Talent alone is not what makes great minds, first class athletes or top performers in any discipline. Highly successful people have the ability to take the potential of their basic qualities and apply effort, persistence and self-discipline. In this way they stretch and improve both their strengths and weaknesses, even at the risk of failure.

Says Malcolm Gladwell in his well-known book, Outliers: the story of success (Little, Brown & Company, 2008), “…..the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play,”   He believes that practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good, it’s the thing that makes you good, whether you are Mozart, The Beatles, Bill Gates, grand chessmaster Bobby Fischer or a top Canadian ice hockey player.  The common denominator he uncovers is that before these people “made it” or became world class experts, they all had 10 000 hours of practice over many years.  Now that’s a lot of repetition!

Fixed vs growth mindsets

This is not necessarily brand new thinking. Good educators, therapists, parents and employers have actually known this for years and neuroscience is increasingly proving it. We know that the brain is plastic and elastic, and can continue learning well into old age. As long as you practise something often enough – a minimum of 200 – 300 times, you can create a new memory cell (an engram).

But, practise is not the only important thing. One’s attitude and habits of mind are also essential to success as described in the concept of a fixed vs growth mindset, popularised by Carol S. Dweck in her best-selling book, Mindset: the new psychology of success (Penguin Random House, 2007) in which she deals with how to nurture a winning mindset. Dweck is clear that parents, teachers and coaches pass on either a fixed or a growth mindset to children in the way that they frame success and setbacks.

Reframing success and setbacks

She says that to nurture a growth mindset we need to tie success to effort – to doing good. We spend so much telling our kids to be good or doing things for them that they could do for themselves, that we often don’t focus enough on their journey, on the doing – specifically doing for themselves. Very importantly, we also need to reframe failure at a learning opportunity.

Successful people habitually and instinctively reflect on their experiences, learning and growing as they go.

Here are some of the characteristics listed by Carol Dweck that distinguish the two mindsets from each other:

Fixed mindset people

  • They often experience limited success because they make little effort to develop what the believe are fixed abilities
  • They tie success to innate talents, abilities, skills and personality traits which they believe are predetermined and unchangeable
  • They brush off setbacks and try to forget them, instead of learning from them
  • Their self-worth is tied to outcomes of any situation
  • They are more ego-driven
  • Every failed grade reflects negatively on their intelligence
  • Every botched project puts into question their competence
  • They have a compulsive need to prove themselves
  • Thrive on doing the safe and familiar
  • Pass up opportunities to learn – they seek effortless success
  • Give up easily because they believe their potential is limited
  • They cover up their shortcomings, don’t confront their weaknesses and avoid the challenge
  • Can resort to using dysfunctional coping strategies including lying, cheating, making excuses, passing blame or comparing themselves to people who are worse off to maintain their view of themselves
  • They look for opportunities to assert their greatness, to prove their intelligence or their talent
  • They are stuck

In my own words, they speak more than they act. They are highly likely to place blame on others for their failure. And sometimes they don’t try at all if they don’t believe they will succeed. Their own fear and limiting beliefs land up limiting them!

Growth mindset people

  • They are more likely to flourish in life
  • They actively seek opportunities to learn, stretch themselves and grow
  • They believe they are a work in progress (this is my favourite one)
  • They believe they can improve their basic qualities with learning, effort and with the input of others (they are social learners)
  • They spend less time convincing themselves and others how good they are and more time on getting better and look for opportunities to stretch themselves
  • They are comfortable with, or happy to risk failure because it is a learning opportunity to do better or use a different strategy
  • They improve their potential through learning and practise
  • They don’t see failure as permanent, but to take on new risks and challenges
  • They believe their innate abilities are the starting point for unknown possibilities
  • Through effort and experience they can change and grow
  • They invite feedback, advice and encouragement from others
  • They align themselves with people who are smarter and better than they are because they use them as teachers and mentors
  • Performance and test scores only say where they are today, not where they will be tomorrow, or where they will end up
  • They believe effort ignites talent and leads to accomplishment/achievement

In my own words, they are action-oriented people who take responsibility for their own success (and failure). They are prepared to try and try again. They have opportunity eyes and possibility thinking. They are committed to their own growth and continuous learning. Effort and change are comfortable bedfellows when it comes to success.

Thriving in a hostile world

Today we live in, and are bringing children up in, an increasingly hostile world, characterised by continuous, dramatic change and disruption: socially, economically, technologically and politically. Living with constant flux and change is stressful and it will be easier to cope if one has a more flexible mindset. A growth mindset enables us as human beings to be more nimble and adaptable.

“The way you see yourself influences the way you see the world and the way you live. The way you see your qualities and abilities influences your actions and thoughts. It affects the way you approach life and what becomes of it.”

Carol S. Dweck

Even employers such as EY (Ernst & Young) have changed their employment filter removing the need for degrees. They would rather hire for attitude than qualifications and skills. There is a new mantra in the world of work: hire for attitude, train for skills. In other words, skills are easier to train than attitude. This means that the earlier we help our children to develop a positive attitude towards their strengths, weakness, talents and abilities, the better.

How you can help your child to succeed and develop a growth mindset

  • Help them to spot their natural strengths/talents/interests (they all have them, it does not have to be giftedness, and their strengths and interests may not be what you expect or necessarily the same as yours)
  • Create plenty of opportunity for repetition and practice – make it as fun as possible, and keep a good balance without going to extremes
  • Be encouraging, be patient and get involved as it helps reduce resistance (a few minutes of throw and catch every day in your driveway can make the world of difference to a child’s sports skills, for example, and they will just love the time spent with you)
  • Find opportunities for your child to display or showcase their talents/strengths/interests as this builds self-confidence and self-esteem – this means being part of a team, or entering an Eisteddford, or helping you to wash tidy the garage, or getting involved in decorating their own room or planning the family holiday
  • Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn to be great and teach them how to reflect and grow from it
  • Don’t only ask “What did you do today,” but also “What questions did you ask today?” or “What did you learn today?”
  • Remember that mindsets are learned and can be changed

We all have elements of both mindsets but we can learn to change limiting mindsets. This requires doing and practise, not just thinking. It was Einstein who said, “Learning is experience, everything else is just information.” This means that our children need to do, do, do to hardwire a growth mindset because their mindset determines how they will cope with failure and how they will pursue success.

If I had to choose a mindset for my child to enable them to thrive, not just to survive, in the 21st century, it would have to be a growth mindset that can embrace all that is, all that they are, and all that they are in the process of becoming. To do that, you need to challenge and analyse your own mindset. You may need to make some mindset shifts yourself! Are you up for the growth challenge? Who are you in the process of becoming and how will this, in turn, shape your child?