Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

by PJ McClure on January 27, 2013


“Oh my goodness! You scored in the 99th percentile!”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that you scored in the top 1% of all the kids in the country!”

(kid contemplating what that means)

“You are so smart! We’re so proud of you.”

At  first glance, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that exchange between a proud mother and her kindergarten son. I mean, come on, the kid scored in the top 1% on a nationally standardized test. That’s pretty great!

As parents, we want to reward and praise our children for great results. In fact, our entire educational system is based on results. ‘A’ students get heaps of praise and ‘F’ students get extra attention or sent to special classes so their results will be “acceptable.” At the end of a game there is a score to explain the result and the spoils go to the victor. It’s all about successful results.

It stands to reason that adult life isn’t very different since that’s what results oriented kids grow up to be. Bigger paychecks for closing the new account and nicer homes with the bigger paychecks. We live for the result.

During my decade and a half of obsession…er, um…I mean, informal research into the differences between truly successful, partially successful, and completely unsuccessful people, I noticed a subtle difference between the three groups. Yes, there were all of the things I learned about their mindset and the seven elements that create it, but there was something else.

It wasn’t until 2009, when I read a book by Carol Dweck, PhD, that I was able to articulate that difference. Ironically enough, Dweck’s book is called Mindset and she reveals her findings that there are two basic types of mindsets. Fixed and Growth.

According to Dweck, the difference between a fixed and growth mindset is based in the person’s belief about intelligence and ability.

In one, the view is that talent and intellect are a limited, known quantity that must be managed. Once smart, always smart. Life is about arranging successes and avoiding failures at all cost. If they can’t win, they don’t want to play.

The other sees talent and intellect as something to be developed and nurtured. Life is full of learning experiences and failure is just as beneficial as success (maybe more). For them, it’s the effort that matters more than the result.

You can plainly see which is fixed versus growth. Within the first 500 words of the book, I understood the “thing” I hadn’t grasped during the previous 12 years of searching.
All of the people in the “Truly Successful” category (finances, health, relationships, spirituality, community, etc.) had a predominantly Growth oriented mindset. They believed that they could develop and progress in any area regardless of where they had been before. Most importantly, they didn’t see success and failure as black and white. They understood that each was a result from which we can progress or regress, not as terminal ends that determine worth. Effort is king.

In the “partially successful” group there was a broader mix of growth and fixed. Those with a dominant fixed mindset achieved their level of success through fierce competition and unrelenting focus on their perceived strengths. Not a bad philosophy, but their beliefs still limit their capabilities and view of the world. In some ways, they apply a growth mindset to their fixed abilities. Effort is applied but is not as valuable as talent.

The unsuccessful are entirely fixed. Phrases like, “it’s just who I am,” “we have to play the hand we’re dealt,” and “you either have it or you don’t” control their attitude. The funny thing is, some of these people have great abilities, but believe those abilities are predefined and will just grow with age to a certain limit. Effort is for those poor suckers without talent.

By page six, I found myself sobbing because every moment of my life to that point came roaring into focus. “Aaauugh! I get it!”

My entire childhood and most of my adult life was mired in a fixed mindset. When the adults in my life told me I was smart in kindergarten I realized that results were what mattered. I didn’t have to work to score high on a test, so why grind through all the other work if I can get praise for a test score?

I happened to be athletically gifted as a kid and got lots of recognition for it without working. I didn’t practice as hard as other kids and was still better than them. When I moved to a new school and found myself at the bottom of the ability ladder, I remember wondering what happened. No one explained the concept of getting better through effort, so I assumed these kids had something I didn’t.

Instead of getting better with work, I found another place to play. I got better every year and stayed ahead of most of the others so I naturally assumed that I would continue to improve with age and maintain my edge.

Imagine my surprise when that didn’t happen. It was the same story academically.

My nonexistent study habits jumped up and bit me as early as the third grade. I still scored high on tests, but my report cards for everyday work began dropping. When I didn’t understand a subject, I felt like it was a sign of failure, of weakness. So instead of getting help, I hid it.

To cover up for my “inadequacies” I took on the persona of not caring. Somewhere in my mind it made sense. “If I act like I don’t care… if I put on like I didn’t give my best effort… everyone will just assume that I’m smart enough to have gotten it right, but I just don’t care about it. Yeah! That way I’ll still look smarter, better, more talented, (insert your preferred vanity here), without having to admit I don’t know something.”

