In a previous post (Leaders Read: ‘Mindset’ and Why it Matters), I mentioned the book Mindset, by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.  We are going to study the book Mindset on this blog with a particular focus on harnessing these patterns to improve management of individual development and organizational systems. Before we move into that study, I wanted to provide a brief glimpse of a practical application this material will (hopefully) enable once the series is complete.

A quick precursor: In the book, Dweck presents two mindsets – growth and fixed.  These mindsets represent the view we hold of ourselves. A fixed mindset assumes our qualities – such as intelligence or athleticism – are fixed or static.  A growth mindset assumes we can change and grow through effort and experience. This leads to distinct patterns – the fixed-minded individual seeks to appear as capable as possible while the growth-minded individual strives to become as capable as possible. These assumptions are largely hidden or even subconscious. The patterns reflect the predictable logical and emotional response to respective to these underlying assumptions.

Not too long ago, I was teaching a graduate class on developing human capital to an audience composed primarily of systems engineering students. I get a mixed bag of reactions when covering ‘soft’ topics with an engineering audience.  In general, engineers see the the strategic value of these topics because they work in highly-complex, multi-disciplinary environments. Therefore, they have often witnessed firsthand that effective management of technical people and teams is both uniquely difficult and also essential. Further, given their systems thinking acumen and experience in organizational settings, these students often intuitively grasp concepts from organizational sciences or cognitive psychology.  However, the students often express hesitation or reservations about putting these principles in action. They express a feeling of paralysis, commenting that the leap between understanding these principles and putting them to effective action in real life is intimidating.

To combat this, we dedicate a lot of time in class dissecting real-life examples, examining how to ‘see’ how theory works in real life. I recently mentioned in passing that with enough experience you can ‘hear’ the growth mindset in action. I explained that, for me, at first only an intuition or vague awareness materialized.  Over time, the awareness became more acute, and I could pick out specific clues – the choice of one word or another, one topic over another – that provided glimpses into the implicit views one held of themselves and how it affected their goals and actions.  The discussion moved on pretty quickly, but immediately after class, a student asked me for more detail on that observation – he wanted specific examples if possible so I conveyed what I could from memory.  As we discussed, I noted that over half the class hung back listening to the discussion.  That had never happened before. Understandably, people who have spent 2 hours listening to me talk are usually pretty ready to go.

The very next day, I stumbled across a video online which provided a great view of this principle in action so the next week I played the video in class and we discussed it together.  Sports Journalist Roger Bennett (of Men in Blazers fame) did a touching human interest piece on an aspiring youth soccer player, Prince Amponsah. The piece is located here – MiB – Prince Amponsah.

I am going to pull out quotes for a quick discussion below, but that really does not do the piece justice nor does it contribute to the goal of discussing how one can ‘hear’ mastery, so I encourage you to watch it if you have a few moments (it is only 5 minutes long).  The enthusiasm the young man exhibits is infectious. With that, on to the analysis.

First, Amponsah comments on how his environment represents an obstacle to pursuit of his goals.

‘I live in the Bronx. My environment, it is an obstacle for me.’

Why in the Bronx an obstacle?  The Bronx – where Amponsah lives – is heavily tilted towards basketball. There are few other soccer players, few (or no) organized leagues, few (or no) quality coaches, and few fields or training facilities.  Amponsah travels alone via subway and bus 4-5 times a week to train with the developmental squad of a local professional team. The journey takes more than 2 hours, one-way. On other days, Amponsah creates makeshift training environments wherever he can find them – on nearby basketball or handball courts, in subway stations, or in the hallway outside his apartment. Despite these hurdles, Amponsah has emerged as an elite prospect and was recently selected to represent the Under-14 United States youth national team.

One characteristic that distinguishes the mindsets is how they influence different responses to obstacles.  In a fixed mindset, an obstacle such as a setback or failure poses a direct performance risk and environmental obstacles such as resource or access constraints represent indirect performance risks.  Because of the failure risk posed by obstacles, a fixed mindset might cause one to become defensive or avoidant. In service of the goal to appear talented, the fixed mindset would encourage one to defer to a goal that is more achievable given perceived skills and resources. In contrast, in the growth mindset, an obstacle does not impose the same difficulty because development growth could potentially aid to mitigate the performance risk. The cost of navigating an environmental obstacle may be acceptable if the prospect of growth lies beyond. This gives the growth-minded individual the freedom to persist in the face of obstacles or setbacks without immediately diving into performance anxiety.

