Reality is inside the skull.
In the dialog towards the end of George Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien lectures Winston on how the Inner Party exercises control of the population through the manipulation of ‘reality’. He explains “…I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else… We [The Inner Party] control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull” (Orwell, Kindle Locations 3807–3808, 4070–4071).
Albeit through dark and traumatic circumstances, Orwell demonstrates the tremendous influence of an individual’s internal world on their external world. In the dystopian world of 1984, this realization is used for mass deception, confusion, and political control to subjugate a population under a dictatorial rule. Fortunately, this is not ‘reality’.
The New Psychology of Success
Free from oppressive policing by a central authority, individuals wield the power of their own thoughts, and Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, elaborates the empowering extent of this truth.
Although the circumstances may differ tremendously, the phenomenon discussed by Orwell remains true. Through substantial psychological evidence and a paradigm-shifting framework, Dweck’s work teaches individuals how to take control of their mindset, and ultimately, their lives.
The hand you’re dealt is just the starting point.
In Chapter 1, The Mindsets, Dweck defines the framework for understanding her ideas about mindset. She categorizes people according to two ideologies. The first group is those with a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset view important characteristics such as their health and intelligence as permanent, unchangeable traits. The second group refers to individuals with what she calls a growth mindset. Unlike a fixed mindset, people with a growth mindset firmly believe in their potential to change and improve upon almost any trait such as math skills, athleticism, and even artistic ability.
Dweck elaborates on the growth mindset “…the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way-in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments-everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, Kindle Location 154).
After making these distinctions, Dweck elaborates on the implications the mindset an individual adopts has on their life. She explains “For thirty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (Dweck, Kindle Location 137). She introduces several domains where this is relevant ranging from primary education, academics, fitness, art, early childhood development, adult education, and many others.
Loads of success and validation or lots of challenge?
I found her argument on relationships especially intriguing. She explains “Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow?” (Dweck, Kindle Location 166). She also goes into negative implications of the fixed mindset such as self-esteem issues, depression, stifled personal growth, poor relationships, and poor health. This chapter provides a foundation for understanding the basic distinction between the two mindsets and primes the reader with a few relevant examples to contextualize the information.
In Chapter 2, Inside the Mindsets, Dweck goes on to explain the psychological research backing her bold claims in Chapter 1. She also fills the chapter with inspiring ideals mixed in with probing questions to foster introspection from the reader. Consider this empowering and concise statement “Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 315). She frequents this simple and potent structure to make the point resonate with a range of audiences. Likewise, she asks “If you had to choose, which would it be? Loads of success and validation or lots of challenge?” (Dweck, Kindle Location 360).
This develops the idea that people with the fixed mindset seek affirmation and confirmation of whatever traits they believe themselves to have whereas someone with a growth mindset would prefer to learn and grow from difficult situations. The nature of the question suggests that the latter is preferable.
This is hard. This is fun.
Additionally, the chapter is filled with handy frameworks for understanding her main ideas. For instance, she provides an additional classification between groups of people: “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures….I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 319). Useful frameworks, such as this one, provide a means to understand the world in a productive, positive, and motivational way. On the same train of thought, she provides relates her personal experience as a cue for when real personal change toward a growth mindset starts to occur: “I’ll never forget the first time I heard myself say, “This is hard. This is fun.” That’s the moment I knew I was changing mindsets.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 452).
This chapter also heavily encourages the idea of process over results in terms of framing success. She captures the thought well by introducing a common saying from the 1960s that went “Becoming is better than being.” The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.” (Carol S. Dweck, Mindset)(482).
This idea connects with the broader theme of fixed versus growth mindsets. People with the fixed mindset believe themselves to be smart or athletic etc., whereas people with the growth mindset care more about the path they are on. Said in another way, it doesn’t matter if they are smart or athletic, but it does matter if they are getting smarter, stronger, etc. She furthers this point using education and aptitude tests as an example: “asking teachers to make assumptions about a given student based on nothing more than a number on a page….Performance cannot be based on one assessment.
You cannot determine the slope of a line given only one point, as there is no line to begin with.
A single point in time does not show trends, improvement, lack of effort, or mathematical ability….” (Dweck, Kindle Location 533). It is absurd to judge someone based on a single result. Instead, the process and trend over time paints a much clearer picture of an individual’s character and potential. This issue is highly topical as “a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). This is especially true in the fixed mindset” (Dweck, Kindle Location 606). When people cling to the damaging fixed mindset, they allow any setback to define them rather than reframing it as a natural part of the learning process.
What’s your secret?
Dweck continues the discussion of the process principle by relating it to her own career as an academic. She tells a story: “Late one night, I was passing the psychology building and noticed that the lights were on in some faculty offices. Some of my colleagues were working late. They must not be as smart as I am, I thought to myself. It never occurred to me that they might be just as smart and more hardworking!” (Dweck, Kindle Location 744).
This quote reminds me of a similar story in academia quipped by a professor in one of my favorite books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport. The professor explains “Junior faculty members used to come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you got tenure early; what’s your secret?’ I said, ‘It’s pretty simple, call me any Friday night in my office at ten o’clock and I’ll tell you.’” (Newport, Kindle Location 2,387).
