Chat with us, powered by LiveChat LEADERSHIP QUESTION | The Best Academic Writing Website


You will apply principles, frameworks, lessons learned, etc. from the course readings to a crisis, disaster, or success that you choose (a self-selected case study). View the final paper as an expanded and more in-depth analysis of the weekly case studies we reviewed. Your self-selected case study cannot be one of the case studies examined during the course.

The paper must include three parts:

1. a relatively short description of the case study

2. an analysis of the leadership efforts (quality, effectiveness, etc.), or lack thereof, using appropriate principles from the readings from the case study!

3. an analysis/comment on the leadership lessons to be learned. The analysis (parts 2 and 3) should constitute the main part of the paper. If you cannot locate enough research material to address parts 2 and 3, choose another topic. It is important to identify and draw upon high-quality academic resources.

Readings are attached!!

Use this link for the case study:






Copyright © 2006, 2016 by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC,
New York.

RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jeremy P. Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, for
permission to reprint four illustrations from pp. 18–19 of The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Workbook by Betty Edwards, copyright © 2003. Reprinted by permission of Jeremy P. Tarcher, an imprint

of Penguin Random House LLC.

Originally published in a slightly different form in 2006 by Random House, an imprint and division of
Penguin Random House LLC.

Mindset: the new psychology of success / Carol S. Dweck p. cm.

Includes index.
ISBN 978-1-4000-6275-1

eBook ISBN 978-1-58836523-1

Belief and doubt. 2. Success—Psychological aspects. I. Title.
BF773.D85 2006

153.8—dc22 2005046454

Ebook ISBN 9781588365231


Cover design: Richard Rossiter v4.1



Title Page

Chapter 1: The Mindsets
Chapter 2: Inside the Mindsets
Chapter 3: The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment
Chapter 4: Sports: The Mindset of a Champion
Chapter 5: Business: Mindset and Leadership
Chapter 6: Relationships: Mindsets in Love (or Not)
Chapter 7: Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?
Chapter 8: Changing Mindsets

Recommended Books
About the Author


One day, my students sat me down and ordered me to write this book. They
wanted people to be able to use our work to make their lives better. It was
something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but it became my number one
My work is part of a tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s

beliefs. These may be beliefs we’re aware of or unaware of, but they strongly
affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it. This tradition also
shows how changing people’s beliefs—even the simplest beliefs—can have
profound effects.
In this book, you’ll learn how a simple belief about yourself—a belief we

discovered in our research—guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates
every part of your life. Much of what you think of as your personality actually
grows out of this “mindset.” Much of what may be preventing you from
fulfilling your potential grows out of it.
No book has ever explained this mindset and shown people how to make use

of it in their lives. You’ll suddenly understand the greats—in the sciences and
arts, in sports, and in business—and the would-have-beens. You’ll understand
your mate, your boss, your friends, your kids. You’ll see how to unleash your
potential—and your children’s.
It is my privilege to share my findings with you. Besides accounts of people

from my research, I’ve filled each chapter with stories both ripped from the
headlines and based on my own life and experience, so you can see the mindsets
in action. (In most cases, names and personal information have been changed to
preserve anonymity; in some cases, several people have been condensed into one
to make a clearer point. A number of the exchanges are re-created from memory,
and I have rendered them to the best of my ability.) At the end of each chapter
and throughout the last chapter, I show you ways to apply the lessons—ways to
recognize the mindset that is guiding your life, to understand how it works, and

to change it if you wish.
A little note about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven’t always

followed it in this book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences
with prepositions. I use the plural they in contexts that require the singular he or
she. I’ve done this for informality and immediacy, and I hope that the sticklers
will forgive me.
A little note on this updated edition. I felt it was important to add new

information to some of the chapters. I added our new study on organizational
mindsets to chapter 5 (Business). Yes, a whole organization can have a mindset!
I added a new section on “false growth mindset” to chapter 7 (Parents, Teachers,
and Coaches) after I learned about the many creative ways people were
interpreting and implementing the growth mindset, not always accurately. And I
added “The Journey to a (True) Growth Mindset” to chapter 8 (Changing
Mindsets) because many people have asked for more information on how to take
that journey. I hope these updates are helpful.
I’d like to take this chance to thank all of the people who made my research

and this book possible. My students have made my research career a complete
joy. I hope they’ve learned as much from me as I’ve learned from them. I’d also
like to thank the organizations that supported our research: the William T. Grant
Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, the
National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development, the Spencer Foundation, and the Raikes Foundation.
The people at Random House have been the most encouraging team I could

wish for: Webster Younce, Daniel Menaker, Tom Perry, and, most of all,
Caroline Sutton and Jennifer Hershey, my editors. Your excitement about my
book and your great suggestions have made all the difference. I thank my superb
agent, Giles Anderson, as well as Heidi Grant for putting me in touch with him.
Thanks to all the people who gave me input and feedback, but special thanks

to Polly Shulman, Richard Dweck, and Maryann Peshkin for their extensive and
insightful comments. Finally, I thank my husband, David, for the love and
enthusiasm that give my life an extra dimension. His support throughout this
project was extraordinary.
My work has been about growth, and it has helped foster my own growth. It is

my wish that it will do the same for you.

Chapter 1


When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that
changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with
failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard
problems. So I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made
them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones
were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. As the students grunted, perspired,
and toiled, I watched their strategies and probed what they were thinking and
feeling. I expected differences among children in how they coped with the
difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.
Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair,

rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!”
Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression
and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”
What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with

failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure.
Were these alien children or were they on to something?
Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical

moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They obviously
knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure it out—to understand
the kind of mindset that could turn a failure into a gift.
What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual

skills, could be cultivated. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter.
Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were
failing. They thought they were learning.
I, on the other hand, thought human qualities were carved in stone. You were

smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t. It was that simple. If you
could arrange successes and avoid failures (at all costs), you could stay smart.

Struggles, mistakes, perseverance were just not part of this picture.
Whether human qualities are things that can be cultivated or things that are

carved in stone is an old issue. What these beliefs mean for you is a new one:
What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is
something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated
trait? Let’s first look in on the age-old, fiercely waged debate about human
nature and then return to the question of what these beliefs mean for you.


Since the dawn of time, people have thought differently, acted differently, and
fared differently from each other. It was guaranteed that someone would ask the
question of why people differed—why some people are smarter or more moral—
and whether there was something that made them permanently different. Experts
lined up on both sides. Some claimed that there was a strong physical basis for
these differences, making them unavoidable and unalterable. Through the ages,
these alleged physical differences have included bumps on the skull
(phrenology), the size and shape of the skull (craniology), and, today, genes.
Others pointed to the strong differences in people’s backgrounds, experiences,

training, or ways of learning. It may surprise you to know that a big champion of
this view was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test. Wasn’t the IQ test meant
to summarize children’s unchangeable intelligence? In fact, no. Binet, a
Frenchman working in Paris in the early twentieth century, designed this test to
identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that
new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track. Without
denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education
and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence. Here is a
quote from one of his major books, Modern Ideas About Children, in which he
summarizes his work with hundreds of children with learning difficulties:

A few modern philosophers…assert that an individual’s intelligence
is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must
protest and react against this brutal pessimism….With practice,
training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our
attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more
intelligent than we were before.

Who’s right? Today most experts agree that it’s not either–or. It’s not nature
or nurture, genes or environment. From conception on, there’s a constant give-
and-take between the two. In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb, an eminent neuroscientist,
put it, not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes
require input from the environment to work properly.
At the same time, scientists are learning that people have more capacity for

lifelong learning and brain development than they ever thought. Of course, each
person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different
temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training, and
personal effort take them the rest of the way. Robert Sternberg, the present-day
guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve
expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.” Or, as his
forerunner Binet recognized, it’s not always the people who start out the
smartest who end up the smartest.


It’s one thing to have pundits spouting their opinions about scientific issues. It’s
another thing to understand how these views apply to you. For thirty years, my
research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the
way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you
want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this
happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology
and, as a result, your life?
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates

an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of
intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then
you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do
to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
Some of us are trained in this mindset from an early age. Even as a child, I

was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs.
Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet, she believed that people’s
IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the
room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the
flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily
stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a

mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart,
don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being
was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves

—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation
calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every
situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I
be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But doesn’t our society value intelligence, personality, and character? Isn’t it

normal to want these traits? Yes, but…
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re

dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that
you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this
mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This
growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can
cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although
people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes,
interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application
and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone

with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but
they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s
impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and
Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

That Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was completely
uncoordinated and graceless as a child? That the photographer Cindy Sherman,
who has been on virtually every list of the most important artists of the twentieth
century, failed her first photography course? That Geraldine Page, one of our
greatest actresses, was advised to give it up for lack of talent?
You can see how the belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a

passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are,
when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming
them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem
instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried
and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching

yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the
hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive
during some of the most challenging times in their lives.


To give you a better sense of how the two mindsets work, imagine—as vividly
as you can—that you are a young adult having a really bad day:

One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that
you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class.
You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way
back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket.
Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your
experience but are sort of brushed off.

What would you think? What would you feel? What would you do?
When I asked people with the fixed mindset, this is what they said: “I’d feel

like a reject.” “I’m a total failure.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a loser.” “I’d feel
worthless and dumb—everyone’s better than me.” “I’m slime.” In other words,
they’d see what happened as a direct measure of their competence and worth.
This is what they’d think about their lives: “My life is pitiful.” “I have no

life.” “Somebody upstairs doesn’t like me.” “The world is out to get me.”
“Someone is out to destroy me.” “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me.” “Life
is unfair and all efforts are useless.” “Life stinks. I’m stupid. Nothing good ever
happens to me.” “I’m the most unlucky person on this earth.”
Excuse me, was there death and destruction, or just a grade, a ticket, and a bad

phone call?
Are these just people with low self-esteem? Or card-carrying pessimists? No.

When they aren’t coping with failure, they feel just as worthy and optimistic—
and bright and attractive—as people with the growth mindset.
So how would they cope? “I wouldn’t bother to put so much time and effort

into doing well in anything.” (In other words, don’t let anyone measure you
again.) “Do nothing.” “Stay in bed.” “Get drunk.” “Eat.” “Yell at someone if I
get a chance to.” “Eat chocolate.” “Listen to music and pout.” “Go into my

closet and sit there.” “Pick a fight with somebody.” “Cry.” “Break something.”
“What is there to do?”
What is there to do! You know, when I wrote the vignette, I intentionally

made the grade a C+, not an F. It was a midterm rather than a final. It was a
parking ticket, not a car wreck. They were “sort of brushed off,” not rejected
outright. Nothing catastrophic or irreversible happened. Yet from this raw
material the fixed mindset created the feeling of utter failure and paralysis.
When I gave people with the growth mindset the same vignette, here’s what

they said. They’d think:
“I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and

wonder if my friend had a bad day.”
“The C+ would tell me that I’d have to work a lot harder in the class, but I

have the rest of the semester to pull up my grade.”
There were many, many more like this, but I think you get the idea. Now, how

would they cope? Directly.
“I’d start thinking about studying harder (or studying in a different way) for

my next test in that class, I’d pay the ticket, and I’d work things out with my best
friend the next time we speak.”
“I’d look at what was wrong on my exam, resolve to do better, pay my

parking ticket, and call my friend to tell her I was upset the day before.”
“Work hard on my next paper, speak to the teacher, be more careful where I

park or contest the ticket, and find out what’s wrong with my friend.”
You don’t have to have one mindset or the other to be upset. Who wouldn’t

be? Things like a poor grade or a rebuff from a friend or loved one—these are
not fun events. No one was smacking their lips with relish. Yet those people with
the growth mindset were not labeling themselves and throwing up their hands.
Even though they felt distressed, they were ready to take the risks, confront the
challenges, and keep working at them.


Is this such a novel idea? We have lots of sayings that stress the importance of
risk and the power of persistence, such as “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”
and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or “Rome wasn’t built in a
day.” (By the way, I was delighted to learn that the Italians have the same

expression.) What is truly amazing is that people with the fixed mindset would
not agree. For them, it’s “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.” “If at first you don’t
succeed, you probably don’t have the ability.” “If Rome wasn’t built in a day,
maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” In other words, risk and effort are two things that
might reveal your inadequacies and show that you were not up to the task. In
fact, it’s startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not
believe in putting in effort or getting help.
What’s also new is that people’s ideas about risk and effort grow out of their

more basic mindset. It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value
of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown
that this comes directly from the growth mindset. When we teach people the
growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and
effort follow. Similarly, it’s not just that some people happen to dislike challenge
and effort. When we (temporarily) put people in a fixed mindset, with its focus
on permanent traits, they quickly fear challenge and devalue effort.
We often see books with titles like The Ten Secrets of the World’s Most

Successful People crowding the shelves of bookstores, and these books may give
many useful tips. But they’re usually a list of unconnected pointers, like “Take
more risks!” or “Believe in yourself!” While you’re left admiring people who
can do that, it’s never clear how these things fit together or how you could ever
become that way. So you’re inspired for a few days, but basically the world’s
most successful people still have their secrets.
Instead, as you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will

see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are
carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that
your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions,
taking you down an entirely different road. It’s what we psychologists call an
Aha! experience. Not only have I seen this in my research when we teach people
a new mindset, but I get letters all the time from people who have read my work.
They recognize themselves: “As I read your article I literally found myself

saying over and over again, ‘This is me, this is me!’ ” They see the connections:
“Your article completely blew me away. I felt I had discovered the secret of the
universe!” They feel their mindsets reorienting: “I can certainly report a kind of
personal revolution happening in my own thinking, and this is an exciting
feeling.” And they can put this new thinking into practice for themselves and
others: “Your work has allowed me to transform my work with children and see

education through a different lens,” or “I just wanted to let you know what an
impact—on a personal and practical level—your outstanding research has had
for hundreds of students.” I get lots of these letters from coaches and business
leaders, too.


