Mindset by Carol Dweck

I enjoyed this book. I seem to be reading a lot of books that emphasize the usefulness of hard work. I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s books Intellectuals and Society, and Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Sowell’s books emphasize the importance of putting in deliberate efforts to achieve results just like Dweck’s books. Most of this emphasis is subtle. I actually listened to the book using one of my favorite apps, @VoiceAloud. The app is able to read pdf files aloud; the voice options sound very natural. With this app I get to read books when I am involved with activities that do not require the intellect like washing and cleaning.

Mindset offers an optimistic view of human nature. Well, not human nature as such, but the human capacity to change. It also makes a clear case backed by scientific literature why her message is true. The central message of the book is that we can change our lives by changing how we think. And how do we think? Good question. I am coming to that.

There are two ways that people think. They either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The writer explains a fixed mindset as that possessed by individuals who think that people can change very little about themselves. With such people you either have the right stuff or not. She then explains a growth mindset as the perspective held by those who believe that people can change who they are- this is done predominantly through individual effort. She explains that a single individual can be growth minded in an area and fixed minded in another. So the concepts are not mutually exclusive to a person. For example, someone can be growth minded in training his voice for a performance but think it impossible that he can be more intelligent- thus, he won’t put more effort into studying.

These two mindsets seem similar to genetic determinism and the blank slate concept. Genetic determinism seems more like a fixed mindset and blank slate would be the growth mindset. But the difference between the mindsets and determinism and its corollary is that the mindsets is not necessarily a way to explain how the world is. It isn’t a worldview projected on everything around the believer. I must add that people’s mindset influence how they deal with others. It just occurred to me that there is a strong relationship between determinism and a fixed mindset. I am trying hard at this point to make my thoughts clear, but words are lacking. I however think that someone with a growth mindset wouldn’t necessarily believe in the conception of human beings as blank slates. Someone with a growth mindset would change his or her mind if he or she is putting efforts into an activity but the evidence shows that it isn’t a hopeful endeavor or that returns are low. This is different from thinking that human beings are infinitely malleable and that we are likewise capable of doing things expertly so far as we put in efforts. I would add that those who think people are blank slates and that values and social institutions are arbitrary hardly emphasize that one of the best avenues for change is hard work.

The concept of the mindset is more individual. This is what makes it useful. I will be focusing on growth mindset since I think it is useful- this same message is promulgated by the writer.

Among some of the evidence put forward in support of the growth mindset, Ms. Dweck shows how mindset affect even children in solving puzzles. Children who think it is possible for them to increase in intelligence are more likely to solve difficult puzzles than others without this belief. Children with growth mindset tend to enjoy the process of solving the puzzles and see the puzzles as an interesting challenge rather than a problem.

How are researchers able to know if people have growth mindsets? They ask simple questions like if they believe intelligence is immutable. Those with growth mindsets would often be unbelievers. These were the kind of questions the children were asked. In some other experiments people are conditioned into adopting particular mindsets. When people are bombarded with studies that show that say ability cannot change, their enthusiasm for improving their skills falters. There is a part of us that wants to do things effortlessly. But true effortlessness for most of us will come only with practice. These experiments can inform how we nurture relationships, raise children and manage businesses.

In terms of raising children, the writer promotes praising effort rather than innate skills. So even if a child appears to be a natural athlete you praise the number of hours he puts into practice rather than his natural form. You praise hours studied and focus, rather than superficial intelligence. What I find after some reflection is that for most of us, we don’t start out by believing we are dumb even when we fail. More often we know we failed because we didn’t apply ourselves. I remember one time a university student who stayed with us and had to repeat a year came to the same conclusion. So the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves are we underlings, as is said in Julius Caesar.

I have come to the understanding that life is almost always better when we work hard, when we put in our best effort. When we don’t make excuses for ourselves. I am not saying that hard work is a guarantee for success. You can do your all and still fail. But you will also never succeed if you never try.

