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Home > 2011 > July Online Only > The Growth Mindset

A friend of mine—one of the most effective leaders I know—has produced remarkable results that span several decades at two very large organizations, and is now taking on a third one. He's the kind of guy that you naturally want to be with.

He shared with me one of the keys to his success. When he takes the reins of leadership somewhere, the first thing he will do is get rid of the people who are negative. "I can't afford the energy that will get siphoned off by whiners and victims and blamers and drainers," he told me. So the first step he takes in building a team is creating a family of positive, visionary, excited, and basically happy people.

Another friend of mine, who has worked both inside and outside the church, says that this is easier to do when you work at a corporation than it is when you work at a church.

But it did spark my thinking: what makes some people energy-bringers and others energy-drainers?

Obstacles or opportunities?

Carol Dweck is a world-renowned Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset, a book about a fundamental difference in human thinking. She found that raw talent and aptitude have relatively little to do with how far children will journey in life when they become adults.

Through a series of studies, she was surprised to find a certain subset of children who not only are able to tolerate failure—not even able simply to cope with it—but actually relish it. On one occasion she gave children a series of nearly impossible puzzles. Many were frustrated. Some gave up. Some labored grimly. But a few had a completely different response.

One 10-year-old boy, who was confronted with one of the nearly impossible puzzles, actually looked up with a smile on his face and said, "You know, I was hoping this would be informative." Another rubbed his hands, and cried out "I love a challenge!"

What's wrong with them? Dweck found herself asking. This led her on a 20-year journey that produced a remarkable finding: how people respond to challenges and failure depends, not on their failure, but on their mindset.

Tale of two mindsets

Some people have a fixed mindset. They view their qualities like intelligence and ability to be carved in stone. Therefore each task becomes a referendum on their ability, which means it's also an assessment of their worth. Failure is horrible because it means they are not made of the right stuff.

Others have what Dweck calls a "growth mindset." This is based on the belief that your basic qualities can be grown through effort and learning. Although other people may have higher IQs or coordination than you, through experience, you can grow.

It is not simply that some people crave risks, or that some people are naturally more resilient. The key, Dweck found over and over again, is the belief that underlies your sense of identity. If you believe your qualities are carved in stone it will determine how you approach (and avoid) challenges throughout your life. If you believe that growth is possible and desirable, you will face your days with a fundamentally different set of thoughts and emotions.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Posted: July 18, 2011

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