UT Professor Art Markman on Fixed Versus Growth Mindsets

Think about the things you are able to do well. Perhaps you play an instrument or paint. You might be a writer or be great at math. Does your ability reflect talent or practice? Were you born with the abilities you have, or is it the amount of work you put in that made you as good as you are?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is “both.”

Everyone has aptitudes. Some people pick up new languages faster than others. Some people find balancing chemical equations intuitive, while others struggle. Some people excel at sports, while others have difficulty coordinating their movements. Each person is born with a somewhat different set of talents that determine what they find easy and what they find hard.

At the same time, hard work matters.

No matter how much talent you have, you will never reach true excellence in any arena without putting in the time to work at it.

An easy way to summarize what we know about talents and skills is that you can learn to be quite good at almost anything by putting in effort to learn it, though you may find some things easier to learn than others. However, if your goal is to be the best in the world at something, you had better have some talent to go along with that hard work.

One reason why this discussion matters is that people walk around with beliefs about whether particular abilities reflect talent or skill. Research pioneered by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, and expanded here at UT by my colleague and associate professor of psychology David Yeager, distinguishes between two mindsets: a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset about an ability, then you think success is largely a result of having a talent for that ability. You will put in work for things you are good at. But, when the work gets difficult, you may believe you have reached the limits of your talent, and you are prone to give up. So, if you think that you have some talent for music, you may play an instrument only up to the point where you encounter lots of people who are much better than you are, or reach a piece that you find very hard to play.

If you have a growth mindset about an ability, then you think success is determined by the amount of effort you put in. Challenges can be overcome by continuing to practice. When you have a growth mindset, your response to a challenge is to try harder. A budding musician who finds a particular piece hard to play will respond by putting in more practice time rather than giving up.

This work has important implications for children and adults.

In many situations, there is a benefit to adopting a growth mindset about anything you hope to learn. Believing you can learn new things is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are quite likely to succeed (eventually) when you try hard.

Interestingly, we often give people feedback that inadvertently reinforces a fixed mindset. When you tell someone, “Wow you’re a great musician” or “you’re really talented,” you focus on the aptitude someone has rather than the effort they put in. That can lead people (particularly young people) to discount the importance of their hard work in reaching their potential. Instead, it can be valuable to acknowledge the work that people had to put in to reach a level of skill.

As important as hard work is, though, you also need to remember that talent does influence performance. Just because people have not yet mastered some task does not mean that they aren’t trying. You don’t just want to assume that the only reason someone fails is that they are not trying. That can also be demotivating.

Illustration by Drue Wagner


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