“We’re all in the process of becoming, not in the status of being.”
So said a college professor who encouraged everyone—no matter their current level of cognitive ability—to understand that with hard work, intellectual improvement was indeed within their grasp. This was simultaneously a warning for those already excelling not to become complacent.
One of the world’s leading researchers in social and developmental psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has spent four decades studying how individuals think about their own intelligence. What most distinguishes one person’s behavior from another, she’s found, is whether they have a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” one.
With a fixed mindset, people believe their basic abilities are genetic and unchangeable. They prefer easy tasks that confirm their intelligence over challenging ones which require more effort and may lead to mistakes. With a fixed mindset, the desire to learn takes a backseat to maintaining the appearance of innate ability.
To the contrary, people with a growth mindset believe their intelligence and abilities are malleable—that is, their talents can be developed over time through diligence, passion, and persistence. They maintain a life-long commitment to growth and development, take informed risks, learn from failures, and actively seek to improve their deficiencies.
Ironically, one of the most popular measures of intellect—the I.Q. test—was developed not to measure a person’s innate level of intelligence, as is often thought. The inventor, Alfred Binet, developed the test as a way to determine which students would most benefit from alternative methods of teaching so they could enhance their intellectual quotient—a very growth-mindset way of thinking.
Thanks to discoveries in neuroscience, we now know the brain constantly develops new and stronger neural pathways as we learn and improve. Studies indicate people who possess a growth mindset tend to learn new information faster, and appear better equipped to connect one new insight to another. The brain grows new nerve cells daily and such growth occurs more rapidly with increased learning. Brains which are under-utilized, from lack of practice, grow weak and the connecting cells that formed the pathways are eventually eliminated.
Teachers, parents, athletes, managers and even retirees can all benefit from applying a growth mindset. For example, rather than labeling our kids and grandkids at an early age as “talented and gifted,” which suggests their ability and intellect have somehow been bestowed upon them through little effort of their own, we should encourage them to seek challenges, be motivated and intrigued by mistakes, and enjoy the process of learning.
Applying the lesson ourselves also has the potential to enrich the quality of our own lives. Dr. Dweck, for example, lives what she preaches— she took up piano as an adult and learned Italian in her fifties, regularly defying the notion adults are done learning.
Even if we choose not to take up an instrument or new language, our lives stand to benefit from exercising our brains. Continually challenging our minds by learning new things as we age is clearly linked to our ability to live fulfilling, independent lives.