Your Mindset as a Postdoc – and Why it Matters

Which would you prefer: thinking of everything you do according to the motto ‘judge-or-be-judged’, or instead, ‘grow-and-help-grow’? These may sound like extremes but according to Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor of psychology, these are the two core mindsets that guide people’s approach to life, as outlined in her book “Mindset, the new psychology of success”.

Those with a ‘fixed’ mindset (the judgers) believe in innate levels of intelligence or ability, resulting in a constant need to prove themselves, with failure considered a real threat to self-worth. The author cites the great tennis player John McEnroe as a typical fixed mindset person, extravagantly gifted but with a terrible temper when things were not going his way and blaming others, or the circumstances, when he lost.

People with a ‘growth’ mindset, on the other hand, consider their current level of ability or intelligence as a starting point that can be grown through effort. Failure is considered a sign that more work is needed and an opportunity for positive change. Carol Dweck considers Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods (at least on the golf course) as having the growth mentality, constantly working on their game and improving.

The two mindsets are both found among top athletes, business leaders and academics, so they are not correlated with achievement and success per se. The big difference is seen in the levels of enjoyment of success, the stress levels and ability to cope with set-backs – and how much their co-workers and staff liked working with them. No prize for guessing who is considered better to work with; one who judges ability or one who believes in growing ability!

Most people tend to show aspects of both mindsets in different areas of their lives. For instance, you may believe that your creative abilities are fixed but that you can grow your social skills. The author of ‘Mindset’ herself found that at the outset she had a very strong fixed mindset for most aspects of her life. However, Dweck’s exciting finding is that you are not stuck with your mindset; you can change it, often by quite simple means.

She has a nice example when she worked through reviewers’ comments with a grad student who had just submitted her first paper. The student was quite upset about the criticism, taking the comments rather personally due to a fixed mindset, so the criticisms lowered her confidence in her abilities as a scientist. The supervisor then explained that it was simply the reviewers’ job to find all the flaws in the paper and it was the student’s job to improve the paper based on that. With that simple growth-mindset explanation the student improved the paper and resubmitted happily.

As the growth mindset has no concept of an unchanging ‘core’ ability, criticism and making mistakes cause no lasting damage to self-worth or confidence. In the growth mindset, making mistakes is part and parcel of growing your abilities.

The reason I bought Prof Dweck’s book was that ‘mindset’ is a term used a lot in business and personal development circles with little explanation of what it means; and this book came with the credentials of years of psychology research.

When I started reading, I felt a little smug: at first the description of the growth mindset fitted well. I love learning, challenging myself with new things, and I have no desire to be perfect and luckily have inherited a good dose of my dad’s optimism and ability to pick myself up after a set-back (dubbed the ‘Fritsches gene’ in my family).

Then I realised that I had a growth mindset for new things, but showed pretty clear signs of a fixed mindset when it came to areas I consider myself proficient in. So once I was considered an expert in areas of my research for instance, I realised learning and improving my skills can be overshadowed by the need to play it safe or avoid certain situations so as not to show my ignorance, especially when I’m among my peers. This extends to conversations with colleagues (especially the competitive ones), asking questions in seminars, dealing with reviewers’ criticism or embracing some new technologies.

Having a fixed mindset when in ‘expert mode’ I realised I was blocking myself from learning and discovering new things. Plus, it doesn’t make ‘being an expert’ a very enjoyable place to be!

But how do you change out of a fixed mindset? The book has a few different suggestions, depending on the situation, but these are the steps I distilled:

1. Be aware of the two mindsets: ‘judge or be judged’ or ‘grow and let grow’ – ask yourself which one are you in, given a particular situation?

2. When in fixed mindset, stop and recognize the internal dialogue that pushes you into that mindset: ‘I’m going to embarrass myself’, ‘I’d better not try in case I get it wrong’, ‘this mistake proves I don’t know what I’m doing’, ‘this student just won’t learn’, etc.

3. Realise you have a choice:

a. react to set-backs and challenges with a defensive, fixed mindset attitude; or
b. choose a positive, growth mindset: I want to stretch myself and grow.

4. Make an active choice towards the growth mindset by talking back at the fixed mindset reasoning:

a. ‘I’m going to embarrass myself’ – ‘Possibly, but it is much more likely that I will learn a lot by trying out something new’,
b. ‘I better not try in case I fail’ – ‘If I don’t try, I’m not gaining anything’
c. ‘This mistake proves I don’t know what I’m doing’ – ‘I’ve shown plenty of times that I’m good at this. Now, what can I learn from this mistake?’
d. ‘This student just won’t learn’ – ‘How can I present the material so the student can learn?’

Obviously there is a lot more detail and many case studies in ‘Mindset’. For instance I thought it was interesting that the IQ test, which is commonly thought to measure intelligence as a ‘fixed ability’, was actually designed to identify children falling behind in school so that they could receive extra training to improve their skills. And it’s been shown that a growth mindset tends to rub off on the people around you, whether they are your students, children or colleagues, so this is even more of a reason to embrace it.

What do you think? Is a fixed mindset holding you back? Can you think of any of your abilities that you cannot grow further? Or do you think the ‘fixed or growth mindset’ model is a little too simplistic?

I’d love to get your feedback so please leave a comment below.

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2 Responses to Your Mindset as a Postdoc – and Why it Matters

  1. Duncan June 7, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Hi Kerstin,
    Great post, on a topic that I've been struggling with for a while.  I seem to have a 'growth mindset' for my hobbies, but get into a fixed mindset the moment I get to work.  And given that I've just changed fields, this is making it difficult to maintain motivation, engage with other researchers, and simply enjoy my work!
    Thanks for that list of suggestions for challenging such a mindset.  
    I imagine that issues like anxiety and depression would be strongly correlated with the fixed mind-set (that's certainly been the case in my experience).  If so, then perhaps another useful tip I've come across is to imagine a kind of 'volume control knob' with 'curiosity' on one side and 'anxiety' on the other, and then to imagine physically turning the knob towards the 'curiosity' end of its range.

    • Kerstin June 8, 2012 at 1:59 am #

      Hi Duncan

      I’m glad you found the post helpful! Interesting your point about depression. In her studies Carol Dweck found that students with the fixed mindset definitely had higher levels of depression. However, people with a growth mindset get depressed too but according to Dweck they respond completely differently. “The worse they felt, the more motivated they became and the more they confronted the problems that faced them”. In her ‘grow your mindset’ section she suggests that next time someone feels low, they should try to think about learning and confronting obstacles, considering effort as a positive force rather than a drag. Easier said than done, especially when you are depressed!

      That’s where I like your ‘volume control knob’ strategy, switching yourself from anxiety to curiosity, or whatever you want to put on that dial. I guess the mindset message is that you are not stuck with behaviours and attitudes that don’t actually work for you, that you can change them with awareness and strategies.


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