Dr. Carol Dweck – Change Your Mindset, Change Your Life

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Jonathan Bailor: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I’m smiling from ear to ear for today’s show because we have an author, a researcher, a professor, an influencer, a woman who has touched me personally with her brilliant book, a very influential work. Her book is called Mindset. Her website is mindsetonline.com. Her research focuses on why people succeed, how to foster success, and how we can take that and help ourselves be more successful. Professor Carol S. Dweck, welcome to the show!

Carol Dweck: It’s a pleasure to be here, Jonathon.

Jonathan Bailor: Well, Carol, before we get into your brilliant research and your wonderful book which is sitting on my bookshelf. It’s called Mindset, and I’m a big, big fan. I think it’s incredibly empowering and it’s so scientific which makes it even better because it’s not The Secret; it’s science. How did you get involved in this? You’ve had quite the career.

Carol Dweck: I got involved in this work when I was still still in graduate school. I wondered why some people were crushed by setbacks and wilted in the face of failure whereas other people seemed to cope really well. When I undertook this research, I found that not only did other people cope well, they thrived on setbacks. Their juices got flowing. They thought “now this is worth my while. I can really learn something”. I felt I had a lot to learn from these people. I vowed to learn their secret and to bottle it.

Jonathan Bailor: Well, Carol, this is why I wanted to have you on the show. If it wasn’t for those three little letters after your name-PHD-and the fact that you are the (Loiusson) Virginia Eden Professor of psychology at Stanford University and had many published works, people could hear what you just said and think that you’re just one of these “woo-woo” people, but you’re the farthest from that, correct?

Carol Dweck: I’m completely not a woo-woo person. I have forty years of research to back up what I’m saying.

Jonathan Bailor: So Carol, you said we could bottle this, and you’re not woo-woo, so what’s going on here? How can we do this?

Carol Dweck: Well after many years of research, we discovered that there are certain beliefs that create these different patterns of coping with setbacks. Some people have what I call “fixed mindset”. They believe their abilities and personal qualities are just constraints. You have a certain amount and that is it. SO you have a certain athletic ability, a certain intelligence, a certain personality, but these aren’t things that you can change. We find that when people have a fixed mindset in a certain area, they don’t want challenges because a mistake would mean that they are not who they want to be. They don’t want setbacks. They flee from them because they see these setbacks as measuring these important qualities. Other people have a growth mindset. They believe that the qualities that we have can be developed over time through dedication, passion, help from others, and good strategies. These are the people who love challenges and thrive in the face of obstacles. This is part of learning. When it is easy, they feel that it is boring and a waste of time. When it is hard, it really gets their juices flowing.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, I think there is a surface level of (unintelligible) with what you just said, but I think there is a level deeper. Maybe not that much deeper, but it struck me when I was reading your book of this difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. On the surface, one might say “okay, you have a fixed mindset, you believe everything is fixed. Therefore, you have no motivation to try anything”. I get that, but another way to look at that is if you have a fixed mindset, you don’t try anything because you’re so afraid because if you fail at it, there’s no chance. Like “I’m a failure because I can’t develop that”. A fixed mindset is the ultimate demotivater. Is that correct?

Carol Dweck: Yes, because everything measures you. Therefore, everything holds the danger of saying “you aren’t as smart as you want to be” or “you’re not the person you want to be”.

Jonathan Bailor: That’s such a key thing, Carol, and it seems like the more and more research that is done, it shows that this resiliency, this ability to not personalize these things and just say “this is indicative of who I am and there is nothing I can do to change it” is so critical for our ability to get on with and thrive in our lives.

Carol Dweck: Exactly, and one thing I want to point out is that people can have different mindset in different areas. You can think your intelligence is fixed but your athletic abilities can be developed or vice versa. It’s the mindset you have in a given area that’s going to be very powerful in that area.

Jonathan Bailor: Now Carol, for this segment I am going to call you Professor Dweck because I want to channel your professorial nature here. Professor Dweck, I could imagine maybe if a listener is multitasking right now and isn’t fully paying attention to what you are saying, they may think to themselves-and please don’t let this offend you because I do not mean it. I’m satirizing this thought. You can imagine someone saying “this sounds a lot like this book The Secret, where I can just think something and have a positive mindset, something magic happens”. Again, this is not at all what we’re saying, Professor Dweck, correct?

