Tina, a current college junior, informed me a couple of weeks ago that she gave up her dream of becoming a doctor because physical chemistry was too hard. “Hard” was also a theme laced throughout her complaint about a summer pre-med program in which she participated last summer. It’s clear that she thought “hard” was not worth her effort, probably fueling an internal (and erroneous) narrative that she wasn’t that smart. Or, maybe she envisioned a life of ease after finishing near the top of her high school class. Regardless, she let her aversion toward hard work reshape her life’s dream. How many of us do the same?
By contrast, I recently received a comment from Maryam, a former employee who is now very successful. An extremely competent but shy and reserved young woman when she worked for me, she faced up to her challenges and became an esteemed Teach for America Fellow, taught in an inner city while also organizing a series of cultural festivals in and near the nation’s capital. After reading my blog post, “Embrace the Hills” which challenged readers to intentionally throw themselves into situations that help them overcome their fears and perceived weaknesses, she wrote back:
“I had a similar hill and realized the only way to tackle it was to jump in. This was only possible after I conquered the fear by realizing how unimportant it really was to everything else in life. New hills will always come our way, but I feel better prepared to tackle them after the first encounter.”
What is different about these two women? It turns out that how you view your intelligence has a bearing on how you respond when you’re challenged. Researcher Carol Dweck has coined the term “Mindset” to distinguish between a person who views their intelligence as unchangeable, the “fixed mindset,” versus those individuals who believe that their intelligence is expandable, the “growth mindset.”
The Fixed MindsetThe fixed mindset person believes everyone is born with an immutable amount of intelligence along a bell curve. Think of a bridge span to envision what I mean by the bell curve. The majority of people are at the center of the bridge at the highest point on the bell curve. They’re of average intelligence. Some fall at the left side of the bridge span. These “poor souls” (according to fixed mindset people) are born at the low end of the intelligence spectrum and they are relegated to an existence that low-IQ people typically should occupy.
On the other end, a select privileged few people are born on the right side of the intelligence curve (the bridge span), the upper spectrum of intelligence. These are the so-called geniuses. They’re blessed with above-average IQ and they are entitled to the privileges accorded to being smarter than most of the world—better schools, better jobs, nicer neighborhoods, and more attractive spouses and children.
This fixed mindset belief is so deeply embedded in society, that we often self-appraise our location on the bell curve based on performance on standardized tests, high school rankings, and what colleges we attend. When teachers and professors return our exams and papers, we have a natural tendency to place ourselves and others somewhere along that curve—if the teachers don’t do it intentionally themselves.
The problem with this point of view is that these fixed mindset students, in the midst of a crisis of confidence, get discouraged and choose not to put themselves in a position to learn how to get better, like Tina. Effort is a curse word for them! Working too hard confirms lingering questions about their “smartness” and causes them to withdraw, act out, simply divert their attention to other less-challenging majors, or to wasteful pursuits like clowning around or partying or mindlessly watching television like my freshman roommate did. If they put in less effort, their thinking goes, they can explain away their lack of performance. The counter- thought is very uncomfortable for fixed mindset students. According to Dweck, the great fear is being in a place where you think and say, “I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough” (42).
The Growth MindsetThis second type of student –the growth mindset—adheres to the belief that intelligence is not fixed, but rather it is expandable. In other words, they can get smarter by applying themselves and embracing situations that will challenge them. Here, effort is embraced for intellectual development and subject mastery. Growth mindset individuals seek out challenge; they embrace it because they know that doing so is a means to mastery, and mastery is their goal, not just getting good grades.
When my youngest son was learning how to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels, I asked him if he was willing to fall. He said he wasn’t. I told him that he wasn’t ready to learn to ride. After two days of similar back-and-forth dialogue with him, he got my point. With much antipathy, he came around to telling me that he was willing to fall. (He also put on knee pads, gloves, a helmet, and elbow pads before trying it. “Smart” kid.) You can’t expect to learn unless you’re willing to risk failure. That’s the mantra of the growth mindset.
A growth mindset is liberating. It frees up precious brain processing that would otherwise be dedicated to figuring out what people think of you. Rather than wondering whether people think you are smart enough, you’re fully focused on learning the content or performing the task at hand. Mastery, or deep understanding is your goal, rather than shallowly affirming and protecting a false sense of smartness or success.
By embracing challenge, and sometimes having success overcoming them, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to perform in college…and in life. Confidence breeds success, and success builds confidence. There’s nothing more satisfying than working on something that’s hard, say a problem in physical chemistry or calculus, and then you start to figure it out. Quiet the internal and external critics about hard work. As my former staff member wrote so poignantly, “New hills will always come your way.” For her, “…the only way to tackle it was to jump in.”