Reality Check: Choosing a Mindset

For someone with math difficulties, I often recommend the website I suggest the site because it offers opportunities to practice: you can work as much or as little as you want, and you can progress quickly or slowly. It addresses levels from the very beginner to the quite advanced. In addition, it’s fun and it’s free.

This isn’t an ad for a website, though.

What recently got my attention is some cooperative work between Khan and Stanford University about growing one’s intelligence. It looks at the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.”

A fixed mindset is a set of beliefs along the lines of, “I’m not good at this,” “I give up,” “I tried this once and failed, so there’s no point in trying again.”

In contrast, statements that come from a growth mindset sound more like, “I can improve,” “I’ll try a different way,” “I’m training my brain to do this!”

The growth mindset suggests that intelligence can be developed—you can make yourself smarter!

Excellent! So, what do you need to do?

Work. Yes, it all comes back to work. And not just any work will do. No, no. This has to be work that challenges you!

To be effective at growing your brain, the work you need to do is not that work that already comes easily for you. It’s not doing the same things over and over that you already know how to do and are already successful at doing. Nope. You need to work on things that are a struggle for you. Make mistakes. Try again. Try differently. Learn more. Do your best.

Just as lifting weights that are a bit of a struggle for you can build your muscles, working at math problems that are a bit of a struggle for you can build your brain.

Making mistakes, learning from them; feeling frustration, working through it; facing adversity, being persistent; you already know these responses can make you stronger. Turns out, they may make you smarter, too!

Math is a great example for struggles with learning because it’s often such a bugaboo. People believe (or have been told) that they just don’t have a head for math, or they don’t have a math aptitude. That reflects a fixed mindset.

So, choosing a growth mindset can help with learning your math. However, it also applies elsewhere. For example, compare these leadership mindsets: “I’m not a natural leader” versus “I can develop my leadership skills.” Or for relationships: “I always end up with a loser” versus, “Now I know what to look for!”

Whether you choose a fixed or growth mindset can make the difference between giving up at the first sign of trouble or persisting through the difficulty.

For more information on mindsets, look up Professor Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford University.

An interesting consequence that springs from this need for challenge is reflected in what happens when you praise a child for their intelligence. Do you think that helps them try harder and become even smarter? Or does it do the opposite?

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