This is why assumptions are dangerous

This is why assumptions are dangerous

Earlier this summer, I was talking with a friend in my kitchen (where so many of the good conversations happen). My friend mentioned that she had recently read a certain book, one I’d talked about and blogged about. It was Carol Dweck’s modern classic Mindset, a book I’d previously written about here on the blog.

In her modern classic, Dweck explains that people tend to see the world—and their place in it—in one of two ways:

Some people believe their characteristics are carved in stone: you’re a natural organizer, or you aren’t. You’re good at math, or you’re not. You have an ear for music, or you don’t. These people believe everyone was born with a certain amount of skill, or quality, or intelligence, and these things can’t be changed. Dweck calls this a “fixed mindset.”

Others believe that whoever or whatever they are, right now, is just a starting point. They believe people can change over time, improving their natural skills, talents, and abilities through deliberate effort and purposeful engagement. Dweck calls this a “growth mindset.”

Through her research, Dweck discovered that our potential to change depends a great deal on whether we believe we can change—on which mindset you choose. For many personality-type traits, there are no right or wrong answers: you are what you are, and that’s fine. That’s not the case here. You want a growth mindset.

*****     *****     *****

Reading Dweck’s work, I was thankful (smug, perhaps?) that it was the growth mindset that came naturally to me—”naturally”, in this case, largely meaning my formative experiences shaped me in this direction. (Thanks to Mom and Dad, and a dozen or so teachers and early influencers.) Her work changed the way I talk about myself, and the way I talk to my kids. The growth mindset was normative to me, and I often saw it at work in the people around me. Besides, why on earth would one choose a fixed mindset? It didn’t seem like a viable choice.

That day in the kitchen, my friend surprised me by saying she’d read Dweck’s book, and discovered that she fell in the opposite camp: fixed mindset, all the way.  She’d read Dweck’s book, and it had opened her eyes; she was changing the way she saw herself, and the way she talked to her kids. She couldn’t make the change until she realized which mindset she’d been operating from, and that there was another option.

That’s how it works, for everyone—you can’t make a change you don’t know you want, or need. You can’t choose an option you don’t know exists.

*****     *****     *****

A few years ago my family stumbled into a new outdoorsy activity: we started paddleboarding. We started by renting one for a day at the beach, and then we bought our own and started taking it out to the local lakes. It’s lots of fun. Also: it’s really hard.

At least it’s hard for me. Staying on the board requires solid core muscles; mine were never that good, and then I had four babies, which never did wonders for anyone’s abdominal strength.

I’ve mostly been able to stay on the board, but I’ve never been able to stand on the board. My husband had no problem (typical), my kids could manage just fine (abs of steel + lower center of gravity). When you sit, or even kneel, your center of gravity is pretty close to the board. When you stand, your center of gravity goes up a few feet, greatly increasing the load to your legs and core, making it much harder to maintain your balance. I couldn’t stand.

And when I say I couldn’t stand, I mean I couldn’t stand. I didn’t have what it takes—namely, the strength and the balance. My weak core meant I could stand for three seconds, tops. I hated this.

*****     *****     *****

Earlier this summer we took the board out to a lake in our town. The lake is way easier than the ocean—the stiller the water is, the easier it is to stay on the board. Everybody took a few turns, and I felt like a total wuss being the only one who couldn’t stand.

I decided that if we were going to keep doing this paddleboarding thing as a family, I was going to build the strength to stand, darn it. And the best way to build strength was to practice, and I could probably manage standing up for five or ten seconds without tumbling off. (And what was so bad about falling? Don’t Will and I always tell our kids—and ourselves—it’s okay to fall down?) So I tried. And surprised myself by staying on longer than I expected.

I was really sore the next day.

*****     *****     *****

We spent Fourth of July week at the beach. We had sunny days and a yellow flag—moderate surf, not exactly still but not too rough, either. We dragged the paddleboard down to the gulf every day.