Well, maybe the people with the growth mindset don’t think they’re Einstein or
Beethoven, but aren’t they more likely to have inflated views of their abilities
and try for things they’re not capable of? In fact, studies show that people are
terrible at estimating their abilities. Recently, we set out to see who is most
likely to do this. Sure, we found that people greatly misestimated their
performance and their ability. But it was those with the fixed mindset who
accounted for almost all the inaccuracy. The people with the growth mindset
were amazingly accurate.
When you think about it, this makes sense. If, like those with the growth

mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate
information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if
you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information
about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything
is either good news or bad news about your precious traits—as it is with fixed-
mindset people—distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes
are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don’t
know yourself at all.
Howard Gardner, in his book Extraordinary Minds, concluded that

exceptional individuals have “a special talent for identifying their own strengths
and weaknesses.” It’s interesting that those with the growth mindset seem to
have that talent.


The other thing exceptional people seem to have is a special talent for converting
life’s setbacks into future successes. Creativity researchers concur. In a poll of
143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one

ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance
and resilience produced by the growth mindset.
You may be asking again, How can one belief lead to all this—the love of

challenge, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks, and greater (more
creative!) success? In the chapters that follow, you’ll see exactly how this
happens: how the mindsets change what people strive for and what they see as
success. How they change the definition, significance, and impact of failure.
And how they change the deepest meaning of effort. You’ll see how these
mindsets play out in school, in sports, in the workplace, and in relationships.
You’ll see where they come from and how they can be changed.

Grow Your Mindset

Which mindset do you have? Answer these questions about
intelligence. Read each statement and decide whether you mostly
agree with it or disagree with it.

1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you
can’t change very much.
2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how
intelligent you are.
3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always
change it quite a bit.
4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

Questions 1 and 2 are the fixed-mindset questions. Questions 3 and
4 reflect the growth mindset. Which mindset did you agree with
more? You can be a mixture, but most people lean toward one or
the other.
You also have beliefs about other abilities. You could substitute

“artistic talent,” “sports ability,” or “business skill” for
“intelligence.” Try it.
It’s not only your abilities; it’s your personal qualities too. Look

at these statements about personality and character and decide

whether you mostly agree or mostly disagree with each one.

1. You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can
be done to really change that.
2. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change
3. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you
are can’t really be changed.
4. You can always change basic things about the kind of person you

Here, questions 1 and 3 are the fixed-mindset questions and
questions 2 and 4 reflect the growth mindset. Which did you agree
with more?
Did it differ from your intelligence mindset? It can. Your

“intelligence mindset” comes into play when situations involve
mental ability.
Your “personality mindset” comes into play in situations that

involve your personal qualities—for example, how dependable,
cooperative, caring, or socially skilled you are. The fixed mindset
makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged; the growth
mindset makes you concerned with improving.
Here are some more ways to think about mindsets:

• Think about someone you know who is steeped in the fixed
mindset. Think about how they’re always trying to prove
themselves and how they’re supersensitive about being wrong
or making mistakes. Did you ever wonder why they were this
way? (Are you this way?) Now you can begin to understand

• Think about someone you know who is skilled in the growth
mindset—someone who understands that important qualities
can be cultivated. Think about the ways they confront
obstacles. Think about the things they do to stretch
themselves. What are some ways you might like to change or

stretch yourself?

• Okay, now imagine you’ve decided to learn a new language
and you’ve signed up for a class. A few sessions into the
course, the instructor calls you to the front of the room and
starts throwing questions at you one after another.

Put yourself in a fixed mindset. Your ability is on the line.
Can you feel everyone’s eyes on you? Can you see the
instructor’s face evaluating you? Feel the tension, feel your
ego bristle and waver. What else are you thinking and
Now put yourself in a growth mindset. You’re a novice—

that’s why you’re here. You’re here to learn. The teacher is a
resource for learning. Feel the tension leave you; feel your
mind open up.
The message is: You can change your mindset.

Chapter 2


When I was a young woman, I wanted a prince-like mate. Very handsome, very
successful. A big cheese. I wanted a glamorous career, but nothing too hard or
risky. And I wanted it all to come to me as validation of who I was.
It would be many years before I was satisfied. I got a great guy, but he was a

work in progress. I have a great career, but boy, is it a constant challenge.
Nothing was easy. So why am I satisfied? I changed my mindset.
I changed it because of my work. One day my doctoral student, Mary

Bandura, and I were trying to understand why some students were so caught up
in proving their ability, while others could just let go and learn. Suddenly we
realized that there were two meanings to ability, not one: a fixed ability that
needs to be proven, and a changeable ability that can be developed through
That’s how the mindsets were born. I knew instantly which one I had. I

realized why I’d always been so concerned about mistakes and failures. And I
recognized for the first time that I had a choice.
When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world—the world of

fixed traits—success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating
yourself. In the other—the world of changing qualities—it’s about stretching
yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.
In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a

tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or
talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the
things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.
In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or

talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what
makes you smart or talented.

You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but
they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind. As you
read, think about where you’d like to go and which mindset will take you there.


Benjamin Barber, an eminent political theorist, once said, “I don’t divide the
world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures….I divide
the world into the learners and nonlearners.”
What on earth would make someone a nonlearner? Everyone is born with an

intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills,
but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They
never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about
making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up.
They just barge forward.
What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon

as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of
challenges. They become afraid of not being smart. I have studied thousands of
people from preschoolers on, and it’s breathtaking how many reject an
opportunity to learn.
We offered four-year-olds a choice: They could redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or

they could try a harder one. Even at this tender age, children with the fixed
mindset—the ones who believed in fixed traits—stuck with the safe one. Kids
who are born smart “don’t do mistakes,” they told us.
Children with the growth mindset—the ones who believed you could get

smarter—thought it was a strange choice. Why are you asking me this, lady?
Why would anyone want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over? They
chose one hard one after another. “I’m dying to figure them out!” exclaimed one
little girl.
So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart

people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success
is about stretching themselves. It’s about becoming smarter.
One seventh-grade girl summed it up. “I think intelligence is something you

have to work for…it isn’t just given to you….Most kids, if they’re not sure of an
answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is

raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I
will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can
you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.”

Beyond Puzzles

It’s one thing to pass up a puzzle. It’s another to pass up an opportunity that’s
important to your future. To see if this would happen, we took advantage of an
unusual situation. At the University of Hong Kong, everything is in English.
Classes are in English, textbooks are in English, and exams are in English. But
some students who enter the university are not fluent in English, so it would
make sense for them to do something about it in a hurry.
As students arrived to register for their freshman year, we knew which ones

were not skilled in English. And we asked them a key question: If the faculty
offered a course for students who need to improve their English skills, would
you take it?
We also measured their mindset. We did this by asking them how much they

agreed with statements like this: “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and
you can’t really do much to change it.” People who agree with this kind of
statement lean toward a fixed mindset.
Those who lean toward a growth mindset agree that: “You can always

substantially change how intelligent you are.”
Later, we looked at who said yes to the English course. Students with the

growth mindset said an emphatic yes. But those with the fixed mindset were not
very interested.
Believing that success is about learning, students with the growth mindset

seized the chance. But those with the fixed mindset didn’t want to expose their
deficiencies. Instead, to feel smart in the short run, they were willing to put their
college careers at risk.
This is how the fixed mindset makes people into nonlearners.

Brain Waves Tell the Story

You can even see the difference in people’s brain waves. People with both
mindsets came into our brain-wave lab at Columbia. As they answered hard

questions and got feedback, we were curious about when their brain waves
would show them to be interested and attentive.
People with a fixed mindset were only interested when the feedback reflected

on their ability. Their brain waves showed them paying close attention when
they were told whether their answers were right or wrong.
But when they were presented with information that could help them learn,

there was no sign of interest. Even when they’d gotten an answer wrong, they
were not interested in learning what the right answer was.
Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that

could stretch their knowledge. Only for them was learning a priority.

What’s Your Priority?

If you had to choose, which would it be? Loads of success and validation or lots
of challenge?
It’s not just on intellectual tasks that people have to make these choices.

People also have to decide what kinds of relationships they want: ones that
bolster their egos or ones that challenge them to grow? Who is your ideal mate?
We put this question to young adults, and here’s what they told us.
People with the fixed mindset said the ideal mate would:
Put them on a pedestal.
Make them feel perfect.
Worship them.
In other words, the perfect mate would enshrine their fixed qualities. My

husband says that he used to feel this way, that he wanted to be the god of a one-
person (his partner’s) religion. Fortunately, he chucked this idea before he met
People with the growth mindset hoped for a different kind of partner. They

said their ideal mate was someone who would:
See their faults and help them to work on them.
Challenge them to become a better person.
Encourage them to learn new things.
Certainly, they didn’t want people who would pick on them or undermine

their self-esteem, but they did want people who would foster their development.

They didn’t assume they were fully evolved, flawless beings who had nothing
more to learn.
Are you already thinking, Uh-oh, what if two people with different mindsets

get together? A growth-mindset woman tells about her marriage to a fixed-
mindset man:

I had barely gotten all the rice out of my hair when I began to
realize I made a big mistake. Every time I said something like
“Why don’t we try to go out a little more?” or “I’d like it if you
consulted me before making decisions,” he was devastated. Then
instead of talking about the issue I raised, I’d have to spend literally
an hour repairing the damage and making him feel good again. Plus
he would then run to the phone to call his mother, who always
showered him with the constant adoration he seemed to need. We
were both young and new at marriage. I just wanted to

So the husband’s idea of a successful relationship—total, uncritical
acceptance—was not the wife’s. And the wife’s idea of a successful relationship
—confronting problems—was not the husband’s. One person’s growth was the
other person’s nightmare.

CEO Disease

Speaking of reigning from atop a pedestal and wanting to be seen as perfect, you
won’t be surprised that this is often called “CEO disease.” Lee Iacocca had a bad
case of it. After his initial success as head of Chrysler Motors, Iacocca looked
remarkably like our four-year-olds with the fixed mindset. He kept bringing out
the same car models over and over with only superficial changes. Unfortunately,
they were models no one wanted anymore.
Meanwhile, Japanese companies were completely rethinking what cars should

look like and how they should run. We know how this turned out. The Japanese
cars rapidly swept the market.
CEOs face this choice all the time. Should they confront their shortcomings or

should they create a world where they have none? Lee Iacocca chose the latter.
He surrounded himself with worshipers, exiled the critics—and quickly lost

touch with where his field was going. Lee Iacocca had become a nonlearner.
But not everyone catches CEO disease. Many great leaders confront their

shortcomings on a regular basis. Darwin Smith, looking back on his
extraordinary performance at Kimberly-Clark, declared, “I never stopped trying
to be qualified for the job.” These men, like the Hong Kong students with the
growth mindset, never stopped taking the remedial course.
CEOs face another dilemma. They can choose short-term strategies that boost

the company’s stock and make themselves look like heroes. Or they can work
for long-term improvement—risking Wall Street’s disapproval as they lay the
foundation for the health and growth of the company over the longer haul.
Albert Dunlap, a self-professed fixed mindsetter, was brought in to turn

around Sunbeam. He chose the short-term strategy of looking like a hero to Wall
Street. The stock soared but the company fell apart.
Lou Gerstner, an avowed growth mindsetter, was called in to turn around

IBM. As he set about the enormous task of overhauling IBM culture and
policies, stock prices were stagnant and Wall Street sneered. They called him a
failure. A few years later, however, IBM was leading its field again.


People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The
bigger the challenge, the more they stretch. And nowhere can it be seen more
clearly than in the world of sports. You can just watch people stretch and grow.
Mia Hamm, the greatest female soccer star of her time, says it straight out. “

All my life I’ve been playing up, meaning I’ve challenged myself with players
older, bigger, more skillful, more experienced—in short, better than me.” First
she played with her older brother. Then at ten, she joined the eleven-year-old
boys’ team. Then she threw herself into the number one college team in the
United States. “Each day I attempted to play up to their level…and I was
improving faster than I ever dreamed possible.”
Patricia Miranda was a chubby, unathletic high school kid who wanted to

wrestle. After a bad beating on the mat, she was told, “You’re a joke.” First she
cried, then she felt: “That really set my resolve…I had to keep going and had to
know if effort and focus and belief and training could somehow legitimize me as
a wrestler.” Where did she get this resolve?

