When I was eight, I took a decision that would mark my entire adolescence. I started to play professional table tennis. This meant that sports became my first priority, while school came second. I enrolled to the sports school, where I shared my belonging to the world of competitive sports with another twenty kids. Most of them were playing football, a few were doing athletics, there was one swimmer, one gymnast and me, the ping-pong player. My regular weekdays looked like this: get up at 6.30, have breakfast, walk for 45 minutes to school, learn, come home at 2.45 PM, have lunch, take my bike, go to training, come home around 7 or 8 PM, eat something for dinner, do my homework until 9 or 10 PM, go to sleep. During weekends we trained on both days, from 9 to 12. During school vacations, we had trainings twice a day. Then there was the competition season, when we were playing in different towns, all over the country, and we had to miss a few days from school every month.
Although school came second, I did study a lot and I was doing well. I remember a teacher telling my mom during a parent-teacher session: “Teodora is smart, but she could do so much better if she was just working harder”. I thank my mom every day for not caring about what teachers were saying. She knew my daily schedule very well. She knew I was working as hard as I could; I had good grades and was doing well on most subjects. But when I moved to high school, the game changed, the bar was raised and then everything else changed.
It was during my ninth grade when I realised I was not going to make a living by playing table tennis. So, at the end of the ninth grade, I decided that I had to switch gears and put school first. I requested a transfer from the sports school to one of the best high school in my home town, that had the specialisation I wanted: French language and literature. That entire first year during my tenth grade, I felt like Mewsette from Gay Purr-ee, the poor countryside cousin who lands in the big city. I had a lot to catch up on most subjects. But as we were specialising in languages and humanities, we had less math and science classes in our weekly schedule. Our teachers also assumed that we were not very interested in math and science, since we chose to study humanities, so they were less demanding of us. Until we had Mr. Stancu as economy teacher, in the eleventh grade. He was very demanding.
Mr. Stancu was a very intelligent person with a vast knowledge from different areas and subjects. He was talking from ancient philosophers and believed that everyone should read Plato. But he also thought girls were less capable than boys. And sometimes he was calling them chickens. With a few exceptions, he was talking down to girls, intimidating them and making them feel like they were naturally less gifted than boys. At least that’s how he made me feel.
I remember this one time, he asked me to come to the blackboard and solve a problem. I was nervous, my heart was beating fast, palms sweating, but I knew that I knew. So I wrote the answer fast, scribbling shaky white numbers on the blackboard. And then I waited for a validation. Instead, he asked me, “Teodora, what do you want to study after high school? Uhm, I don’t know yet, maybe languages? Good, that’s a good choice for you. Become a French teacher, but don’t ever get into something that has to do with numbers”. Mr. Stancu’s validation was clear.
I was a 16-year-old girl, bad at numbers, but good at foreign languages, so my future was undoubtedly narrowed down to a clear vocation. The final verdict was made: I was destined to become a French teacher.
What Mr. Stancu didn’t know, was that I actually liked economy very much. I also liked chemistry and physics, although I was not particularly good at math. I could rarely solve complicated geometry problems because I could not see things in 3D. I was also very shy and got easily intimidated by tough teachers. I felt inferior to my classmates, because of all the knowledge gaps I still had, coming from a lower level school. So, I knew I had to study hard to catch up and I was constantly feeling the need to prove myself, seeking external validation from others.
But what I actually needed mostly back then and I didn’t get, was encouragement. Instead, a respected teacher was pinpointing how bad I was at something. So my 16-year-old brain got stuck on that negative label and started to believe I was actually bad at numbers and in fact not very good at anything else. Years later, while working in marketing and therefore, working with numbers every day, I still had moments when my self-confidence sank in front of a challenging task and I could hear Mr. Stancu’s voice, “What are you trying to do here, you should be teaching French”.
When teachers, parents or managers have a fixed mindset, they judge others as either being talented at something, or not. She is either made for it, or she should better pursue some other activities where she has more talent for. End of story. But as Carol Dweck proved with her growth mindset theory, talent is not an indication of achievement because intelligence is not given, it’s something you can develop.
The main role of teachers, parents and managers is precisely to develop others and teach them what they cannot do yet. In a fixed mindset, you identify yourself and you judge others around you, based on a set of dual reference points. You’re smart, or you’re dumb. You’re good at numbers or you’re not. You’re competent or incompetent. When teachers or parents have this sort of mindset, they basically put children into categories and label them, with the risk that these children will start identifying themselves with those labels.
