What would you do if your teenage daughter told you she’s just no good at math?
You could say, “Yeah, that’s probably true. You shouldn’t bother with any advanced math classes. Stick to the stuff you’re good at.”
What happened the first time your son tried to tie his shoes? He probably didn’t get it right.
You could have told him, “Figures. You never did have any dexterity anyway.”
Or what about the first time your baby stumbled while walking and tumbled to the floor?
You could have shrugged your shoulders and sighed, “Guess you’ll be crawling down the aisle when you get married.”
You didn’t say any of those things, because you are not crazy.
Instead, you probably told your daughter (with perhaps just a touch of irritation), “You know, if you actually studied occasionally instead of spending all your time on your phone, you’d do better.”
You sat down next to your son and showed him, again and again, how to make the loops, cross them over, and tie his shoes.
And you clapped for your baby, helped up get back up on his feet, and beamed proudly as he toddled across the room.
Why is it easy to encourage our kids to try hard things, to work at them, to put in effort — but difficult to convince ourselves to do the same?
Sure, it makes you CRAZY when your daughter says she “just can’t do math,” but be honest: have YOU ever said something like that?
I can’t go to Zumba! There’s no way I can do those moves!
I’m hopeless at balancing the checkbook. I just don’t have a head for numbers.
That tech stuff is beyond me. I can never figure it out by myself!
Growth Mindset v. Fixed Mindset: How It Starts
You’re 8 years old. You come home from school proudly waving your perfect spelling test.
“That’s our girl!” says your mother. “You’re so smart!” She puts your spelling test on the fridge for everyone to see.
Your mother had the very best of intentions, but here’s what she told you: you aced that spelling test because you’re smart.
Wait, what’s wrong with that?
Well, let’s fast forward a week, to the next spelling test. You got 7 words right. Out of 10. Not bad — but you didn’t get that 100 percent like last time.
And if you aced that first test because you’re smart, what does it mean that you came up less than perfect on this one?
You must not be so smart after all.
Hello, fixed mindset! When you have a fixed mindset, you believe you’re either smart — or you’re not. You have a certain amount of intelligence that you’re born with, and that’s it.
You can learn new things, sure, but you can’t change your intelligence. You’re a certain kind of person, and you can’t really do anything to change that.
On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset, you recognize that NOTHING is set in stone. That you, like your baby learning to sit up and crawl and walk and talk and do math — you also can learn new things, and you can learn them no matter how old you are or how many times in the past someone told you that you couldn’t.
When you have a growth mindset, you get joy from hard work and striving to be your best. You don’t have to be THE BEST, you have to put in effort and do YOUR best.
Growth Mindset: Effort, Not Ability
You’re 8 years old (again). You come home from school proudly waving your perfect spelling test (again).
“That’s our girl!” says your mother. “You must have worked really hard!” She puts your spelling test on the fridge for everyone to see.
On the next spelling test, you get 7 out of 10. What’s the message in your head this time? Huh. I guess I didn’t work so hard this time. Okay, yeah, I didn’t really bother studying for this test, so I didn’t do as well as I could have. I guess next time, I should make a point of actually studying and then I might get another A+.
You haven’t failed. Maybe you have a time management problem — fitting in spelling words with your busy hopscotch schedule is pretty challenging — but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.
If you’re thinking to yourself that there’s NO WAY one TINY change could make that much of a difference, you’re wrong. And science can prove it.
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck tested hundreds of elementary school students across the United States. You can read all about her study — and you definitely should — in her book (yep, that’s an Amazon affiliate link), but the short version is this:
Kids who were told they did well on a test because they were smart (ability) ultimately scored significantly worse than kids who were told they did well because they worked hard (effort).
Some of the amazing findings from this study:
- The kids who were praised for their effort enjoyed the work, even when it was difficult, and even when they didn’t get everything right.
- The kids praised for their ability were not willing to try a harder task that might call their intelligence into question.
- The kids who were praised for their ability lied about their scores.
When Carol Dweck talks about this, she says, “We took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”
No, seriously. YIKES.
Growth Mindset, You, and Your Kids
When your mom told you that you were smart, she certainly wasn’t thinking, “Ha! THIS WILL RUIN HER FOR LIFE!”
When you tell your kids they’re smart, you’re not thinking, “YES. FIXED MINDSET KIDS.”
We don’t mean to turn our children into fixed-mindset people who are afraid of failure. When we tell our kids, “Wow, you did that so fast! You’re so smart!” or “Whoa, your drawing is AMAZING, you’re such an artist,” or “You’re like a prodigy on the piano,” — we’re just so proud of them, right?
But what our kids hear is:
If it takes me a long time to learn something, then I guess I’m not so smart.
I better only draw pictures of horses, because I won’t look like an artist if I try to draw anything else.
I should only play the easy piano pieces, because otherwise they’ll figure out I’m not that great.
It’s not that you shouldn’t praise your kids. You should! Kids LOVE to be praised. We ALL love to be praised. But the way we praise them matters.
When we focus on praising kids for “natural ability” or “intelligence,” instead of EFFORT and HARD WORK, we make it really, really hard for them to handle any kind of failure and NOT see it as a reflection of their own self-worth.
If you really want to help your kids succeed in life, the very best gift you can give them is the ability to love challenges. To look for hard things to do. To NOT fear making mistakes. To keep learning.
And what about you?
When you believe that your ability is set in stone, that you can’t change anything about yourself, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment. You’ll never try new things, because you might not be good at them, so why bother?
Why launch that freelance writing career? You don’t have the skills. You’ll never get the clients. You don’t have what it takes.
STOP. Just stop RIGHT NOW, because YOU are AMAZING, and you absolutely have the skills to do this. You definitely can get the clients. You totally have what it takes.
Nurture Your Growth Mindset
From today forward, pay attention to the messages you give yourself daily. Any time you catch yourself thinking or saying negative things about your abilities, stop. Really hear what you are saying, and counter that statement with a positive message about your effort.
For example, when you find yourself thinking, “I’m just no good at marketing myself,” change that message to, “I’m going to put in the time to learn how to market myself effectively.”
Remember that change is hard — and it takes time. Most importantly, change requires consistency: you have to work at it regularly.
You won’t abandon your fixed mindset overnight, but with time and effort, you can develop a growth mindset and learn to do just about anything.