Miranda was raised in a life devoid of challenge. But when her mother died of
an aneurysm at age forty, ten-year-old Miranda came up with a principle. “When
you’re lying on your deathbed, one of the cool things to say is, ‘I really explored
myself.’ This sense of urgency was instilled when my mom died. If you only go
through life doing stuff that’s easy, shame on you.” So when wrestling presented
a challenge, she was ready to take it on.
Her effort paid off. At twenty-four, Miranda was having the last laugh. She

won the spot for her weight group on the U.S. Olympic team and came home
from Athens with a bronze medal. And what was next? Yale Law School. People
urged her to stay where she was already on top, but Miranda felt it was more
exciting to start at the bottom again and see what she could grow into this time.

Stretching Beyond the Possible

Sometimes people with the growth mindset stretch themselves so far that they do
the impossible. In 1995, Christopher Reeve, the actor, was thrown from a horse.
His neck was broken, his spinal cord was severed from his brain, and he was
completely paralyzed below the neck. Medical science said, So sorry. Come to
terms with it.
Reeve, however, started a demanding exercise program that involved moving

all parts of his paralyzed body with the help of electrical stimulation. Why
couldn’t he learn to move again? Why couldn’t his brain once again give
commands that his body would obey? Doctors warned that he was in denial and
was setting himself up for disappointment. They had seen this before and it was
a bad sign for his adjustment. But, really, what else was Reeve doing with his
time? Was there a better project?
Five years later, Reeve started to regain movement. First it happened in his

hands, then his arms, then legs, and then torso. He was far from cured, but brain
scans showed that his brain was once more sending signals to his body that the
body was responding to. Not only did Reeve stretch his abilities, he changed the
entire way science thinks about the nervous system and its potential for
recovery. In doing so, he opened a whole new vista for research and a whole
new avenue of hope for people with spinal cord injuries.

Thriving on the Sure Thing

Clearly, people with the growth mindset thrive when they’re stretching
themselves. When do people with the fixed mindset thrive? When things are
safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging—when they’re not feeling
smart or talented—they lose interest.
I watched it happen as we followed pre-med students through their first

semester of chemistry. For many students, this is what their lives have led up to:
becoming a doctor. And this is the course that decides who gets to be one. It’s
one heck of a hard course, too. The average grade on each exam is C+, for
students who’ve rarely seen anything less than an A.
Most students started out pretty interested in chemistry. Yet over the semester,

something happened. Students with the fixed mindset stayed interested only
when they did well right away. Those who found it difficult showed a big drop in
their interest and enjoyment. If it wasn’t a testimony to their intelligence, they
couldn’t enjoy it.
“The harder it gets,” reported one student, “the more I have to force myself to

read the book and study for the tests. I was excited about chemistry before, but
now every time I think about it, I get a bad feeling in my stomach.”
In contrast, students with the growth mindset continued to show the same high

level of interest even when they found the work very challenging. “It’s a lot
more difficult for me than I thought it would be, but it’s what I want to do, so
that only makes me more determined. When they tell me I can’t, it really gets me
going.” Challenge and interest went hand in hand.
We saw the same thing in younger students. We gave fifth graders intriguing

puzzles, which they all loved. But when we made them harder, children with the
fixed mindset showed a big plunge in enjoyment. They also changed their minds
about taking some home to practice. “It’s okay, you can keep them. I already
have them,” fibbed one child. In fact, they couldn’t run from them fast enough.
This was just as true for children who were the best puzzle solvers. Having

“puzzle talent” did not prevent the decline.
Children with the growth mindset, on the other hand, couldn’t tear themselves

away from the hard problems. These were their favorites and these were the ones
they wanted to take home. “Could you write down the name of these puzzles,”
one child asked, “so my mom can buy me some more when these ones run out?”
Not long ago I was interested to read about Marina Semyonova, a great

Russian dancer and teacher, who devised a novel way of selecting her students.
It was a clever test for mindset. As a former student tells it, “Her students first

have to survive a trial period while she watches to see how you react to praise
and to correction. Those more responsive to the correction are deemed worthy.”
In other words, she separates the ones who get their thrill from what’s easy—

what they’ve already mastered—from those who get their thrill from what’s
I’ll never forget the first time I heard myself say, “This is hard. This is fun.”

That’s the moment I knew I was changing mindsets.

When Do You Feel Smart: When You’re Flawless or When You’re Learning?

The plot is about to thicken, for in the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to
succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty
much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away.
We asked people, ranging from grade schoolers to young adults, “When do

you feel smart?” The differences were striking. People with the fixed mindset
“It’s when I don’t make any mistakes.”
“When I finish something fast and it’s perfect.”
“When something is easy for me, but other people can’t do it.”
It’s about being perfect right now. But people with the growth mindset said:
“When it’s really hard, and I try really hard, and I can do something I couldn’t

do before.”
Or “[When] I work on something a long time and I start to figure it out.”
For them it’s not about immediate perfection. It’s about learning something

over time: confronting a challenge and making progress.

If You Have Ability, Why Should You Need Learning?

Actually, people with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own,
before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you
don’t you don’t. I see this all the time.
Out of all the applicants from all over the world, my department at Columbia

admitted six new graduate students a year. They all had amazing test scores,
nearly perfect grades, and rave recommendations from eminent scholars.

Moreover, they’d been courted by the top grad schools.
It took one day for some of them to feel like complete imposters. Yesterday

they were hotshots; today they’re failures. Here’s what happens. They look at the
faculty with our long list of publications. “Oh my God, I can’t do that.” They
look at the advanced students who are submitting articles for publication and
writing grant proposals. “Oh my God, I can’t do that.” They know how to take
tests and get A’s but they don’t know how to do this—yet. They forget the yet.
Isn’t that what school is for, to teach? They’re there to learn how to do these

things, not because they already know everything.
I wonder if this is what happened to Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass. They

were both young reporters who skyrocketed to the top—on fabricated articles.
Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post articles about an
eight-year-old boy who was a drug addict. The boy did not exist, and she was
later stripped of her prize. Stephen Glass was the whiz kid of The New Republic,
who seemed to have stories and sources reporters only dream of. The sources did
not exist and the stories were not true.
Did Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass need to be perfect right away? Did they

feel that admitting ignorance would discredit them with their colleagues? Did
they feel they should already be like the big-time reporters before they did the
hard work of learning how? “ We were stars—precocious stars,” wrote Stephen
Glass, “and that was what mattered.” The public understands them as cheats, and
cheat they did. But I understand them as talented young people—desperate
young people—who succumbed to the pressures of the fixed mindset.
There was a saying in the 1960s that went: “Becoming is better than being.”

The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to
already be.

A Test Score Is Forever

Let’s take a closer look at why, in the fixed mindset, it’s so crucial to be perfect
right now. It’s because one test—or one evaluation—can measure you forever.
Twenty years ago, at the age of five, Loretta and her family came to the

United States. A few days later, her mother took her to her new school, where
they promptly gave her a test. The next thing she knew, she was in her
kindergarten class—but it was not the Eagles, the elite kindergarten class.

As time passed, however, Loretta was transferred to the Eagles and she
remained with that group of students until the end of high school, garnering a
bundle of academic prizes along the way. Yet she never felt she belonged.
That first test, she was convinced, diagnosed her fixed ability and said that she

was not a true Eagle. Never mind that she had been five years old and had just
made a radical change to a new country. Or that maybe there hadn’t been room
in the Eagles for a while. Or that maybe the school decided she would have an
easier transition in a more low-key class. There are so many ways to understand
what happened and what it meant. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong one. For
in the world of the fixed mindset, there is no way to become an Eagle. If you
were a true Eagle, you would have aced the test and been hailed as an Eagle at
Is Loretta a rare case, or is this kind of thinking more common than we

To find out, we showed fifth graders a closed cardboard box and told them it

had a test inside. This test, we said, measured an important school ability. We
told them nothing more. Then we asked them questions about the test. First, we
wanted to make sure that they’d accepted our description, so we asked them:
How much do you think this test measures an important school ability? All of
them had taken our word for it.
Next we asked: Do you think this test measures how smart you are? And: Do

you think this test measures how smart you’ll be when you grow up?
Students with the growth mindset had taken our word that the test measured

an important ability, but they didn’t think it measured how smart they were. And
they certainly didn’t think it would tell them how smart they’d be when they
grew up. In fact, one of them told us, “No way! Ain’t no test can do that.”
But the students with the fixed mindset didn’t simply believe the test could

measure an important ability. They also believed—just as strongly—that it could
measure how smart they were. And how smart they’d be when they grew up.
They granted one test the power to measure their most basic intelligence now

and forever. They gave this test the power to define them. That’s why every
success is so important.

Another Look at Potential

This leads us back to the idea of “potential” and to the question of whether tests
or experts can tell us what our potential is, what we’re capable of, what our
future will be. The fixed mindset says yes. You can simply measure the fixed
ability right now and project it into the future. Just give the test or ask the expert.
No crystal ball needed.
So common is the belief that potential can be known right now that Joseph P.

Kennedy felt confident in telling Morton Downey Jr. that he would be a failure.
What had Downey—later a famous television personality and author—done?
Why, he had worn red socks and brown shoes to the Stork Club, a fancy New
York nightclub.
“ Morton,” Kennedy told him, “I don’t know anybody I’ve ever met in my life

wearing red socks and brown shoes who ever succeeded. Young man, let me tell
you now, you do stand out, but you don’t stand out in a way that people will ever
admire you.”
Many of the most accomplished people of our era were considered by experts

to have no future. Jackson Pollock, Marcel Proust, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles,
Lucille Ball, and Charles Darwin were all thought to have little potential for their
chosen fields. And in some of these cases, it may well have been true that they
did not stand out from the crowd early on.
But isn’t potential someone’s capacity to develop their skills with effort and

coaching over time? And that’s just the point. How can we know where effort,
coaching, and time will take someone? Who knows—maybe the experts were
right about Jackson, Marcel, Elvis, Ray, Lucille, and Charles—in terms of their
skills at the time. Maybe they were not yet the people they were to become.
I once went to an exhibit in London of Paul Cézanne’s early paintings. On my

way there, I wondered who Cézanne was and what his paintings were like before
he was the painter we know today. I was intensely curious because Cézanne is
one of my favorite artists and the man who set the stage for much of modern art.
Here’s what I found: Some of the paintings were pretty bad. They were
overwrought scenes, some violent, with amateurishly painted people. Although
there were some paintings that foreshadowed the later Cézanne, many did not.
Was the early Cézanne not talented? Or did it just take time for Cézanne to
become Cézanne?
People with the growth mindset know that it takes time for potential to flower.

Recently, I got an angry letter from a teacher who had taken one of our surveys.
The survey portrays a hypothetical student, Jennifer, who had gotten 65 percent

on a math exam. It then asks teachers to tell us how they would treat her.
Teachers with the fixed mindset were more than happy to answer our

questions. They felt that by knowing Jennifer’s score, they had a good sense of
who she was and what she was capable of. Their recommendations abounded.
Mr. Riordan, by contrast, was fuming. Here’s what he wrote.

To Whom It May Concern:

Having completed the educator’s portion of your recent survey, I
must request that my results be excluded from the study. I feel that
the study itself is scientifically unsound….
Unfortunately, the test uses a faulty premise, asking teachers to

make assumptions about a given student based on nothing more
than a number on a page….Performance cannot be based on one
assessment. You cannot determine the slope of a line given only
one point, as there is no line to begin with. A single point in time
does not show trends, improvement, lack of effort, or mathematical

Michael D. Riordan

I was delighted with Mr. Riordan’s critique and couldn’t have agreed with it
more. An assessment at one point in time has little value for understanding
someone’s ability, let alone their potential to succeed in the future.
It was disturbing how many teachers thought otherwise, and that was the point

of our study.
The idea that one evaluation can measure you forever is what creates the

urgency for those with the fixed mindset. That’s why they must succeed
perfectly and immediately. Who can afford the luxury of trying to grow when
everything is on the line right now?
Is there another way to judge potential? NASA thought so. When they were

soliciting applications for astronauts, they rejected people with pure histories of
success and instead selected people who had had significant failures and
bounced back from them. Jack Welch, the celebrated CEO of General Electric,

chose executives on the basis of “runway,” their capacity for growth. And
remember Marina Semyonova, the famed ballet teacher, who chose the students
who were energized by criticism. They were all rejecting the idea of fixed ability
and selecting instead for mindset.

