Do you trust in your ability to grow?

Carol Dweck, a widely-regarded Stanford professor of psychology, and I recently sat down to discuss her 20-years of research and insights on what drives growth.

Your book, Mindset, is about the growth (vs. fixed) mindset; what have you learned about growth?

Knowledge and understanding are socially constructed.

This is to say, you are not ever a genius all by yourself. Your ideas are a function of the people you connected with, the ideas you are exposed to, the friction of other ideas, and so on. The best ideas are the ones that many people have helped shape. For example, Darwin talked with people for about 20 years before writing his book, and so he had a chance to examine things from many, quite possibly even every angle before he shared with us his take and knowledge. We might credit Darwin’s Origin of Species as shaping our thinking, but behind that, you also have to do a hat tip to the hundreds of discussions with colleagues and mentors because they, in turn, shaped his thinking[i]. His knowledge and thinking was a product of his community.

You talk about the growth mindset as also the learning mindset. Tell us more why you link these two together.

The things you know today are not enough.

Facts change, new challenges arise, and so you can never think, “I know this” and call it done. To do so would assume that the question stays static or that the knowledge set necessary for solving a problem is permanently the same. To say “I know” is to assume that your ideas are non-revisable, and that the question or problems haven’t shifted.

In my book, Social Era, I talk about one of the fundamental forces of value creation in these times is “learn /unlearn / repeat”. You are, of course, very much saying the same thing. I find as I talk with people they struggle to revise facts but especially to revise their own beliefs.

Carol Dweck at her office at Stanford University
Carol Dweck at her office at Stanford University

What have you observed about this?

Many human beings seek personal safety in knowing or being the smartest guy in the room.

Unlearning is hard when you have a fixed mindset because you have to admit ignorance, and that can be threatening to your very identity. If you’ve identified all your life with being the “best” at something, then not knowing shakes you to your very core. You are no longer what you believe you are, which is supremely smart and talented. Not knowing now equals = not successful. With the growth mindset, you are allowing yourself to be changed at all times, allowing new things to happen, and new ideas to form. It’s unsafe to some but this wondering and openness is something all of us recognize as the birthplace of creativity. New things can’t happen if you already know everything. You have to be curious—and take the risk of learning things you never anticipated.

The growth mindset then is about your ability to adapt to a world of changing circumstances.

Yes. And I’d argue that is the entire world we live in now.

It seems to me that what you are talking about is trust. That you trust that by asking new questions, that the process will take you somewhere good.

Yes. I am talking about trust. When you face a new situation – say trying to learn a new skill or starting a new company – you’re going to face loads of challenges. Some things will be hard. Lots will be unfamiliar. And the chances of success are not known. But when you do it anyway, you are trusting that you have the resourcefulness to find a new place, a new way. Learning in this way is both a luxury and a risk. But once you shift from trying to be the most-knowing to being the most growth-ish, then you are relying on and trusting in your ability to grow. Your definition of success with this growth-ish mindset is your ability to develop and adapt.

Managers today have to meet the bottom-line, and are being asked to innovate at the same time. They are required to manage the present and invent the future. I was just with a leadership team over the last few days, and you could almost hear them groan aloud at the pressures of this duality.

Those require different muscles. One is more about efficiency and operational excellence and the other is about taking more risks, allowing for failure. But you know that for any business or team — you can’t grow without celebrating and embracing this duality. You need to have the confidence to manage for today, knowing that everything you’re doing will need to change again, and sooner than you hope. The key is to not be wedded to a definition of success where you have to be smart and talented and already know. You have to be wedded to a definition of success that says we will figure it out, and keep figuring it out.

I hear so many leaders today focused on going faster, and doing more with a, “But I have to get things done!” approach to new questions. It’s always about how they – the individual leader – vs the entire team — need to figure stuff out. What are your thoughts on that?

Leaders often assume they have to do it all themselves. This is actually part of what got them to where they are – they are smart and talented and so they think as leaders they need to act even more smart and talented. I just want to ask them, “what if you don’t”? What changes? What if you create the conditions and questions that let other people join you? Then you can focus on growth and also let everyone else actually grow more fully with you and for you.

You’ve been doing this now quite a while. What have you learned about all this growth stuff over these years? What skills would you have us develop?  

We need to get out of the mode of self-judgment, of constantly judging our abilities from our actions. If we judge ourselves as we make mistakes, we are more intimidated than inspired to try again. We ought to celebrate instead the act of curiosity that led us to explore, and then try again.

BlogIcon_Right copyWhen facing a new situation, trust yourself. Instead of making a list of all the things you don’t know or don’t have going for you in this new situation, make a list of all the things you do bring. For example, experience in an adjacent field than the “experts” in the room could give you fresh eyes. Or, if you are in a group of young-uns and you are feeling a bit dated, remember that you know how to learn so maybe you will be more judicious with your time.

[i] Darwin’s story is originally from Howard Gruber’s book from University of Chicago Press, 1981, and found here.

Books are a great way to meditate on a given topic. If you want to know more about the growth mindset, I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s bestselling book, which you can find here:  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

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  4. Dear Nilofer,

    As much as I enjoyed the interview, I would like to share two quotes about the ever-repeating term in this article: “growth”

    First one is from James Hillman, arguably the most influential psychologist since C.G. Jung.

    “Growth is cancerous. Growth is for children and, after a certain age, it means cancer. Our obsession with growth is connected to the culture’s unhealthy and stunted obsession with the Child archetype. Becoming more of one’s Self is to become smaller, shrinking illusions and pretensions.”

    Second one is from Russ Ackoff, one of the founding fathers of the Systems Thinking:

    “Development and growth do not mean the same thing. A cemetery or rubbish heap can grow without developing, whereas a person continues to develop long after he or she has stopped growing.”

    1. Great perspective on the language of “growth”. I know that what Carol is talking is more development in this context — how do you stop yourself from just extracting from what you already know but to keep adjusting as needed. Perhaps the word we are all looking for is “exploration”?

      1. Dear Nilofer,

        I have no doubt that Carol was referring to development. I just wanted to draw attention to the insidious “growth” language that creeps into every aspect of our daily lives. My intention was nothing more than raising awareness of the disguised danger.


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