Fixing my Fixed Mindset

Do not fail.

This goal overrode all others during my teenage years. It drove me to a high-achieving high school career during which I maintained a perfect GPA on an AP course load. The fear of failure kept me up at night; every assignment was a high-stakes affair.

When I did fail, I tried to cover it up or lie and pretend my record was blemish-free. When I scored a 4 on a single AP test (out of six; the rest were 5s) and a friend asked me how I did, I took a picture of the sheet, copied a “5” from elsewhere on the page and pasted it over the “4”. Looking back now I can see how ridiculous that was, but I had a genuine fear of letting weakness show, especially when it came to grades. If I let weakness show, I would consider myself a failure.

If I could not cover up my failure, I resigned myself to it and stopped trying to improve. I often resorted to this tactic during my competitive running career. Once I realized I would not win my races with God-given physical gifts alone — I was shorter and stouter than many high school runners — I said to myself, “I'll just run on the high school team to stay in shape.” That kept me on the fringes of varsity, but I will never know how I would have done if I actually tried to improve.

I share these details because I know that others can relate to my fear of failure and belief in “natural abilities”. This belief that skills and intelligence are fixed and cannot be improved through hard work and perseverance is called the Fixed Mindset. It is a pervasive mindset even among world-class performers.

In retrospect, I realize I had fixed mindset for years, even after I joined Microsoft out of college. Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, encourages all employees to embrace the Growth Mindset, or the idea that any ability or skill, even general intelligence, can grow (i.e. improve with work and perseverance). My initial, unironic response to his request: “Oh, growth mindset isn't for me...I'm too stuck in the fixed mindset.” I wish I could say that was satire.

Some time after I left Microsoft, I picked up Satya's biography Hit Refresh. In it, he talks about how he learned about the growth mindset through a book his wife gave him called Mindset. Then, shortly after I read this passage in Hit Refresh, a friend recommended I read Mindset. Coincidence? Maybe, but that was enough for me. I bought the book that evening and read it over the next few weeks.

Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck, discusses both the fixed mindset and growth mindset, as well as the research behind it. It made me realize how I developed my fixed mindset, how to avoid transmitting the fixed mindset “disease” to my students and younger cousins, and how to “cure” myself — in other words, embrace the growth mindset. I plan to try it in December, then into 2019, as well as work on my metacognition skills so I can catch myself if I slip back into the fixed mindset.

My main takeaways from my reading and reflection: – Fixed mindset is common. I have it, and I'm sure some of you reading have it as well. Many people in my life have it, which may be why I developed it in the first place. – “Failure” is a valuable learning experience. One case study claims it is even more valuable than success. I would say that critical reflection on any attempt, success or failure, is essential to development of a skill. – Fixed mindset is fixable. You don't have to be stuck in the fixed mindset forever. You can improve in areas you previously thought “weren't for you.” However... – Growth mindset takes time to develop. It will not happen overnight, and sometimes it will be a struggle. Perseverance to the book's teachings, examination and learning from your failures, and belief in the book's teachings will see you through these speed bumps.

I hope that by this time next year, I can say I've fully embraced the growth mindset. For more details about fixed mindset, growth mindset, and how to use growth mindset in your own life, I would highly recommend reading the book on the subject and joining me on my journey!