Proving You’re Special

When people with the fixed mindset opt for success over growth, what are they
really trying to prove? That they’re special. Even superior.
When we asked them, “When do you feel smart?” so many of them talked

about times they felt like a special person, someone who was different from and
better than other people.
Until I discovered the mindsets and how they work, I, too, thought of myself

as more talented than others, maybe even more worthy than others because of
my endowments. The scariest thought, which I rarely entertained, was the
possibility of being ordinary. This kind of thinking led me to need constant
validation. Every comment, every look was meaningful—it registered on my
intelligence scorecard, my attractiveness scorecard, my likability scorecard. If a
day went well, I could bask in my high numbers.
One bitter cold winter night, I went to the opera. That night, the opera was

everything you hope for, and everyone stayed until the very end—not just the
end of the opera, but through all the curtain calls. Then we all poured into the
street, and we all wanted taxis. I remember it clearly. It was after midnight, it
was seven degrees, there was a strong wind, and, as time went on, I became
more and more miserable. There I was, part of an undifferentiated crowd. What
chance did I have? Suddenly, a taxi pulled up right next to me. The handle of the
back door lined up perfectly with my hand, and as I entered, the driver
announced, “You were different.” I lived for these moments. Not only was I
special. It could be detected from a distance.
The self-esteem movement encourages this kind of thinking and has even

invented devices to help you confirm your superiority. I recently came across an
ad for such a product. Two of my friends send me an illustrated list each year of
the top ten things they didn’t get me for Christmas. From January through
November, they clip candidate items from catalogs or download them from the
Internet. In December, they select the winners. One of my all-time favorites is
the pocket toilet, which you fold up and return to your pocket after using. This

year my favorite was the I LOVE ME mirror, a mirror with I LOVE ME in huge
capital letters written across the bottom half. By looking into it, you can
administer the message to yourself and not wait for the outside world to
announce your specialness.
Of course, the mirror is harmless enough. The problem is when special begins

to mean better than others. A more valuable human being. A superior person.
An entitled person.

Special, Superior, Entitled

John McEnroe had a fixed mindset: He believed that talent was all. He did not
love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he
often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfill his potential.
But his talent was so great that he was the number one tennis player in the

world for four years. Here he tells us what it was like to be number one.
McEnroe used sawdust to absorb the sweat on his hands during a match. This

time the sawdust was not to his liking, so he went over to the can of sawdust and
knocked it over with his racket. His agent, Gary, came dashing over to find out
what was wrong.

“You call that sawdust?” I said. I was actually screaming at him:
The sawdust was ground too fine! “This looks like rat poison. Can’t
you get anything right?” So Gary ran out and, twenty minutes later,
came back with a fresh can of coarser sawdust…and twenty dollars
less in his pocket: He’d had to pay a union employee to grind up a
two-by-four. This is what it was like to be number one.

He goes on to tell us about how he once threw up all over a dignified Japanese
lady who was hosting him. The next day she bowed, apologized to him, and
presented him with a gift. “This,” McEnroe proclaims, “is also what it was like
to be number one.”
“ Everything was about you…‘Did you get everything you need? Is everything

okay? We’ll pay you this, we’ll do that, we’ll kiss your behind.’ You only have
to do what you want; your reaction to anything else is, ‘Get the hell out of here.’
For a long time I didn’t mind it a bit. Would you?”

So let’s see. If you’re successful, you’re better than other people. You get to
abuse them and have them grovel. In the fixed mindset, this is what can pass for
As a contrast, let’s look at Michael Jordan—growth-minded athlete par

excellence—whose greatness is regularly proclaimed by the world: “Superman,”
“God in person,” “Jesus in tennis shoes.” If anyone has reason to think of
himself as special, it’s he. But here’s what he said when his return to basketball
caused a huge commotion: “ I was shocked with the level of intensity my
coming back to the game created….People were praising me like I was a
religious cult or something. That was very embarrassing. I’m a human being like
everyone else.”
Jordan knew how hard he had worked to develop his abilities. He was a

person who had struggled and grown, not a person who was inherently better
than others.
Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, describes the elite military pilots who eagerly

embrace the fixed mindset. Having passed one rigorous test after another, they
think of themselves as special, as people who were born smarter and braver than
other people. But Chuck Yeager, the hero of The Right Stuff, begged to differ. “
There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents,
becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning
experience….The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they’re the
best.” Like Michael Jordan, he was a human being. He just stretched himself
farther than most.
In short, people who believe in fixed traits feel an urgency to succeed, and

when they do, they may feel more than pride. They may feel a sense of
superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other
However, lurking behind that self-esteem of the fixed mindset is a simple

question: If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re


The Martins worshiped their three-year-old Robert and always bragged about his
feats. There had never been a child as bright and creative as theirs. Then Robert

did something unforgivable—he didn’t get into the number one preschool in
New York. After that, the Martins cooled toward him. They didn’t talk about
him the same way, and they didn’t treat him with the same pride and affection.
He was no longer their brilliant little Robert. He was someone who had
discredited himself and shamed them. At the tender age of three, he was a
As a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed from an

action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). This is especially true in the fixed
When I was a child, I, too, worried about meeting Robert’s fate. In sixth

grade, I was the best speller in my school. The principal wanted me to go to a
citywide competition, but I refused. In ninth grade, I excelled in French, and my
teacher wanted me to enter a citywide competition. Again, I refused. Why would
I risk turning from a success into a failure? From a winner into a loser?
Ernie Els, the great golfer, worried about this too. Els finally won a major

tournament after a five-year dry spell, in which match after match slipped away
from him. What if he had lost this tournament, too? “ I would have been a
different person,” he tells us. He would have been a loser.
Each April when the skinny envelopes—the rejection letters—arrive from

colleges, countless failures are created coast to coast. Thousands of brilliant
young scholars become “The Girl Who Didn’t Get into Princeton” or the “The
Boy Who Didn’t Get into Stanford.”

Defining Moments

Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t
define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.
Jim Marshall, former defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings, relates what

could easily have made him into a failure. In a game against the San Francisco
49ers, Marshall spotted the football on the ground. He scooped it up and ran for
a touchdown as the crowd cheered. But he ran the wrong way. He scored for the
wrong team and on national television.
It was the most devastating moment of his life. The shame was overpowering.

But during halftime, he thought, “If you make a mistake, you got to make it
right. I realized I had a choice. I could sit in my misery or I could do something
about it.” Pulling himself together for the second half, he played some of his best

football ever and contributed to his team’s victory.
Nor did he stop there. He spoke to groups. He answered letters that poured in

from people who finally had the courage to admit their own shameful
experiences. He heightened his concentration during games. Instead of letting
the experience define him, he took control of it. He used it to become a better
player and, he believes, a better person.
In the fixed mindset, however, the loss of one’s self to failure can be a

permanent, haunting trauma. Bernard Loiseau was one of the top chefs in the
world. Only a handful of restaurants in all of France receive the supreme rating
of three stars from the Guide Michelin, the most respected restaurant guide in
Europe. His was one of them. Around the publication of the 2003 Guide
Michelin, however, Mr. Loiseau committed suicide. He had lost two points in
another guide, going from a nineteen (out of twenty) to a seventeen in the
GaultMillau. And there were rampant rumors that he would lose one of his three
stars in the new Guide. Although he did not, the idea of failure had possessed
Loiseau had been a pioneer. He was one of the first to advance the “nouvelle

cuisine,” trading the traditional butter and cream sauces of French cooking for
the brighter flavors of the foods themselves. A man of tremendous energy, he
was also an entrepreneur. Besides his three-star restaurant in Burgundy, he had
created three eateries in Paris, numerous cookbooks, and a line of frozen foods.
“I’m like Yves Saint Laurent,” he told people. “I do both haute couture and
A man of such talent and originality could easily have planned for a satisfying

future, with or without the two points or the third star. In fact, the director of the
GaultMillau said it was unimaginable that their rating could have taken his life.
But in the fixed mindset, it is imaginable. Their lower rating gave him a new
definition of himself: Failure. Has-been.
It’s striking what counts as failure in the fixed mindset. So, on a lighter note…

My Success Is Your Failure

Last summer my husband and I went to a dude ranch, something very novel
since neither of us had ever made contact with a horse. One day, we signed up
for a lesson in fly fishing. It was taught by a wonderful eighty-year-old cowboy-
type fisherman who showed us how to cast the fishing line, and then turned us

We soon realized that he had not taught us how to recognize when the trout bit

the lure (they don’t tug on the line; you have to watch for a bubble in the water),
what to do when the trout bit the lure (tug upward), or how to reel the trout in if
by some miracle we got that far (pull the fish along the water; do not hoist it into
the air). Well, time passed, the mosquitoes bit, but not so the trout. None of the
dozen or so of us made the slightest progress. Suddenly, I hit the jackpot. Some
careless trout bit hard on my lure and the fisherman, who happened to be right
there, talked me through the rest. I had me a rainbow trout.
Reaction #1: My husband, David, came running over beaming with pride and

saying, “Life with you is so exciting!”
Reaction #2: That evening when we came into the dining room for dinner, two

men came up to my husband and said, “David, how’re you coping?” David
looked at them blankly; he had no idea what they were talking about. Of course
he didn’t. He was the one who thought my catching the fish was exciting. But I
knew exactly what they meant. They had expected him to feel diminished, and
they went on to make it clear that that’s exactly what my success had done to

Shirk, Cheat, Blame: Not a Recipe for Success

Beyond how traumatic a setback can be in the fixed mindset, this mindset gives
you no good recipe for overcoming it. If failure means you lack competence or
potential—that you are a failure—where do you go from there?
In one study, seventh graders told us how they would respond to an academic

failure—a poor test grade in a new course. Those with the growth mindset, no
big surprise, said they would study harder for the next test. But those with the
fixed mindset said they would study less for the next test. If you don’t have the
ability, why waste your time? And, they said, they would seriously consider
cheating! If you don’t have the ability, they thought, you just have to look for
another way.
What’s more, instead of trying to learn from and repair their failures, people

with the fixed mindset may simply try to repair their self-esteem. For example,
they may go looking for people who are even worse off than they are.
College students, after doing poorly on a test, were given a chance to look at

tests of other students. Those in the growth mindset looked at the tests of people

who had done far better than they had. As usual, they wanted to correct their
deficiency. But students in the fixed mindset chose to look at the tests of people
who had done really poorly. That was their way of feeling better about
Jim Collins tells in Good to Great of a similar thing in the corporate world. As

Procter & Gamble surged into the paper goods business, Scott Paper—which
was then the leader—just gave up. Instead of mobilizing themselves and putting
up a fight, they said, “Oh, well…at least there are people in the business worse
off than we are.”
Another way people with the fixed mindset try to repair their self-esteem after

a failure is by assigning blame or making excuses. Let’s return to John McEnroe.
It was never his fault. One time he lost a match because he had a fever. One

time he had a backache. One time he fell victim to expectations, another time to
the tabloids. One time he lost to a friend because the friend was in love and he
wasn’t. One time he ate too close to the match. One time he was too chunky,
another time too thin. One time it was too cold, another time too hot. One time
he was undertrained, another time overtrained.
His most agonizing loss, and the one that still keeps him up nights, was his

loss in the 1984 French Open. Why did he lose after leading Ivan Lendl two sets
to none? According to McEnroe, it wasn’t his fault. An NBC cameraman had
taken off his headset and a noise started coming from the side of the court.
Not his fault. So he didn’t train to improve his ability to concentrate or his

emotional control.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until

you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of
learning from your mistakes until you deny them.
When Enron, the energy giant, failed—toppled by a culture of arrogance—

whose fault was it? Not mine, insisted Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO and resident
genius. It was the world’s fault. The world did not appreciate what Enron was
trying to do. What about the Justice Department’s investigation into massive
corporate deception? A “witch hunt.”
Jack Welch, the growth-minded CEO, had a completely different reaction to

one of General Electric’s fiascos. In 1986, General Electric bought Kidder,
Peabody, a Wall Street investment banking firm. Soon after the deal closed,
Kidder, Peabody was hit with a big insider trading scandal. A few years later,
calamity struck again in the form of Joseph Jett, a trader who made a bunch of

fictitious trades, to the tune of hundreds of millions, to pump up his bonus.
Welch phoned fourteen of his top GE colleagues to tell them the bad news and to
apologize personally. “I blamed myself for the disaster,” Welch said.

Mindset and Depression

Maybe Bernard Loiseau, the French chef, was just depressed. Were you thinking
As a psychologist and an educator, I am vitally interested in depression. It

runs wild on college campuses, especially in February and March. The winter is
not over, the summer is not in sight, work has piled up, and relationships are
often frayed. Yet it’s been clear to me for a long time that different students
handle depression in dramatically different ways. Some let everything slide.
Others, though feeling wretched, hang on. They drag themselves to class, keep
up with their work, and take care of themselves—so that when they feel better,
their lives are intact.
Not long ago, we decided to see whether mindsets play a role in this

difference. To find out, we measured students’ mindsets and then had them keep
an online “diary” for three weeks in February and March. Every day they
answered questions about their mood, their activities, and how they were coping
with problems. Here’s what we discovered.
First, the students with the fixed mindset had higher levels of depression. Our

analyses showed that this was because they ruminated over their problems and
setbacks, essentially tormenting themselves with the idea that the setbacks meant
they were incompetent or unworthy: “It just kept circulating in my head: You’re
a dope.” “I just couldn’t let go of the thought that this made me less of a man.”
Again, failures labeled them and left them no route to success.
And the more depressed they felt, the more they let things go; the less they

took action to solve their problems. For example, they didn’t study what they
needed to, they didn’t hand in their assignments on time, and they didn’t keep up
with their chores.
Although students with the fixed mindset showed more depression, there were

still plenty of people with the growth mindset who felt pretty miserable, this
being peak season for depression. And here we saw something really amazing.
The more depressed people with the growth mindset felt (short of severe
depression), the more they took action to confront their problems, the more they

made sure to keep up with their schoolwork, and the more they kept up with
their lives. The worse they felt, the more determined they became!
In fact, from the way they acted, it might have been hard to know how

despondent they were. Here is a story a young man told me.

