What? I guess thinking about thinking is philosophy. Or metacognition. Talk about a big word! In her re-issued book on thinking (Mindset), Carol S. Dweck writes about a couple of different kinds of mental structures we might have in our heads. She calls them “mindsets,” and in the book she describes what she calls a “fixed” mindset, and a “growth” mindset. It’s impossible to put a whole book into a one-page summary, but here’s an attempt!
Someone with a fixed mindset can get to be really good at a particular skill. Maybe it’s playing the violin. The student gets very good, and then plays well. But they stop learning… it’s because they get to be afraid of making a mistake. The fear comes from tying their abilities to their self-esteem. If they make a mistake, somehow their self esteem takes a hit. Then they kind of “freeze” at the spot where they’re maybe very good at the violin. But they never get better. And, they can also stop practicing. After all, if they’re a “natural” talent, why should they have to practice? They have the mentality that success should be easy, and that if they fail they’re somehow a bad person. Dweck posits that parents can sometimes sabotage their kids by using the wrong kind of praise. They praise the accomplishment and not the effort, if that makes any sense.
Imagine a child who good at reading. They get good grades in reading, but bad grades in math. If the parent praises the high marks in reading, then says something like “some kids just aren’t good at math,” and excuses the poor performance, they short circuit their own child’s development. It’s more helpful for the parent to try and figure out where the wrinkle is with their child’s difficulty and help them grow.
Can they grow? Dweck’s answer is that they can. And, we can!
She notes that we can all go back and forth between a fixed and a growth mindset… and that this difference affects everything from work to school to marriages. With sometimes really difficult consequences.
Imagine a couple newly married. The wife likes her spices arranged in alphabetical order, all neatly in the right jars, and on the right shelves. The husband thinks it’s a bit much, and so doesn’t put the things back in the “right” places. If the wife has a “fixed” mindset, she might think that her new husband is 1)a slob, or 2)doesn’t care about her and never will, or 3)has a character flaw she’ll have to learn to live with. None of these are very good options, are they? If she has a “growth” mindset, she might ask her husband about why he didn’t put the spices back where he found them. Or, maybe she’ll start to wonder if it’s really necessary that the basil be next to the curry powder. Or maybe she’ll think of a way to label the cabinet so it’s easier to see where things go. All these things have to do with the belief that either she or her husband can change.
We all alternate between a fixed and a growth mindset, I think. I remember thinking about why I was resisting some new thing the Archdiocese had come up with. I’m not sure what the thing was, but there I was swimming back and forth thinking, “Is it that I don’t want to learn anything new?” No, it wasn’t that. “Is it that I don’t want the parish to grow?” No, it wasn’t that either. Swimming, swimming. “What is it?” Finally, the answer came to me, “It’s hard for me to learn something new, because I already know everything. After all, I’ve been a priest for 38 years already!” I almost started laughing underwater. This line of thinking seemed to ridiculous to me.
It is, and we can always learn something new. At least while we’re still alive! The book is a pretty good read, if you have the time. “Mindset,” the subtitle is “The new psychology of success.”