Anyone interested in personal development will have come across the Henry Ford quote “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This quote is so often repeated because it encapsulates an essential truth – that self-belief is important to performance.
But it also overlooks an even more important principle discovered by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck – that what really makes the difference is not your belief in your current abilities and attributes, but whether you believe those abilities and attributes (like intelligence or ‘character’) are fixed or that they can be improved.
Dweck has been researching mindset, performance and motivation for 40 years. Her key finding is that if you believe your intelligence and talent are fixed (what she calls a ‘fixed’ mindset), your main motivation will be to look good and you will avoid challenges and feedback that might tarnish your image; whereas if you believe you can develop your ability (a ‘growth’ mindset), you will value learning, relish challenges, welcome feedback and keep going through setbacks.
The fixed/growth mindset distinction has a lot of useful implications for management, parenting, education, and personal development. We’ll look at some of these in future articles. For now, there’s an excellent graphical summary of the idea by Nigel Holmes, and this article from the Stanford Alumni Magazine is a good introduction to Carol Dweck’s work.
Plus, here’s a short video interview with Carol Dweck where she explains the origin of her curiosity about the two mindsets:
So how does Henry Ford’s famous dictum “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right” fall short?
Here’s how: with a fixed mindset, belief that ‘you can’ is a fragile construct. If your confidence is based on your ability, and you believe that ability is fixed, then when you hit a setback – as inevitably happens from time to time – it’s going to pull the rug out from under you. “I must not be so smart after all, if I failed at this”. When that happens, a person flips from believing “I can” to “I can’t” very easily.
This doesn’t happen with a growth mindset. If you have a growth mindset, you treat setbacks as a cue to put more effort in. Dweck and her collaborator Carol Diener found that some children with a growth mindset didn’t label their failures as setbacks at all – as Diener says in the Stanford Magazine article:
“Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’”
Or in the words of the NLP principle, “There is no failure – only feedback.”
Want to explore this further? Books by Carol Dweck:
‘Growth’ vs ‘Fixed’ mindsets – and why it’s important to have a ‘growth’ mindset