“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.
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.
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Be your best,