Talent Isn't Fixed and Other Mindsets That Lead to Greatness

In the creative world, we spend a lot of time talking about “talent.” It’s that special sauce—a certain style, a certain perspective, a certain aesthetic. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And if you don’t, well… it can’t really be taught, right?

Not exactly.

According to Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, the psychologist behind the much-praised book Mindset: The New Psychology for Success, the attitude that we bring to our creative work—and to mentoring our juniors—can play a huge role in shaping just how much of our inborn talents we realize.

If we believe that someone’s talent is fixed—including our own—we are effectively writing off any options for growth. But if we believe that talent, or intelligence, or any other ability, evolves as a result of how much effort we put in, the opportunities are endless.

I chatted with Dweck to learn more about how a “growth mindset” can impact creative achievement on a personal and a professional level.

When we’re children, we think we can do anything. Especially in terms of creativity, we don’t think about our skill set as being limited. Why does that stop at a certain age?

It can actually stop as soon as we become conscious of ourselves. We start thinking that our mistakes are failures—and that these failures tell us and other people that we are not competent, that we are not worthy. This process can happen quite young.

Fast-forwarding into adulthood and being out in the working world, how does being afraid of failure impact people’s ability to be creative?

It makes you afraid of being judged. Now, what innovation or creativity requires is that you do things that haven’t been done before. And that you stick to them until you succeed. If you have a “fixed mindset,” which is this idea that you have a certain amount of limited ability, you are afraid to choose hard tasks. You think: “What if I don’t succeed? People will think I’m not as smart as I want to be, as I want them to think I am.”

When we give adults the choice to go back to something they’ve already done well, or something they haven’t done as well at, the ones with the fixed mindset go back to things they already know. In that scenario, you are not stretching forward, or stepping out of your comfort zones. You are really just concerned with looking smart all the time.

Adults in a fixed mindset also think that great effort, great struggle, means that you are not smart. It’s the notion that: “If I were smart, if I were talented, it would just come to me.” But people in a “growth mindset” enjoy the effort, welcome the struggle. They understand that innovation requires it.

How do these two mindsets play out when we’re dealing with setbacks? When we don’t succeed right away?

In a growth mindset, you don’t always welcome the setback, you were hoping to move forward, but you understand that it’s information on how to move forward better next time. It is a challenge that you are determined to surmount. In a fixed mindset, a setback calls your ability into question.

Everything is about: “Am I smart? Am I not smart?” But if you’re always managing your image to look smart, you’re not taking on the hardest tasks, you’re not thinking about them in the most innovative ways, and you’re not sticking to things that don’t work right away.

How can we bring a “growth mindset” to giving people feedback on creative projects?

Whether we are praising or criticizing, my work suggests that you focus on the process not on the person. So if there is a success, even a great success, you don’t say, “You’re a genius! You really have talent!” because it puts people into a fixed mindset.

If you’re always managing your image to look smart, you’re not taking on the hardest tasks.

And then it makes them afraid of doing hard things or of making mistakes, which will dampen future creativity or innovation. If you are giving negative feedback, it should be about the process rather than the person. So you can praise what was good about the process, but then you can also analyze what was wrong about the process and what the person can do in order to increase the likelihood of succeeding next time.

Could you give me an example of how that language would actually play out if I were giving someone feedback?

A fixed mindset approach would be saying something like: “This project turned out amazing. You’re a genius. I knew you had the talent. This is proof of it.” As opposed to a growth mindset approach of, “Wow, this project turned out fantastically well. I loved the way you mobilized the team, the way you kept everyone focused, the way you brought it to fruition, the way you made everybody feel the ownership.” These are things you can replicate and that you should replicate the next time. Whereas, when I say, “You’re a genius!”…how do you reproduce that over and over?

And what about when you need to give someone criticism? Or point out an area that needs work?

As I mentioned, when you are giving criticism, you need to carefully critique the process someone engaged in and discuss what skills they need to learn and improve.

But I’ve also fallen in love with a new word—“yet.” You can say to someone who fell short: “You don’t seem to have this,” but then add the word “yet.” As in, “You don’t seem to have these skills…yet.” By doing that, we give people a time perspective. It creates the idea of learning over time. It puts the other person on that learning curve and says, “Well, maybe you’re not at the finish line but you’re on that learning curve and let’s go further.” It’s such a growth mindset word.

In the creative world, the notion of talent (as opposed to effort) is emphasized constantly. How can we break out of that cycle?

First, there is some great research on changing managers’ mindsets by Peter Heslin. In one workshop, managers were asked to think of examples from their own lives that illustrated a growth mindset—like “What are some things you thought you could never do, and then you did them?” Or writing a letter to someone who had been doing well but was now hitting a period of struggle, and mentoring that person in terms of a growth mindset.

The researchers then followed these managers for at least six weeks and compared them to managers who did not have the growth mindset training. The first thing they noticed was that the managers who had the growth mindset training were now much more open to feedback from their employees. They were also less likely to make snap judgments about who has talent, and who doesn’t.

They also found that the managers became much more willing to mentor. Because if you’re in a fixed mindset and you believe that some people have it and some people don’t, you think, well “I will just wait and see who has it and who doesn’t. Cream rises to the top.” But if you have a growth mindset, you understand that “Hey, I’m in the business of growing talent, helping it develop, not just sitting back and judging it.”

And how can an individual start to change his or her own mindset?

One thing I tell people is, just as a first step, start listening to the fixed mindset voice in your head. It’s always there, telling you: “Oh, are you sure you want to do this? You might make mistakes and, you know, people will find you out. You’re not going to look like the genius you want to look like.” Or if you start struggling, the fixed mindset says, “Oh, I told you so, but it’s not too late, you can still get out and save face.” For a while just do that, just start listening to the fixed mindset voice keeping score. And then over time: Start talking back.

If you’re with someone who is tremendously able and successful. Think: “What can I learn from this person? Yes, maybe I feel a little intimidated but this person could be a great mentor. I could learn a lot. Maybe I could get to know them, maybe they could take me under their wing. Maybe I want to know more about getting from where I am to where they are. What are their secrets?”

Start talking back and seeing all these things—challenges, setbacks, role models—as learning opportunities. Do it most of all if you still feel threatened, because we all have a little part of ourselves that is a little shy, a little threatened. Do it anyway! And see how well it works.


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