I was a freshman and it was the first time I had been away from
home. Everyone was a stranger, the courses were hard, and as the
year wore on I felt more and more depressed. Eventually, it reached
a point where I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. But
every day I forced myself to get up, shower, shave, and do whatever
it was I needed to do. One day I really hit a low point and I decided
to ask for help, so I went to the teaching assistant in my psychology
course and asked for her advice.
“Are you going to your classes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you keeping up with your reading?”
“Are you doing okay on your exams?”
“Well,” she informed me, “then you’re not depressed.”

Yes, he was depressed, but he was coping the way people in the growth
mindset tend to cope—with determination.
Doesn’t temperament have a lot to do with it? Aren’t some people sensitive by

nature, while others just let things roll off their backs? Temperament certainly
plays a role, but mindset is an important part of the story. When we taught
people the growth mindset, it changed the way they reacted to their depressed
mood. The worse they felt, the more motivated they became and the more they
confronted the problems that faced them.
In short, when people believe in fixed traits, they are always in danger of

being measured by a failure. It can define them in a permanent way. Smart or
talented as they may be, this mindset seems to rob them of their coping
When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still

hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be expanded—if change

and growth are possible—then there are still many paths to success.


As children, we were given a choice between the talented but erratic hare and the
plodding but steady tortoise. The lesson was supposed to be that slow and steady
wins the race. But, really, did any of us ever want to be the tortoise?
No, we just wanted to be a less foolish hare. We wanted to be swift as the

wind and a bit more strategic—say, not taking quite so many snoozes before the
finish line. After all, everyone knows you have to show up in order to win.
The story of the tortoise and the hare, in trying to put forward the power of

effort, gave effort a bad name. It reinforced the image that effort is for the
plodders and suggested that in rare instances, when talented people dropped the
ball, the plodder could sneak through.
The little engine that could, the saggy, baggy elephant, and the scruffy tugboat

—they were cute, they were often overmatched, and we were happy for them
when they succeeded. In fact, to this day I remember how fond I was of those
little creatures (or machines), but no way did I identify with them. The message
was: If you’re unfortunate enough to be the runt of the litter—if you lack
endowment—you don’t have to be an utter failure. You can be a sweet, adorable
little slogger, and maybe (if you really work at it and withstand all the scornful
onlookers) even a success.
Thank you very much, I’ll take the endowment.
The problem was that these stories made it into an either–or. Either you have

ability or you expend effort. And this is part of the fixed mindset. Effort is for
those who don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, “If you
have to work at something, you must not be good at it.” They add, “Things come
easily to people who are true geniuses.”


I was a young professor in the psychology department at the University of
Illinois. Late one night, I was passing the psychology building and noticed that
the lights were on in some faculty offices. Some of my colleagues were working
late. They must not be as smart as I am, I thought to myself.
It never occurred to me that they might be just as smart and more

hardworking! For me it was either–or. And it was clear I valued the either over
the or.
Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New Yorker writer, has suggested that as a

society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through
effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably
toward their greatness. It’s as if Midori popped out of the womb fiddling,
Michael Jordan dribbling, and Picasso doodling. This captures the fixed mindset
perfectly. And it’s everywhere.
A report from researchers at Duke University sounds an alarm about the

anxiety and depression among female undergraduates who aspire to “effortless
perfection.” They believe they should display perfect beauty, perfect
womanhood, and perfect scholarship all without trying (or at least without
appearing to try).
Americans aren’t the only people who disdain effort. French executive Pierre

Chevalier says, “We are not a nation of effort. After all, if you have savoir-faire
[a mixture of know-how and cool], you do things effortlessly.”
People with the growth mindset, however, believe something very different.

For them, even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. And what’s
so heroic, they would say, about having a gift? They may appreciate endowment,

but they admire effort, for no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites
that ability and turns it into accomplishment.


Here was a horse who was so broken, he was supposed to be put to sleep. In fact,
here was a whole team of people—the jockey, the owner, the trainer—who were
damaged in one way or another. Yet through their dogged determination and
against all odds, they transformed themselves into winners. A down-and-out
nation saw this horse and rider as a symbol of what could be accomplished
through grit and spirit.
Equally moving is the parallel story about Seabiscuit’s author, Laura

Hillenbrand. Felled in her college years by severe, recurrent chronic fatigue that
never went away, she was often unable to function. Yet something in the story of
the “horse who could” gripped and inspired her, so that she was able to write a
heartfelt, magnificent story about the triumph of will. The book was a testament
to Seabiscuit’s triumph and her own, equally.
Seen through the lens of the growth mindset, these are stories about the

transformative power of effort—the power of effort to change your ability and to
change you as a person. But filtered through the fixed mindset, it’s a great story
about three men and a horse, all with deficiencies, who had to try very hard.

High Effort: The Big Risk

From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with
deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, maybe they have
nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any
deficiencies—if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have
a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg made her violin debut at the age of ten with the

Philadelphia Orchestra. Yet when she arrived at Juilliard to study with Dorothy
DeLay, the great violin teacher, she had a repertoire of awful habits. Her
fingerings and bowings were awkward and she held her violin in the wrong
position, but she refused to change. After several years, she saw the other
students catching up and even surpassing her, and by her late teens she had a
crisis of confidence. “ I was used to success, to the prodigy label in newspapers,

and now I felt like a failure.”
This prodigy was afraid of trying. “ Everything I was going through boiled

down to fear. Fear of trying and failing….If you go to an audition and don’t
really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could
have and you don’t win, you have an excuse….Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I
gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’ ”
The idea of trying and still failing—of leaving yourself without excuses—is

the worst fear within the fixed mindset, and it haunted and paralyzed her. She
had even stopped bringing her violin to her lesson!
Then, one day, after years of patience and understanding, DeLay told her,

“Listen, if you don’t bring your violin next week, I’m throwing you out of my
class.” Salerno-Sonnenberg thought she was joking, but DeLay rose from the
couch and calmly informed her, “I’m not kidding. If you are going to waste your
talent, I don’t want to be a part of it. This has gone on long enough.”
Why is effort so terrifying?
There are two reasons. One is that in the fixed mindset, great geniuses are not

supposed to need it. So just needing it casts a shadow on your ability. The
second is that, as Nadja suggests, it robs you of all your excuses. Without effort,
you can always say, “I could have been [fill in the blank].” But once you try, you
can’t say that anymore. Someone once said to me, “I could have been Yo-Yo
Ma.” If she had really tried for it, she wouldn’t have been able to say that.
Salerno-Sonnenberg was terrified of losing DeLay. She finally decided that

trying and failing—an honest failure—was better than the course she had been
on, and so she began training with DeLay for an upcoming competition. For the
first time she went all out, and, by the way, won. Now she says, “This is
something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love
most. And when it’s music you love, you’re in for the fight of your life.”
Fear of effort can happen in relationships, too, as it did with Amanda, a

dynamic and attractive young woman.

I had a lot of crazy boyfriends. A lot. They ranged from unreliable
to inconsiderate. “How about a nice guy for once?” my best friend
Carla always said. It was like, “You deserve better.”
So then Carla fixed me up with Rob, a guy from her office. He

was great, and not just on day one. I loved it. It was like, “Oh, my

God, a guy who actually shows up on time.” Then it became serious
and I freaked. I mean, this guy really liked me, but I couldn’t stop
thinking about how, if he really knew me, he might get turned off. I
mean, what if I really, really tried and it didn’t work? I guess I
couldn’t take that risk.

Low Effort: The Big Risk

In the growth mindset, it’s almost inconceivable to want something badly, to
think you have a chance to achieve it, and then do nothing about it. When it
happens, the I could have been is heartbreaking, not comforting.
There were few American women in the 1930s through 1950s who were more

successful than Clare Boothe Luce. She was a famous author and playwright, she
was elected to Congress twice, and she was ambassador to Italy. “ I don’t really
understand the word ‘success,’ ” she has said. “I know people use it about me,
but I don’t understand it.” Her public life and private tragedies kept her from
getting back to her greatest love: writing for the theater. She’d had great success
with plays like The Women, but it just wouldn’t do for a political figure to keep
penning tart, sexy comedies.
For her, politics did not provide the personal creative effort she valued most,

and looking back she couldn’t forgive herself for not pursuing her passion for
theater. “ I often thought,” she said, “that if I were to write an autobiography, my
title would be The Autobiography of a Failure.”
Billie Jean King says it’s all about what you want to look back and say. I

agree with her. You can look back and say, “I could have been…,” polishing
your unused endowments like trophies. Or you can look back and say, “I gave
my all for the things I valued.” Think about what you want to look back and say.
Then choose your mindset.

Turning Knowledge into Action

Sure, people with the fixed mindset have read the books that say: Success is
about being your best self, not about being better than others; failure is an
opportunity, not a condemnation; effort is the key to success. But they can’t put
this into practice because their basic mindset—their belief in fixed traits—is
telling them something entirely different: that success is about being more gifted

than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t
make it on talent.


At this point, you probably have questions. Let me see if I can answer some of

Question: If people believe their qualities are fixed, and they have
shown themselves to be smart or talented, why do they have to keep
proving it? After all, when the prince proved his bravery, he and
the princess lived happily ever after. He didn’t have to go out and
slay a dragon every day. Why don’t people with the fixed mindset
prove themselves and then live happily ever after?

Because every day new and larger dragons come along and, as things get
harder, maybe the ability they proved yesterday is not up to today’s task. Maybe
they were smart enough for algebra but not calculus. Maybe they were a good
enough pitcher for the minor leagues but not the majors. Maybe they were a
good enough writer for their school newspaper but not The New York Times.
So they’re racing to prove themselves over and over, but where are they

going? To me they’re often running in place, amassing countless affirmations,
but not necessarily ending up where they want to be.
You know those movies where the main character wakes up one day and sees

that his life has not been worthwhile—he has always been besting people, not
growing, learning, or caring. My favorite is Groundhog Day, which I didn’t see
for a long time because I couldn’t get past the name. At any rate, in Groundhog
Day, Bill Murray doesn’t just wake up one day and get the message; he has to
repeat the same day over and over until he gets the message.
Phil Connors (Murray) is a weatherman for a local station in Pittsburgh who is

dispatched to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the Groundhog Day
ceremony. On February 2, a groundhog is taken out of his little house; if he is
judged to have seen his shadow, there will be another six weeks of winter. If not,
there will be an early spring.
Phil, considering himself to be a superior being, has complete contempt for

the ceremony, the town, and the people (“hicks” and “morons”), and after
making that perfectly clear, he plans to get out of Punxsutawney as quickly as
possible. But this is not to be. A blizzard hits the town, he is forced to remain,
and when he wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again. The same
Sonny and Cher song, “I Got You Babe,” wakes him up on the clock radio and
the same groundhog festival is gearing up once again. And again. And again.
At first, he uses the knowledge to further his typical agenda, making fools out

of other people. Since he is the only one reliving the day, he can talk to a woman
on one day, and then use the information to deceive, impress, and seduce her the
next. He is in fixed-mindset heaven. He can prove his superiority over and over.
But after countless such days, he realizes it’s all going nowhere and he tries to

kill himself. He crashes a car, he electrocutes himself, he jumps from a steeple,
he walks in front of a truck. With no way out, it finally dawns on him. He could
be using this time to learn. He goes for piano lessons. He reads voraciously. He
learns ice sculpting. He finds out about people who need help that day (a boy
who falls from a tree, a man who chokes on his steak) and starts to help them,
and care about them. Pretty soon the day is not long enough! Only when this
change of mindset is complete is he released from the spell.

Question: Are mindsets a permanent part of your makeup or can
you change them?

Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them.
Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in
new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the
throes of the fixed mindset—passing up a chance for learning, feeling labeled by
a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And
then they switch themselves into the growth mindset—making sure they take the
challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort. When my graduate
students and I first discovered the mindsets, they would catch me in the fixed
mindset, smile kindly, and let me know it.
It’s also important to realize that even if people have a fixed mindset, they’re

not always in that mindset. In fact, in many of our studies, we put people into a
growth mindset. We tell them that an ability can be learned and that the task will
give them a chance to do that. Or we have them read a scientific article that
teaches them the growth mindset. The article describes people who did not have

natural ability, but who developed exceptional skills. These experiences make
our research participants into growth-minded thinkers, at least for the moment—
and they act like growth-minded thinkers, too.
Later, there’s a chapter all about change. There I describe people who have

changed and programs we’ve developed to bring about change.

Question: Can I be half-and-half? I recognize both mindsets in

All of us have elements of both—we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth
mindsets. I’m talking about it as a simple either–or right now for the sak e of
People can also have different mindsets in different areas. I might think that

my artistic skills are fixed but that my intelligence can be developed. Or that my
personality is fixed, but my creativity can be developed. We’ve found that
whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.

Question: With all your belief in effort, are you saying that when
people fail, it’s always their fault—they didn’t try hard enough?

