I was talking with my son Dave, an athletic director at a high school in Tucson, about sports psychology. How do you help athletes move beyond a loss or bad performance? How do you help them focus on the next match or game without being dragged down by the past?
It suddenly occurred to me that this could have parallels to writer’s block. Writers often get stuck. Something went wrong, and now they can’t seem to move forward. So I asked, “What are the best books or resources on the topic?”
He suggested Mindset.
I shy away from self-help and especially positive thinking books. This book, however, does not simply say, “Think good thoughts, not bad, and all will be well.” The main proposal is more substantive and based on research that has helped not just athletes but also students, teachers, business people, parents, and writers.
The nub of Carol Dweck’s idea is that we often fall into one of two mindsets. The fixed mindset believes talent, ability, brains are God-given and there is nothing we can do to improve. If we are dumb or uncoordinated, we are just stuck there. If we are brilliant or talented, success should come easy. In either case, there is no point in working hard. And for both, losses can be devastating because it means I must not be talented.
The growth mindset isn’t focused on winning. It focuses on improving, on learning. The outcome is secondary. The result? Setbacks become opportunities to get better. We accept challenges so we can grow rather than avoid them for fear we will fail. Criticism isn’t a judgment on me as a person but ideas that I can learn from. Those with the growth mindset also tend to do better than those with a fixed mindset.
One of the most startling applications of this is that parents should not praise their children for who they are, how smart they are, how talented, how skilled. That instills the fixed mindset which discourages effort.
Rather, parents should praise children for how hard they try. Not for the grade but for what they learned. Not for the win, but for how they improved. In a way, this book offers the exact opposite of the self-esteem movement.
Mindset is a popularly written book with lots and lots of stories. It basically has one idea that it keeps hitting again and again. Whatever research the book is based on is way in the background. Another book on psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is also filled with stories but has dozens of fascinating ideas based on research that is closer to the surface.
In addition, Dweck seems to imply that mindset is context-free. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances, background or social setting are. The growth mindset works all the time everywhere for everyone. I would have liked more than anecdotal evidence on how this paradigm is or could be effective in underresourced communities. She does offer qualifications a few times, saying not everyone can become a Beethoven or a Michael Jordan but that all can improve. Still the breathless enthusiasm of a true believer permeates the book.
about writer’s block? Dweck’s work can, nonentheless, be helpful in dealing with criticism which can paralyze writers because they see it as a judgment on who they are. “Obviously, I don’t have the talent.”
When they change to the growth mindset, they saw criticism as an opportunity to improve. In essence, they thought, “Teachers and editors are just doing their job to point out errors and weakness. Now I need to do my job by improving my work.” So they did.