Carol Dweck: Correct. It’s not about just thinking positively. It’s about believing that your fundamental qualities can be developed, and then taking steps to do that. Taking on difficult intellectual tasks, taking on difficult personal tasks, taking on difficult problems in your relationships, and trying to make those better. It’s really about action. Persistence. Perseverance. It’s not about wishing and hoping.

Jonathan Bailor: Doctor Dwerk, that is so wonderful, and I’m going to give two thumbs up to that, and kind of a silly example. There was this episode of the television show South Park, where there are these underwear gnomes that go into one of the character’s bedroom and steal his underwear. You know when you have socks that go missing, and you’re like “where the heck did my socks go? I don’t leave my socks at work”. The joke was that there are these underwear and sock gnomes that steal your underwear and socks and eventually, the kids from South Park find these underwear gnomes and say “underwear gnomes! Why are you stealing our underwear?” and the underwear gnomes unveil this brilliant business plan and the plan I three steps. Step one is “collect underpants” step two is “question mark” and step three is “profit”. And of course, the joke is that step two is pretty doggone important. The key thing that I heard that you just said-and this is an oversimplification-that there are three steps. The appropriate mindset is step one, step two is doing something.

Carol Dweck: Yes, and fixed mindset people hope and wish or believe that something will happen because they are smart or they are a good person, but they aren’t making it happen. They aren’t taking the steps to bring the goal about.

Jonathan Bailor: So Carol, we’ve got the fixed mindset, we’ve got the growth mindset, how has this been applied in different areas of life. You mentioned before the call that there has been some research in terms of how specifically this mindset work has been applied. Can you tell us more about that?

Carol Dweck: Yes, I will, but first I will tell you that we’ve done studies in which we have changed student’s mindsets and they earn higher grades and they stay in school longer. Peter Hasselin, a researcher, has done studies where he’s changed business manager’s mindsets, and they become more open to feedback and better mentors. I really want to emphasize that these mindsets are not only powerful, but they can also be changed. Recently we took the mindsets into the area of health, and we were really interested in adolescent health. The first thing to tell you is that in some high schools, the great majority of students had a fixed mindset about health. They said “you’re given a certain health. It comes in your genes, and it doesn’t matter what you do” what you eat, how you behave, whether you exercise. That was an eye opener that so many adolescents don’t really understand that what you do affects your health. They we studied teenage diabetics at the Stanford Children’s Hospital. We found that the ones who had a growth mindset were the ones who were managing their blood sugar much more effectively. They kept it within a range and they kept it normal. Those with the fixed mindset who had this disease but weren’t taking seriously the impact that they had on the course of the disease were much more likely to let it vary and much more likely to have a very high score out of the range in each period.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, when you were describing these experiments and the phrasing that you use, I remember noting this in the margin of your book Mindset when I was reading it. It parallels Dr. Sellegman’s work of learned helplessness. Have you drawn parallels between the fixed mindset and a state of learned helplessness?

Carol Dweck: Absolutely. In fact, my earliest work was on learned helplessness. It’s where people give up in the face of difficulty because they don’t think that there’s anything that they can do about it. After working on that for a long time, I realized that the fixed mindset was at the heart of learned helplessness. If you confront challenges or face obstacles that are difficult for you, you don’t think you can do anything about that.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, getting back to the point you made earlier which I really want to drill into, you can change the mindset, and when people hear that, hopefully the optimist in us says “oh, I can change my mindset in a good way”. With learned helplessness, it seems like what’s happening is in some cases you could take someone who has a growth mindset-let’s say I have a growth mindset-or if I just starve myself and exercise for two hours a day, I can change my body. I do that and I do that, and I feel terrible and end up heavier and sicker than I ever was before. I end up with a sense of learned helplessness and a fixed mindset saying that there is nothing that I can do.

Carol Dweck: A good form of a growth mindset and one that most people with a growth mindset has is the idea that difficult goals are ones that you reach slowly and with effort over a long period of time. There’s new work by Jennie Burnett and her colleagues on how the mindsets affect adherence to diets showed that if someone had a growth mindset about dieting they weren’t so thrown off when they had inevitable dieting setbacks, whereas those with a fixed mindset thought “well, it’s destined or not destined” and when they had a setback it really through them off course.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, so it seems that there are these mindsets and that in many contexts-and I’m actually curious if there are any contexts where this is untrue-the growth mindset is more beneficial. What do we do if we have areas in our lives where we have that fixed mindset? How can we change our mindset?

