Not long ago, a teen I know discovered that the high school she was about to enter as a freshman offered a program that would allow her to graduate with an associate degree. There was just one catch: she had to pass a lengthy, difficult test in order to qualify for the program. Oh, and there was another catch (a big one): she has dyslexia. She was excited about the opportunity and prepared to take the test. It was long. It was hard. She failed. How disappointing! But she was so motivated by the opportunity to jump-start her higher academic life that she took the test again. Fail. She took it again. Another fail. Should she try it again? She did, and she failed again. This amazing young woman took the test nine times before she succeeded. Nine times! What allowed her to persevere with such tenacity and hope despite those eight previous failures? In a word, it was her mindset.
Mindset is what a person believes about themselves. In her book, Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, PhD, explores the question “How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?” Dweck describes two different types of mindsets—a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are carved in stone. You’ve either “got it” or you don’t. Performance abilities are nothing more than the proverbial “luck of the draw.” When people have a fixed mindset, it means that they view every they face as a test of the hand they were dealt, and such people tend view every failure as one more reason never to try, or dare to try, again. The pain of failure reinforces a negative view of the self. People with a fixed mindset think that success should happen immediately upon their first try at a new endeavor, and if success doesn’t happen, it’s proof that they’re never going to be able to do the thing. Most people with a fixed mindset won’t even entertain the notion of having to work hard at a task, because having to work hard indicates to them that they must not be good enough. In the fixed mindset world, every failure, every setback, every rejection means that you’re not smart or talented. Having a fixed mindset can cause people to wholeheartedly believe in self-limiting and unrealistic ideas. In her book, Dweck comments on some of these unrealistic ideas by writing that “it’s startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.” She adds that with a fixed mindset, “everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted.” Finally, she concludes by saying that “in the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented, you have to be pretty much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away.” How can anyone support or sustain a world view that demands nothing but instant, perfection at every task a person decides to do?
In contrast, a growth mindset is anchored to the idea that the talents and abilities we’re born with are just the foundation—a starting point. Dweck explains that “the 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.” How does this mindset play out? “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 of their lives.”
But is this mindset really a trip to fantasyland? Does this mean that anyone can be anything they desire to be? Dweck stresses that not everyone is going to become an Einstein through hard work. “People with this mindset…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.” She further explains that “people with a growth mindset know that it takes time for potential to flower.”
My favorite take-away from this book is this: “How do you act when you feel depressed? Do you work harder at things in your life or do you let them go? Next time you feel low, put yourself in a growth mindset—think about learning, challenging, confronting obstacles. Think about effort as a positive, constructive force, not as a big drag. Try it out.” When you have a growth mindset, setbacks are viewed as sources of information. They can provide motivation or even a wake-up call. Since repeated failure is especially prominent in the life of a dyslexic, making the effort to embrace the growth mindset can mean the difference between shutting down or soldiering on.
What about implementation? Dweck stresses the importance of concrete plans. “Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. 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. These concrete plans—plans you can visualize—about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success. So the idea is not only to make a growth-minded plan, but also to visualize, in a concrete way, how you’re going to carry it out.”
Dweck references Michael Jordan as an example of a growth mindset in action. Jordan wasn’t born with a basketball in his hands, but instead, he “embraced his failures. In fact, in one of his favorite ads for Nike, he says, “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to make the game-winning shot and missed.” But Dweck reminds us, “you can be sure that each time, he went back and practiced the shot a hundred times.” Throughout her book, Dweck repeats that everyone can change their mindset, and I encourage you to observe which mindset your dyslexic or struggling reader seems to embrace. If they lean toward a fixed mindset, help them change their perspective on failure and effort. Just look to the example of the girl who took that test nine times, and know that even young people can develop a growth mindset, and then there’s no stopping them!
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