Review: Mindset (Carol Dweck)

I went into this pretty skeptical, based on Scott Alexander’s analysis of the science.  But the reality was worse than I imagined.  First, she never even defines terms like talent or ability.  I would use ability to mean “current level of performance” and talent to mean something like “innate propensity to excel at task, as manifested in initial ability, ease of learning, or ceiling on ability.”  She… maybe uses ability to mean both those things?  She’ll talk about initial ability or talent and then increased ability or talent after practice, but that doesn’t mean the same amount of effort will get everyone to the same place, or all places are reachable by all people.  For that matter, she never defines mindset.  She talks about it like a fairly fixed trait (meaning it stays constant from one situation to another), but her own studies show it being changed by a four second speech.

Second, you can’t just make a list of good things and a list of bad things and wrap all the good things under your label and bad things under it’s opposite.  Here is a list of statements I believe will be uncontroversial:

  • A person who treats failure as a learning opportunity will learn more and be happier than a person who treats it as a mandate to curl into a ball and cry.
  • Ditto for viewing feedback as a source of information, rather than a referendum on you as a person.
  • Sometimes people start out bad at a task, practice, and then get really good at it.
  • This is more likely to happen if the person believes practice can improve their skill.
  • Children (and probably all people) tend to do better when their successes are ascribed to something they can control than to forces outside their control.

These things don’t necessarily go together.  For example, it is entirely possible to believe almost anything is learnable, and then beat yourself up for failure because you should have learned it already.   I’ve seen me do it.  “I’ll do better next time” can just as easily become a mantra to avoid mindfulness as to encourage it.

Third, I can’t even with the chapter on corporations.  Jack Welch brought stack ranking aka “rank and yank” to the masses, and she uses him as an example of not only having growth mindset, but fostering it throughout his company.

[An artist’s rendering of working at GE]

After this I refused to trust her anecdotes, and Scott already took down the studies.   You might think that left the book with nothing, but surprisingly it didn’t.  Her descriptions of the individual facets of growth or fixed mindset and how they affect people were useful and informative, even if I don’t think they have anything to do with each other.  And I think growth vs. fixed mindset might actually be a useful schema for institutions.  It certainly captures a lot of what’s wrong with American schools.

And as inspirational reading, it’s pretty good.  I would love to live in a world where one determined teacher takes 40 students from illiterate to Shakespeare, and stereotype threat is countered with a short speech.  In a world that overvalues innate talent, a push too far in the other direction may still leave us better off.  But that doesn’t make it correct.