So what do you end up believing? I am bad at numbers so I should forget about numbers and focus on literature? Or rather, I am bad at numbers so I need to work harder and spend more time on some subjects and exercises. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” or “If Rome wasn’t built in a day it wasn’t meant to be built at all”?
The bad news is that we all have a fixed mindset sometimes. The good news is that we can learn to notice our thoughts and change how we behave and act.
Fixed Versus Growth Mindsets
It is true that intelligence matters to a certain extent, and there are jobs you cannot do if you don’t meet the minimum IQ requirements. But once you met the minimum requirement, IQ alone will not predict success. Continuous learning, improvement and focusing on the right objectives and tasks, is something that matters more in the equation of achievement. Together with persistence, self-motivation, learning from failures, habits and focus.
When Carol Dweck started to shape her theory of the two mindsets, fixed versus growth, it all started from a simple observation of school children. There were children who always wanted to prove their abilities, look smart and talented and seeked validation. And others who could just let go and learn, stretching and developing themselves. There were the students who took an optional English course because they knew it was good for their future growth and others who didn’t take it because they were afraid, they would look stupid, showing they didn’t know something. In one experiment, children were split into two groups and were given a puzzle project. They could either choose to make the same puzzle over and over again, or get a more difficult one once they were finished. The fixed mindset children were choosing the same puzzle because they were afraid of failure. The growth mindset children on the other hand were thinking “why would I do the same puzzle over and over again, that’s so boring”.
People with a growth mindset thrive when they challenge themselves, when they learn something new or even reach the impossible, like Christopher Reeve did, by regaining control of his movements after being paralysed from a horse-riding accident. The fixed mindset people on the other hand, are thriving when they feel better than the others, when they feel special and smart. The graphic illustration below, made by Nigel Holmes, explains in a very simple way the main differences between the two mindsets. But instead of just repeating what is already written, I want to challenge you to think about these three situations and write down one thing that you would change:
1. Think about a challenge you had in the last month. A difficult task, a project that you wanted to start or a tough conversation with someone. How did you handle it? Did you make a plan, thought about your desired outcome and got started? Or did you keep on postponing it, found excuses or gave up?
2. Think about something you wanted really bad, and it required a lot of effort to get it. How did it make you feel? Frustrated and demotivated, so you went for the next best thing that was easier to obtain, or did you persist and worked hard until you obtained what you wanted?
3. Think about the last time when someone gave you constructive feedback. Did you feel it was not right or not fair and you dismissed it? Or did you write a couple of insights down, and reflected on them later that day?
Using Labels and the Danger of Stereotyping
One of the beliefs that come with a fixed mindset is that if I am more talented and smarter than you, I am a superior human being. My success is your failure. If I want to feel good about myself, I need to put you down. Needless to say, that such thoughts create more feelings of anxiety, fear of failure and aversion to experimentation and risk taking. If I have to work too hard, that means everyone will know I am not smart enough.
The problem becomes even bigger when someone else puts this kind of labels on you and you start identifying with that label. Like I identified with the person who was not good at numbers, and it took me many years to understand and accept that it was just a perception, and it was not true. Surely, my ambition was not to become chief financial officer or expert accountant. But understanding the basics of financial management and working with sales reports on a daily basis, was a skill I developed like any other skill. You don’t need to be a math wizard and go to international math competitions, to be able to develop rational thinking and problem-solving skills.
What negative labels and stereotypes can do to the way we perceive our own abilities, is that we start to internalise them and identify with that person.
In time, this develops into a phenomenon called stereotype threat or internalised bias. Stereotype threat occurs when someone is afraid to behave in a certain way, out of fear that she would confirm the negative stereotype someone else has about her or her group.
If people think I am bad at numbers, I will be afraid to speak up in a discussion about the financial performance of the last quarter, because if I say something wrong, it will confirm I am actually bad at numbers. In a experiment done by Claude Steele, a social psychology professor at Stanford University, African American students were asked one additional question before their SAT exam. The questions was: “What is your race?”. By simply answering this one additional question before starting their test, this group of students scored lower than their peers. Being reminded of being black, seemed to internalise negative performance bias.
But negative labels are not the only dangerous labels. Too many positive labels and praise, are dangerous too. When people with a fixed mindset are used to receive praise on a regular basis and want to always prove they are better than the others, they also become more afraid to lose that label. This leads to an increased fear of trying challenging tasks, taking risks or dive into unknown situations. When we hold onto our champion label too hard, we risk stagnating, and we stop developing.