Carol Dweck: The first thing I tell people is “listen to that fixed mindset voice in your head”. It’s there, and you have to just listen to how it talks to you. It says “don’t take on this hard task, you might fail and then people will see that you aren’t as smart or as good or as confident as you want to be”. If you make a mistake it says “see, you’re no good at this. You better give up while you’re still ahead of the game”. When you see other people who are thin or in good relationships or talented and successful, your fixed mindset voice says “see? Those are the real winners. You’re not like them”. Just listen to that voice. It’s there, and it is undermining and also prevents you from taking on the challenges and pursuing the goals that you are capable of reaching. The second thing is to start talking back to it with a growth mindset voice. The growth mindset voice says “you know, if you don’t try something, you’re never going to get anywhere. Mistakes are a natural part of learning. The people you admire got there through hard work.” Research shows that that’s how people become incredibly successful. Not just through talent, but mostly through hard work, perseverance, and learning. The third step, once you’re talking back, is to realize that you have a choice. You can follow the dictates of the fixed mindset and become essentially a couch potato who doesn’t take risks, or you can listen to the growth mindset voice. Start taking on challenges. Keep at them and you’ll see how the learning take place and how the success follows from that. It’s not an immediate thing, it’s not magic. It doesn’t happen overnight. Often, even if you’re listening to the growth mindset, you’ll have a setback and then that fixed mindset will kick in. “See, I told you so. You shouldn’t have taken that risk”. Still, no matter how icky you’re feeling, keep following that growth mindset voice.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, I so appreciate you sharing this with us. Taking with us through this step by step approach, the thing that I really want to highlight and lift up for our listeners is that on some level, we might feel like we already know this, and in some ways this makes common sense, and I think it does. That’s why I think it’s brilliant. At the same time, Carol, there’s so much stuff on the internet in terms of self help this, woo woo that, nutrition this, diet that, and what I try to do in my work is say “that’s fine, let’s dig in and look at the science. What came out the other end came out to be common sense. It was “eat more nutritious food” and “eat so much nutritious food that you’re too full for non-nutritious food”. Great, you spent ten years of your life coming to that conclusion. Good job, Jonathon! When you have that deep scientific underpinning, I think that is so important because there are so many people out there telling us it’s the secret or this trick or this technique. What we’re talking about here, although it sounds simple and is simple, it is predicated on rigorous science. Can you tell us about the actual scientific process that went into developing these mindsets?

Carol Dweck: Let me say one thing first, and then I’d love to go into that. It is common sense that if you try hard and persevere, you’ll go farther than if you don’t. In a fixed mindset, it doesn’t feel that way. People in a fixed mindset believe hard tasks to be quite threatening. They don’t like effort. They feel that if you had that ability, you wouldn’t need effort They run from setbacks to try to save face. Even though taking on challenges, putting in effort, and persevering seem like common sense, in a fixed mindset, it is not appealing. Common sense often is a poor guide. For example, how many people think that praising someone’s intelligence is good for them?

Jonathan Bailor: I would say most.

Carol Dweck: We have over a dozen studies showing that it is harmful. Praising intelligence and talent puts someone into a fixed mindset with all of it’s liabilities. They don’t want a challenge, they don’t want to work hard, and they are thrown off by setbacks. Praising the process they engaged in or how they improve or the strategies they used or the focus or the persistence; those are the things that create a growth mindset and keep people going for challenges and persisting. Common sense is not always the best kind.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, I have to say something here because I’m literally standing up right now because what you just said has so many parallels to what we talk about on this show often. Let me give you a concrete example. You just talked about praising someone, saying “oh, you’re smart”. You find someone and they lost a hundred pounds; it’s like “oh my god! You lost a hundred pounds! That’s so good!” but in reality, you don’t know. Perhaps they took a bunch of cocaine to lose a hundred pounds. You don’t know, but we’re so quite to say “person who did x, you’re good”. What we should be praising is that person that is going out of their way to eat no starchy vegetables and taking steps to move more and doing so consistently. They’re not necessarily the biggest loser, but through that process with a continuous, gradual, dedicated change; it seems like that is the person who’s more set up for long term success.