I was determined to practice—to put in my 5 or ten seconds, and fall down, and build the strength I needed in the process. We had all week. Maybe I could get somewhere.

But I think it was my first go out on the board that the words of Amy Cuddy popped in my head: You have to decide to stay on the board. She was talking about surfing, but no matter—it was still a board, and maybe I just had to decide.

So I did. And I stayed on the board.

And that’s when I realized: when it came to this paddleboarding thing, I had always just assumed I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t strong enough, didn’t have what it takes. Nobody told me that but me. The first time I tried it, it was hard, and I just assumed I couldn’t do it.

Fixed mindset.

I stayed on the board all week, standing. I took a few tumbles, sure; that’s part of the sport. But for hours and hours that week, I stayed on the board.

*****     *****     *****

We’re talking about a paddleboard, not a monumental part of most people’s (anyone’s?) lives. But when it comes to learning about yourself, you take what you can get, and I was getting it.

And I was struck by how easily my fixed mindset assumption could have been about something truly important to me: my relationship to my husband or my kids or my parents, my physical health or mental health or my friendships, the way I cook or drive or read or write. Something that matters, deeply.

I had assumed (that word, again) that one could have a growth mindset, or a fixed mindset. One, or the other. I didn’t realize that a fixed mindset could be lurking in some areas of my life, but not in others. My friend had surprised me with her fixed mindset confession, but I’m exactly the same—you don’t realize you’re doing it till you realize you’re doing it.

*****     *****     *****

It’s just paddleboarding. But I’m grateful for aha moments, whether they’re for the small things (paddleboarding) or the big (everything else).

I’d love to hear about your mindset, assumptions, and epiphanies big and small in comments. Maybe your experience will open someone else’s eyes? We’ll be grateful. 

P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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41 comments

  1. Emily DeArdo says:

    This is really interesting for me! I tend to “like” things that come easily to me, like most people do (I guess). So, I liked history and English and biology in school, but not math or chemistry. Math, in particular, was a huge bugaboo for me. I didn’t like it, I didn’t get it, and I was bad at it. What made it worse is that my dad is a computer scientist who studied math for his undergrad degree–he didn’t understand how I couldn’t “get” math. And while there were parts of it that were easier for me, I firmly insist today that math is an area where I am just bad. Numbers are not my thing.
    I do think that for a lot of things, like music or sports, you need a certain degree of natural ability. You can increase that ability, but you can’t earn that ability–does that make sense? You either have a musical ear or you don’t; you’re either gifted with a body for hockey or basketball, or you’re not.

    • Jennifer N. says:

      I’m a chemist who did a lot of math tutoring during high school (and beyond) and I cringe whenever I hear someone tell me “I’m not a math person.” I found that more often than not, that attitude was exactly why many kids weren’t doing as well as they could. In fact, 50% of my job as a tutor was convincing the students they could do it. It was amazing how little work I actually had to do once they changed their own mindsets and had the smallest bit of confidence.

      • Emily DeArdo says:

        That’s what my dad said. He said there’s no reason I shouldn’t be better at math than I was–and when I took my ACT I did respectably on the math portion, so he used that against me. :-p But I think the bedrock is, my strengths are not in math. They’re just not. And fortunately as an adult I never have to really use it beyond knowing how to check sale price or balancing my checkbook!

        • Jennifer N. says:

          Right, and I agree with you there. Everyone has natural strengths (don’t ask me to diagram a sentence, for example.) I guess my idea is that everyone can learn to be functional in anything that interests them. Also, if you can balance your checkbook and calculate sale prices you’re probably doing just fine :-). My husband couldn’t calculate percentages as a young adult until I taught him.

          • Emily DeArdo says:

            Do they even teach diagramming sentences anymore in school? Or are kids spared that now? 🙂
            Right, I do wish there had been more emphasis on the functional aspects of math. I know I could be better there!