When Effort Beats Talent
Potential and talent are definitely important factors in our development, and they can give us a head start in life, especially when we grow up in supportive families and our environment is favourable. But potential itself is not an indication of success. As Angela Duckworth put it, talent plus effort equals skill, and skill plus effort equals achievement. So, where talents counts once, effort counts twice in order to achieve what we want.
In his book Range, David Epstein explains in great depth how thorough learning that helps you long term, can only be achieved through effort and difficult tasks. Fast and easy learning is not going to last for too long. The concept of desirable difficulties, first introduced in 1994 by Robert Bjork, a distinguished professor of Psychology at UCLA, proves that having obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower and more frustrating, actually pays off on the long term.
One of these desirable difficulties is the “generation effect”, where you try to generate an answer on your own. Even when it’s the wrong answer, the fact that you went through the process, helps you accelerate your learning. I remember that my communication skills were not very good in high school and even if I was reading a lot, I could not articulate my ideas with ease, when I had to give an answer in the class. But I felt it was worthwhile trying to explain something in my own words and not repeat like a parrot from someone else’s book. Until one day, when the history teacher told me on a polite, but assertive tone that he for sure appreciated my intention, but my vocabulary was not good enough yet. So I should better stick to learning by heart and reproducing what others have written before me. They said it better…
In a fixed mindset, we learn to achieve short term goals, like getting a good grade. In the growth mindset, we learn to develop new skills and achieve long term results. It’s unfortunate that some teachers don’t see things this way and they discourage effort, for the sake of short term wins.
Learning Is Not Enough
There is a misperception that continuous learning equals a growth mindset. It doesn’t.
Do you also have a few people in your life who always interrupt you and say: “I know, yeah, I read it in this or that book”? They can explain exactly how the brain works, why you cannot quit smoking and what you should do next, while they’re puffing their cigarette with an air of superiority. They know the perfect step by step how-to-plan to get into shape but they’re too busy at the moment to do even 5 minutes of exercising a day.
We live in a time where knowledge is more accessible than fast food. Anyone can learn something new at the touch of a button, sit back, relax and start an online master class. But this is as much of an illusion, and it is a proof of false learning and a false growth mindset.
Learning can only be achieved by putting the knowledge into practice, in order to develop it into a skill.
I love cooking and as David would tell you, I always think about food and what can we eat for the next meal (maybe it also comes from my Romanian DNA). So, it’s not surprising that food analogies come to me easier. A few years ago, when Netflix started to become popular, the cooking show industry exploded. Every day you could watch a new amazing episode featuring famous celebrity chefs making wonders in their kitchens. Then Instagram brought food porn to a new level. And then Masterclass came with their beautifully filmed courses that will teach you how to cook like Massimo Bottura in two days. At some point, I was spending more time watching other people cook than I was actually cooking in my own kitchen. Did my cooking skills improve? Not a bit. It wasn’t until I found two foundational cooking books that taught me the basic principles of cooking and mixing flavours, that my skills actually improved, and soon I had to only occasionally reach out for a cookbook from my bookshelf, just for inspiration.
When I surf on Instagram for photography inspiration, I feel immediately dizzy and anxious as I jump from one amazing photo to the other. It’s like a vortex that keeps you hooked in there, forgetting about time, why you were there in the first place, and most important, what is it that you’re looking for. Learning for the sake of learning is as useless as watching Chef’s table while you eat a takeaway kebab. It’s just another form of escapism like binge watching on Netflix, playing video games or watching endless hours of TV. It just gives us the illusion we know more; it gives us an insight or a quick revelation, but you know what? That’s all you get. One insight that will always remain an insight, unless you do something with it.
False Growth Mindsets
Carol Dweck’s concepts of growth mindsets have been applied broadly by parents, teachers and managers, but sometimes they were applied in the wrong way. Growth mindset is the belief that people can develop their abilities and that intelligence is not a given trait, set in stone. These are a few misuses of the growth mindset concepts, that we need to be aware of when we apply it ourselves:
1. Some people take what they like about themselves, for example openness or flexibility, and they call it growth mindset. But being open minded doesn’t necessarily imply that we are dedicated to learning and developing our talent, the same way as learning for the sake of learning will not help us developing a new skill.
