A few decades ago, a Stanford University psychologist by the name of Carol Dweck became famous when she suggested parents praise their children’s efforts instead of complimenting them on their “inherent” intelligence.1 No more “Joey, you’re such a smart boy!” or “Suzy, how’s Mama’s smart girl?” Instead, she suggested, our kids would benefit more from, “Joey, you worked really hard,” or, “Wonderful, Suzy, you’ve given this assignment your all.”
According to Dweck’s research, accolades telling kids how intelligent they are actually undermine children’s self-confidence and willingness to venture new tasks or unfamiliar material. Conversely, acknowledging children’s engagement and perseverance result in their aiming for bigger challenges.
Dweck identified what she called a differentiation of “mindset.” When we’re operating from a “fixed” mindset, we believe our talents and abilities are somehow set or predetermined. We’re either innately good at something or we’re not. When we adopt a “growth mindset,” however, we view achievement through the lens of effort. We believe we have the power to develop our skills regardless of initial capacity.
Clearly, we grown-ups can glean something essential from this concept. What could a growth mindset do for our health endeavors? For becoming fit? For changing our eating habits? For our happiness and success in general? And how would it change our self-talk and motivational strategy?
Growth Mindset Versus Fixed Mindset
Let’s look back at the original research for a minute. Dweck’s now-famous study examined the responses of two groups of fifth graders—one whose participants were told “You must be very smart at this” after completing a puzzle and another who heard “You must have worked really hard.” When each of the children in both groups were then offered the chance to do a similarly easy or more difficult puzzle, some 90 percent of the “hard workers” chose the more challenging option. The smarties? Most of them chose the easy one.
When the story circulated in the media, parents everywhere recognized their near-universal guilt. Some likely panicked, wondering if they’d doomed their children for all eternity. (Such is the hardship of modern parenting.) The truth is, however, Professor Dweck’s findings turned instinct on its ear, and not just parenting instinct. After all, who doesn’t want to be told they are smart, athletic, or great at this-or-that?
We want to be told that we are inherently good and skilled, yes, but the fact is we don’t do well with it.
Because for us, as for those fifth-graders, we can get sucked into the expectation of the label. If people think we’re so great now, we suddenly fear losing that good perception, or our own positive self-image. We’ve given too much power to that identity, and we can’t risk the loss by pushing ourselves beyond what we know we do well. By the same token, if we’ve been inactive and unfit for much of our lives, we’ve perhaps come to identify with self-limiting beliefs about subpar genes or behavior patterns and feel we’re already set up for failure. Why bother?
Decades of subsequent research by Dweck and others affirms that individuals who view their abilities through the lens of a fixed mindset are less likely to seek out challenges. When things get tough, they quit because they don’t have faith that hard work will improve their circumstances. Folks with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcome challenges. They are resilient even when things aren’t going their way. They are better at handling criticism than fixed-mindset peers, seeing it as an opportunity to learn. As a result, they feel more mastery in the world—they make things happen, whereas for those with a fixed mindset, it feels like things happen to them.
Reaching for Growth
So, what works for us? We do well with affirmation of our effort. We do well with validation of all the hard work we put in. We do well with encouragement and support for attempting a specific challenge to begin with and for giving it our best shot. It takes our mind off of the outcome. In fact, it helps us detach from it and keeps us from identifying with it. It frees us up to play and define ourselves as “in process.”
This can be fun and messy and even embarrassing at times. We grow by stretching and often (very often) by failing. A physical muscle’s growth is spurred by a well-targeted amount of damage. Our cognitive ability grows by wrestling with questions that initially baffle us. We grow emotionally by encountering and weathering experiences that leave us flattened. When we put ourselves in tough situations and overcome them, we bounce back with more strength, know-how, wisdom and resilience.
In the face of this stretching, a growth mindset imparts continual optimism and simultaneous humility. If you’ve been told you “just weren’t blessed” with the body of an athlete, a growth mindset will dismiss that judgment. If you have been told you were blessed with an athlete’s body, a growth mindset will discount that as well. You’ll recognize that your genes might confer certain advantages, but the end result is going to have very little to do with your genetics and everything to do with your exertion.
Commit to Being a Learner
Professor Dweck aptly highlights author Benjamin R. Barber’s quote, “I divide the world into learners and non-learners.” That says it right there, and it’s as applicable to a Primal journey as it is a fifth-grade classroom. Are we willing to be a learners?
To me, it’s exciting that nothing is truly off limits to me at any point in my life. I give myself permission to grab at new experiences—and fail at them miserably. (My wife can tell you plenty of stories….) Because I’m not trying to uphold any assumption about myself or my skills, I’m free to do whatever I want and see how far I can go with everything from parkour to heliskiing. We can endeavor more no matter where we’re at in life or what our health, physical condition or life circumstances.
Growth mindset prompts us to let go of limitations. We learn to bypass old scripts that tell us we’re too old, we’re too slow, we’re not cut out for a, b or c or we’re genetically destined to be x, y or z. Again, a growth mindset isn’t in it for the outcome. It’s focused on the process. The affirmation is in the undertaking.
Adopting a growth mindset on some level entails exploring those self-beliefs that influence our thinking and action. What messages are driving the bus each day? Don’t underestimate simple awareness. Upending negative self-talk isn’t an easy or quick fix. Even if we get up the motivation to start going to the gym or to begin eating better, how many times are we beset by guilt that we haven’t accomplished this before? Notice and then let go of the neurotic, nagging and defeating voice that says you should already be where you want to go.
Focus on the Process
What if we all set out to consciously affirm and encourage our own efforts at every turn? What if we dropped our (or other people’s) old stories about ourselves? What if we all but ignored outcomes? What would it mean for how much we enjoyed life, how much we risked, how much we were willing to push ourselves toward bigger challenges?
Investing in a growth mindset means literally practicing the belief that we can try our hand at whatever we like. Put into practice. Again and again. There’s no magic switch that flips us from fixed to growth as nice as that would be. We write over the old scripts and affirm the new continuously. Over time, they become our new default thinking. Sure, it would be great to get encouragement like those lucky fifth-graders in the “growth” group. That said, there’s nothing keeping us from applying this principle to the messages we tell ourselves and the support we put in place for ourselves every day.
When we stop identifying with the performance expectation or outcome, we can chalk all of life’s adventures up to Primal exploration. Grok would be proud.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are you thoughts on fixed and growth mindset, and how have these principles shown up in your thinking? Have you changed over time in this regard?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.