Thinking about Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Posted by on May 15, 2022 in Blog | 0 comments

clear light bulb planter on gray rock

While Carol Dweck’s 2007 book Mindset is no longer new, it continues to spark rich conversations about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. The basic thesis is simple: Some people approach life with a fixed mindset, assuming that they are born with certain talents and abilities and that relatively little can be done to alter what they started with. They will repeatedly do what they know they can do well – as this is safe and reassuring and gives them a chance to show what they are good at. If they fail, it is because they are no good at what they attempted, not because they should have tried a little harder or approached the task differently.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe their talents and abilities can grow and develop over time, and that if they persevere through failures, they can learn a lot from them and come out the richer for the experience. Their generous attitude overflows to other people, whose successes they can enjoy because their growth mindset reassures them that there is enough for everyone and that one person’s success does not come at the expense of their own – indeed, we can all succeed and become more than we presently are.

Dweck’s book has some great quotes, three of the most commonly cited being (and each pushes the benefit of a growth mindset): “Why waste time proving over and over again how great you are, when you could be getting better”; “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over”; and “People with the growth mindset know that it takes time for potential to flower.”

It is argued that a growth mindset can be developed (in other words, you can leave your fixed mindset behind) and educational programs have been designed to help people to do so. Seven attitudes fostered in these programs are to:

  1. Never say never (for life has endless possibilities).
  2. Follow your passion (why waste your time doing things that don’t interest you).
  3. Be 100% accountable (adopting a victim mentality gives control to someone else, and will hold you back. Even if you have been a victim, acting like one for an extended period will make a bad situation worse).
  4. Learn from every person (be open to others).
  5. Practice gratitude (being grateful empowers us).
  6. Give generously (because you can).
  7. Act now (because time is a non-renewable commodity, and you don’t want to waste it).

There is a lot of common sense in this, and parts of it resonate with Paul’s words in Phil 4:8 “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” This conscious tilt towards the positive has much to commend it, and is a refreshing antidote to some of the negativity which often floats around – sometimes in the name of Christ.

Are there limitations to the approach? Inevitably there are – though don’t interpret what I am about to say as a basic disdain for Dweck’s work. I think she has articulated something really important.

The never say never (you can do anything) approach can see us waste a lot of time. I’m all for giving things a go, but at some point we must be willing to read the writing on the wall. Romans 12:3 advocates “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Sober judgment is just that – sober, balanced, realistic, fair. It is not harsh, but nor is it over the top positive. The verse has an important qualifier, “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” In other words, don’t forget the God factor. With God, the impossible becomes possible. But then let’s remember that this is because of God’s work in us, not because of our exceptional effort. Let’s not take the credit for God’s grace.

Second, I am concerned about the growth of toxic positivity. Now this can mean many different things, and is often about denying real emotions of sadness or anxiety. In workplaces it can mean having to pretend that everything is wonderful when it isn’t. It can also be about dismissing the complexity of things, suggesting that a failure to thrive (or to turn lemons into lemonade) is our own fault. Occasionally it is, but very often it isn’t. And it can be excruciatingly painful to have someone suggest that if you simply changed your attitude everything would be different, as if this would quickly rectify some serious genetic disorder, or years of emotional and physical abuse. Some people have been born into a world without windows and it really is our responsibility to help to change that (or to walk alongside if it can’t be changed) – not to think that they are somehow defective for not rising to the challenge.

But for all that, I really like Dweck’s work – and the work that has flowed from it. It seems to underline Irenaeus‘ wonderful reflection “the glory of God is a person fully alive.” Do dive into life with all that you have. Do embrace a growth mindset – and do it with humility and gratitude to the God who is the giver of all life. And do it with special care and sensitivity to those who find it so much more difficult to do.

As always, nice chatting…

Feel free to reproduce with acknowledgement. I am especially grateful to those who forward this post on to others and via social media, as this helps to secure a larger readership.

Photo by Singkham on

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