      • Jennifer N. says:

        Granted, many of the kids I tutored came from bad homes and other situations where they may have never felt like they were good at anything, which is a slightly different beast. What’s funny is that I also had a dad that is a programmer with a math/science background and I NEVER went to him for help in school because he just couldn’t explain it to me in a way that was helpful.

          • Jennifer N. says:

            Yes, unfortunately a lot of folks with that right-minded sensibility are no good at teaching (see about half of my science and math professors in college.) So much of math is taught in a vacuum, too, without a whole lot of emphasis on how math works in life. I’m hoping the common core math curriculum changes that – my oldest son is in 3rd grade and so far what I’ve seen is promising.

    • Alicia says:

      Regarding your feelings towards math, I would have agreed with you 100% on that a year ago. I hated math in high school, I never thought I was good at it, never wanted to learn it and just wrote it off and avoided it as much as possible. Last year at age 33 I started on my Bachelor’s degree (better late than never) and chose a degree in Engineering Technology at my local state college. I wasn’t sure how I would do seeing as the degree has a fair amount of math, but my husband said he would help tutor me along the way when I needed it. And the first few semesters I really needed it. Especially when I took General Physics. Physics has a lot more math than I was aware of, mostly algebra and some trig. My first attempt at physics I withdrew because I was so lost, the second time I took it I failed with a 67% as my final grade. I’m taking it a third time right now and I have a 99% in the class.

      My point is with all of that is that the biggest thing I changed regarding math (and physics) was my attitude. I always said I’m not good at math and I believed it. I had that fixed mindset that I would never be good at math and simply couldn’t understand it. But, the more I persisted (even with a lot of failed attempts) the more I started to understand it and the better I got at it. I don’t have a natural talent for math, but once I changed my mindset it allowed me to mentally open up my brain so to speak and allow myself to learn what I never thought I could.
      I also believe that people aren’t naturally gifted or born with certain talents as you mentioned. I think a great book that explains in better detail than I could as to why talent isn’t really what we think it is, is called The Genius In All Of Us. If you get a chance to read it I think you might also discover (if you wanted) that you could understand math more than you think you can 🙂

  2. Jennifer N. says:

    I feel like for the most part I have a growth mindset, but like you, I’m sure there are areas of my life where a fixed mindset shows up. I will have to be on the lookout for this! I should qualify this statement with the fact that I haven’t read the book (yet) but I do own it and now I know I need to get to it soon. I try to instill this in my kids – my husband and I are both good at telling the kids that things they struggle with now will get easier as they practice and get better. I do wonder what areas I might not be doing this for myself.

  3. Ann Marie says:

    I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but after YEARS of being told how incompetent I was at math by a parent (and being convinced of this as truth, a la fixed mindset), I found myself in college. As required in a second major, I found myself in a statistics class and determined myself NOT to mess up my GPA (growth mindset, I guess). The outcome was life-changing… not the “A” I earned, but the liberation from being “held back”. That was almost 50 years ago… you cannot imagine the number of times I reference the challenge of the past in what I find myself facing in the present. Stop playing the tape in your head that is not encouraging and uplifting… would you talk to your children like that?

  4. Amy F. says:

    My “aha” moment in reading this post is how you say it isn’t an either/or. In our house, for the most part I have a growth mindset and my husband is much more fixed. He is working toward being more growth minded but it is a hard shift. After reading this post, I know there are areas in my life where I am more fixed too and I see this as a fun challenge to seek out and try to shift. Thanks for the post!

  5. Jess says:

    Yes. This. I think when we are kids we are especially vulnerable to an outside voice giving us information about ourselves – whether accurate or not, whether overtly or subtly. We internalize this and make up our minds about who we are based on it. Whether or not our parents are in tune with us and supportive of us, or not, there are always a whole host of internal assumptions about ourselves that we need to overcome. I’m in my mid-thirties, and am still trying to identify and dismantle those learned assumptions that stemmed from my own childhood. And likely will always be working on this. As a parent, I’m especially sensitive to this and try my best to speak to my son in a way that will encourage a growth mindset in him – that he is only limited by his own perception of limitation. Definitely not easy to do, and I know with certainty that he won’t escape childhood without his own set of issues to overcome (nobody does), but I’m still trying to instill in him the idea that growth is the way forward and through, and that he is the one who gets to decide who he is and what he can do.

