BOOK REVIEW: MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS – How we can learn to fulfill our potential by Carol Dweck (Ballantine Books, 2007)

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s excellent book “Mindset” has three broad objectives. The first is to illustrate how mindsets permeate our lives by creating our unconscious beliefs; the second is to help readers understand how mindsets work; and the third is to give readers tools to change mindsets in order to create the resilience and love of learning that she contends are the bases of success in every area of life. Although Dweck never actually defines “mindset” in her book, I came to understand a mindset to be a set of attitudes and assumptions that create a framework for viewing ourselves and the world.

“Mindset” completely fulfills its three objectives in eight clear chapters. The first illustrates and introduces the mindsets, the second explores them in more depth, the third uncovers the truth about ability and accomplishment, the fourth through seventh provide examples of how the mindsets operate in the arenas of sports, business, relationships, and education, and the eighth explains how to change mindsets. Each chapter is supported by Dweck’s own research and research by both historical and contemporary psychologists and concludes with a sidebar on how to grow your mindset in a particular arena, such as sports, relationships, and education. Together, these eight chapters provide an in-depth look at how our minds work and how we can get stuck in (and get unstuck from) our habitual thinking patterns.

Through extensive research spanning decades, Dweck has identified two mindsets that impact success in all areas of our lives. The first is a fixed mindset. In this mindset, we believe that qualities are carved in stone and can’t be changed. For example, we are smart or dumb, talented or not, athletic or uncoordinated. In this mindset, people use phrases like, “I’m a total failure. I have no life. The world is out to get me. I’m the unluckiest person in the world.” In contrast, the growth mindset is characterized by viewing ourselves and the world as changeable; our qualities can be changed with effort. In this mindset, people use phrases like, “I’m going to study harder for my next test. I’ll ask my teacher questions. I’m going to review my test and see why I missed those questions.” Fixed mindsets represent rigid thinking, fear of judgment and failure, and identification with static qualities with no room for growth or learning. Growth mindsets are the basis for real learning and accomplishment and put the learner into a creator role.

Although there is gold in every chapter, this book really shines in its presentation of educational scenarios and insight into students and teachers at all educational levels. In summarizing her research on learning in schoolchildren, Dweck says, “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. Great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.” Effective teachers encourage learning by praising the effort learning takes and the intellectual ability to learn, not “intelligence” as if it were an absolute, fixed quality. In fact, one student at Columbia University reported, “I remember being often praised for my intelligence rather than my efforts, and slowly but surely I developed an aversion to difficult challenges. Most surprisingly, this extended beyond academic and even athletic challenges to emotional challenges. This was my greatest learning disability.”

Dweck further notes that Dr. Benjamin Bloom found that the first teachers of 120 world-class musicians, artists, athletes and researchers were incredibly warm and accepting. Dweck believes that this is the key to effective education, which she summarizes as “challenge and nurture.” To illustrate the methods of effective teachers, she profiles three “Great Teachers” who maintain high academic standards while loving, accepting and guiding their students to success. Marva Collins taught inner-city Chicago grade school students who had been kicked out of the traditional school system for behavioral and academic problems, including violence against themselves and their classmates. On the first day of school, Marva made a success contract with her students, set extremely high standards, and established an atmosphere of genuine affection and concern as she promised the students they would succeed. She introduced words and concepts that were, at first, way above their level and she told them, “I’m gonna love you . . . I love you already, and I’m going to love you even when you don’t love yourself.” Similarly, Rafe Esquith teaches second graders in Los Angeles from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Many of his students live in families with drug, alcohol, and emotional problems. His strategy to help his students succeed against the odds is to regularly illustrate how much they are growing intellectually. He highlights assignments that were once hard that became easy through practice and discipline. At Julliard, Dorothy DeLay gives her all to every violin student she teaches (including Itzaak Perlman and his less-famous wife, Toby) and asks herself “How can I help this student?” while noting that it’s easy for teachers to “hide their own lack of ability” by saying, “Oh this child wasn’t born with it, so I won’t waste my time.” She creatively experiments with new teaching methods to solve the problems that her students face, such as playing out of tune or not the hearing the beginning, middle and end of a particular note.

Anyone can slip into a fixed mindset from time to time and as educators we regularly encounter fixed mindsets in our students (and in ourselves). Fixed mindsets cause our students to make choices that minimize rather than maximize their learning, so how can we help them switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? First, set up lessons as learning tasks not judgments of ability. We can do this by characterizing the activity as a learning process and presenting skills and material as being learnable, for example by explaining that “these skills are developed through practice and this task is an opportunity to cultivate these skills.” Second, praise the effort not the ability. For example say, “I see that you’ve been working really hard on your homework and your math scores are improving.”

Reading this book resulted in a paradigm shift for me. I now understand how language indicates the framework or mindset through which someone views a problem or challenge and I can adjust my language accordingly to help the person switch mindsets and see new possibilities.  I’ve changed the language I use with my children and students to ensure that I am promoting a growth mindset in every area – academic, professional and personal – because, as Dweck notes, “the best thing [parents] can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. The will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

Inspiring and practical, this book is a must-have for all parents and educators who want to empower others (and themselves) to achieve their full potential in school and in life.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

–Reviewed by Cara Gubbins, Learning Resource Specialist, Butte College, CA

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