No! It’s true that effort is crucial—no one can succeed for long without it—
but it’s certainly not the only thing. People have different resources and
opportunities. For example, people with money (or rich parents) have a safety
net. They can take more risks and keep going longer until they succeed. People
with easy access to a good education, people with a network of influential
friends, people who know how to be in the right place at the right time—all
stand a better chance of having their effort pay off. Rich, educated, connected
effort works better.
People with fewer resources, in spite of their best efforts, can be derailed so

much more easily. The hometown plant you’ve worked in all of your life
suddenly shuts down. What now? Your child falls ill and plunges you into debt.
There goes the house. Your spouse runs off with the nest egg and leaves you
with the children and bills. Forget the night school classes.
Before we judge, let’s remember that effort isn’t quite everything and that all

effort is not created equal.

Question: You keep talking about how the growth mindset makes
people number one, the best, the most successful. Isn’t the growth
mindset about personal development, not besting others?

I use examples of people who made it to the top to show how far the growth
mindset can take you: Believing talents can be developed allows people to fulfill
their potential.
In addition, examples of laid-back people having a good time would not be as

convincing to people with a fixed mindset. It doesn’t provide a compelling
alternative for them because it makes it look like a choice between fun and
However, this point is crucial: The growth mindset does allow people to love

what they’re doing—and to continue to love it in the face of difficulties. The
growth-minded athletes, CEOs, musicians, or scientists all loved what they did,
whereas many of the fixed-minded ones did not.
Many growth-minded people didn’t even plan to go to the top. They got there

as a result of doing what they love. It’s ironic: The top is where the fixed-
mindset people hunger to be, but it’s where many growth-minded people arrive
as a by-product of their enthusiasm for what they do.
This point is also crucial. In the fixed mindset, everything is about the

outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth
mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.
They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.
Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply
A lawyer spent seven years fighting the biggest bank in his state on behalf of

people who felt they’d been cheated. After he lost, he said, “Who am I to say
that just because I spent seven years on something I am entitled to success? Did I
do it for the success, or did I do it because I thought the effort itself was valid?
“I do not regret it. I had to do it. I would not do it differently.”

Question: I know a lot of workaholics on the fast track who seem to
have a fixed mindset. They’re always trying to prove how smart
they are, but they do work hard and they do take on challenges.
How does this fit with your idea that people with a fixed mindset go
in for low effort and easy tasks?

On the whole, people with a fixed mindset prefer effortless success, since
that’s the best way to prove their talent. But you’re right, there are also plenty of
high-powered people who think their traits are fixed and are looking for constant
validation. These may be people whose life goal is to win a Nobel Prize or
become the richest person on the planet—and they’re willing to do what it takes.
We’ll meet people like this in the chapter on business and leadership.
These people may be free of the belief that high effort equals low ability, but

they have the other parts of the fixed mindset. They may constantly put their
talent on display. They may feel that their talent makes them superior to other
people. And they may be intolerant of mistakes, criticism, or setbacks.
Incidentally, people with a growth mindset might also like a Nobel Prize or a

lot of money. But they are not seeking it as a validation of their worth or as
something that will make them better than others.

Question: What if I like my fixed mindset? If I know what my
abilities and talents are, I know where I stand, and I know what to
expect. Why should I give that up?

If you like it, by all means keep it. This book shows people they have a choice
by spelling out the two mindsets and the worlds they create. The point is that
people can choose which world they want to inhabit.
The fixed mindset creates the feeling that you can really know the permanent

truth about yourself. And this can be comforting: You don’t have to try for such-
and-such because you don’t have the talent. You will surely succeed at thus-and-
such because you do have the talent.
It’s just important to be aware of the drawbacks of this mindset. You may be

robbing yourself of an opportunity by underestimating your talent in the first
area. Or you may be undermining your chances of success in the second area by
assuming that your talent alone will take you there.
By the way, having a growth mindset doesn’t force you to pursue something.

It just tells you that you can develop your skills. It’s still up to you whether you
want to.

Question: Can everything about people be changed, and should
people try to change everything they can?

The growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be cultivated. But it doesn’t
tell you how much change is possible or how long change will take. And it
doesn’t mean that everything, like preferences or values, can be changed.
I was once in a taxi, and the driver had an opera on the radio. Thinking to start

a conversation, I said, “Do you like opera?” “No,” he replied, “I hate it. I’ve
always hated it.” “I don’t mean to pry,” I said, “but why are you listening to it?”
He then told me how his father had been an opera buff, listening to his vintage
records at every opportunity. My cabdriver, now well into middle age, had tried
for many years to cultivate a rapturous response to opera. He played the disks, he
read the scores—all to no avail. “Give yourself a break,” I advised him. “There
are plenty of cultured and intelligent people who can’t stand opera. Why don’t
you just consider yourself one of them?”
The growth mindset also doesn’t mean everything that can be changed should

be changed. We all need to accept some of our imperfections, especially the ones
that don’t really harm our lives or the lives of others.
The fixed mindset stands in the way of development and change. The growth

mindset is a starting point for change, but people need to decide for themselves
where their efforts toward change would be most valuable.

Question: Are people with the fixed mindset simply lacking in

No. People with the fixed mindset can have just as much confidence as people
with the growth mindset—before anything happens, that is. But as you can
imagine, their confidence is more fragile since setbacks and even effort can
undermine it.
Joseph Martocchio conducted a study of employees who were taking a short

computer training course. Half of the employees were put into a fixed mindset.
He told them it was all a matter of how much ability they possessed. The other
half were put in a growth mindset. He told them that computer skills could be
developed through practice. Everyone, steeped in these mindsets, then proceeded
with the course.
Although the two groups started off with exactly equal confidence in their

computer skills, by the end of the course they looked quite different. Those in
the growth mindset gained considerable confidence in their computer skills as
they learned, despite the many mistakes they inevitably made. But, because of

those mistakes, those with the fixed mindset actually lost confidence in their
computer skills as they learned!
The same thing happened with Berkeley students. Richard Robins and

Jennifer Pals tracked students at the University of California at Berkeley over
their years of college. They found that when students had the growth mindset,
they gained confidence in themselves as they repeatedly met and mastered the
challenges of the university. However, when students had the fixed mindset,
their confidence eroded in the face of those same challenges.
That’s why people with the fixed mindset have to nurse their confidence and

protect it. That’s what John McEnroe’s excuses were for: to protect his
Michelle Wie was a teenage golfer when she decided to go up against the big

boys. She entered the Sony Open, a PGA tournament that features the best male
players in the world. Coming from a fixed-mindset perspective, everyone rushed
to warn her that she could do serious damage to her confidence if she did poorly
—that “taking too many early lumps against superior competition could hurt her
long-range development.” “It’s always negative when you don’t win,” warned
Vijay Singh, a prominent golfer on the tour.
But Wie disagreed. She wasn’t going there to groom her confidence. “Once

you win junior tournaments, it’s easy to win multiple times. What I’m doing
now is to prepare for the future.” It’s the learning experience she was after—
what it was like to play with the world’s best players in the atmosphere of a
After the event, Wie’s confidence had not suffered one bit. She had exactly

what she wanted. “ I think I learned that I can play here.” It would be a long road
to the winner’s circle, but she now had a sense of what she was shooting for.
Some years ago, I got a letter from a world-class competitive swimmer.

Dear Professor Dweck:

I’ve always had a problem with confidence. My coaches always
told me to believe in myself 100%. They told me not to let any
doubts enter my mind and to think about how I’m better than
everyone else. I couldn’t do it because I’m always so aware of my
defects and the mistakes I make in every meet. Trying to think I
was perfect made it even worse. Then I read your work and how it’s
so important to focus on learning and improving. It turned me

so important to focus on learning and improving. It turned me
around. My defects are things I can work on! Now a mistake
doesn’t seem so important. I wanted to write you this letter for
teaching me how to have confidence. Thank you.

Mary Williams

A remarkable thing I’ve learned from my research is that in the growth
mindset, you don’t always need confidence.
What I mean is that even when you think you’re not good at something, you

can still plunge into it wholeheartedly and stick to it. Actually, sometimes you
plunge into something because you’re not good at it. This is a wonderful feature
of the growth mindset. You don’t have to think you’re already great at
something to want to do it and to enjoy doing it.
This book is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I read endless books and

articles. The information was overwhelming. I’d never written in a popular way.
It was intimidating. Does it seem easy for me? Way back when, that’s exactly
what I would have wanted you to think. Now I want you to know the effort it
took—and the joy it brought.

Grow Your Mindset

• People are all born with a love of learning, but the fixed
mindset can undo it. Think of a time you were enjoying
something—doing a crossword puzzle, playing a sport,
learning a new dance. Then it became hard and you wanted
out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry.
Next time this happens, don’t fool yourself. It’s the fixed
mindset. Put yourself in a growth mindset. Picture your brain
forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn.
Keep on going.

• It’s tempting to create a world in which we’re perfect. (Ah, I
remember that feeling from grade school.) We can choose

partners, make friends, hire people who make us feel
faultless. But think about it—do you want to never grow?
Next time you’re tempted to surround yourself with
worshipers, go to church. In the rest of your life, seek
constructive criticism.

• Is there something in your past that you think measured you?
A test score? A dishonest or callous action? Being fired from
a job? Being rejected? Focus on that thing. Feel all the
emotions that go with it. Now put it in a growth-mindset
perspective. Look honestly at your role in it, but understand
that it doesn’t define your intelligence or personality. Instead,
ask: What did I (or can I) learn from that experience? How
can I use it as a basis for growth? Carry that with you

• How do you act when you feel depressed? Do you work
harder at things in your life or do you let them go? Next time
you feel low, put yourself in a growth mindset—think about
learning, challenge, confronting obstacles. Think about effort
as a positive, constructive force, not as a big drag. Try it out.

• Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were
afraid you weren’t good at? Make a plan to do it.

Chapter 3


Try to picture Thomas Edison as vividly as you can. Think about where he is and
what he’s doing. Is he alone? I asked people, and they always said things like
“He’s in his workshop surrounded by equipment. He’s working on the

phonograph, trying things. He succeeds! [Is he alone?] Yes, he’s doing this stuff
alone because he’s the only one who knows what he’s after.”
“He’s in New Jersey. He’s standing in a white coat in a lab-type room. He’s

leaning over a lightbulb. Suddenly, it works! [Is he alone?] Yes. He’s kind of a
reclusive guy who likes to tinker on his own.”
In truth, the record shows quite a different fellow, working in quite a different

Edison was not a loner. For the invention of the lightbulb, he had thirty

assistants, including well-trained scientists, often working around the clock in a
corporate-funded state-of-the-art laboratory!
It did not happen suddenly. The lightbulb has become the symbol of that

single moment when the brilliant solution strikes, but there was no single
moment of invention. In fact, the lightbulb was not one invention, but a whole
network of time-consuming inventions each requiring one or more chemists,
mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and glassblowers.
Edison was no naïve tinkerer or unworldly egghead. The “Wizard of Menlo

Park” was a savvy entrepreneur, fully aware of the commercial potential of his
inventions. He also knew how to cozy up to the press—sometimes beating others
out as the inventor of something because he knew how to publicize himself.
Yes, he was a genius. But he was not always one. His biographer, Paul Israel,

sifting through all the available information, thinks he was more or less a regular
boy of his time and place. Young Tom was taken with experiments and

mechanical things (perhaps more avidly than most), but machines and
technology were part of the ordinary midwestern boy’s experience.
What eventually set him apart was his mindset and drive. He never stopped

being the curious, tinkering boy looking for new challenges. Long after other
young men had taken up their roles in society, he rode the rails from city to city
learning everything he could about telegraphy, and working his way up the
ladder of telegraphers through nonstop self-education and invention. And later,
much to the disappointment of his wives, his consuming love remained self-
improvement and invention, but only in his field.
There are many myths about ability and achievement, especially about the

lone, brilliant person suddenly producing amazing things.
Yet Darwin’s masterwork, The Origin of Species, took years of teamwork in

the field, hundreds of discussions with colleagues and mentors, several
preliminary drafts, and half a lifetime of dedication before it reached fruition.
Mozart labored for more than ten years until he produced any work that we

admire today. Before then, his compositions were not that original or interesting.
Actually, they were often patched-together chunks taken from other composers.
This chapter is about the real ingredients in achievement. It’s about why some

people achieve less than expected and why some people achieve more.


Let’s step down from the celestial realm of Mozart and Darwin and come back
to earth to see how mindsets create achievement in real life. It’s funny, but
seeing one student blossom under the growth mindset has a greater impact on me
than all the stories about Mozarts and Darwins. Maybe because it’s more about
you and me—about what’s happened to us and why we are where we are now.
And about children and their potential.
Back on earth, we measured students’ mindsets as they made the transition to

junior high school: Did they believe their intelligence was a fixed trait or
something they could develop? Then we followed them for the next two years.
The transition to junior high is a time of great challenge for many students.

The work gets much harder, the grading policies toughen up, the teaching
becomes less personalized. And all this happens while students are coping with
their new adolescent bodies and roles. Grades suffer, but not everyone’s grades

suffer equally.
No. In our study, only the students with the fixed mindset showed the decline.