  6. Anne, I don’t believe in coincidences. While I have not read MINDSET, your post describes what I have come to understand about myself. Yesterday I had one of several aha moments regarding marketing my book. I’ve been reading Pam Grout’s books which are helping me see my own mind blocks. It’s good to know that transformative ideas are conveyed by different authors in ways that reach people with words that make the most sense to them. Thanks for sharing your process. I’ve found that it takes diligence to make real change, but then maybe that’s a fixed mindset too. I’ve been making the process hard.

    On another note, I am new to your site and have been enjoying your podcasts. I have so many new books on my TBR list.

  7. Ruth says:

    Actually, if you delve more deeply into cognitive psychology, you’ll find that you can have growth mindset (which is a general, more overarching framework about whether your broader traits are changeable) but, when it comes to certain tasks, also have low self-efficacy (which is your belief about whether or not you will be good at a particular task). They are not mutually exclusive. There is no doubt that having growth mindset allowed you to effectively take on the challenge of changing your self-efficacy about paddle boarding.

  8. Greg says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I just ordered “Mindset” from our library. I would not have ordered it without your post and the subsequent comments. I expected to be labelled as a fixed mindset in everything. I see that you can be either one just in different areas or topics.
    I am an engineer. I tend to “get” math and related items, like requirements and testing. I am not a creative person. For example, artistic (non-household) painting is currently beyond me. Please don’t give me a blank piece of paper and ask me to paint an apple. I will start asking you what kind of apple, what kind of paints, in what setting, what time of day, etc. And I know that it will probably no look much like an apple. [Don’t even ask for something live like a horse or cat. Mine look like balloon animals from kids birthday parties.] So, a fixed mindset there.
    However, I have determined to become a better writer. Most engineers are not great writers. I do love to read. I am amazed how authors can write fiction, with plots that hold together and are interesting to read. However, I want to be better at writing. People tell me that I write clearly (for an engineer). Perhaps the rules of grammar appeal to me? So, I am determined to improve my writing skills. In this area (which I consider to be creative), I can have a growth mindset. It is like a new world of possibilities has opened to me. Thank you!

  9. Anne I love this post (and Dweck’s book)… and shared it with two of my Facebook groups. An example from my life?
    “I’m not a salesperson.” I told myself this for YEARS… to my detriment, because ALL BUSINESS (even blogging!) is sales… as it turns out, I joined (of all things!) a direct SALES company and am killing it. I’m earning way more than I have in my blog for the last several years, have earned a brand new car and am on my way to earning a free trip to Costa Rica and have 44 women on my team doing the same. As it turns out, I was able to learn how to sell. LOL

    • Loretta says:

      That’s awesome Carrie – may I ask what you sale…I also tell myself that although I am involved with several direct sales companies that I just LOVE their products? This is a very interesting post Modern Mrs. Darcy 🙂

  10. Janet Miles says:

    Great post, Anne! I’m pretty sure I’m really not that great at math (at least the higher forms of it) since there was no way I could have helped our kids with their homework, but I think I have the “change” mindset and hope that I have instilled that into our kids. Just like most anything, there is usually some overlap in traits. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. Renee says:

    I thought I was the ONLY person on the planet that couldn’t stand on the damn paddle board!
    By the way, I’ve been doing yoga 3x a week for four years, so I do have a great core – I am six feet tall, so maybe that’s part of it?
    REGARDLESS>>>>>> thank you for this post. It gives me great hope! I had something similar happen in yoga. I could never do wheel pose (a backbend, basically) I thought my shoulders just couldn’t turn that way. Until I was on a girls weekend drinking beer and my friend and I started competitively showing off yoga moves. She did wheel pose, and I followed suit! It was so easy, and I realized my mind – not my body – had been holding me back! GLORIOUS!!!