2. It’s not only about effort and praising effort. This is mistakenly understood by parents or managers who praise effort, even when the result is not there. Praising effort when the effort was put in the wrong place, or celebrating fake wins, will not help a person to develop. The development process involves more than just effort. It starts with setting the right goal and using different strategies to reach it. When effort is put in a strategy that doesn’t work, one needs to rethink and change something. Never praise effort, when someone is actually not learning.
3. “You can do anything” statements are dangerous especially when they are used by parents and teachers. It creates a false expectation for a child that anything is possible, without understanding what it takes. Focusing more on developing the right skills to make progress towards that goal is more realistic and efficient than simply telling them “you can do anything”.
4. Blaming someone for their fixed mindset is the worse thing we can do, especially when we can contribute to support someone in changing their mindset. Saying “I cannot work with her because she has a fixed mindset”, takes the responsibility away from you. As a manager, I feel responsible to create an environment that offers learning opportunities every day, and to support my team members to move one step further. We cannot force people to learn, and there will always be some who refuse to take the opportunity. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
We Are All Work in Progress
I am a big fan of Harry Potter and I was thrilled to hear Sam earlier this year finally saying “Let’s watch Harry Potter”. One of my favourite characters is Neville Longbottom. Remember Neville, the clumsy, insecure boy that the Sorting Hat didn’t know where to put? The boy wanted to be with the Hufflepuffs, but the Sorting Hat puts him with the Gryffindors. And what makes the amazing transformation from the mediocre, poorly skilled Neville in the first book, to the hero he becomes at the end, when he destroys the final Horcrux, allowing Harry Potter to defeat the Dark Lord once and for all? What gives him confidence in his magical abilities to the point where he becomes a hero? The encouragements he receives from Albus Dumbledore, the trust that his friends have in him, the support he gets from Professor Lupin to challenge himself and destroy a Boggart, and his inner courage that he shows from beginning til the end. What other people think of us and the expectations they set can transform our lives, for better or for worse. When we have a role in developing other people, we have a choice: growth or stagnation.
When we embrace a growth mindset, we embrace the journey with all the obstacles that come up in our way. One of my favourite concepts is what Scott Belsky calls the messy middle. Successful people often talk about starts and the finishes, but they don’t always mention the ups and downs and the rough middle of their journey. When I work on difficult projects that can take many months from start to finish, I notice more interest from the different stakeholders at the beginning of the project, because they want to understand the rational and justify the investment. There is also interest at the end, to see if the project paid off. But the middle, is a bit like this:
The truth is, I don’t think anyone has a 100% growth or fixed mindset. We all have a combination of the two, depending on the situation and the emotional triggers we experience. But the good news is that our intelligence is not fixed, and we can observe and change the way we look at obstacles. We can decide to act towards a goal we want to achieve and make step by step progress every day, with effort and persistence.
If I look back at my relationship with my economy teacher from the eleventh grade, I am happy to report that we kept in touch. Only that he doesn’t know that, as it all happened in my head. For a long time, Mr. Stancu was the voice of my inner critic. You cannot do that, that’s too difficult for a girl. You can’t get that report finished on time, you’re bad at numbers. At times I believed him. But most of the times I ignored him. I kept on digging deeper, I kept on being curious and learned some more.
One of my favourite courses during my university studies was financial management. Not because I was interested in making money, but we had a professor who knew how to explain abstract and complicated concept with real life example and fun practical tips. I realised that anything we do in life, has some financial implication. So understanding finance, is a life skill. As a manager and marketer, I work with numbers on a daily basis, and I strongly believe that understanding basic financial management is a key success factor for anyone who wants to develop into a management or international leadership role.
Looking back at my professional development, I know that having a growth mindset helped and pushed me forward, one small step at a time. Did I always have a growth mindset? Of course not. There were and still are moments when I feel less confident, and my inner critic is trying to put me back where I belong. But then I think “what would a Gryffindor do?” Step back and give up or find the courage to stand up, give it another try and keep on playing in the arena until the last Horcrux is finally destroyed and he becomes the hero he wanted to become?
Recommended and Mentioned Resources:
Mindset. How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, by Carol S. Dweck
Fixed vs. Growth. The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, by Maria Popova, on brainpickings.org
The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, TED Talk by Carol S. Dweck
Scott Belsky about The Messy Middle on Design Matters, with Debbie Millman
There's a Gap Between Perception and Reality and It Comes to Learning, Shankar Vedantam, on Hidden Brain
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