Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessStanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success defines the concept of “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets. A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are set while a growth mindset believes that you can learn and improve. Apply this to intelligence, athletics, the arts (not to mention relationships and careers) and it creates a framework for which people can develop success.

Dweck’s key point is that if you develop a growth mindset, you’re more capable of dealing with and bouncing back from failures. You’re also more likely to take risks and accept constructive criticism, not just compliments. For example, in a study that gave children puzzles, the fixed mindset children chose not to try increasingly challenging puzzles because they were afraid of doing poorly. This decision was reinforced as the researcher praised the fixed-mindset group for doing well initially because their fears of being less successful at future puzzles grew. Both their motivation and their confidence declined. “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.” Life in the growth mindset conversely would be less about the wins, though those are nice, then about the challenge, about trying to do your best at everything, and about learning from your mistakes.

This relates in some ways to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. What Dweck discusses as “mindset,” Tough might classify as character traits, specifically grit or perseverance. Both agree that mental resilience should be developed for success, and that it can be developed. Neither really posits effective solutions for developing it nor do they admit that just because you have the right mindset and work hard consistently, you’ll be successful at everything you do.

Moreover, I believe that Dweck overemphasizes the necessity of a growth mindset without acknowledging some innate level of talent or interest. If I was a good gardener, I may be discouraged when my trees die. That’s not totally within my control, but I can choose whether I give up or not (growth vs. fixed mindset). But that doesn’t even account for whether I want to garden or not – I know folks that have taken to gardening like ducks to water, but I am personally disinterested. Similarly, a naturally good singing voice would definitely encourage someone more than a bad voice would. Maybe they would get to the same level if the bad vocalist practiced more than the good vocalist, but talent gets you in the game. Additionally, I certainly wasn’t born with a good singing voice or a green thumb, but I don’t necessarily feel like those skills are critical to my success in life (except maybe when my boss was mad that I killed his plants) so I don’t think it matters that I have a fixed mindset in those areas.

I think I also just dislike the way self-help books are written. Dweck makes some valid points, then proceeds to bash you on the head with them every other page. I did appreciate the copious examples, but it gets awfully repetitive. The sections I cared most about related to education and career; however, she also focused several chapters on relationships familial, friendly, and romantic. So if you have the same interests in reading this as I do, I would read the first half then stop. Not that the latter half isn’t valid, it’s just less informative for where I am in my life now.

But if you like this genre, it certainly expresses a new concept in the way we conceptualize success and how to achieve it. Most excitingly, to some extent it’s adaptive so you can develop this quality in yourself, rather than just lamenting that you’re born without it, though most people are a mix. Even the ordinary people can become extraordinary…with the right mindset.

3 Stars

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterPaul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character aims to redefine how we look at and classify “success” for children. Beyond good grades and high standardized test scores, what character traits are we teaching kids that will help them be successful through college and into adulthood? He argues that success has less to do with IQ and more to do with inner skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism, which can be taught within educational institutions.

Tough draws on extensive psychology, neuroscience, and economic research as well as his own investigations into the KIPP programs, prep or charter schools, and other educational projects. He does a good job of synthesizing the science with the anecdotes from individual experiences. The gist of the book centers around the cognitive versus non-cognitive skills debate, specifically as it applies to the concept of failure – how children relate to it, how they overcome it, how it challenges them. Tough surmises that privileged children are so sheltered that they haven’t learned how to recover from failure so it demoralizes them when it happens while impoverished children have dealt with so much failure in their lives without being equipped to handle it that they often give up on themselves. However, children from any socio-economic background who are persistent, self-disciplined, and focused can learn from their failure and move forward. These lessons are useful as children encounter increasingly difficult academic environments and adult responsibilities, and without learning them early they cannot be successful throughout their lives.

Then the problem becomes, how do we teach these skills? Again, scientists and educators have all sorts of opinions about it. Even the character traits considered vital for success differ across the board, with synonyms (i.e. “grit” being replaced by “resilience”) or arguments about whether “kindness” should be one. This is not to mention the varying definitions of success, as exemplified by the chess champion who fails academically or KIPP graduates who drop out of college. KIPP has now committed to focusing on character development, even issuing a character report card, but it’s unclear if this new model can create lasting success in a child’s life. Certainly standardized tests aren’t the best predictor of success, but we do need some way to measure process and it’s hard to measure the impact of character development initiatives.

Also at question is whether schools should even be teaching character, or if they should just be focused on content. Character development was previously the responsibility of parents, the primary influences on a child’s life (aside from their friends as they grow older). If education shifts its focused to non-cognitive skill training over cognitive, we’re looking at a learning landscape very different from the traditional historical model.