    • Karen Allen says:

      One of my ESL professors always said it’s amazing how much more “fluent” you are when learning another language after a shot of tequila!
      Sometimes, when WE refuse to lower the “I can’t” wall, something happens to force us to do so. Or we get a little help….

  12. Nikki says:

    I view growth mindset as ‘willingness to try.’ For example, I don’t enjoy crafty or hardcore outdoorsy activities, but with the right people around me, I am willing to explore something. And am ok if I don’t do it well. (Though I refuse to camp for any and all reasons). I’m not naturally drawn to public speaking, but at this point in life I’ve spoken in front of women’s Bible studies groups, city commissioners, and my entire elementary school staff. I’m not a fan of social meetups where I know no one, but will show up at volunteer events, civic activities, church functions, or speaking events/seminars by myself and talk with strangers. I’m not a handywoman, so that’s pbly my most fixed mindset area. Everyone says you can YouTube it, but for stuff around the house, I’d rather ask friends for help or hire it out. I have no desire to learn. Not sure if that’s really fixed mindset or just preference.

    • Yes, this – there are various areas where I believe I _could_ improve, but honestly? I don’t really want to. I’m OK with where I am in that area.
      I do also think there are natural bounds to where you can get to. My singing voice isn’t great. I do believe I could get better at it with a whole lot of work, but I’m never going to rival Charlotte Church. And I’ll sing along anyway.

      I guess my take is that you have to take the growth mindset idea along with the David Allen quote – ‘you can do anything, but you can’t do everything’.

  13. I am definitely the child of fixed-mindset parents, and it took a very long time to learn an open mindset. I was good at school and terrible at sports, and kind of just gave up. Eventually, I found other kinds of athletic activities (Jane Fonda aerobics! modern dance!) that didn’t involve winning and losing, and that opened the door to still other activities. And it was a good lesson to my kid–that if you wish you could do something, then take a class in it.
    At some point after Jane Fonda, a boyfriend broke up with me, saying I was just too goody-goody, too safe, too boring. He might have said too fixed mindset. I decided I didn’t want to be boring and signed up for the Peace Corps. I ended up in Africa, learned Swahili and hitchhiked my way across Asia on my way home. Not boring. Sometimes a kick in the pants is what it takes to dare to try something new.

  14. Carol says:

    I’m a 5th grade teacher and we work towards growth mindset all year! It’s amazing how many students have a closed mindset at this early age….it really matters how we model growth mindset for our children!

  15. Laurel says:

    Like Taste of France, I am the child of very fixed mindset parents but 35 years ago I married a man who is wonderfully a growth mindset person. I think over the years I have grown and I continue to grow in the area of having a growth mindset. I credit my change to my husband’s influence and the belief that God is in the business of changing me from the inside out”. At 60, I find that I need to continue to try new things like reading new, challenging books (thank you Anne!), I push myself to quilt more difficult quilts that I would never tried before, I purposefully try to learn from my younger coworkers, and I am pushing my weary body to keep in shape. I am grateful that I don’t listen to the small voice in my head that says ” You can’t do that!”

  16. Jilian says:

    I loved this book and plan to read it again before September. It totally changed the way I spoke to and related to my students. I realized I have a growth mindset for myself in certain areas (tech skills, creative skills) but fixed in other areas (I’ll never be an exerciser, I am bad at socializing). It made me see I could improve in the fixed area things too if I changed how I thought about them.

