Next week we are going to start a series analyzing the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. One of the primary goals of this blog is to enable a practical and actionable understanding of the patterns that govern people and teams. In a previous post, we took a look at what mastery ‘sounds like’ – Does Mastery Have a Sound?. This short story provides a glimpse of what the fixed mindset looks like in real life.

Years ago, I was invited by my friend Richard to play golf.  The course he invited me to was in a rural area and they have an unusual pricing structure.  You can play all day for a fixed price – my recollection is it was around $20. Unlimited holes. What Richard and his golf buddies would do is meet at 7am and play until dusk, playing around the course 3 times or more.

A total beginner, I was a little concerned I would be out of my league.  Richard reassured me that ‘none of us are very good, although my friend Joe does score pretty well.’ The words struck me as odd – I wondered how one could score well if they were not highly skilled.  He did not elaborate, so I would have to wait and see.

Surveying the course, it would have featured an ‘easy’ course rating (if it had been rated, which I highly doubt).  The course was short and mostly flat, over very gently rolling land, with closely cropped rough and few difficult hazards. We arrived and proceeded directly to the first tee without warmup.  Joe stepped up, took a few practice swings, and stepped up to the ball.  I glanced over and caught a glimpse of him setting up out of the corner of my eye. I distinctly remember my reaction – it was one of few times in my life I did a double-take head move, just like the movies.  I glanced over absent-mindedly, looking away before I really processed what I was seeing, and quickly looked back with what I am sure was an incredulous look on my face. The setup was fairly standard, except for the fact he was aiming maybe 50° to the left. He swung away, and what I witnessed was one of most glorious slices I have ever seen.

The ball sailed out to the left, swung around like a boomerang, touched down just inside the left fairway and skidded to a halt dead-center a little over 200 yards down the fairway.  He gave an approving nod, picked up his tee and moved aside without a word. Over the course of the day, the group would optimistically refer to this as his ‘fade’.

Everyone hit their tee shots, and any reflection on the driving styles on display waschased away by the need to search for my ball way over in the the rough, as I worried that the 2 30-packs of gently used water balls I purchased may not be enough to play all day.  I made a mental note to poke around for lost balls on occasion to supplement my supply and I confidently moved forward.

I returned my attention to Joe, noting he was set up straight-away for an iron shot from about 140 yards out.  Something looked odd and it took me a moment to put my finger on it – he was choked down 4-6 inches on the club.  He took a short swing, about 3/4 of a full swing, and the ball flew straight out at a fairly shallow trajectory.  The ball bounced about 30 yards short off the green, settling maybe 20 feet from the pin. Unconventional, but a nice little piece of bump-and-run action.  I glanced at his iron – he had taken a 5 iron, about 2 clubs longer than might be typical for that range.

Moving onto the green, it probably comes as no surprise that Joe’s putting style was unconventional yet oddly effective.  The approach was probably closer to croquet than a typical putting stroke.  With a standard putter, he stood with both feet behind the ball and at an angle, leaning over the ball and looking down the line, and pushing the ball forward.  He putted to within a few feet, tapped in, and was in for a par.

The same sequence of events was repeated every hole for the next 12 hours or so with startling consistency.  My recollection is Joe scored a 79 over the course of the first 18 holes.

A lot of players would be thrilled to break 80, even on land that more closely resembles a pasture than a golf course.  But, at the same time, it was easy to see he was performing at the very limit of his performance ceiling with that approach.

  • The functionally playable slice robbed him of 50 yards of distance every hole and would be very difficult to transfer to a longer course.  Obviously it would be completely out-of-the-question to ‘shape’ shots as needed on a more difficult course, particularly anything requiring right-to-left (or straight, or even gently left-to-right) action.
  • The depressed trajectory of the clubbed-up, choked-up bump-and-run approach left him with mostly longer putts and would cause struggles in situations with more hazards or smaller greens.  I assume he was doing this to control the slice when precision was important, but similar to the drive it would make shaping shots in terms of either trajectory or lateral movement impossible.
  • The side-saddle putting method allowed a pretty  consistent 2-putt but might lead to troubles on difficult greens with shorter grass or more difficult slopes

So, what does this story have to do with mastery or goals?  In hindsight, I view this as a pretty obvious result of a performance-driven fixed mindset.  Assuming fixed traits – in this case limited skill or athleticism – and desiring to control risk and maximize performance, Joe had adapted in real-time by crafting strategies to highlight or showcase his strengths and develop mitigations to offset his weaknesses.

A solid golfer may laugh, but if they consider objectively, I bet they could imagine other endeavors where they selected or were pushed into a performance situation immediately and responded similarly.  Benjamin Franklin was a famously gifted writer who deliberatively honed his craft and also a passionate chess player whose skill level never progressed beyond an intermediate level.  A mastery-driven approach grounded in the growth mindset is one of several ingredients that is essential for positive development outcomes.

Even if we would prefer to and even if we know the consequence, most of us take an approach a lot closer to the golfer in this story than a seasoned pro in our professional lives. Thrown into sink-or-swim situations or pursuing immediate performance impact, employees take this approach in their workplace, establishing a role or skill set and then leaning on that contribution for an extended period.  I think managers are also prone to this pattern, emphasizing traits they perceive as strengths and avoiding or mitigating perceived weaknesses, many times leaning on skills and experiences from previous experiences.

These professional patterns are typical of the fixed mindset.  In the bigger picture, the difference between the unconventional golfer and a skilled performer serves as an excellent mental image of what the difference between growth and fixed mindset ‘look like’ in real time and what type of long-term outcomes they respectively achieve.  The mindsets make a difference beyond what is recognizable while rooted in a short-term perspective.

I will be totally honest with you.  There are many reasons this blog exists. But one of the most prominent (and the most selfish for me) is that I wanted and needed a forcing function to challenge me to continue thinking about these topics actively, broadly, and deeply. It is way too easy to settle for ‘good enough to get by’ or ‘what I can do right now’ when there is far more to harvest with the right approach. Maybe it can serve the same function for you.

What are some other examples of what the mindsets look or sound like? Share below!