In my world, not knowing was bad. Being beat while doing your absolute best was the worst of failures. What’s more, I didn’t get any of this from my parents or anyone else directly. I figured it out on my own…smart boy that I am. I created an entire reality where I had to prove ‘how good I am’ over and over.

If any of those sentiments ring a bell with you, I’d like to echo a few questions from Dweck.

“What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”

“Why waste time proving over and over again how great you are, when you could be getting better?”

Is there any part of my story or this concept that resonates especially loud with you? There’s a whole lot more to mine, but I’m curious if you’ve learned anything about you.

Bring your questions or comments over to Facebook about this because I would love to hear your take or story. Come join us on 

Be your best,


Andrea January 29, 2011 at 6:37 am

Did you have the scenario that went ‘Oh, you’re smart enough. You’ll work it out’? Where, no matter how many times you asked, no one ever taught you how to practice – and what to measure? And you were labelled ‘lazy’ if you fell from your pinnacle?

There seems to have been an entire generation of parents raised on the myth of ‘the child prodigy’ and wanting one of their own. But they lacked entirely all the training and teaching skill of Leopold Mozart.:-(

The acquisition and application of performance intelligence first requires enough honesty and despair to put aside all those old parent/caregiver expectations. The plus is – from having to learn through self-teaching with much trial and error – the ‘knowing how’ is pretty much graven in stone and deeply understood now.

Getting rid of the unrealistic self-expectations of instant perfection seem to take a little longer to shed, however.

Peter Wright January 28, 2011 at 10:22 pm

This is good stuff PJ.

Rewarding effort instead of result is great as long as that effort is focused and directed. and not effort for effort’s sake.

A growth oriented mindset is a wonderful thing to have as long as it can differentiate between eficiency and effectiveness. Enormous amounts of effort in the wrong direction will not make someone successful.

Here is an extreme example, remember the old mechanical calculators and adding machines? Facit was a brand I remember. When these machines were being made obsolete by electronic calculators, no amount of effort to improve the mechanical types would have prevented their demise. The manufacturers who survived had to apply their effort to adopting the new technology, not improving the old.

No matter how efficient an old machine became, it was doomed in comparison to the new, more effective, electronic model.

I may be muddying the water with this comment, but perhaps I may have intrigued you enough to expand and clarify it.

Thanks again for an excellent post.

PJ McClure January 28, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Ahh, my friend Peter.

I don’t think you’ve muddied anything but perhaps have taken us in a different direction.

First, I’m not advocating that we reward effort INSTEAD of results. My assertion is that the right effort is every bit as important as the result. Maybe more. By praising exceptional results with no consideration for how someone arrived at the result is counter-productive long term.

A growth oriented mindset and applying optimum effort isn’t about focusing on efficiency or effectiveness. It eventually produces efficiency and effectiveness. Enormous amounts of effort in the wrong direction won’t produce successful results. True, but only if someone repeatedly goes in the wrong direction.

Enormous effort in the wrong direction once, learned from, and redirected is far more useful in a lifetime than a quick success with no effort. This is about growth and progress. Not one shot opportunities.

As for the calculators… maybe off track here. Calculators are a finite object with no real capacity for growth, learning, and adjustment. They don’t have a mindset.

People, on the other hand, are absolutely limitless in what they can learn. No one has ever reached their capacity and full potential. I argue that those who experienced difficulty early and had to bust their hump to get anything done have gone further into their potential than those that find things easy.

We are never ‘old machines.’ Not even you, Peter. ;o)

Thanks so much for adding your thoughts. I do appreciate them.

Mal January 27, 2011 at 10:52 pm

PJ This is scary stuff..
That comment about “not knowing” or “not understanding” something being a sign of weakness, so it gets hidden.. that kinda encapsulates in one sentence where I have been at, for quite a long time.
I have been what most people would perceive as a reasonably successful professional, but have found these issues rearing their ugly heads for the past few years as I am seeking to move into a completely new career direction.
I have been “learning” about it for years, yet am still to launch out properly.. I tell myself it is for all kinds of reasons (some are actually valid, such as family relocating to mainland UK)
but deep down, there is a fear of being “found out” for “not knowing something”.. so I expend more effort in MORE research…

Thanks for the clarity that has just struck; I have “flip the switch” but yup, you guessed right, I have skimmed the first few pages. I am determined to get over this hump, and I WILL!

Thanks again,

PJ McClure January 28, 2011 at 10:35 am

You’re capable of much more than you even know, Mal. Step into it and see what happens.

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