By: Michael McQueen

Over 30 years ago, a cohort of middle school students was given some mathematics problems to solve.

The students were split into two groups. The first group was given what could be described as ‘unconditional positive regard’ style feedback. At the end of each session, these students received praise for doing well, regardless of how many problems they had completed or solved.

The second group was given feedback based on their performance. These students were occasionally told that they hadn’t solved enough mathematics problems during a particular session, and, crucially, that they should have tried harder.

After a period of time, both groups of students were given a combination of easy and very difficult problems to complete. The students of the first group, which had been given the ‘unconditional positive regard’ feedback, gave up quickly when they encountered difficult problems. In contrast, children in the second group who’d received more balanced feedback tried harder upon encountering the difficult problems. These students appeared to interpret the challenge as a cue to try harder rather than as confirmation that they lacked the ability to succeed.

This experiment, conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck, marked the identification of what we now know as a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset.[1] Dweck had set out to uncover what caused a sense of ‘helplessness’ in students and found that it was the assumptions underlying these mindsets that had a significant effect on students’ abilities and results.

Although many professionals are familiar with the notions of a Fixed and a Growth Mindset, I often find that the terms are used with little understanding of what they represent or how they are fostered.

Put simply, these two mindsets are as follows: A Fixed Mindset is based on the assumption that skill, talent and intelligence are inbuilt, or fixed, whereas a Growth Mindset is driven by the assumption that skill, talent and intelligence can be honed or developed with intentional effort.[2]

Beyond simple definitions, Dweck outlines common hallmarks or characteristics that indicate which mindset someone predominantly holds.

Characteristics of a Fixed Mindset are: [3]

  • Competitiveness. People with a Fixed Mindset tend to have an urgency or compulsion to prove themselves over and over again. After all, if you only have a certain amount of intelligence, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of it, and often in comparison with others.
  • Avoidance of high-threat relationships. A Fixed Mindset tends to compel people to surround themselves with people who will make them feel good or secure about themselves and their ability. Additionally, any individual who is deemed a challenge or threat is to be avoided.
  • Aversion to risks and challenges. The possibility of failure carries with it the danger of being revealed to be not good enough, so risk is generally to be avoided. This can also mean that the only things attempted will be those the individual knows they can succeed easily at the first time.
  • Treatment of performance as identity. For those with a Fixed Mindset, how well or poorly you perform is of critical importance. If you perform poorly, this can be interpreted as a terminal lack of talent or ability. Shame will often ensue and confidence is easily shattered. On the flip side, when an individual with a Fixed Mindset achieves success, this can lead to an inflated sense of accomplishment, a sense of superiority over others and a signal to stop trying.
  • Disinterest. For someone with a Fixed Mindset, ego preservation is paramount. As a result, they will tend to feign disinterest or apathy as a protection tactic and pretend not to care about a task or challenge.
  • Pursuit of external validation. There is a compulsion by the individual of a Fixed Mindset to constantly be reassured that they are good enough and doing well – often in comparison with others.

Contrastingly, characteristics of a Growth Mindset are: [4]

  • Low need to prove oneself. Individuals with a Growth Mindset hold a deep belief that they are a work-in-progress – there is little point constantly proving yourself when you could be focusing your effort on improving. If they are not as competent or capable as others at a particular task, that’s okay – talent is not a scarce resource and there is always room to grow.
  • Pursuit of challenging relationships. Those with a Growth Mindset have low reliance on friends or partners to shore up their sense of self-worth and will embrace relationships that will challenge and stretch them – even if this is uncomfortable at times.
  • Perception of failure as a learning opportunity. When failure occurs, those with a Growth Mindset tend to perceive it as an experience to learn from rather than an indication that they are not good enough. Rather than being crippling, failure is seen as a signal to try harder or innovate, representing a powerful opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Motivation to stretch. Individuals with a Growth Mindset tend not to readily label themselves or throw their hands up in despair when things go wrong. In contrast, when success is experienced, this is seen as a signal to keep going and keep developing, as those with a Growth Mindset know you have never ‘arrived’.
  • Pursuit of internal validation. Those with a Growth Mindset experience less of a compulsion to seek validation in the form of praise and recognition from others as they are satisfied by an internal sense of security and identity.

If students and professionals are to achieve their best results with resilience, passion and grit, a Growth Mindset is paramount. The search for external validation, the fear of failure and the avoidance of challenges are all elements of a dangerously common mindset that cripples the productivity, passion and purpose of people, student and professional alike.


[1] Duckworth, A. 2017, Grit, Vermilion, London, pp. 178, 179.

[2] Dweck, C. 2006, Mindset, Random House, New York, pp. 12, 13.

[3] Dweck, C. 2006, Mindset, Random House, New York, p. 6, 19, 38, 44, 58.

[4] Dweck, C. 2006, Mindset, Random House, New York, pp. 7, 9, 48.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is an award-winning speaker, social researcher and best-selling author.