The students with the growth mindset showed an increase in their grades over
the two years.
When the two groups had entered junior high, their past records were

indistinguishable. In the more benign environment of grade school, they’d
earned the same grades and achievement test scores. Only when they hit the
challenge of junior high did they begin to pull apart.
Here’s how students with the fixed mindset explained their poor grades. Many

maligned their abilities: “I am the stupidest” or “I suck in math.” And many
covered these feelings by blaming someone else: “[The math teacher] is a fat
male slut…and [the English teacher] is a slob with a pink ass.” “Because the
teacher is on crack.” These interesting analyses of the problem hardly provide a
road map to future success.
With the threat of failure looming, students with the growth mindset instead

mobilized their resources for learning. They told us that they, too, sometimes felt
overwhelmed, but their response was to dig in and do what it takes. They were
like George Danzig. Who?
George Danzig was a graduate student in math at Berkeley. One day, as usual,

he rushed in late to his math class and quickly copied the two homework
problems from the blackboard. When he later went to do them, he found them
very difficult, and it took him several days of hard work to crack them open and
solve them. They turned out not to be homework problems at all. They were two
famous math problems that had never been solved.

The Low-Effort Syndrome

Our students with the fixed mindset who were facing the hard transition saw it as
a threat. It threatened to unmask their flaws and turn them from winners into
losers. In fact, in the fixed mindset, adolescence is one big test. Am I smart or
dumb? Am I good-looking or ugly? Am I cool or nerdy? Am I a winner or a
loser? And in the fixed mindset, a loser is forever.
It’s no wonder that many adolescents mobilize their resources, not for

learning, but to protect their egos. And one of the main ways they do this (aside
from providing vivid portraits of their teachers) is by not trying. This is when
some of the brightest students, just like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, simply stop

working. In fact, students with the fixed mindset tell us that their main goal in
school—aside from looking smart—is to exert as little effort as possible. They
heartily agree with statements like this:
“In school my main goal is to do things as easily as possible so I don’t have to

work very hard.”
This low-effort syndrome is often seen as a way that adolescents assert their

independence from adults, but it is also a way that students with the fixed
mindset protect themselves. They view the adults as saying, “Now we will
measure you and see what you’ve got.” And they are answering, “No you
John Holt, the great educator, says that these are the games all human beings

play when others are sitting in judgment of them. “The worst student we had, the
worst I have ever encountered, was in his life outside the classroom as mature,
intelligent, and interesting a person as anyone at the school. What went
wrong?…Somewhere along the line, his intelligence became disconnected from
his schooling.”
For students with the growth mindset, it doesn’t make sense to stop trying. For

them, adolescence is a time of opportunity: a time to learn new subjects, a time
to find out what they like and what they want to become in the future.
Later, I’ll describe the project in which we taught junior high students the

growth mindset. What I want to tell you now is how teaching them this mindset
unleashed their effort. One day, we were introducing the growth mindset to a
new group of students. All at once Jimmy—the most hard-core turned-off low-
effort kid in the group—looked up with tears in his eyes and said, “You mean I
don’t have to be dumb?” From that day on, he worked. He started staying up late
to do his homework, which he never used to bother with at all. He started
handing in assignments early so he could get feedback and revise them. He now
believed that working hard was not something that made you vulnerable, but
something that made you smarter.

Finding Your Brain

A close friend of mine recently handed me something he’d written, a poem-story
that reminded me of Jimmy and his unleashed effort. My friend’s second-grade
teacher, Mrs. Beer, had had each student draw and cut out a paper horse. She
then lined up all the horses above the blackboard and delivered her growth-

mindset message: “Your horse is only as fast as your brain. Every time you learn
something, your horse will move ahead.”
My friend wasn’t so sure about the “brain” thing. His father had always told

him, “You have too much mouth and too little brains for your own good.” Plus,
his horse seemed to just sit at the starting gate while “everyone else’s brain
joined the learning chase,” especially the brains of Hank and Billy, the class
geniuses, whose horses jumped way ahead of everyone else’s. But my friend
kept at it. To improve his skills, he kept reading the comics with his mother and
he kept adding up the points when he played gin rummy with his grandmother.

And soon my sleek stallion
bolted forward like Whirlaway,
and there was no one
who was going to stop him.
Over the weeks and months
he flew forward overtaking
the others one by one.
In the late spring homestretch
Hank’s and Billy’s mounts were ahead
by just a few subtraction exercises, and
when the last bell of school rang,
my horse won—“By a nose!”
Then I knew I had a brain:
I had the horse to prove it.


Of course, learning shouldn’t really be a race. But this race helped my friend
discover his brain and connect it up to his schooling.

The College Transition

Another transition, another crisis. College is when all the students who were the
brains in high school are thrown together. Like our graduate students, yesterday

they were king of the hill, but today who are they?
Nowhere is the anxiety of being dethroned more palpable than in pre-med

classes. In the last chapter, I mentioned our study of tense but hopeful
undergraduates taking their first college chemistry course. This is the course that
would give them—or deny them—entrée to the pre-med curriculum, and it’s
well known that students will go to almost any lengths to do well in this course.
At the beginning of the semester, we measured students’ mindsets, and then

we followed them through the course, watching their grades and asking about
their study strategies. Once again we found that the students with the growth
mindset earned better grades in the course. Even when they did poorly on a
particular test, they bounced back on the next ones. When students with the fixed
mindset did poorly, they often didn’t make a comeback.
In this course, everybody studied. But there are different ways to study. Many

students study like this: They read the textbook and their class notes. If the
material is really hard, they read them again. Or they might try to memorize
everything they can, like a vacuum cleaner. That’s how the students with the
fixed mindset studied. If they did poorly on the test, they concluded that
chemistry was not their subject. After all, “I did everything possible, didn’t I?”
Far from it. They would be shocked to find out what students with the growth

mindset do. Even I find it remarkable.
The students with growth mindset completely took charge of their learning

and motivation. Instead of plunging into unthinking memorization of the course
material, they said: “I looked for themes and underlying principles across
lectures,” and “I went over mistakes until I was certain I understood them.” They
were studying to learn, not just to ace the test. And, actually, this was why they
got higher grades—not because they were smarter or had a better background in
Instead of losing their motivation when the course got dry or difficult, they

said: “I maintained my interest in the material.” “I stayed positive about taking
chemistry.” “I kept myself motivated to study.” Even if they thought the
textbook was boring or the instructor was a stiff, they didn’t let their motivation
evaporate. That just made it all the more important to motivate themselves.
I got an e-mail from one of my undergraduate students shortly after I had

taught her the growth mindset. Here’s how she used to study before: “When
faced with really tough material I tend[ed] to read the material over and over.”
After learning the growth mindset, she started using better strategies—that


Professor Dweck:

When Heidi [the teaching assistant] told me my exam results
today I didn’t know whether to cry or just sit down. Heidi will tell
you, I looked like I won the lottery (and I feel that way, too)! I can’t
believe I did SO WELL. I expected to “scrape” by. The
encouragement you have given me will serve me well in life….
I feel that I’ve earned a noble grade, but I didn’t earn it alone.

Prof. Dweck, you not only teach [your] theory, you SHOW it.
Thank you for the lesson. It is a valuable one, perhaps the most
valuable I’ve learned at Columbia. And yeah, I’ll be doing THAT
[using these strategies] before EVERY exam!
Thank you very, very much (and you TOO Heidi)!

No longer helpless,

Because they think in terms of learning, people with the growth mindset are
clued in to all the different ways to create learning. It’s odd. Our pre-med
students with the fixed mindset would do almost anything for a good grade—
except take charge of the process to make sure it happens.

Created Equal?

Does this mean that anyone with the right mindset can do well? Are all children
created equal? Let’s take the second question first. No, some children are
different. In her book Gifted Children, Ellen Winner offers incredible
descriptions of prodigies. These are children who seem to be born with
heightened abilities and obsessive interests, and who, through relentless pursuit
of these interests, become amazingly accomplished.
Michael was one of the most precocious. He constantly played games

involving letters and numbers, made his parents answer endless questions about
letters and numbers, and spoke, read, and did math at an unbelievably early age.

Michael’s mother reports that at four months old, he said, “Mom, Dad, what’s
for dinner?” At ten months, he astounded people in the supermarket by reading
words from the signs. Everyone assumed his mother was doing some kind of
ventriloquism thing. His father reports that at three, he was not only doing
algebra, but discovering and proving algebraic rules. Each day, when his father
got home from work, Michael would pull him toward math books and say, “Dad,
let’s go do work.”
Michael must have started with a special ability, but, for me, the most

outstanding feature is his extreme love of learning and challenge. His parents
could not tear him away from his demanding activities. The same is true for
every prodigy Winner describes. Most often people believe that the “gift” is the
ability itself. Yet what feeds it is that constant, endless curiosity and challenge
Is it ability or mindset? Was it Mozart’s musical ability or the fact that he

worked till his hands were deformed? Was it Darwin’s scientific ability or the
fact that he collected specimens nonstop from early childhood?
Prodigies or not, we all have interests that can blossom into abilities. As a

child, I was fascinated by people, especially adults. I wondered: What makes
them tick? In fact, a few years back, one of my cousins reminded me of an
episode that took place when we were five years old. We were at my
grandmother’s house, and he’d had a big fight with his mother over when he
could eat his candy. Later, we were sitting outside on the front steps and I said to
him: “Don’t be so stupid. Adults like to think they’re in charge. Just say yes, and
then eat your candy when you want to.”
Were those the words of a budding psychologist? All I know is that my cousin

told me this advice served him well. (Interestingly, he became a dentist.)

Can Everyone Do Well?

Now back to the first question. Is everyone capable of great things with the right
mindset? Could you march into the worst high school in your state and teach the
students college calculus? If you could, then one thing would be clear: With the
right mindset and the right teaching, people are capable of a lot more than we
Garfield High School was one of the worst schools in Los Angeles. To say

that the students were turned off and the teachers burned out is an

understatement. But without thinking twice, Jaime Escalante (of Stand and
Deliver fame) taught these inner-city Hispanic students college-level calculus.
With his growth mindset, he asked, “How can I teach them?” not “Can I teach
them?” and “How will they learn best?” not “Can they learn?”
But not only did he teach them calculus, he (and his colleague, Benjamin

Jimenez) took them to the top of the national charts in math. In 1987, only three
other public schools in the country had more students taking the Advanced
Placement Calculus test. Those three included Stuyvesant High School and the
Bronx High School of Science, both elite math-and-science-oriented schools in
New York.
What’s more, most of the Garfield students earned test grades that were high

enough to gain them college credits. In the whole country that year, only a few
hundred Mexican American students passed the test at this level. This means
there’s a lot of intelligence out there being wasted by underestimating students’
potential to develop.

Marva Collins

Most often when kids are behind—say, when they’re repeating a grade—they’re
given dumbed-down material on the assumption that they can’t handle more.
That idea comes from the fixed mindset: These students are dim-witted, so they
need the same simple things drummed into them over and over. Well, the results
are depressing. Students repeat the whole grade without learning any more than
they knew before.
Instead, Marva Collins took inner-city Chicago kids who had failed in the

public schools and treated them like geniuses. Many of them had been labeled
“learning disabled,” “retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed.” Virtually all of them
were apathetic. No light in the eyes, no hope in the face.
Collins’s second-grade public school class started out with the lowest-level

reader there was. By June, they reached the middle of the fifth-grade reader,
studying Aristotle, Aesop, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Poe, Frost, and Dickinson
along the way.
Later when she started her own school, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Zay

Smith dropped in. He saw four-year-olds writing sentences like “See the
physician” and “Aesop wrote fables,” and talking about “diphthongs” and
“diacritical marks.” He observed second graders reciting passages from

Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Kipling. Shortly before, he had visited a rich
suburban high school where many students had never heard of Shakespeare.
“Shoot,” said one of Collins’s students, “you mean those rich high school kids
don’t know Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616?”
Students read huge amounts, even over the summer. One student, who had

entered as a “retarded” six-year-old, now four years later had read twenty-three
books over the summer, including A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Eyre. The
students read deeply and thoughtfully. As the three-and four-year-olds were
reading about Daedalus and Icarus, one four-year-old exclaimed, “Mrs. Collins,
if we do not learn and work hard, we will take an Icarian flight to nowhere.”
Heated discussions of Macbeth were common.
Alfred Binet believed you could change the quality of someone’s mind.

Clearly you can. Whether you measure these children by the breadth of their
knowledge or by their performance on standardized tests, their minds had been
Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, studied 120 outstanding

achievers. They were concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-
class tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. Most were not
that remarkable as children and didn’t show clear talent before their training
began in earnest. Even by early adolescence, you usually couldn’t predict their
future accomplishment from their current ability. Only their continued
motivation and commitment, along with their network of support, took them to
the top.
Bloom concludes, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning

in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person
in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the
appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to
3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the
top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme that include children like
Michael. He is counting everybody else.

