Will Teaching About Growth Mindsets and Grit Work?

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the biggest mistakes that we, as a society, make is the confusion of absolute goods with positional goods.

    We define being in the top X% as “being well off”. And so the questions then become “how did you claw your way past the 100%-X% people to get into the X%?”

    “Well, I worked hard, ate right, practiced every day, took a multivitamin, said my prayers, and made sure that I never, ever shared my precious bodily essence with anybody.”

    Or whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard the speeches.

    And our number one concern is to move people who are in this particular percentile into that particular percentile and we count the hits and ignore the misses… and if we don’t ignore the misses, it’s to tell them that they could have gotten into this particular percentile if only they had gathered up another handful of tangibles or another bucket of intangibles.

    Hey, you want to know what the difference is between the gal at the 83rd percentile and the guy at the 82nd?

    The gal at the 83rd uses our product. If you want that extra edge, purchase our product in local supermarkets and if you don’t see it, ASK FOR IT.

    The only questions remain have to do with how somebody at the 83rd percentile today stacks up against somebody at the 83rd percentile some number of years ago.Report

  2. It’s funny that this was posted today. My school had a big lesson on this very subject yesterday. I agree with your overall argument; kids will know when they are making improvements and getting better at something.

    I find, working with middle schoolers (a group not known for their cheerful daily positivity) that simply reminding them that their lives are actually pretty good comparatively helps break them out of a negativity spiral. It’s unrelated from developing a “growth mindset” but connected in that its clear those who manage the modern world well seem to put daily problems and challenges in perspective.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    The problem with talking about a positive mindset and grit is that it often seems like a dodge to avoid talking about the structural aspects of income and wealth inequality. Or just that a lot of success in life can be absolutely down to dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time.

    Humans in general and maybe Americans in particular are very bad at facing the fact that sometimes or often bad things happen to good/decent people for no reason and that some people can have lives that are filled with bad luck. So we then say “You aren’t showing enough grit” or “You are such a Debbie Downer, no wonder you are not advancing in life.”

    I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb surrounded by upper-middle class kids whose parents had professional jobs. Almost everyone in my high school had parents who went to university, many had parents with advanced educations. Now I do think that upper-middle class professionals teach their kids the art of delayed gratification and that is worthwhile. So my classmates were taught to study, get into a good school, get a good job or go to grad/professional school. But how much of our success comes because we all had the luck to be born in stable and loving households that could provide guidance and also financial resources.

    I graduated law school in 2011. This was the peak of law firms not hiring. A lot of my classmates could not find law jobs. Those who did generally had connections. They worked with a relative (usually mom or dad) or their relative was able to get them a job via connections. The second one happened to me and it involved a lot of dumb luck. I had a one year temp job and then I got another six month temp job because the old rabbi’s wife at the shul my parents belong to in the East Bay is a lawyer and her firm needed temp help on a big case. This happened numerous times. There were times I went through stretches of unemployment and I did not get evicted because my parents were able to loan me money for my rent. I had to pay them back but paying back mom and dad is different than paying back a bank.

    A lot of people don’t have social support structures for various reasons (sometimes there fault but often not). I see this with my clients. My firm represents people who were injured by various products or victims of employment discrimination. A lot of times these people can’t work because of their injuries and they still need to pay bills as cases go through the courts. Any plaintiff’s firm or lawyer will tell you about clients calling because they are short on cash and need to pay the rent now. In a country of 320 million, a lot of people can be suffering even if the overall economy is very healthy.

    Plus we are dealing with a world where business leaders wants this to be one-sided. They want it to be easy to terminate employment and they don’t want to pay benefits. They outsource jobs for people they used to hire directly and grow. Then they complain that employees don’t stick it around.

    Things can’t be a one way street with all demand and no give but here we are.

    We talk about grit because admitting that grit and positive-attitudes are not enough would require us to address structural issues and say things like “Maybe losing a job at 63 shouldn’t put you at risk of homelessness.”Report

    • But how much of our success comes because we all had the luck to be born in stable and loving households that could provide guidance and also financial resources.

      I think about that a lot when I ponder my own situation.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “But how much of our success comes because we all had the luck to be born in stable and loving households that could provide guidance and also financial resources.”

      A lot. However you’re pointing to culture, and while culture (or a habit of making good choices) is one of the big keys to success, this is not normally what most people mean when they talk about “…bad things happen to good/decent people for no reason…”

      America is multicultural. Some subcultures make, according to the strictures of other subcultures, “bad” choices, which have predictable results.

      A safety net is a good thing if it shields me against the whims of fortune, it’s a bad thing if it encourages my cousin to deal drugs and have kids she can’t support.