I have already mentioned how the book advices that we use the growth mindset to raise children. We are now left with relationships and business. It says that there is no perfect relationship and that we are all work in progress. This is different from excusing the serious inadequacies of others which tolerated will eventually make the relationship collapse. It has more to do with petty quibbles like fashion sense. Others are not petty but can be resolved if those in the relationship are willing to negotiate. Adopting the growth mindset is to believe that friends, partners and family members can change. Then starting the progress effort on your side. The writer used as an example her strained relationship with her mum. She had never felt her love. She decided to extend a hand to her and be there for her. It ended in a more intimate relationship, and her mum’s admission on her death bed that she didn’t think it would ever possible to love her children. She saw the light.

I find that most relationship problems are not serious. It’s our behavior that escalates them. I didn’t say all, but most. People in romantic relationships with fixed mindsets think that they are to feel butterflies in their stomachs whenever they are with the beloved. They don’t realize that they have to nourish their relationship. People even with children will divorce for childish reasons like they don’t feel any spark in the relationship. As Steven Covey, who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People advised when a man presented him with a similar problem, when you don’t feel intimacy in your marriage that’s when you should love your partner more. This is a departure from thinking that love is either present or absent. This mode of thinking emphasizes the importance of deliberate efforts in nurturing relationships. These efforts might involve date nights, planning time to talk and be present in the moment and doing chores together.

On the business side, Dweck talks about leaders with a fixed mindset like Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler. He stuck to his way of making cars when the whole industry seemed to be moving away from it. He also had a tendency to think of people as smart or dumb. I am uncomfortable seeing people in this black and white manner. Although Dweck gives reasons why she thinks Lee Iacocca had a fixed mindset which includes a lot of information about his mismanagement like taking bonuses when Chrysler was failing and organizing an end of year party and giving himself a gift at company expense when it was making losses, I am unwilling to arrive yet at this conclusion until I have educated myself enough about the man. I say this because life is often complex and people give simplistic incomplete and sometimes unfair judgement about others. I had such an experience reading Mastery by Robert Greene. He characterized the business tycoon Howard Hughes as a selfish spoilt child, but the man clearly had mental problems, which I judged from reading a certain extensive biography of him. The great takeaway from the effect of growth mindset in business is that when you think people can change they tend to change. Therefore, a growth mindset can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies.

In a sense, having a growth mindset is a decision of faith. Ms. Dweck made an effort to explain the ineffable. Although she appears to have scientific backing to her central thesis, it still remains to some extent ineffable. It is like the question of freewill, and whether it is something we really possess. Someone will write a book explaining that freewill is an illusion; leaving me wondering whether the book wrote itself. I bring in the problem of freewill because I think it is related to the concept of growth mindset. It is obvious that our decisions are bounded. We can’t make a decision about something we have no idea about. Hunter gatherers did not contemplate flying an airplane, although it’s possible they thought of how it would feel to fly like an eagle. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that we can’t choose between the various options that present themselves to us. This still doesn’t solve the problem of the ineffable. Why would people smoke when they know it is likely that it will endanger their lives? Why would people overeat when they know it’s not good for them? I am often gluttonous, so the latter question goes to me too. The fact that we would want to sympathize with people doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remind them that change is in their power. It’s the most effective way for people to change. For example, no matter people’s genetic predisposition to weight gain they would hardly ever become obese if they don’t overeat. So it’s important to tell fat people to stop overeating. I am overweight, but I know it’s the right message. Being fat is not a disease, it’s a bad habit.

There’s however an element of behavior change that relies on grace. I realized this as I read Finding Ultra. Rich Roll, the writer who was once upon a time alcoholic succeeded in overcoming his addiction not by relying on his will, rather relying on something I can only call a higher power. Rich Roll who would qualify as an atheist went to church to pray. This reminds me again of an experience James Altucher recounted in one of his books where he often went to a cathedral to pray. James was at rock bottom and suicidal. And James would also qualify at least as agnostic. These actions might seem irrational. But when there is nothing more we can do. When our strength and will fails us, we are left with no other option than to leave things in God’s hands.

