The Problem with the Mindset Movement

As a psychotherapist, I spend a tremendous amount of my day talking about mindset.  I don’t have much of a poker face, and so clients will see me visibly cringe when they say something like, “well, it’s too late now.  I’m already in my 40’s. I can’t change what I’m doing now” or “I don’t have any choice.”  I straight out challenge and rebuke the cognitions of fixed mindset daily.  I make my living off of encouraging and supporting growth mindset.  I discourage a focus on end results or achievements, and emphasize praise for the journey.  I rarely congratulate my children for getting the correct answer, but instead praise the tools they used to move through the frustration in order to get to the correct answer.  Listen to the Fringy Bit podcast and you’ll hear us talk about mindset at least once an episode.

I embrace and preach strategies to encourage growth mindset.  I regularly tell people that no one is fully and completely enlightened.  All of us are continuing to grow.  All of us has a responsibility to keep growing and pushing and challenging and stepping into the frustrations and difficulties of growth.

I LOVE mindset. 

I DESPISE the mindset movement.

There’s a dark underbelly to all this emphasis on mindset and growth.  The core principles make sense.  We know that our brains are continuing to grow and form and make connections.  Awesome.  We all can keep growing.  But, the mindset movement frequently takes this truth and warps it to presume that everyone starts on an even playing field.  Everyone’s brains have the same capabilities and it is only a matter of our experiences that determines how well developed those capabilities become.

I’m sure there are studies out there that disprove this, but I’m not going to go searching for them.  I don’t have to.  Common sense allows us to simply look around and note that each of us is unique.  Each of us has our own skills.  And these are relatively apparent from a very early age, so it cannot simply be a matter of environment.

At 1, my oldest was speaking.  Not just a handful of words, but lots and lots of words.  He could easily make his desires known my communicating with the English language.  There was another boy in his playgroup who was 1 month older than Cub.  He was not saying a single word.  I watched as his mom did all the same things I did.  She talked to him.  She encouraged using words.  She labeled everything.  He could not speak.  But, he could climb up 4 stairs of a slide, slide down, run around to the stairs, and do it all over again.  Cub could not walk until he was 16 months old.  No matter the effort my husband and I put in, he simply would not walk. 

Was my son better because he could talk?  No.  Was the other boy better because he could walk and run?  No.  We are born with different gifts and abilities.  None of those is better or worse than another.  They are simply different.  Why is it so difficult to just accept that without putting judgment on it?

Did my son need to continue growing his language?  Yes.  Did the other boy need to continue the skill development of his physical skills?  Yes.  Did my son have continued work to do on his physical skills?  Yes.  Did the other boy have continued work to do on his language skills?  Yes.  Purporting a fixed mindset would not have been helpful for either of them.  But, assuming they had the same basic abilities would not have been helpful either.

Math comes easy to me.  I am gifted in mathematics.  Math does not come easy to my husband.  He is not gifted in mathematics.  I do the bills.  We balance each other out.  Am I superior because I do the bills or took accelerated math in high school?  No. 

Tech comes easy to my husband.  It does not come easy to me.  He handles all things tech.  We balance each other out.  Is he superior because he can research a tech issue and understand it the first time around while I have to read, read, re-read, and then still ask our IT nephew?  No.

My husband could spend hours and hours and even the magical 10,000 hours on math.  And, sure, his math would improve.  But, after helping him with his graduate stats class, I can tell you, he would never be a master of calculus. 

I could spend hours and hours studying and practicing computers or drawing or sculpture or physics and I will never be world-class in any of those areas.  They are not my skills.

Growth mindset can be embraced alongside an understanding of gifts and talents.  They do not have to be mutually exclusive.  There is something to be said for understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, interests and disinterests, and choosing to dedicate your time and growth energy on the things you naturally are interested in and have talent for.  And we can do this without growing complacent with a fixed mindset. 

In fact, if we all could embrace each other’s gifts, encouraging growth mindset all along, our world could be phenomenally well functioning and peaceful, and filled with content, growing people who do not have to judge one another.