Tough doesn’t ignore the importance of parenting, negatively or positively, since what’s going in on in a child’s family can’t be isolated from their life at school. One strategy for at-risk youth is providing them with nurturing environments, which helps them overcome traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, wealthy parents tend to “helicopter” and this excessive attachment puts too much pressure on their kids to succeed. A healthy medium between the two is needed, though he isn’t exactly clear on how to find that.

This book doesn’t posit a ton of effective solutions, mainly because we don’t yet know what’s an effective solution. From Tough’s examinations, there’s a wide variety of methods that are being used to varying degrees of success – most of what is implemented is done on a trial and error basis. Still, he offers much to think about on the links between education and character development, factors that I hadn’t considered in play while I was growing up, but seem more obvious in retrospect.

An informational, though not necessarily ground-breaking, read for teachers and parents, especially those who place a high value on education or have strong opinions as to the current state of America’s educational system.

3.5 Stars

In the News: The Great Ivy League Debate

The war of perceptions about an Ivy League education has recently been heating up, in particular thanks to Columbia grad and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, whose book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life recently has garnered copious attention. I don’t want to go into too much detail because (1) I haven’t read the book yet and (2) I’m a little biased against Deresiewicz, who came across as an entitled, pretentious jerk in A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, a book I did read.

So holding off on criticizing for a moment, I wanted to point out this engaging article by Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek: “American Horror, Ivy League Edition.” Although I think his title is a tad hyperbolic, he brings up two other books as supporting evidence for Deresiewicz, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs and Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy by Andrew Lohse. Both are biography/memoirs about the results of an Ivy League education on real people. Now clearly Peace, Hobbs, and Lohse all had issues stemming from before their entrance into college, but it does bring into question the role colleges should play in the personal lives of their students. Is a college’s responsibility simply to teach classes and help graduates land jobs or should they be therapist and counselors, intervening in student’s choice to party it up and telling them to buckle down, to find meaning in their lives?

Everyone says that college is the best time of life so there’s a large element of societal expectation to make it that way. It’s also the first time most kids have the freedom to do what they want, though perhaps not the adult-brain to warn them of the consequences of their actions. Personally I’m a little less sympathetic to a Lohse, who chose to join a frat and succumb to its peer pressure, than to a Peace, who had a traumatic childhood that haunted him to New Haven and back. But in the end, it’s not hard to see why they made those decisions – most kids at that age don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, most don’t have a passion, so why wouldn’t they follow the crowd or take the easiest route?

I guess this is where Deresiewicz would say that colleges should be training them not to be sheep, but then you’d better have some good shepherds to show them the way (and, by the way, tell me when you find those because I’m out of college and could still use that help). To an extent, that’s an understandable and reasonable expectation, but on the cusp of adulthood, there are limits on the hand-holding that should be necessary. As almost-adults, it’s their decision what they want to do with themselves, and universities can’t be single-handedly responsible for producing passionate, successful people after 4 years, disregarding the 18 years they had no influence on their students’ lives, if the student’s choose not to go to classes, not to participate in campus life, and to be disdainful of their experience.

In the end, college is less about where you go than what you make of it. I’m not absolving the Ivy League and I don’t believe that the Ivy League is the best fit for everyone, but the same problems could be apparent in liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or in people who don’t even go to college. Like many issues, this is complex, but I think it’s pointless to point fingers at an institution like the Ivy League without examining our culture that heaps certain expectations on children’s shoulders without providing any guidance from the get-go.

In the News: “Building a Better Teacher”

As someone who works in an educational institution and loves books, a book about education is right up my alley. Everyone recognizes that a myriad of problems face the American education system, and we’ve certainly seen numerous solutions attempted. Personally, I feel like improving teacher effectiveness is one of the easier fixes (compared to a systematic institutional overhaul at least).

Now I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth because I am not a teacher and I don’t understand everything they go through, but we all had teachers we were inspired by and teachers we couldn’t wait to say goodbye to. Yet, maybe even those “bad” teachers could’ve become good if they had more tools and training at their disposal. I realize that teaching teachers will cost time, money and other scarce resources, but it’s like that old adage “If you teach a man to fish…” Well, if you teach a man/woman how to teach well, that would make a lasting impact on their classroom for years to come.

On NPR’s interview “‘Building a Better Teacher’: Dissecting America’s Education Culture,” author Elizabeth Green speaks to her experiences observing teachers over six years in Japan and America, and highlights how the art of teaching can be improved for the benefit of our children and school systems. Based on the snippets provided by NPR, covering topics from math to mentorship, I’m definitely adding this to my “to-read” shelf. Keep an eye out for a future review!