Having said this, it seems to me that worthy long term goals are arrived at through deliberate thinking. The accomplishment of such goals depend on our being able to put in the work necessary. Putting in the work means accepting suffering. We do what ought to be done when we don’t feel like doing it. We put in efforts even when we are bored. That’s our freewill in action. Some of us see a difference between willpower and freewill but I see no such difference. Thoughts enter our minds and we don’t really know where they come from. If we knew we would be able to predict our next thoughts. We can’t. Freewill is often thought of in terms of decisions in the moment. The question is that if thoughts enter our heads without our control, then how do we say that we have freewill? Even options that the mind present to us are not our choices. Willpower on the other hand is thought of as a decision to stick to a predetermined goal. My believe is that willpower and freewill are not mutually exclusive. Our freewill affects our willpower and our willpower affects our freewill. This would be best illustrated with an example. Let’s consider someone who is addicted to pornography. This person starts out by choosing among options. Whether to watch it or do something else, say read a Dostoevsky novel. The person can also say no to the impulse. That is what the brain is for- sifting between options. The fact that thoughts enter our heads or that our environment presents us with options doesn’t mean we don’t have the wherewithal to think through them. Having chosen to act in a certain way, we risk forming a habit. It seems to me that bad habits are easier to form than good ones. Good habits seem to require willpower. Habits influence the options available to us in the future. Someone addicted to pornography will have an option in his mind to watch pornography when he is bored. It is less likely to be so for another who doesn’t have such addiction. I have a copy of the Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. I haven’t read it. I was going through its table of content when I saw a chapter dedicated to avoiding distractions. This is a message that self help gurus tout. Avoiding distraction is useful in deep work. Freewill is the decision to avoid distractions, and willpower is the determination to stick to it. There is no determination without a decision. Being determined is a decision one has to make in every single moment. There is no willpower without freewill. Willpower requires exercising ones freewill in the moment. But like all things, it gets better with practice.

Even if we can’t completely dismiss freewill as an illusion. We need look at what happens to people when this idea is promoted. Thomas Darymple, in his book Life at the Bottom details the disastrous consequences of this world view. If I don’t have freewill how can I be guilty of crime? How can I be responsible for my actions? Darymple, which is a pseudonym, is a psychiatrist who treated individuals from the British underclass. In the essay collection he details how the prevailing worldview which sympathizes with criminals presents a greater danger to society. Such criminals will mindlessly beat their wives, steal from others and even rape because the British society got it into its head that putting criminals behind bars was somehow unfair. This whole outlook if looked at closely is grounded in the idea that freewill is an illusion. That they couldn’t help it. That because criminals are from the low rungs of society, their crimes are somehow the society’s fault. Thomas Sowell makes a similar point in the books I mentioned in the beginning of this essay in connection with the lightening of policing in black ghettos and the lessening of punishment meted out to criminals and the rise of black on black crime it has resulted in. He doesn’t theorize. He presents facts and figures. It seems that the best way to deal with hard criminals is to keep them behind bars. Sympathy has its place. It should also be for those such criminals will harm when let on the loose. We can’t theorize without resorting to empirical facts. Our theorizing must have contact with the ground.

I diverted to talk about freewill because believing we have freewill is more useful than believing it is an illusion. Whenever we say it is an illusion we unnecessarily cushion people from taking responsibility for their actions. We subsidize the exhibition of the evil in them. The best way in knowing if people have freewill is in looking at empirical data, not in armchair theorizing. People don’t choose crime when they see grave punishment at the door. This tells us that people can help it.

In the same way, a growth mindset is more useful than a fixed one. This is based on empirical results from adopting such a mindset. A mindset that helps one to put in efforts is better than it’s opposite.

Thank you for reading.

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