      What to do with/about bad actors is a serious issue in any ethical/political/economic system. Not all systems have good answers, some simply handwave it and pretend it can’t happen. When we mix cultures, it becomes reasonable to think the median member of some group is “bad” by your own standards.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to Dark Matter says:

        @dark-matter He wasn’t, actually, talking about culture. He was talking about individuals’ upbringing, and about socio-economic status. As someone who had a crappy crappy upbringing – including not much of any of those things Saul named – and a low socioeconomic status, inside the very subculture that likes to cast itself as the ideal, that distinction matters to me a lot. Culture and a habit of making good choices are not, at all, coterminous.

        Please don’t jump to the cultural argument from the individual argument. It makes it look like you have dumb reasons for going there, and I don’t actually think you do.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Maribou says:

          He wasn’t, actually, talking about culture. He was talking about individuals’ upbringing, and about socio-economic status.

          Maybe “culture” is too broad (or imprecise, or too sensitive) a term, but I don’t know what else to call it when we apply it to large numbers where the upbringing is similar and outcomes reasonably predictable.

          The point he’s making (correctly) is “upbringing” is amazingly important. The point where I disagree is it’s “luck”. There are people who are what they are in spite of their parents, but most of us are going to be similar. Parents have a huge amount of influence over their children, it’s not “bad luck” if it’s someone’s responsibility and the outcome was predicted and expected.Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I think you (mostly) hit it on the head with regard to kids knowing when they are progressing.

    That is – instilling by assertion the mindset that we can learn skills through effort is likely to be mostly useless.

    Instilling that mindset by figuring out ways to structure practice exercises so that there are steady and noticeable skill acquisitions, will likely help. Sometimes the learner won’t notice those improvements and it’s helpful to point them out. But they have to be real ones that the learner can confirm with their own observations.Report

  5. Avatar gregiank says:

    Kids will learn about this kind of thing in their home through what they see modeled by their parents and siblings. That will drive who they become. It’s fine for schools to teach this but that will only have small influence at best on most kids. For a few kids it can be a really important seed for growth. But how they were raised especially when they are small will have the biggest effect.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    There are several things at play. In our modern, liberal and more egalitarian than anytime in human history besides maybe prehistory society, people teach the growth mindset to people, especially children, because very few people really want to get completely cynical, especially to children. Can you imagine a parent or elementary school teacher saying to kids that some of them will have great lives with relatively no effort and others will experience frustration and failure in nearly everything till the day they die? A less egalitarian and more hierarchical society might be able to raise kids with a this is “your place and ain’t going to get better no matter what mindset.” The United States or most countries in this world even those we don’t see as liberal democracies can’t do this.

    The growth mindset might not necessarily be true when it comes to what actually happen in reality but it might also be a socially necessary fiction. People can work and improve their lives. Maybe not as much as they want for the most part but a sense of defeatism, of cynicism, of things that will never ever get better can’t be that useful when you want change.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to LeeEsq says:

      You can work hard and learn skills. Likewise, if you don’t work hard, you’ll likely never excel at whatever skill set you choose. Now, having skills doesn’t mean you’ll land the “good life.” A ton of other things can get in the way, all kinds of “social networking” stuff, for example. Likewise, just have the “grit” to learn skills won’t help if you have no realistic path to acquire them. For example, if you cannot afford books and your library is twenty years out of date on tech stuff, then “grit” won’t be enough. But still, you need skills and hard work is the only way to get them.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Can you imagine a parent or elementary school teacher saying to kids that some of them will have great lives with relatively no effort and others will experience frustration and failure in nearly everything till the day they die?

      Easily. I’ve said more or less that to my kids multiple times over the years, but I’ve also stressed how important their own actions are to their own outcomes.

      Life is a game of Russian Roulette, but there’s hundreds of thousands of chambers and you can pick whether you put in one bullet or more. You putting in one bullet and someone else putting in lots doesn’t mean you’ll win and he won’t, but that’s the way to bet and you have no choice but play.

      Similarly someone will win the lottery (or become a rockstar/model/actor), but it won’t be you and making plans based on winning is insane. The guy who wins will be really dumb for playing, but for every person who wins that way there will be millions who don’t.

      Life is complicated and unfair but while you don’t have total control you have a lot. Pointing that out to children and explaining the reasoning is a good thing. And yes, these conversations started in Elementary school.Report

  7. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I find this topic highly interesting. In the dojo, we have a very strong commitment to a growth mindset and to developing grit. The thing is, we almost never talk about those subjects, per se, even though we are constantly cultivating them and motivated by them.

    There’s a bunch of “process messages” that we establish. We keep trying to find new ways to teach people skills. The process message is “this is a skill, and you can learn it”. The curriculum is broken down into reasonably bite-sized chunks, and good progress has to be made on one step before the next step is presented to the student. Unlike a normal school, promotion is determined by progress, not by time in rank.

    Grit, on the other hand, is cultivated by the simple truth of our training. We do judo. We fall down, we get back up. We repeat this maybe 50 or 60 times in each two-hour class. We do joint locks, and then they are done to us, to the point of pain, and we tap. Then we attempt them on our partner. Sometimes they don’t work, and we adjust. Everyone is aware that success is possible, and the class continues.

