Mindset: From Carol Dweck to Woody Allen
February 10, 2012 by Cliff
Almost 10 years ago, Carol Dweck – one of the world’s leading researchers in Psychology and a Professor at Stanford – released a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Under normal circumstances, this book would not have found its way on to my shelf or into my backpack. But in this particular circumstance, some of my co-workers really latched on to Dweck’s perspectives on leadership development…in fact, they latched on to those ideas so completely that entire trainings and meetings were built around the book. When I finally got around to reading Mindset, I discovered two things. First, I discovered that the book was indeed pretty insightful. Second, I found the book to be even more insightful about relationships than about organizational leadership.
Here’s how Publishers Weekly summarized the book’s central hypothesis: “Dweck proposes that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which you view your talents and abilities as… well, fixed. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress. Your fate is one of growth and opportunity.” The book obviously includes a TON of compelling research, most notably studies about how children who are praised for effort persevere more than children who are praised for latent intelligence. What does this have to do with marriage? I’m glad you asked.
Dweck basically argues that the way we view partners’ flaws is crucial…are they deep or serious character problems (fixed mindset) or are they things that could be addressed with some communication (growth mindset)? That simple mindset changes everything. Here’s an excerpt:
The big difficulty with the fixed mindset is the belief that problems are a sign of deep-seated flaws. But just as there are not great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait - a character flaw.
But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust towards them.
And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits it can’t be solved.
So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship. (People with the growth mindset, on the other hand, can see their partners’ imperfections and still think they have a fine relationship).
Not only did I find this concept groundbreaking, but I also started seeing it EVERYWHERE. My most recent example was a Woody Allen film that we watched over the weekend. Midnight in Paris focuses on an engaged couple’s trip to Paris. It is very quickly apparent that Gil (Owen Wilson) is in love with not only writing in Paris, but particularly writing in Paris circa the 1920s. It is also very quickly apparent that Inez (Rachel McAdams) is generally annoyed with not only Gil’s Paris obsession, but also his desire to write novels in general. At one point, Gil attempts to explain to someone why he loves Inez; as he fumbles desperately for something (ANYthing) they have in common, the viewer is clearly supposed to wonder why they are together at all. But that basic question hinges upon the assumption that Gil is fundamentally who he is and Inez is fundamentally who she is…any problem must therefore indicate a flaw. Even Gil and Inez seem to fall prey to this thinking, assuming that they will either break-up or magically/fundamentally change. There’s lots of blaming and frustration, but there are no conversations about their frustrations or discussions about approaching things differently.
In any relationship, there’s a temptation to assume that our identities and habits are fixed. But changed people (and changed relationships, for that matter) can happen. They just require effort, challenge and growth. Dweck’s book makes that abundantly clear, and it’s worth reading Mindset for sure. It’s also worth checking out Midnight In Paris , if for no other reason than that Owen Wilson seems to have been born to deliver dialogue written by Woody Allen.