November 2, 2018

Growth mindset says intelligence is learned

Lt. Col. Aaron Webb
Travis AFB, Calif.

My daughter is in the scraped-elbow phase of learning to ride her bike. Anyone who has embarked on this journey knows it’s a series of frustrating falls followed by tears.

As I pick her up after a fall, a concept that has helped me get through many “falls” in my career comes to mind. It’s called the “growth mindset,” and it changed the way I look at failure.

In her book Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, explored how our mindset can either limit us to settle for mediocrity or empower us to greatness.

She explained how a fixed mindset is the opposite of growth. A fixed mindset assumes our intelligence is written in our genes, much like the color of our eyes or the shape of our nose. Those who adhere to a fixed mindset lump intelligence into these inherent traits. You can hear it in the way they speak, saying things like, “I can’t speak another language” or “That’ll never work,” or, if you’re my daughter, “I can’t ride a bike.”

As if these personal critiques weren’t bad enough, the damage a fixed mindset causes is much deeper. When you look at the world as if intelligence is based solely on the hand you were dealt, you start to shy away from situations where that intelligence might be threatened. You think, “Why would I do something hard only to fail at it — that would only remind me of how limited I think I am and expose me to everyone’s criticism?” A fixed mindset cripples self-improvement and it breaks my heart when I see it in our Airmen.

The contrasting “growth mindset” looks at intelligence like a muscle; it can be grown over time. More importantly, it can be grown within all of us. To me, this is immensely empowering. When you look at your own intellect as if it can and will grow, you start to believe the only thing holding you back from a new skill is the effort required to learn it. You’ll change the way you speak. Instead of, “I can’t speak another language,” you’ll say to yourself, “I can’t speak another language yet.” Your Airmen who were once so afraid to try new techniques will say, “That didn’t work. We’re just not there yet.”

When you start to believe in a growth mindset, you will take on challenges and you will not fear failure. On the contrary, you will embrace it. You will know success is hiding just beneath a few failures and getting up from those failures will not seem like such an impossible feat. You’ll know you’re one step closer to getting better.

In a world of fixed mindsets, we need to embrace the growth mindset. We are not destined to stop at the failure. If we did, we’d never know the joy of pedaling through the wobbles, with a smile on our face, knowing we finally found the ability to stay upright, not because we were good at it, but because we persevered.

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