The comment by Amponsah that his environment is an obstacle, coupled with his description of the extreme persistence required to navigate those obstacles, shows a belief that even considerable obstacles are navigable.  Further, the hardship he is willing to undergo in exchange for access to the elite development environment illustrates his underlying belief in his own growth potential.

Amponsah also comments on the effort and hard work he puts into his craft:

If you don’t struggle for anything, nothing positive can ever come. Because I have struggled, I deserve to be there. Now I actually know that I have the potential.

I live very far from practice – I take 3 trains and a bus 4-5 times a week. But that doesn’t stop me from coming to practice. Journey takes me 2.5 hours depending on train delays. (The travel burden) gives me this attitude, this New York attitude, that constantly you have to work for whatever you want.

Another characteristic that differentiates the respective mindsets is how they view effort.  An individual with a fixed mindset views effort as ‘fruitless’ or potentially even embarrassing.  This makes logical sense – if our abilities are fixed, then expanded effort has limited utility – working harder is unlikely to enable a goal that seems difficult or out of reach.  Further, showing effort may expose the limit of our skills and undermine others perception of our abilities in that area. Conversely, the growth mindset engenders a belief that effort is simply the path to increased mastery and expanded capability. If we assume our abilities can grow or change, than expending effort is a natural part of the process in developing those skills.

There are some obvious clues in the video. Not only is he unafraid to show effort or reveal it takes effort for him to succeed, he directly articulates how important work has been to his development.  He uses a term like ‘struggle’ without concern for if or how that may reflect on his ability.  The underlying assumption is that work and effort are not a by-product of lack of talent but rather the means by which talent is developed. One other subtle note is his use of the word ‘potential’, particularly in a context tied to struggle or effort. An individual speaking from a fixed mindset may be unlikely to use the term in this way because a view that abilities are fixed or static is incompatible with the idea of fulfilling potential through effort-driven development.

A third and final area to briefly cover is how Amponsah views failures:

‘I am playing with a couple kids who are much bigger than me physically, and even if they get past me and score that goal, I make sure that next time they are not scoring that goal.’

In the fixed mindset, a failure is both an indication that one has reached their performance threshold and also a flashing red danger sign that continued engagement risks potential exposure of talent deficits.  In the growth mindset, the failure is viewed as a deficit not of talent but in current ability.  From this perspective, a very difficult challenge represents insight into current performance levels and potentially a source of focused feedback on specific areas which require feedback.

Amponsah’s response reveals directly this attitude. Playing with older or stronger players represents a chance to locate and correct errors or skill deficits.

Our goal was to present a real-life example of how implicit assumptions are sometimes discernible in conversation. I do not want to read too much into a few comments in an edited video – a mentor or coach working closely with an individual has more time and opportunity to both gauge and influence mindsets. That being said, the case effectively shows how assumptions and attitudes emerged in the interview, and the preliminary evidence suggests that Amponsah is in a positive, growth-minded development pattern.  When I was researching the book Mindset for the blog series, I happened across a video where Dr. Dweck discusses this specific topic and I was delighted to find it – our goal was to present a real-life example of how implicit assumptions are sometimes discernible in conversation. The article discusses how professional sports team listen for mindsets during player interviews in a similar manner to that we have discussed – pretty cool. If you have an interest, you can find it here – Dr. Dweck on Interviews

I am pretty excited about the upcoming series.  I can honestly tell you that few concepts have influence my life as tangibly or significantly as this topic.  The impact reaches far beyond my professional life and influences many aspects of my personal life such as parenting or coaching (or just generally being a flawed and imperfect human being and having a positive way to deal with that, which rocks pretty hard). I hope you consider reading along with us and if you buy it through this affiliate link we might be able to upgrade to the web hosting that actually allows us to embed the videos we are talking about! Affiliate Link: Mindset Book

One more note – there are a number of qualities or characteristics that can similarly be conveyed in dialogue.  This video happens to be particularly rich, and observations can be made about emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, need for achievement, and particularly the concept of deliberative engagement from expertise theory.  I did not have time or space to delve into multiple topics in this post and most of these have not been introduced on this blog (and they are just not the sort of thing normal human being just discuss out of conventional wisdom), so we put those aside for further exploration another day when a little more foundational info is in place.