    This generally cultivates grit. Just what explanation of failure is given is important both to cultivating a growth mindset and grit. We deprecate explanations like “I just can’t do it” or “I’m not strong enough” or “I’m just not flexible enough” and promote explanations like “adjust the placement of your grip” and “do this drill to increase your leg strength” and “you need to relax more”.

    However, we don’t spend much time talking directly about a growth mindset, or grit. It isn’t all that useful. I’ll tell you what is useful, though. If you can just give people the meta-skill of looking for another explanation for the facts before them, that is very powerful.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    A lot of Freud skepticism started when pharmaceutical drugs for mental health started to appear on the market. The timing seems at least partially suspicious because it’s easier to make money by pushing pills than the Talkibg Cure.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Freudian therapy can go on for years. Taking a pill is a heck of a lot easier then multiple therapy appointments per week. Medication for mental illness also ushered in, or was usher in by, a bio-medical model of MI that didn’t see the problems as psycho dynamic but chemical imbalances. There are plenty of problems with psych meds, but there is far more scientific about the bio-med model than anything Freudian.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to LeeEsq says:

      @leeesq Freud skepticism started with Jung, my friend, because a lot of what Freud said came from him being sure it absolutely wasn’t possible that his clients were telling the truth about what happened to them (mostly sexual abuse) and he was looking for alternative narratives. But only his OWN alternative narratives, not anyone else’s.

      That said, yes, traditional forms of psychotherapy (all kinds except CBT) have declined with the advent of a focus on pharmaceuticals – most psychiatrists don’t even practice psychotherapy any more, only about 10 percent, whereas once they were required to.Report

  9. Avatar Maribou says:

    Hm, that was only one of Skinner’s dumb mistakes. Another one was in setting “pigeon is starving” (or rat is starving) as one of his default parameters, so that everything he studied really applies best to desperate rats and pigeons, not to comfortable ones. The parallels to human beings seem rather too obvious to bother to spell out, but I did it anyway, way back in library school.

    I love your version of the history of psychology though.Report

    • Have you by chance read any of Bernard Rollin’s work on animal rights? He makes similar points about how much experimentation is (or was) done to animals in such desperate situations that it’s hard to generalize from it. (That’s not all he argues, and I don’t think he’s the one who “discovered” that claim. But he has done a lot of good work, in my opinion, in making the case.)Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @gabriel-conroy I have not, but I’m familiar with the same background information, I think? Like when faced with behaviorism, the first thing I thought was “but he STARVED his animals!”

        I wrote a lot of letters to animal-experimenting corporations when I was a teenager. I’m glad he’s doing that work, and doing it well by the sounds of it. I’m not an animal-rights absolutist but I am a “if you’re going to experiment on them, you must not harm them beyond the choices you are making for the experiments, aware of the ethical costs” absolutist.

        (Sidenote: I also think people are just stupid about the animals they experiment on, perhaps partly due to dissociation and partly due to just not having enough cross-species empathy. This was a point that several of my bio profs made sure to hammer home; the story that always sticks in my head is of journal authors who failed to realize they’d “trained” the cats to rub up against the door of their cage when they arrived because *that is what cats do to greet people they know*.)

        When I first started working at my workplace, I spent a lot of time investigating how they treat their lab animals (not because of red flags, just because me) and one of the things I was relieved to realize is that the ethical treatment of animals task force or whatever it’s called specifically has a non-science-background, non-professorial member, at all times. Like someone to say “would a normal person be okay with this?” The scientists I know here are also very kind, and very ethical in their choices, but somehow that still made me breathe easier.Report

        • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

          @gabriel-conroy PS I should have said I’m definitely going to look Bernard Rollin up. Thanks for the pointer.Report

        • I’m not an animal-rights absolutist but I am a “if you’re going to experiment on them, you must not harm them beyond the choices you are making for the experiments, aware of the ethical costs” absolutist

          I think Rollin is more on the side you’re describing than on the absolutist side. He also tries to demonstrate that most of us already believe we need to treat animals “humanely” (my word…I’m not sure, but I don’t think he’d use it). He also strikes me as being in the Temple Grandin tradition of animal treatment, although I know far less about Grandin than about Rollin. (They’re both professors at CSU in Fort Collins, for what it’s worth.)

          I do have some quibbles with him, both philosophical and personal. But I pretty much agree philosophically with what he says. And he’s influenced my thinking quite a bit.

          I’d probably recommend starting with Animal Rights and Human Morality. But his Putting the Horse before Descartes (which I’ve only skimmed) is good, too, and more current.Report

  10. Avatar CJColucci says:

    I have gone through life as a cheerful pessimist. I don’t believe in the power of positive thinking, because s**t happens. But I do believe in the power of negative thinking. Although positive thinking is nowhere near enough to succeed, negative thinking is usually enough to fail.Report

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