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Is Ability Born or Built?


Ever since I was little, I always thought that I wasn’t a “math person.” While some people had the hardwiring necessary to solve equations with ease, I worried that the part of my brain that dealt in numbers was deficient. To me, these tendencies were innate, where some people are born “left-brained” and analytical, and others are born “right-brained” and linguistically inclined. Since I was the latter, I avoided math like the plague.

It wasn’t until college that I came to realize just how wrong I was.

During a class on the psychology of motivation, I was introduced to a concept that shattered these perceptions and fundamentally changed the way I viewed human capability as a whole. Termed the “Growth Mindset,” this concept has been pioneered by the Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck for the last few decades. Her theory is that there are two basic mindsets that people hold with regard to the nature of intelligence and ability. The fixed mindset is the belief that our capabilities remain relatively stable over time and can’t be changed to a significant degree. On the other hand, the growth mindset is the belief that our natural ability levels can be expanded through effort and exercise.

This may sound like a simple distinction, but the ramifications of mindset on how we approach our personal and professional development are profound.

Whenever we engage in a meaningful activity, we must face challenges that disrupt the attainment of our goals. This could take the form of criticism, unforeseen obstacles, lacking skills necessary for success, and even outright failure. When contending with such challenges, the fixed mindset starts to falter, while the growth mindset learns to flourish.

A person with a fixed mindset approaches challenge as a test of themselves, their worth, and their abilities. This leads to defensiveness against criticism and negative feedback, because these are perceived as a poor evaluation of their innate traits. Those with fixed mindsets construe failure as a signal that they do not possess the abilities necessary to attain success, and therefore put forth less effort in the face of failure. They are motivated to continue doing what they know they do well, and are wary of risking failure in attempting that which is novel or difficult.

On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset thinks challenges are a chance not to prove, but improve themselves. They view errors and criticism as a source of information about what areas they should target in order to exceed their past performance. Failure is not feared, but rather acknowledged as being a natural part of the learning process and used as a source of motivation for trying harder the next time around. People with growth mindsets know that intelligence and abilities are on-going processes, not merely end results.

The benefits of the growth mindset have been documented time and time again: improved grades in school, greater confidence in social situations, better performance at work, increased motivation and self-esteem…the list goes on. It is remarkable just how great the impact of a simple shift in mindset is on so many areas of life. There are even studies that specifically examine the effects of developing a growth mindset in the area of learning math!

One such study conducted by Dweck and her colleagues (Dweck, 2008) found that students’ math scores tended to decline during 7th grade and beyond, which marks the turning point at which the concepts taught are considerably more challenging and abstract than for previous grade levels. But, interestingly, the scores for students with growth mindsets actually increased during this difficult period, and continued to do so for the next two years. Their love of learning for learning’s sake and certainty that their efforts would be rewarded with improved performance allowed them to rise to the challenge.

I’ll admit it: for much of my life I had a strong fixed mindset, particularly so when it came to learning math. I look back now and wonder how my educational path would have been different had I developed a growth mindset and tackled my numeric illiteracy head on. But, there is hope! The truth is, everyone has elements of both mindsets, and this composition changes through time. Like any skill, the growth mindset can be learned with patience, practice, and effort.

What can you do to develop a growth mindset and inspire it in others?

Shannon Cooney
Shannon Cooney recently graduated from Creighton University with a Bachelor’s in Economics and Psychology and a minor in Business. She is currently interning with C&A Industries in the Training Department, while continuing her research in Creighton’s Psychology department and applying to graduate programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. When not working, she loves to run, read, travel, and drink absurd amounts of coffee.

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