When you do well at something, do you get told you are smart or that you worked hard?
This is the fundamental question behind the debate over growth and fixed mindsets, a psychological theory first proposed by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. According to Dweck’s famous study, fifth-grade students who were told they worked hard on a given puzzle were more willing to tackle new, harder puzzles and learn from their mistakes. Those who were told they were smart avoided harder puzzles and were afraid of making mistakes. Over time, the hard workers did better academically than those who believed they were innately smart. Dweck coined the terms “growth” and “fixed” to describe the mindsets of those individuals. Since then, her work has become a movement featured in Forbes and has been pushed by governments to improve business acumen and academic success.
It would be irresponsible to say that dropping everything to modify your thought processes will instantly boost your grades or make you the next Bill Gates. In fact, a 2019 national study conducted to verify Dweck’s findings only found a 0.1 point difference in the average GPAs between high school freshmen who took a short, 50-minute course on the growth mindset and those who did not. In addition, scientists have struggled to reproduce the results of Dweck’s first experiment. However, the principles behind the growth mindset are something everyone should adopt.
According to the growth mindset, one’s skills and intelligence are earned through training instead of innate talent. This means that your odds of success in any profession are proportional to your effort and willingness to improve; thus, they are under your control. With this idea in mind, being fixated on self-improvement will allow you to challenge yourself and be more receptive to constructive feedback. The idea ingrains the notion that failure does not mean you’re stupid or that your competitors aren’t smarter. Instead, there’s simply more room for you to grow.
As a child, I was always referred to as the “smart one.” I was pushed by my parents to have the best grades in every subject, and most of the time I did. I was proud of my accomplishments and tended to rub them in other’s faces. But being “smart” meant that my pride hinged on always succeeding. If my grades slipped, I’d find myself in a crisis where I’d question my lack of effort, call myself stupid or throw tantrums as a way to vent.
Ultimately, a childhood spent being “smart” has left me terrified of failure, an unhealthy mindset that I still struggle with today. I shirked more challenging coursework, stuck to the pre-health track even while I was rapidly losing interest in it and clung to the idea that I’d be shunned if I didn’t succeed in the few things I thought I was good at.
I was trapped in a “fixed” mindset, where effort and making mistakes were dreaded signs of inadequacy. Clutching to my pride and staying within my comfort zone has made my experience at Stony Brook less rich than it could have been.
But I’ve made strides to step out of this line of thinking. I quit the pre-health track and started taking more coursework that I enjoy. I found a love for photography after taking a class on it last semester. The skills I developed through photography helped me earn an internship at the Career Center despite my lingering fears that I wouldn’t be hired. I no longer freak out when I get less than 90% on a test and visit my professors more often to seek advice. I still get anxious over careless mistakes or frustrated when my efforts aren’t showing, but it’s still a step forward from the times I’d have an emotional breakdown over a bad grade.
I’m certain that I’m not the only one who suffers from this kind of mindset on a campus that specializes in bringing in bright people from all walks of life. The pressure to “be smart” can be overwhelming, especially when you have family members who are depending on you to earn a degree and land a job to support them.
Passions are developed, not innate. By saying “I’m not smart enough to do this” or “There’s no way I’ll qualify for this,” you’re denying yourself the opportunity to grow. By dwelling on mistakes instead of learning from them, you’re trapping yourself in the past instead of improving yourself in the present.
Give the growth mindset a try. Don’t tell yourself, “If I’m not going to get better, why should I try?” Ask yourself, “If I don’t try, how will I know if I’ll get better?”