  17. Kaylee V. says:

    Anne, thank you for this today. I needed to hear this. I have an opportunity for something this fall, and I’ve been saying I can’t do it, I don’t want to do that role (it is directing a musical for our homeschool co-op – last year I did more of the producing, which is where I am more comfortable). I need a change in my mindset. I know I’m capable. Now, I need to change my mindset – decide that I CAN do this! I think I need to put this book on my TBR…

  18. Curtis says:

    My wife just showed me this post. How interesting! I am near the finish of reading Stopping the noise in your head by Dr. Reid Wilson. Basically it’s a book about cultivating a growth mindset of stepping forward into uncertainty rather than resistance– a very common trait of folks like me that have anxiety.

    This post really put the book into perspective. Great comments
    I enjoyed reading them.

  19. I love paddleboarding – and such great exercise! You have to work hard to build a strong core…it’s not just something you “have” or “don’t have” (so I guess it’s the perfect thing for the growth mindset?!).
    I like the growth mindset in general…with one exception. I feel like with design (fashion or interior), you kind of have the eye or you don’t. You can learn some guiding principles, but whether you see all the little nuances in color or not and what patterns can go together/not is sort of a God-given gift. I’m learning this now as we’re trying to furnish our new house! PS – I definitely do not have the design eye!

  20. Maggie Thurber says:

    I loved Carol Dweck’s book as well. I started the book thinking I had a growth mindset, but I finished pretty sure I was a mix with the majority being fixed. Every week since then (April of this year feels like Christmas as I let something else go!

    You might enjoy Mathematical Mindset by Jo Boaler.

  21. Melisa says:

    All these years I was thinking of my growth mindset ways as blind determination. I have zero natural abilities so nearly everything I approach whether it be school, sports, cooking etc, is something that I have to learn, work and practice to do well at.

  22. Krysta Matt says:

    I read this book with the staff at the elementary school I used to teach at. It was a huge game-changer for me, and for my students. In particular, one third grade class I taught about fixed vs. growth mindsets really latched onto the concept and ran with it. I literally saw students transforming before my eyes. Kids who used to “fail” and give up or get so down on themselves were learning from their mistakes and encouraging their peers to keep persevering even when the learning tasks at hand were challenging. I loved this post and would encourage any teacher or parent to read it. I’m fact, as my oldest son starts kindergarten in the fall I think it might be the perfect time for me to give it a reread.

  23. Vanessa says:

    The fixed mind set is also a way to protect (cherish) our fears. Alas, I will never be comfortable at a canter or gallop as I am afraid to fall off at that speed! I do miss horses but I have those fears and they always know, darn it, when I tense up.

  24. brianna says:

    I’m late to the party (story of my life), but man, did this post resonate. I definitely have a fixed mindset about most things, but I have a total growth mindset about other things. I’m in a season of unemployment and have been sitting around for the last month, reading all the books (not a bad thing) and feeling like an utter failure (bad thing). I think it might be time to put my growth mindset into action and see what changes I can make.

    • Amanda says:

      I related to previous commenters who talked about math. Having had natural math ability I failed to develop skill scaffolding for higher level math. I hit a brick wall after HS sophomore geometry. But then I found myself in a PhD program that required, appropriately so, 12 credits of graduate level statistics. I was also teaching college freshman at the time. One in particular was beyond challenging, pure math, and I worried I “couldn’t get it.” But then I thought “I’m a teacher now – how would I help a struggling student?” I got an alternate textbook with more real-life examples, I hired a tutor, office hours, front of the room etc. maybe I did get a B- but I have kept growing as I’ve been exposed to those concepts.

      I also thought of playing the piano. Like so many others, my mom was and is predominantly fixed mindset. She frequently talks about talents, and as her rebel youngest child I like to remind her how long and hard that person worked to achieve. A personal example was when we got a piano and I realized how much I enjoyed playing. But never thought I was good or talented. But my best friend since childhood is “talented.” And when I talked to her about having fun playing, she told me how much she practiced each song she played well, while I was content to sight-read and would get bored easily playing one piece. It was an aha! I could choose to become better as an adult. I could choose to practice without it being an mother-imposed chore. Have I mentioned I’m a rebel?!

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