In a previous chapter, we saw that a self-defeating mental narrative can work against you, even and especially if it’s in direct contravention of objective facts. Telling ourselves an inaccurate and unflattering story is one way we can block our ability to think intentionally, but we can also block ourselves when we entertain an entire attitude and way of being that negates growth, flexibility, change and learning.
This attitude can be summed up as a “fixed mindset.” The concept of fixed mindset (and its healthier counterpart, a growth mindset) was first introduced by psychologist Carol Dweck, and goes a long way to describing the attitudinal orientation that lies behind many of our core beliefs.
For Dweck, success in life, your personality, behavior, identity, source of motivation and indeed your entire lived experience, comes down to whether you occupy a fixed or growth mindset when encountering other people, change or the unknown. Mindset matters—and it matters whether we are conscious of its influence or not.
A mindset is not a particular set of beliefs, statements or behaviors; rather, it is an approach to life. It’s a way of being that determines how we see ourselves, our response to challenge and adversity, how we interpret events, how we construct our sense of self and meaning in the universe, our choice of goals and how we achieve them, and how we interact with others.
What is a fixed mindset? Essentially, it is the fundamental orientation that sees your nature (your intelligence, your skill, your personality, etc.) as fixed and innate, i.e. an inborn characteristic that is, well, fixed. This is the belief that your current qualities are unchangeable and static.
In other words:
We are born into this world with a set amount of intelligence that we can never change;
We have a fixed moral quality that makes us good or bad people, period;
We have our set personalities that will always stay what they are;
We are blessed with a certain complement of talents that we can never improve upon;
And so on. People who have a fixed mindset see life as a card game and their selfhood as a hand they’re dealt. There are consequences to this worldview, however. If you have a fixed mindset, it affects everything you do and feel and think in life.
If you believe you aren’t too bright, for example, you won’t try all that hard to improve your intelligence, and you’ll assume that other people’s success occurs because they were simply born with a genius you weren’t. With a fixed mindset, you’ll never challenge yourself to be better than you are right now.
If you believe you’re simply born a little lazy, or emotionally stunted, or are angry by nature, or simply have a preference for something that can never be questioned or changed, you conduct yourself accordingly: you never pursue any situations that would require you to rethink this assumption, or you actively seek out confirmation for this foregone conclusion about who you are. For instance, if you believe you’re an angry person, you gravitate toward situations and relationships that will provoke you into displaying anger.
On the other hand, believing that intelligence is something you’re born with and not something you work for, earn, or develop means you disempower yourself even if you happen to view yourself as quite smart. You still don’t work to achieve your true potential, and downplay the value of hard work (and humility!). After all, if you didn’t make an effort to achieve something, why would you value and appreciate it? Why take any pride and pleasure in it, if it’s essentially a random mistake?
The trouble with a fixed mindset is how it leads you to respond to challenges—which are nothing less than precious invitations to grow and learn. If you believe you simply can’t learn, and that nothing can substantially change for you, you will shy away from challenge. After all, doing things that are difficult, uncertain or uncomfortable just sounds like subjecting yourself to a hassle for no benefit. Why bother when you can’t really improve who you are?
A fixed mindset has a sneaky way of becoming real. When you shirk away from challenge, avoid discomfort, downplay genuine effort and hard work, give up easily or discount the success of others, you only limit yourself and essentially create the reality in which you are as small as you believe you are. Thoughts, again, create your experience.
In addition, with a fixed mindset, the ego enters more easily into the picture. This is because traits, when they are viewed as fixed, are felt to be more a part of the ego than they probably are. We don’t see our intelligence or creativity or kindness as something we do, but rather as someone we are—and this sense of attachment can naturally lead us to feel quite defensive.
We can get carried away with trying to prove things to ourselves or others, to bluff that we know more than we do. We fail to admit when we don’t know something, and so we never learn. We might pretend that we already understand everything (and forego the chance to genuinely learn about it) rather than be seen as ignorant. This is because if we have a fixed mindset, then being wrong means we will always be wrong. Appearing stupid for a few seconds means we are stupid, permanently, and in a way that can never change.
We saw this dynamic in our example of the employee who messed up at work. We saw that his conception of himself was as a genius overachiever, who was supremely competent. We can infer that this was the foundation of his identity and self-worth—not something he merely did, but something he was.
Making a mistake challenged this identity, and this felt so uncomfortable that the employee would rather avoid it completely: deny it, run away, or blame someone else. Why wouldn’t he? The alternative was to conclude that he wasn’t a genius after all, and therefore was a (permanently) bad and disappointing person who had no hope of being anything else.
Can you see how this mindset, ironically, almost guarantees people will experience precisely the thing they fear?
When we encounter the unknown, it’s a chance to expand understanding. When we come across something we don’t comprehend or lack mastery over, it’s a chance to learn. When we experience our own limitations, it’s a chance to grow.
If we’re determined to see ourselves as already all-knowing, already grown, already in full understanding (i.e. “fixed”), we shut ourselves off from every possible process of self-development and improvement. This is obvious, when you think about it: we can never learn the answer unless we are willing to admit we don’t currently know it. We cannot grow and improve unless we are courageous and honest enough to admit that we could stand to grow and become better than we are, right now.
Things that are fixed, don’t grow. They don’t learn, either.