Challenge and Effort: A Mindset Perspective

By Joanne Foster, Ed.D.

In this blog I review my thoughts about an informative presentation, and share some insights about learning.

Last year I had the good fortune to meet renowned psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, and to attend a presentation she gave to parents and adolescents at Branksome Hall, an independent girls’ school in Toronto. I was pleased to hear what Dweck had to say about mindsets and intellectual growth—and delighted to observe the rapt attention of the audience. Hundreds of people filled the auditorium and it seemed to me that everyone left with a more positive attitude about learning, a better understanding of brain-related functions, and a deeper appreciation of the power of persistence. Dona Matthews and I often refer to Dweck’s work in our writing, and as I think back upon that presentation, I appreciate how informative and affirming it was to hear first-hand about her ongoing research.

Dweck discussed the difference between a fixed mindset (intelligence seen as a fixed trait), and a growth mindset (intelligence seen as a malleable quality that can be developed). She said that intelligence is “a platform from which you grow”—and went on to explain how neural plasticity affords us the ability to learn more and more over time. The key is to acquire and sustain a growth mindset. It’s also important that adults model growth-mindedness for their children. To that end, Dweck laid down three basic rules.

 Rule #1: Learn at all times. Try to think deeply about things, and pay attention to what you’re experiencing. Figure out what you don’t know, and need to know. Participate in study groups, find a mentor, attend meetings and conferences, and find other avenues for learning. Don’t worry if you don’t look smart. It’s OK to make mistakes. See them as opportunities to learn.

Rule #2: Work hard. Effort is what takes you to the next level, allowing you to use your capabilities, and strengthen them over time. Practice and commitment matter. Struggling can be beneficial. It’s good to stretch systematically, by building upon what is known and pushing past traditional comfort zones. This leads to personal growth.

Rule #3: Confront deficiencies and setbacks. Don’t perceive them as humiliating, but rather as challenges. Find ways to capitalize on circumstances (strategize!) and turn them into avenues for learning. That’s how people become resilient, able to recover from failure and improve themselves.

Dweck closed the presentation by reiterating that when it comes to developing a growth mindset, everyone should take a close look at his or her own personal value systems. By learning to see that what’s easy is boring and a waste of time, and that what’s more difficult is interesting and worthwhile, individuals become energized, put forth the necessary effort, and become much stronger as a result. Brainpower intensifies; confidence, motivation, and effectiveness increase, and there’s no limit to what people can achieve. In other words—in fact, in Dweck’s words—“Always challenge yourself!”

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