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The Not-So-Subtle Effects of a Fixed Mindset

Fixed Mindset Nelly

The Scenario…

For over a week, Nelly has talked about middle school soccer tryouts.  “World Cup, here I come!” she yells, dribbling the ball between two orange cones in the backyard.

Friday morning, Nelly is visibly tense.  She pokes at her cereal and instigates a fight with her dad, Delly. 

In an attempt to calm her nerves, Delly reassures, “I’ll be rooting for you today. Remember what I’ve been saying – you’re so talented, there’s no reason to be nervous.”

“Dad, I’m not sure I wanna go out for soccer anymore.” She hangs her head down and mumbles, “I’m just going to take the bus home after school.”

Delly probes gently, “Did something happen?”

Nelly concludes, “I just… I just don’t want to try out.”

At some time or another, every kid hears a doubtful voice in their head. The voice whispers, “Hey, if you take on this challenge, you might fail. And if you fail… well, then you’ll be a failure.”  This voice prevents kids from taking on challenges, because there is the chance they won’t succeed.  This voice prevents kids from fully engaging in activities, because the sidelines are safer. This voice prevents kids from experiencing growth opportunities, because they are scared they won’t live up to parental expectations.  This voice is the one of a “fixed” mindset.

What’s a Mindset?

World-renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck asked the question: why do some people achieve their potential while others of equal talent do not? Why do some succeed while others fail? Three decades of systematic research reveals an answer. A key to achieving your potential, Dweck proposes, doesn’t lie in your actual ability or intelligence. Instead, it stems from your belief about where this ability and intelligence comes from and how it can be developed. The belief which you hold is a “mindset” and there are two particular types.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Were you born smart? Individuals with a fixed mindset believe intelligence and talent are innate and immutable. In other words, no matter how much you study or how hard you work, you’re pretty much stuck with the cards you’re dealt. Since a youth with a fixed mindset believes their potential is capped, they avoid challenges which test their abilities.

Others believe that the brain is a muscle which can grow and abilities are assets to be nurtured through hard work and dedication. These are the hallmarks of a growth mindset. Kids with growth mindsets feel what they are born with are just raw materials – a launching point from which to grow.

The Practical Consequences of Mindsets

When Nelly mulled over her soccer tryouts, she didn’t view them as an opportunity to have fun and grow. Instead, tryouts would produce a binary outcome: either I am talented or not talented. Nelly sees opportunities as pass/fail events, and rather than negatively impact her self-image, she chooses to avoid challenges altogether. Research shows fixed mindset kids raise their hand less in class, engage in fewer activities, receive lower grades, and take longer to recover from setbacks.

Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process.” ~Carol Dweck

Growth mindsets see challenges as an opportunity to learn. If Nelly developed a growth mindset, she would view the soccer tryouts as an avenue to improve her talents and increase her knowledge. Her self-image would not be tied to her success at the tryouts or how she would look to others. Her effort would be a path to master useful skills. Growth mindset kids take on more challenges, engage in more activities, receive better grades, and exhibit greater resilience in the face of adversity.


Anyone can cultivate a growth mindset as mindsets are simply this – a choice. Pick out a step from below and help your child cultivate a growth mindset.

1. Praise the process. In the scenario above, you saw Delly tell Nelly that she is talented. Parents and teachers ascribe labels to kids all the time (you are smart, pretty, fast, creative etc.) It seems like an innocent (even loving) practice, but consistently placing labels on kids contributes to fixed mindset attitudes. They become scared to try things and lose their labels! Change fixed mindsets by changing the way you praise children. Praise processes instead of character. Check out the examples below. (You’ll notice that growth mindset praise is more specific and may take a bit more effort, but practice makes perfect!)

Fixed mindset praise: “You are so talented!” (character praise)

Growth mindset praise: You’re getting good at passing the ball in high-pressure situations.” (process praise)

2. Mindsets are a choice. Teach your children that adopting a fixed or growth mindset is a choice. Next time an opportunity presents itself, make a 2-column list of what a fixed mindset individual might think and what a growth mindset individual would think about the situation. Help your kids make a choice to think with a growth mindset!

Once in a blue moon a revolutionary concept is unearthed and gifted to the world – mindsets is one of these gifts. Take it to heart and begin to foster an environment of growth with your children. Let’s work to change that internal voice from, “Hey, if you take on this challenge, you might fail,” to “Hey, if you take on a challenge, you might learn something.”

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One Response to The Not-So-Subtle Effects of a Fixed Mindset

  1. Filipe November 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    After reading this I realized that I’ve had a “Fixed” mindset for most of my life. I was told many times growing up that I was smart & talented and while it motivated me for a while, it really became this high bar I’ve tried to live up to. I think in the end, I limited the opportunities I would take on to those I knew for 100% sure that I’d be able to do well. I never wanted to lose my label of being smart & talented. Unfortunately, I’ve taken on less risk because of it.

    All that said, I think it’s hard when your kids do something well not to say “Hey, good job, you are so [insert the label].” That is going to take a lot of practice to praise processes instead of the actual person.

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