Mindset by Carol Dweck

Let’s do an old fashioned book report. Seriously, why not? It’s the internet – we can do whatever we want! So, today, I’m going to talk about the most important book of this decade. That’s right, I said THE most important book of the past 10 years. Now, this book isn’t directly related to game design, but it has made me a better game developer. It doesn’t talk directly about leading game development teams, but it has also made me a better project manager, a better writer, and a better speaker. It didn’t teach me how to build 3D models, but it did help me learn to create 2D art. So, pull up a chair, grab some popcorn, and let’s talk…

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Dr. Carol Dweck is a professor and researcher of modern psychology. She has been researching personality and development for decades and has taught at both Columbia and Stanford.  She has a lot of successes in her life, but the one I want to talk about today is her recent book, ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’, which I will just call, ‘Mindset’.

Dweck doesn’t come off as an academic type of writer, so Mindset is a fairly easy read. In fact, I’d guess that she writes a lot like she talks – in stories. I can imagine her standing in class or even sitting in a chair, on the back patio, casually sharing these little stories. She maintains a conversational tone throughout and it makes her ideas easy to digest. So, what’s the book about? Well, it’s a detailed look at a very simple idea: for most things that we do in life, there are 2 approaches.

The first approach is the Fixed Mindset. This says that our brain is set – that each of us is given a set level of intelligence and skill at birth. Which of course means that some lucky people are just ‘gifted’. They were born with skills or talents way beyond what that the rest of us have. This is typically how we explain people like Michael Jordan or Shaun White – that they are naturally talented. The best cliché for the fixed mindset is: ‘if you have to work hard at something, then you probably aren’t good enough in the first place.’

The second approach is the Growth Mindset. This approach says that almost anything is learnable. It says that our true potential is unknown – it’s not defined by some quirk of fate. The growth mindset says that success is defined by never-ending hard work and non-stop learning. This approach sees the brain as a muscle. Which means it can get stronger through exercise. As an aside, recent research shows that our neurons and brain chemistry can actually change and grow up to the very moment we die. In any event, Dweck presents years of research and numerous studies to support all of this. I suppose the best cliché for the growth mindset is: ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’

Mumbo Jumbo!

Now, I have to admit. This starts to sound like a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo. It’s kind of like the advice you’d give to your 2nd grade child – “keep trying honey, you’ll get the hang of it.” But, Dweck takes this quite seriously. She examines it very closely and has spent many years studying how it affects our performance. She explains how this mindset affects both our day to day living and our potential for real success in life. And she does it by presenting story after story. She gives fascinating glimpses into how the fixed and growth mindset have impacted specific individuals. She looks at world class athletes and honored teachers, politicians and parents, business tycoons and notorious criminals. All the while, she presents study after study to drive it home. She shows that each of us applies the fixed or the growth mindsets in different ways depending on our current role or even the particular time in our life. She shows how it impacts almost everything we do: work, marriage, raising kids, teaching, our friendships, our failures, and even our successes.

She doesn’t talk about it directly, but I can just imagine her sitting down over coffee, casually talking with the famous Dr. Ruth about how the growth mindset could impact our love lives. Dr. Ruth turns to the audience and shakes her finger, and nods her head, knowingly. In any event, the book is a great read. It’s a compelling and cohesive argument that there really is a way to achieve success, not just at work, but in almost everything we do. Here’s a few examples.

Prove it – Puzzles

Take any group of kids. Give them some challenging puzzles to work on (one at a time of course). Now, split them into two groups: A and B. For each A kid, tell them they are smart – they must be naturals because they did those puzzles really fast. But, for the B kids, just tell them they worked really hard at solving the puzzles. Don’t tell them they were naturals – tell them they showed improvement by trying. Now, give each student in both groups some new puzzles to work on. And, here’s where it gets crazy. The B kids will out-perform the A kids … by a large margin. No kidding! (Hahahah, see what I did there?) But, it goes further – forget what you told the B kids – that sounds like we rigged the test. Just have one group – all you have to do is tell kids they are smart and their performance will go down! In other words, telling them they are smart, makes them…. less smart! Amazing!

It’s hard to believe, but here’s what happens. By telling the A kids they were smart, they get this cool feeling from being labeled ‘smart’. Unfortunately, on their next challenges, they become risk averse – no one wants to lose the ‘smart’ label. They become afraid you will see them as failures, which causes them to think less creatively and become less willing to try the harder puzzles.  Now, try to imagine the cumulative effect this might have over the course of an entire lifetime.

Prove It – Art

Check this out. I’ve always heard that either you’re an artist or you’re not. Artists are special people who can do things the rest of us could never do. And, I’m going to be perfectly honest here – I’m guilty of telling my own children the very same thing: ‘we don’t have artistic talent in our blood.” I never knew how wrong I truly was.

Dweck tells a fun story about an artist named Betty Edwards who wrote ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’. Betty explains that drawing is actually a SEEING skill, not a drawing skill. And these skills are teachable, which also means, they are learnable. And, she proves it. Betty takes people who couldn’t draw their way out of a box and teaches them to create amazing self-portraits. I don’t mean, the so-so stuff, that’s ‘okay art for someone who’s not an artist’. I mean, really cool pictures that you’d swear were from real artists. These are people who couldn’t draw a line out of a box, but Betty turned them into artists anyway. And… here’s the kicker. It only took 5 days! Now, imagine the cumulative effect of a lifetime spent building upon that foundation…

Prove It – Michael Jordan

Check this out. Think back to super-star Michael Jordan. He is hands down one of the best players ever to play basketball. He is a model of natural talents and gifts and has been an icon of excellence for decades. And you know what? He was just like you and me when he was young. In fact, in high-school, he was kicked off of his team. And he wasn’t pursued by any colleges either. But, early on, his mom told him to be more disciplined, and that’s exactly what he did. He became one of the hardest working athletes, perhaps in the history of the sport. And in the end, it made him the super-star athlete we treasure today. Dweck quotes Jordan himself, “The mental toughness and the heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have. I’ve always said that and I’ve always believed that.” (p86)

Or consider my personal hero, Shaun White. When asked about the next Olympics, he said, “I’ve got some work ahead of me, it’s gonna be awesome.” (Peaks, 2011) How could the best snowboarder in the world possibly have ‘work’ ahead of him, if it’s all because he’s a natural? Nope. If you follow White, you know that he’s the most growth-oriented athlete you are ever likely to meet.


So, what’s the point? The point is that we can chose to approach most things in life with either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. It’s a choice we can make, every day. Choosing a fix mindset constrains us – it might feel safe and comfortable, but it limits our true potential. Whereas, choosing a growth mindset frees us. It allows us to acknowledge our mistakes and then learn from them. It helps us realize that we don’t need to prove our inherent worth, what we need to do is to keep striving and learning so that we find true worth in our lives. We can adopt the growth mindset anytime we want, in any situation. And, it’ll help us to be more creative problem solvers, to persevere in the face of setbacks, and to adapt to changing situations.

Now, maybe she’s wrong. Maybe time will prove that it’s more complicated than she’s making it or maybe even that her premise is wrong entirely. I don’t know what the future psychologists will say.  But, I can say this. The person that is me – right now, today – that person performs better with a growth mindset. In just a few months, adopting a growth mindset has made me a better game designer, a better husband, and a better father. So, what are you waiting for? Quit reading my blog and go read Mindset.

(PS – If you are interested in this material, please check out our app: 5-Minute Meditations for iOS.)

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