As a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that
changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with
failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple
with hard problems. So I brought children one at a time to a room in
their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of
puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones
were hard. As the students grunted, perspired, and toiled, I watched
their strategies and probed what they were thinking and feeling. I
expected differences among children in how they coped with the
difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.
Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his
chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out,
“I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these
puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority,
“You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”
What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped
with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought
anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to
Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical
moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They
obviously knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure
it out—to understand the kind of mindset that could turn a
failure into a gift.
What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as
intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And
that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only
weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even
think they were failing. They thought they were learning.
I, on the other hand, thought human qualities were carved in stone. You
were smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t. It
was that simple. If you could arrange successes and avoid failures (at
all costs), you could stay smart. Struggles, mistakes, perseverance
were just not part of this picture.
Whether human qualities are things that can be cultivated or things
that are carved in stone is an old issue. What these beliefs mean for
you is a new one: What are the consequences of thinking that your
intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to
something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait? Let’s first look in
on the age-old, fiercely waged debate about human nature and then
return to the question of what these beliefs mean for you.
WHY DO PEOPLE DIFFER?
Since the dawn of time, people have thought differently, acted
differently, and fared differently from each other. It was guaranteed
that someone would ask the question of why people differed—why
some people are smarter or more moral—and whether there was
something that made them permanently different. Experts lined up on
both sides. Some claimed that there was a strong physical basis for
these differences, making them unavoidable and unalterable. Through
the ages, these alleged physical differences have included bumps on
the skull (phrenology), the size and shape of the skull (craniology),
and, today, genes.
Others pointed to the strong differences in people’s backgrounds,
experiences, training, or ways of learning. It may surprise you to know
that a big champion of this view was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the
IQ test. Wasn’t the IQ test meant to summarize children’s
unchangeable intelligence? In fact, no. Binet, a Frenchman working in
Paris in the early twentieth century, designed this test to identify
children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that
new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track.
Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects,
he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental
changes in intelligence. Here is a quote from one of his major books,
Modern Ideas About Children, in which he summarizes his work with
hundreds of children with learning difficulties:
A few modern philosophers . . . assert that an individual’s
intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased.
We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism. . . . With
practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our
attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more
intelligent than we were before.
Who’s right? Today most experts agree that it’s not
either–or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or
environment. From conception on, there’s a constant give and
take between the two. In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb, an eminent
neuroscientist, put it, not only do genes and environment cooperate as
we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work
At the same time, scientists are learning that people have more
capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than they ever
thought. Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People
may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it
is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the
rest of the way. Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of
intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve
expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful
engagement.” Or, as his forerunner Binet recognized, it’s
not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR YOU? THE TWO MINDSETS
It’s one thing to have pundits spouting their opinions about
scientific issues. It’s another thing to understand how these
views apply to you. For twenty years, my research has shown that the
view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your
life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be
and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen?
How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology
and, as a result, your life?
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed
mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you
have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and
a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove
that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to
look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
Some of us are trained in this mindset from an early age. Even as a
child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really
stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet,
she believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who
they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the
highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the
erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily
stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating
a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming
goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or
enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave
us a test or called on us in class?
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving
themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their
relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their
intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated:
Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted
or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But doesn’t our society value intelligence, personality, and
character? Isn’t it normal to want these traits? Yes, but . . .
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a
hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to
convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when
you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this
mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for
development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your
basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.
Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial
talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can
change and grow through application and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that
anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or
Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is
unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can
be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?
That Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was completely
uncoordinated and graceless as a child? That the photographer Cindy
Sherman, who has been on virtually every list of the most important
artists of the twentieth century, failed her first photography course?
That Geraldine Page, one of our greatest actresses, was advised to give
it up for lack of talent?
You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed
creates a passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over
how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide
deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or
partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who
will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true,
instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for
stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when
it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This
is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most
challenging times in their lives.
