Growth Versus Fixed Mindset

An exploration of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘fixed mindsets’ as they apply to ultrarunning.

By on April 18, 2014 | Comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.