Book Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Book Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. ~ four star book review at Compulsively Quirky

This book's message was one that I could passionately discuss with colleagues and friends for hours. The delivery, though, left me feeling lukewarm.

To start, the content was rather repetitive consisting primarily of anecdotes in various settings to underscore Dweck's findings about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Since I like the "what if" scenario, I was not overly bothered by her giving examples from sports, corporate America, interpersonal relationships, and schools. If nothing else, these anecdotes were easy to skim if I felt my mind wandering.

However, for all her anecdotes, Dweck didn't share her data, which is good and bad. I'm not one who likes to get bogged down in data, but I appreciate the occasional chart or graph.

Instead Dweck wrote in generalities like this one:

"In our study, only the students with the fixed mindset showed the decline. They showed an immediate drop-off in grades, and slowly but surely did worse and worse over the years. The students with the growth mindset showed an increase in their grades over the two years."

Looking at the back of the book, she did provide notes citing various studies and sources organized by chapter and page number. The above quote cites findings from her research study entitled "Back on earth, we measured." But she gave no other details about that study, including whether or not anyone else had replicated it. And if anyone did, what were their results? Again, I don't need pages and pages of tedious details, but some sense that the scientific method was followed would add more weight to her findings for me.

Fine. I was expected to accept that her research was valid. I guess I have to read additional studies to learn any specific details. So I was left to read this psychology book about two different mindsets with the purpose of annotating for ideas I had questions about, ideas I disagreed or agreed with, and possible implications for my classroom. My principal gave the entire staff a copy of this book for summer reading, and I am looking forward to discussing various viewpoints with my colleagues.

Overall, I loved the ideas presented here. Adopting a more consistent growth mindset would make any environment a more productive, more positive one. Yes. Agreed. And I do see how teaching students about a growth mindset, adding this tool to my toolbox, would benefit my students.

As teachers we are constantly being presented with new tools for our toolbox. We teach our classes and master some of those tools, but forget others even exist. Nothing wrong with those other tools; there's just a finite amount of time and a seemingly infinite amount of curriculum. So when we see some tools working and working well, we keep using them. Revisiting the toolbox is a necessary step in professional development.

One might argue that revisiting the toolbox reflects a growth mindset, which is "based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts." In contrast, a fixed mindset is "believing that your qualities are carved in stone."

And I do like that Dweck's definition of these two mindsets uses the word qualities. Sure, as a teacher I could hone in on intelligence instead. How one's belief about their intelligence (or lack thereof) affects their success, but then I would be missing part of her point.

My mindset about any aspect of my life like my personality, character, creativity, or even green thumbedness affects how successful I am in those areas. If I adopt a growth mindset, then perseverance and resiliency are my allies. There's no guarantee of success with hard work, but my odds do increase. And there's the added bonus that the growth mindset dispels negative connotations associated with effort.

Dweck wrote, "The story of the tortoise and the hare, in trying to put forward the power of effort, gave effort a bad name. It reinforced the image that effort is for the plodders and suggested that in rare instances, when talented people dropped the ball, the plodder could sneak through."

She pointed out how this story creates an either/or scenario. Either you are talented or you are the plodder. As someone who likes to ruminate and overthink, I am all too familiar with the high value society places on being first. 

One of my favorite quotes from the book, which I may place in my classroom, embodies the entire point of receiving an education:

"Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn't mean that others can't do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training."

Shortly after this quote, Dweck begins chapter after chapter of anecdotal evidence. I skimmed at points. But at the end of each chapter, she does bullet point several questions with the purpose of helping the reader to grow their own mindset. These questions do provoke a great deal of thought for me and I bet there are some engrossing book club discussions waiting to be had.

Unfortunately, these questions and one somewhat vague section at the end are the culmination of actual tools she promotes to help someone change their mindset. (I'm approaching this lack of concrete support as an opportunity to talk with my colleagues and friends so we can figure out our own steps to promote change.)

I started reading more closely again when she got to her specifics about parenting and schools and how children love praise. But we shouldn't be praising intelligence or talent. Instead, we should praise effort and encourage perseverance and resiliency. 

And here's where the anecdotal evidence came in handy for me. Dweck points out that parents may use growth-oriented praise with their children, but if they turn around and call another child a loser, then they're really unraveling their progress. Their children recognize the fixed mindset of the loser statement and start wondering when they'll be the target.

The internalization of the growth mindset may be quite the challenge and take more time than these anecdotes present. Sure, some of the anecdotes are covering entire careers of sports figures or leaders, but I'm reading them in a few paragraphs, so it's easy for me to think adopting this growth mindset is quick and simple. While there is a bit of a flipping of a switch going on here, I'd argue that the switch keeps flipping. 

I know that I'm my own worst critic. And I suspect that's true for most of the people I know. So while I may consciously make growth-oriented statements, I have to adopt these statements as part of my internal monologue too. Maybe I should read that Power of Habit book next. How do I dispel 44 years of self-directed criticism and establish a new growth mindset habit? 

I did take comfort in two points from her "Changing Mindsets" final chapter...

  • The rule from Coach John Wooden: "You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better."
  • The concrete plan: "Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail." Then stick to the plan!
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