The idea of investing long hours into one’s success and development is consistent across most fields and is very telling of how most successful people have gotten to where they are. This chapter convincingly attacks the theory of innate ability being the only means of finding success and replaces it with the more correct notion of how hard work is the method by which most people become successful and intelligent.
Dweck ends the chapter with a no-nonsense call to action that embodies the principles of hard work and process: “Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were afraid you weren’t good at? Make a plan to do it.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 983).
Acing the test would be expected, not hoped for.
Chapter 3, The Truth about Ability and Accomplishment, is mostly an example-based chapter to further demonstrate the power of the growth mindset specifically regarding achievement.
Early in the chapter, Dweck re-emphasizes the important process principle about successful people, specifically students. She argues “They [students] were studying to learn, not just to ace the test” (Dweck, Kindle Location 1095).
This mindset represents a much more positive and effective way to approach academics. Rather than focusing on earning good grades, students should focus on learning the material (the ‘goal’ of education in the first place). By really learning the material, acing the test would be expected, not hoped for.
Take charge of the process.
The problem is that fixed mindset students hardly ever view education this way. Dweck explains “It’s odd. Our pre-med students with the fixed mindset would do almost anything for a good grade-except take charge of the process to make sure it happens” (Dweck, Kindle Location 1112).
Inspired by this idea, I decided to “take charge of the process” while writing this. In any sitting, I spent no more than 25 minutes working on this essay, but I did five to seven of these work sessions over a couple of weeks. By attacking the assignment with a strategy, I produced a more effective argument with considerably less effort, less stress, and less time.
What Happens Given Proper Training?
Later, Dweck goes on to tackle the idea of aptitude in art. She makes a compelling argument on this topic: “Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 1231).
She supports this by referencing a study that discusses the transformation of people who claimed to have no artistic ability whatsoever after a week long intensive art training program. The results of the study were profound. Almost all the participants went from demonstrating childish proficiency to procuring convincing self-portraits. This idea, she argues, carries over to any set of skills. Yes, some people may possess a natural ability to do certain things, but that doesn’t mean anyone couldn’t reach an equal or higher level of competency given proper training.
Provocatively, Dweck carries this same idea over to the realm of relationships. She recalls the dating advice she received from the father of a famous chess family: “I was single at the time, and he asked me what my plan was for finding a partner. He was aghast when I said I didn’t have a plan. “You wouldn’t expect your work to get done by itself,” he said. “Why is this any different?” It was inconceivable to him that you could have a goal and not take steps to make it happen.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 1418).
Think about your hero.
Dweck provides persuasive examples that the right level of intentionality coupled with a positive attitude is the necessary recipe for learning, achieving, or doing just about anything individuals can set their minds to.
To encourage the reader to apply this principle to themselves, she asks “Think about your hero. Do you think of this person as someone with extraordinary abilities who achieved with little effort?” (Dweck, Kindle Location 1426). I am yet to find an example to prove her wrong.
There are a few key ideas to take away from these chapters and the book at large. It is extremely clear that a growth mindset offers substantial benefits to individuals and society, but to really internalize this idea, there are some underlying principles to absorb.
The first is the importance of emphasizing process: “Many growth-minded people didn’t even plan to go to the top. They got there as a result of doing what they love. It’s ironic: The top is where the fixed-mindset people hunger to be, but it’s where many growth-minded people arrive as a by-product of their enthusiasm for what they do.” (Dweck, Kindle Location 883).
Chasing the outcome is almost always the wrong approach. Instead, individuals should focus on constantly growing and intentionally taking actions that improve various aspects of their lives.
Make tremendous personal progress in the short term
The second is to really appreciate the power of the mind. Dweck gives countless examples of individuals selling themselves short at their own expense. The mind is capable of learning incredible things, but only if equipped with the appropriate mindset. Only by conceptualizing the power of mindset and recognizing the real stages of the learning process, can individuals avoid wasting their potential and make tremendous personal progress in the short term and over the scale of a lifetime.
In addition to the clear benefits of a growth mindset, individuals should recognize the devastating consequences of clinging to a fixed mindset. By believing that traits are fixed, any setback has the potential to cause an identity crisis and tempt individuals to label themselves as failures. This fallacy allows events to define individuals instead of broader trends and other, more relevant metrics. This is consequential for the mental health of individuals as self-esteem and confidence play a major role in one’s emotional well-being.
Manipulate reality in your favor
Overall, the book provides a fascinating way of looking at the psychology involved in success. The distinctions between fixed and growth mindsets define a powerful mental model for discerning a healthy, productive attitude from a harmful one.
Fortunately for individuals, there exists no totalitarian Inner Party to dictate the inner workings of their minds.
Instead, individuals, empowered by the new insights of Dweck’s research can manipulate their own reality in their favor simply by embracing the appropriate mindset.
Dweck, Carol S., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Reprint, Updated Edition, Kindle Edition, Random House, 2006.
Newport, Cal, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love Kindle Edition, Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983.