Carol Dweck: Exactly, and you would be praising the process of the foods that they choose and the adherence they are showing to the new regiment. We don’t say the person is good or bad. We focus on the process, whether to praise it or critique it or improve it. Exactly. When you’re talking about health, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not a quick fix. We must focus on the process, and when someone has a failure on a diet or exercise regime, it’s part of the process. You learn from that. “Why did this happen to me now and how can I prevent it in the future?”. Everything is part of this learning process.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, that focus on process is so profound, and you just said it in words that I’ve never actually said, but in a large part have tried to dedicate my life to helping people understand. For example, these seven day cleanses and taking these pills. If you want the result to continue, the process is what matters. You have to find that process. Most people call it lifestyle change, but most people don’t understand what the heck that actually means. When we say “lifestyle change” we mean-to use your words-to find a process that you can actually do for the rest of your life.

Carol Dweck: Yes!

Jonathan Bailor: That’s what we mean. Unless you plan on taking this pharmaceutical for the rest of your life or cleansing for the rest of your life, that’s probably not the optimal process for you to be engaging in.

Carol Dweck: Yes, exactly.

Jonathan Bailor: Well Carol, we were talking earlier about steps we can take to help change our mindset. What are some of those steps?

Carol Dweck: Well I talked about listening to the fixed mindset voice, and talking back in a growth mindset voice. We can also just notice. I think that this is really important. We can notice that when we put in more effort or learn from mistakes, things go better. Notice the progress you make when instead of beating yourself up or running from mistakes or making excuses, you focus on them and learn from them. In Silicon Valley, there is a saying “fail early and fail often in order to succeed sooner”. It’s the idea that you learn even more from what doesn’t work for you. That takes you on the path of finding what does work for you.

Jonathan Bailor: Again, that is really embracing that process. For a lot of the listeners and myself and many of the people I get the chance to work with, in some ways it is very easy to lament these approaches we may have taken in the past that may have failed, but in another way we can celebrate them because now we are liberated from them. We now know from experience that they don’t work. We can learn, hopefully, if we have the growth mindset, that we can do something different and we can improve in the future.

Carol Dweck: Exactly. You don’t say “I’m a weak person, I’m a bad person” you say “why did that happen and what can I do in the future that would be better or more fruitful?”.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, let’s focus on body fat hear for a second. So often in our country, individuals who are carrying around excess body fat, what do other people say to those people? “You are lazy.” “You are a glutton.” We don’t necessarily recognize that there might be something deeper going on. We don’t look at that. We force upon these people, in some way, a fixed mindset. That doesn’t seem like it’s helping anything.

Carol Dweck: Not at all. You’re saying “you have these traits that make you how you are” and instead-I don’t know that we should go around giving advice to people on weight loss-they need to understand that there are ways of eating and moving that don’t involve constant deprivation that could work for them and help them become healthier.

Jonathan Bailor: I love it, Carol. This work has already permeated so many aspects of our culture; where are you taking it next?

Carol Dweck: We’re taking it in so many different directions. We are working on bullying and aggression, and showing that teaching a growth mindset-the idea that we don’t all have fixed traits-is actually lowering the level of retaliation and aggression in high school. When you have a fixed mindset you think “that’s a bad person who picked on me and I hate them and they make me feel like a loser and I hate myself” and it just kind of escalates until the kids in their studies say they want violent revenge. When you think “hey, you’re a struggling person who’s doing the best they can and I’m a struggling person doing the best they can and we’re all capable of change. It’s a much more benign way of seeing the world. We have a whole line of research now on peace in the Middle East, and we’ve found that teaching Arabs or Israelis the idea that groups don’t have a fixed nature makes them more positive towards each other and more willing to entertain compromises for the sake of peace. We’re also doing interventions on online courses in a growth mindset feedback or growth mindset instructions and showing that this leads to better performance. The students who get these interventions take more courses in the future and master them. It’s a very motivating way to think.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, I love it, and I don’t want to put you on the spot. You don’t have to answer this question, but I’m just gonna put it out there. In the future, if you are interested in doing any work on fixed mindset versus growth mindsets and how we can use that to help create positive lifestyle change in terms of our fitness and eating habits, hopefully you know who to call because I will help out in any way that I can.

Carol Dweck: That would be fantastic. I certainly would.

Jonathan Bailor: Carol, thank you so much for joining us, and please folks, if you haven’t read Carol’s book, check it out. It is a wonderful way to formalize a way of thinking and a tool set that is very helpful. The book is called Mindset. You can learn all about Carol, her book, and all of her research on her website which is mindsetonline.com, and Carol, again, thank you for joining us, and thank you for such life and world changing research. I really appreciate it.

Carol Dweck: You’re very, very welcome.

Jonathan Bailor: Well listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did, and remember: this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.