feel more and more like a grower, though slow at times” sentiment like you. Will try to get hold of the reference books, you have mentioned.
    Looking forward to the further posts on this subject.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Thanks, Geeta. Yeah, Vikram’s comment really struck a chord for me too – some of the things he said could have been me saying it – for instance, “That dissonance (who I am and who I think I am) was massive and nearly destroyed me (and those close to me).” Isn’t it amazing how we sometimes know something deep down and can sense it in some ways, but don’t quite have the words for it? This book really helped me put into words what I am trying to achieve with this site and my life in general. It’s all about just a simple shift in mindset that can trigger a whole new world of changes! I’m glad to have your company in this slow journey together, Geetha!

      PS: If you have trouble getting your hands on the book, you can check out Dr. Dweck’s site for some very nice articles – http://mindsetonline.com/

  3. says

    Wow- what a great post! I have actually noticed this kind of division in mindsets yet I had never pinpointed it exactly as you had it written here. I was raised with a fixed mindset, and I have been in “recovery” for about 3 years now. The fixed mindset did not serve me in the least! After working on changing my own mindset and finally figuring out that failures do not define me, I have taken many more risks. This has allowed me to find my passion in life and do things that I never thought possible. How great would it be if we could raise our children with a healthy mindset that serves them (and not have it be something they have to fix 30 years down the road! hehe).

    I very much look forward to the rest of this series!

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Right?

      If we can raise our kids with a healthy mindset right from the get go, wouldn’t things be so beautiful?! I have some friends who have growth mindsets about some of the things that I have a fixed mindset about, and it is amazing to watch them sail through the things that stump me with so much lesser friction!

      Good luck in this journey, April. I really enjoyed putting this series together… it’s good to know you are looking forward to the rest of it :)

  4. SimpleRyan says

    Great article Sumitha!! I never thought of it this way, and never even knew there was a “term” for it either. After reading this – I’d have to say that I definitely have the Growth Mindset.

    I’ve always believed that you can achieve success in life if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and put in the work. In school – I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class – but I would work harder than anyone else to earn my grades. I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand and ask questions if I didn’t understand. I would stay after school to get extra help from the teacher. Even in University, I would ask questions during the lecture. I’m always looking for ways to grow, and when faced with new challenges, I’ll keep trying and trying until I get it right.

    Actually – this is something that I’ve been instilling in my daughter since she was 2 years old. She would be trying to do something, get frustrated, then say “I can’t do it Dad!”
    I would quickly correct her and say “You don’t say I can’t. You say I CAN! Never give up. So keep trying”

    I would help guide her as she kept trying, and eventually she would get it. And every time she says “I can’t” – I always remind her that she can. One day made my heart smile – when I overheard her getting frustrated with something she was doing(I can’t remember what it was), she said “I can’t do this… “then she quickly corrected herself and said “never give up. Keep on trying. I can do it” I swear I wanted to cry right then and there.

    I do believe though that some people are born with certain “gifts/or talents” – but that can only get you so far without putting in hard work to improve upon those talents to take them to the next level. Singers are great examples. Sure – Beyonce can sing since she was a child. But she worked hard and relentlessy everyday to turn that God given talent into a very successful career.

  5. Sumitha Bhandarkar says

    You know what @SimpleRyan? Based on your comments here so far, I’d sensed that you were probably a growth mindset :)

    The story of your daughter saying “Never give up. Keep on trying. I can do it” is so precious… And I can so relate to it making you want to cry right then and there! The other day, I was chasing my daughter around and was running out of breath. So I stopped and said (only half-jokingly), “Gosh I think I’m getting old, I can’t catch you like I used to anymore” and she consoled me by saying, “Don’t worry, you’re not getting old. I am just getting better at running because I get more practice… I play tag in school everyday. If you keep practicing you’ll be able to catch me again”. “Keep trying/practicing” is a mantra I’ve been chanting to her for a while now, and when she turned it on me, my chest puffed up with so much pride, I thought it’d burst :)

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