A VIEW FROM THE TWO MINDSETS
To give you a better sense of how the two mindsets work,
imagine—as vividly as you can—that you are a young adult
having a really bad day:
One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you
like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You
got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back
to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket.
Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your
experience but are sort of brushed off.
What would you think? What would you feel? What would you do?
When I asked people with the fixed mindset, this is what they said:
“I’d feel like a reject.” “I’m a total
failure.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a
loser.” “I’d feel worthless and
dumb—everyone’s better than me.” “I’m
slime.” In other words, they’d see what happened as a direct
measure of their competence and worth.
This is what they’d think about their lives: “My life is
pitiful.” “I have no life.” “Somebody upstairs
doesn’t like me.” “The world is out to get
me.” “Someone is out to destroy me.” “Nobody
loves me, everybody hates me.” “Life is unfair and all
efforts are useless.” “Life stinks. I’m stupid.
Nothing good ever happens to me.” “I’m the most
unlucky person on this earth.”
Excuse me, was there death and destruction, or just a grade, a ticket,
and a bad phone call?
Are these just people with low self-esteem? Or card-carrying
pessimists? No. When they aren’t coping with failure, they feel
just as worthy and optimistic—and bright and attractive—as
people with the growth mindset.
So how would they cope? “I wouldn’t bother to put so much
time and effort into doing well in anything.” (In other words,
don’t let anyone measure you again.) “Do nothing.”
“Stay in bed.” “Get drunk.” “Eat.”
“Yell at someone if I get a chance to.” “Eat
chocolate.” “Listen to music and pout.” “Go
into my closet and sit there.” “Pick a fight with
somebody.” “Cry.” “Break something.”
“What is there to do?”
What is there to do! You know, when I wrote the vignette, I
intentionally made the grade a C+, not an F. It was a midterm rather
than a final. It was a parking ticket, not a car wreck. They were
“sort of brushed off,” not rejected outright. Nothing
catastrophic or irreversible happened. Yet from this raw material the
fixed mindset created the feeling of utter failure and paralysis.
When I gave people with the growth mindset the same vignette,
here’s what they said. They’d think:
“I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the
car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.”
“The C+ would tell me that I’d have to work a lot harder in
the class, but I have the rest of the semester to pull up my
There were many, many more like this, but I think you get the idea.
Now, how would they cope? Directly.
“I’d start thinking about studying harder (or studying in a
different way) for my next test in that class, I’d pay the
ticket, and I’d work things out with my best friend the next
time we speak.”
“I’d look at what was wrong on my exam, resolve to do
better, pay my parking ticket, and call my friend to tell her I was
upset the day before.”
“Work hard on my next paper, speak to the teacher, be more careful
where I park or contest the ticket, and find out what’s wrong with
You don’t have to have one mindset or the other to be upset. Who
wouldn’t be? Things like a poor grade or a rebuff from a friend or
loved one—these are not fun events. No one was smacking their lips
with relish. Yet those people with the growth mindset were not
labeling themselves and throwing up their hands. Even though they felt
distressed, they were ready to take the risks, confront the challenges,
and keep working at them.
SO, WHAT’S NEW?
Is this such a novel idea? We have lots of sayings that stress the
importance of risk and the power of persistence, such as “Nothing
ventured, nothing gained” and “If at first you don’t
succeed, try, try again” or “Rome wasn’t built in a
day.” (By the way, I was delighted to learn that the Italians
have the same expression.) What is truly amazing is that people with
the fixed mindset would not agree. For them, it’s “Nothing
ventured, nothing lost.” “If at first you don’t
succeed, you probably don’t have the ability.” “If
Rome wasn’t built in a day, maybe it wasn’t meant to
be.” In other words, risk and effort are two things that might
reveal your inadequacies and show that you were not up to the task. In
fact, it’s startling to see the degree to which people with the
fixed mindset do not believe in effort.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" by Carol Dweck. Copyright © 2007 by Carol Dweck. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.