Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mindsets: Growth, Fixed, and Realistic

While most of my reading consists of novels and history, I also end up with the occasional business book recommended by someone connected at work. On a business trip last week, I took one of these with me, the psychology/self-help best seller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Like a lot of pop insight books of this type, Mindset consists of one idea which is then illustrated by numerous examples, drawing what could conceptually be a 5-10 page article into a 300 page book. In this case, the idea is that success is achieved through having a 'growth mindset', the idea that skills/abilities are increased by experience and learning rather than stemming from innate qualities. To someone with a growth mindset, you might try something difficult and fail, but so long as you learn from the experience you can become better at it in the future and master it in the long run. This idea that you can grow and improve inspires one to hard work, the development of greater ability, and thus success. The opposite of this is a 'fixed mindset', the idea that abilities are mostly the result of innate qualities that we have little ability to improve.

According to Dweck's schema: people with a fixed mindset who try something new and find themselves not very good at it will often conclude that just isn't something they have the ability to do and not try again. Someone with a fixed mindset who tries something the first time and does succeed may conclude that they are naturally good at it and may put a good deal of work into it. However, they may be tempted to avoid circumstances that could lead to failure (since failure would prove that they aren't actually all that good) and when they do have occasional failures they'll be tempted to blame that on some outside factor rather than learning what they did wrong and improving. Someone with a growth mindset will learn from failures rather than concluding that they are a failure at some deeper level, and thus be much more inclined to put the hard work in to get better at some given activity over time.

This basic concept is then illustrated by may examples: business, sports, education, leadership, relationships, etc.

The main place I'd read this kind of thing before was in articles advising parents that it's better to tell a child, "You did really well on that math test, you must have worked really hard on that. Good job." rather than "You did really well on that math test, you must be really smart and gifted at math." on the theory that the latter suggests to the child that mathematical ability is fixed and not expandable, and thus as soon as the child hits something in math that he can't master, he'll conclude, "Well, that's the limit of my ability. I guess I just can't do that."

The basic concepts make a fair amount of sense, though I find this structure of book a little frustrating in that it seems like one one to get through a lot of examples to get through the author's entire thought structure. As I say: it seems to me this could be a 5-10 page article rather than a 300 page book if the extra re-enforcing examples were removed.

Of course one of the things one does when reading a book like this is try to measure oneself against it and see how one measures up. In this sense, it struck me that I have a pretty split way of addressing this topic. On the one hand, I do tend to assume that putting lots of time and work in is the primary way of getting good at something. Sometimes this means that I put lots of time into an activity and get better at it. Other times it means that I recognize my lack of progress on something is a result of not putting in enough time. One of my major problems is limited time, so it's not unusual for me to decide, "I could get better at this if I put the time in, but the fact of the matter is that getting good at this is not a high enough priority for me right now to do that work." In relation to myself, I pretty much have a growth mindset.

I also have a growth mindset, in general, about the people I am most directly responsible for. I am in charge of setting the weekly (sometimes daily) task list for our oldest three children in their schooling (6th, 8th, and 10th grades). Each student has her own particular strengths and weaknesses. However, I'm confident that even if one is not a prodigy at language or a math, with sufficient work (and searching for an approach that works) she can reach a functional level of competency.

However, as I think about it, I also have a tendency (which I think of as realism) not to assume that people will change in major ways unless they appear to be working on it.

At work, I have several people who do not have good command skills when dealing with small groups. If a 5-6 people are discussing a project, even if one of these people has the expertise and knowledge to speak up and guide the others, they will not do so, beyond perhaps a hesitant suggestion. (This contrasts with my approach, in that in those circumstances I almost always speak up and start guiding the discussion.) Now, I do think that this kind of group leadership can be a learned skill. I've seen people work hard to improve it and get better at it, and so when I know someone who works for me is taking steps on improving presentation and leadership skills, I have faith that they will in fact improve and I'll put them in the way of opportunities to do so. But most of the people I've had work for or with me who lack that skill (or others such as ability to do abstract data analysis, ability to write clearly, etc.) show very little interest on working on those skills. They have (at least in relation to those skills) what the book describes as a fixed mindset. And given a situation like that, where they're not working on those skills, I in turn tend to assume both that their skills are fixed and also that their lack of interest in them is fixed. Sure, I'll occasionally point out, "You could do XYZ," but I tent to accept that if someone isn't interested in improving, they won't improve, and thus not expect them to do so.

Is this fair?

The more intensive approach to "developing people" management would say that it is not. By this theory, I should be consistently pushing everyone who works for me or with me to do better, and if they don't put i the work to do better, marking them down for not putting in the effort. And this shows the double edged sword aspect of this mindset. Assuming that everyone can get better at everything means that you don't put someone in a box of "not good at presenting" or "not good at analysis". However, it also means that you're constantly blaming people for not having exerted themselves to improve then they could.

When people act like fixed quantities, I tend to treat them as fixed quantities. If they're making no moves to get better at leadership, I won't put them in a position where I need someone to exert leadership. If they aren't working at their analysis skills, I won't put them in charge of an analysis project.

I'm not sure whether this is fully fair to people or not. If you asked HR, they would say that developing people means guiding them towards wanting to improve as well as helping those who want to improve actually do so. However, I don't tend to see much other than frustration in trying to change what people want.

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