Growth Versus Fixed Mindset

AJWs TaproomOver the past few years, the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck has been making the rounds in educational circles. In particular, Dweck’s research centers on the notion of mindset and, most specifically, the fundamental differences between those with a ‘fixed’ mindset and those with a ‘growth’ mindset.

To put it in simple terms, and I am paraphrasing Dweck, people who have a fixed mindset believe simply that ‘things are the way they are.’ However, that does not mean that they have less of a desire for a positive self-image than anyone else, rather they believe growth is limited. As with anyone, they want to perform well and look smart. But to achieve these goals the following behaviors are typical:

  1. They avoid challenges that might impact their positive self-image. Viewing challenges as obstacles rather than opportunities they will often give up easily.
  2. Those with a fixed mindset see effort, particularly rigorous painful effort, as fruitless and unpleasant and since their worldview suggests it will not pay dividends anyway then the smart thing to do is to avoid it.
  3. When faced with criticism and negative feedback the best thing to do is ignore it. For those with a fixed mindset useful negative feedback is ignored in the best of cases, and taken as an insult the rest of the time. A fixed mindset logically leads you to believe that any criticism of your capabilities is criticism of you.
  4. The success of others is seen as a benchmark against which the person looks bad. Usually when others succeed, people with a fixed mindset will try to convince themselves and the people around them that the success was due to either luck or objectionable actions.

As a result of this dominant worldview, fixed-mindset individuals will plateau early and achieve less than their full potential further confirming their deterministic view of the world.

On the other hand, Dweck’s description of those with a growth mindset is quite provocative. Those with a growth mindset believe that the brain is like a muscle that can be trained which leads to a consistent desire for personal improvement. As you might expect, the growth-mindset individual, in contrast to the fixed-mindset person, embraces challenges, persists in the face of setbacks, sees effort as the path to mastery, learns from criticism, finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others and, as a result of all this, they reach higher levels of achievement and mastery.

From my perspective, ultramarathon running is a hotbed for the growth mindset. In much the same way that it is an activity that can bolster and strengthen our metacognition, it also helps shape who we are, how we make decisions, and how we solve problems far beyond the typical developmental curve. By its very nature, ultrarunning forces us to embrace challenge and persist amid setbacks and the most successful among us have these characteristics in spades.

However, there is also some caution necessary in the midst of this realization. While we runners tend to be more growth oriented we can also fall into the same traps of other more fixed-minded folks. When that happens motivation wanes, focus is challenged, and achievement thwarted. Therefore, it is in that context that I urge all of us to look within ourselves and our minds to more deliberately use running to understand not only what we do why we do but, ultimately, who we are.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

Oskar Blues GubnaThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from one of my favorite breweries, Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado and North Carolina. Dale’s Pale Ale is one of my all-time favorite recovery drinks and their Deviant Dale’s IPA is also quite good. But at the top of the Oskar Blues line is Gubna Imperial IPA. Every year Oskar Blues releases Gubna as a seasonal and every year I have had it seems to get better. This year’s version is outstanding. Check it out when you can. At 10% ABV and over 100 IBUs it will start a fire!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset by natural tendency?
  • How do you think your mindset modifies your approach to running? And how about your approach to life?

There are 2 comments

  1. sberk4

    Another Friday, another thought-provoking essay from AJW. Great stuff! I would only wish for some examples from the life of the editorialist, when he felt himself slipping into a regressive, fixed mindset, or coming back into a growth mindset. (Perhaps post-'12, headed into the '13 season?) Surely both can happen at a variety of stages of one's running career–during training blocks as well as races.

    Also, I love the inclusion of a beer from Oskar Blues. Seems like they don't have a single weak offering–everything they make is top-notch. That said, I think Gubna falls a little short in the Imperial IPA category (especially compared to some of AJW's other beloved IPA's. IMO, Gubna was little weak on the malts.). Old Chub, G'Knight, and Ten Fidy are all outstanding in their categories.


  2. senelly

    Good stuff. Thanks for relating it to ultrarunning! But… while we may choose to divide folks into one or the other, it's probably true that we are all a mixture of both, with some of each in certain aspects of our lives, and concentrations of one or the other in other aspects. For example, even while running one 100-miler, we may toe the start line as growth advocates (believing we have only success ahead of us) and then fall into the fixed ditch at 70 miles (with hopelessness and a belief in only failure ahead). We can go from gung ho to woe is me in just hours. We can know ups and downs galore. Misery, pain, depression… but wait… is that the sun rising? And, in the span of an hour, dawn arrives and we are buoyed to new heights, ebullient in our joy of knowing our finish is ahead. Thankfully, we are not just one or the other, we are, as in the recent movie title, ever "divergents"… So it goes.

  3. @frumioj

    Thought-provoking in one way. But the study sounds like it just create extremes which most people likely don't fit, as @senelly says above. Growth vs "fixed-mindedness" is just another false dichotomy. There are probably few people who are fixed-minded in everything they do. And few who are "growth-minded" in everything they do. I might push my perceived boundaries in my running, or I might take things easy in my job. Or vice-versa. Or neither.

    None of it has to mean that you should not "see things as they are", since that kind of mindfulness will help you grow without as much strain to begin with. Understanding your abilities correctly will help you figure out how to extend them. You likely cannot grow in all necessary areas at the same time.

    1. E_C_C

      There are two kinds of people:
      -those who believe there are two kinds of people
      -and those who don't..


      I've also heard there are 10 kinds of people:
      -those who understand binary, and (drum roll please…)
      -those who don't!

  4. macdaddymike

    Great article. I feel I can be some of both mindsets at times. For me, being tolerant of things I cannot change, and changing what I can control keeps me more in the Growth camp.
    I'll have to try the Gubna. I've been brewing my own a lot lately. Taking constructive criticism of my beer keeps me growing as a brewer, too!

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