Ability Levels and Tracking

But aren’t students sorted into different ability levels for a reason? Haven’t their
test scores and past achievement shown what their ability is? Remember, test
scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don’t

tell you where a student could end up.
Falko Rheinberg, a researcher in Germany, studied schoolteachers with

different mindsets. Some of the teachers had the fixed mindset. They believed
that students entering their class with different achievement levels were deeply
and permanently different:
“According to my experience students’ achievement mostly remains constant

in the course of a year.”
“If I know students’ intelligence I can predict their school career quite well.”
“As a teacher I have no influence on students’ intellectual ability.”
Like my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, these teachers preached and

practiced the fixed mindset. In their classrooms, the students who started the
year in the high-ability group ended the year there, and those who started the
year in the low-ability group ended the year there.
But some teachers preached and practiced a growth mindset. They focused on

the idea that all children could develop their skills, and in their classrooms a
weird thing happened. It didn’t matter whether students started the year in the
high-or the low-ability group. Both groups ended the year way up high. It’s a
powerful experience to see these findings. The group differences had simply
disappeared under the guidance of teachers who taught for improvement, for
these teachers had found a way to reach their “low-ability” students.
How teachers put a growth mindset into practice is the topic of a later chapter,

but here’s a preview of how Marva Collins, the renowned teacher, did it. On the
first day of class, she approached Freddie, a left-back second grader, who
wanted no part of school. “ Come on, peach,” she said to him, cupping his face
in her hands, “we have work to do. You can’t just sit in a seat and grow
smart….I promise, you are going to do, and you are going to produce. I am not
going to let you fail.”


The fixed mindset limits achievement. It fills people’s minds with interfering
thoughts, it makes effort disagreeable, and it leads to inferior learning strategies.
What’s more, it makes other people into judges instead of allies. Whether we’re
talking about Darwin or college students, important achievements require a clear
focus, all-out effort, and a bottomless trunk full of strategies. Plus allies in

learning. This is what the growth mindset gives people, and that’s why it helps
their abilities grow and bear fruit.


Despite the widespread belief that intelligence is born, not made, when we really
think about it, it’s not so hard to imagine that people can develop their
intellectual abilities. The intellect is so multifaceted. You can develop verbal
skills or mathematical-scientific skills or logical thinking skills, and so on. But
when it comes to artistic ability, it seems more like a God-given gift. For
example, people seem to naturally draw well or poorly.
Even I believed this. While some of my friends seemed to draw beautifully

with no effort and no training, my drawing ability was arrested in early grade
school. Try as I might, my attempts were primitive and disappointing. I was
artistic in other ways. I can design, I’m great with colors, I have a subtle sense of
composition. Plus I have really good eye–hand coordination. Why couldn’t I
draw? I must not have the gift.
I have to admit that it didn’t bother me all that much. After all, when do you

really have to draw? I found out one evening as the dinner guest of a fascinating
man. He was an older man, a psychiatrist, who had escaped from the Holocaust.
As a ten-year-old child in Czechoslovakia, he and his younger brother came
home from school one day to find their parents gone. They had been taken.
Knowing there was an uncle in England, the two boys walked to London and
found him.
A few years later, lying about his age, my host joined the Royal Air Force and

fought for Britain in the war. When he was wounded, he married his nurse, went
to medical school, and established a thriving practice in America.
Over the years, he developed a great interest in owls. He thought of them as

embodying characteristics he admired, and he liked to think of himself as owlish.
Besides the many owl statuettes that adorned his house, he had an owl-related
guest book. It turned out that whenever he took a shine to someone, he asked
them to draw an owl and write something to him in this book. As he extended
this book to me and explained its significance, I felt both honored and horrified.
Mostly horrified. All the more because my creation was not to be buried
somewhere in the middle of the book, but was to adorn its very last page.

I won’t dwell on the intensity of my discomfort or the poor quality of my
artwork, although both were painfully clear. I tell this story as a prelude to the
astonishment and joy I felt when I read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
Below are the before-and-after self-portraits of people who took a short course in
drawing from the author, Betty Edwards. That is, they are the self-portraits
drawn by the students when they entered her course and five days later when
they had completed it.
Aren’t they amazing? At the beginning, these people didn’t look as though

they had much artistic ability. Most of their pictures reminded me of my owl.
But only a few days later, everybody could really draw! And Edwards swears
that this is a typical group. It seems impossible.

Edwards agrees that most people view drawing as a magical ability that only a
select few possess, and that only a select few will ever possess. But this is
because people don’t understand the components—the learnable components—
of drawing. Actually, she informs us, they are not drawing skills at all, but
seeing skills. They are the ability to perceive edges, spaces, relationships, lights
and shadows, and the whole. Drawing requires us to learn each component skill
and then combine them into one process. Some people simply pick up these
skills in the natural course of their lives, whereas others have to work to learn
them and put them together. But as we can see from the “after” self-portraits,
everyone can do it.
Here’s what this means: Just because some people can do something with

little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it
even better) with training. This is so important, because many, many people with
the fixed mindset think that someone’s early performance tells you all you need
to know about their talent and their future.

Jackson Pollock

It would have been a real shame if people discouraged Jackson Pollock for that
reason. Experts agree that Pollock had little native talent for art, and when you
look at his early products, it showed. They also agree that he became one of the
greatest American painters of the twentieth century and that he revolutionized
modern art. How did he go from point A to point B?
Twyla Tharp, the world-famous choreographer and dancer, wrote a book

called The Creative Habit. As you can guess from the title, she argues that
creativity is not a magical act of inspiration. It’s the result of hard work and
dedication. Even for Mozart. Remember the movie Amadeus? Remember how it
showed Mozart easily churning out one masterpiece after another while Salieri,
his rival, is dying of envy? Well, Tharp worked on that movie and she says:
Hogwash! Nonsense! “ There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.”
Dedication is how Jackson Pollock got from point A to point B. Pollock was

wildly in love with the idea of being an artist. He thought about art all the time,
and he did it all the time. Because he was so gung ho, he got others to take him

seriously and mentor him until he mastered all there was to master and began to
produce startlingly original works. His “poured” paintings, each completely
unique, allowed him to draw from his unconscious mind and convey a huge
range of feeling. Several years ago, I was privileged to see a show of these
paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was stunned by the
power and beauty of each work.
Can anyone do anything? I don’t really know. However, I think we can now

agree that people can do a lot more than first meets the eye.


If people have such potential to achieve, how can they gain faith in their
potential? How can we give them the confidence they need to go for it? How
about praising their ability in order to convey that they have what it takes? In
fact, more than 80 percent of parents told us it was necessary to praise children’s
ability so as to foster their confidence and achievement. You know, it makes a
lot of sense.
But then we began to worry. We thought about how people with the fixed

mindset already focus too much on their ability: “Is it high enough?” “Will it
look good?” Wouldn’t praising people’s ability focus them on it even more?
Wouldn’t it be telling them that that’s what we value and, even worse, that we
can read their deep, underlying ability from their performance? Isn’t that
teaching them the fixed mindset?
Adam Guettel has been called the crown prince and savior of musical theater.

He is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, the man who wrote the music to such
classics as Oklahoma! and Carousel. Guettel’s mother gushes about her son’s
genius. So does everyone else. “The talent is there and it’s major,” raved a
review in The New York Times. The question is whether this kind of praise
encourages people.
What’s great about research is that you can ask these kinds of questions and

then go get the answers. So we conducted studies with hundreds of students,
mostly early adolescents. We first gave each student a set of ten fairly difficult
problems from a nonverbal IQ test. They mostly did pretty well on these, and
when they finished we praised them.
We praised some of the students for their ability. They were told: “Wow, you

got [say] eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
They were in the Adam Guettel you’re-so-talented position.
We praised other students for their effort: “Wow, you got [say] eight right.

That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” They were not
made to feel that they had some special gift; they were praised for doing what it
takes to succeed.
Both groups were exactly equal to begin with. But right after the praise, they

began to differ. As we feared, the ability praise pushed students right into the
fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a
choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They
didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question
their talent.
When Guettel was thirteen, he was all set to star in a Metropolitan Opera

broadcast and TV movie of Amahl and the Night Visitors. He bowed out, saying
that his voice had broken. “I kind of faked that my voice was changing….I
didn’t want to handle the pressure.”
In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted

the challenging new task that they could learn from.
Then we gave students some hard new problems, which they didn’t do so well

on. The ability kids now thought they were not smart after all. If success had
meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.
Guettel echoes this. “In my family, to be good is to fail. To be very good is to

fail….The only thing not a failure is to be great.”
The effort kids simply thought the difficulty meant “Apply more effort or try

new strategies.” They didn’t see it as a failure, and they didn’t think it reflected
on their intellect.
What about the students’ enjoyment of the problems? After the success,

everyone loved the problems, but after the difficult problems, the ability students
said it wasn’t fun anymore. It can’t be fun when your claim to fame, your special
talent, is in jeopardy.
Here’s Adam Guettel: “I wish I could just have fun and relax and not have the

responsibility of that potential to be some kind of great man.” As with the kids
in our study, the burden of talent was killing his enjoyment.
The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said

that the hard problems were the most fun.

We then looked at the students’ performance. After the experience with
difficulty, the performance of the ability-praised students plummeted, even when
we gave them some more of the easier problems. Losing faith in their ability,
they were doing worse than when they started. The effort kids showed better and
better performance. They had used the hard problems to sharpen their skills, so
that when they returned to the easier ones, they were way ahead.
Since this was a kind of IQ test, you might say that praising ability lowered

the students’ IQs. And that praising their effort raised them.
Guettel was not thriving. He was riddled with obsessive-compulsive tics and

bitten, bleeding fingers. “Spend a minute with him—it takes only one—and a
picture of the terror behind the tics starts to emerge,” says an interviewer.
Guettel has also fought serious, recurrent drug problems. Rather than
empowering him, the “gift” has filled him with fear and doubt. Rather than
fulfilling his talent, this brilliant composer has spent most of his life running
from it.
One thing is hopeful—his recognition that he has his own life course to follow

that is not dictated by other people and their view of his talent. One night he had
a dream about his grandfather. “I was walking him to an elevator. I asked him if
I was any good. He said, rather kindly, ‘You have your own voice.’ ”
Is that voice finally emerging? For the score of The Light in the Piazza, an

intensely romantic musical, Guettel won the 2005 Tony Award. Will he take it
as praise for talent or praise for effort? I hope it’s the latter.
There was one more finding in our study that was striking and depressing at

the same time. We said to each student: “You know, we’re going to go to other
schools, and I bet the kids in those schools would like to know about the
problems.” So we gave students a page to write out their thoughts, but we also
left a space for them to write the scores they had received on the problems.
Would you believe that almost 40 percent of the ability-praised students lied

about their scores? And always in one direction. In the fixed mindset,
imperfections are shameful—especially if you’re talented—so they lied them
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars,

simply by telling them they were smart.
Right after I wrote these paragraphs, I met with a young man who tutors

students for their College Board exams. He had come to consult with me about
one of his students. This student takes practice tests and then lies to him about

her score. He is supposed to tutor her on what she doesn’t know, but she can’t
tell him the truth about what she doesn’t know! And she is paying money for
So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act

dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think this is what we’re aiming for
when we put positive labels—“gifted,” “talented,” “brilliant”—on people. We
don’t mean to rob them of their zest for challenge and their recipes for success.
But that’s the danger.
Here is a letter from a man who’d read some of my work:

Dear Dr. Dweck,

It was painful to read your chapter…as I recognized myself
As a child I was a member of The Gifted Child Society and

continually praised for my intelligence. Now, after a lifetime of not
living up to my potential (I’m 49), I’m learning to apply myself to a
task. And also to see failure not as a sign of stupidity but as lack of
experience and skill. Your chapter helped see myself in a new light.

Seth Abrams

This is the danger of positive labels. There are alternatives, and I will return to
them later in the chapter on parents, teachers, and coaches.


I was once a math whiz. In high school, I got a 99 in algebra, a 99 in geometry,
and a 99 in trigonometry, and I was on the math team. I scored up there with the
boys on the air force test of visual-spatial ability, which is why I got recruiting
brochures from the air force for many years to come.
Then I got a Mr. Hellman, a teacher who didn’t believe girls could do math.

My grades declined, and I never took math again.
I actually agreed with Mr. Hellman, but I didn’t think it applied to me. Other

girls couldn’t do math. Mr. Hellman thought it applied to me, too, and I

Everyone knows negative labels are bad, so you’d think this would be a short

section. But it isn’t a short section, because psychologists are learning how
negative labels harm achievement.
No one knows about negative ability labels like members of stereotyped

groups. For example, African Americans know about being stereotyped as lower
in intelligence. And women know about being stereotyped as bad at math and
science. But I’m not sure even they know how creepy these stereotypes are.
Research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson shows that even checking a

box to indicate your race or sex can trigger the stereotype in your mind and
lower your test score. Almost anything that reminds you that you’re black or
female before taking a test in the subject you’re supposed to be bad at will lower
your test score—a lot. In many of their studies, blacks are equal to whites in
their performance, and females are equal to males, when no stereotype is
evoked. But just put more males in the room with a female before a math test,
and down goes the female’s score.
This is why. When stereotypes are evoked, they fill people’s minds with

distracting thoughts—with secret worries about confirming the stereotype.
People usually aren’t even aware of it, but they don’t have enough mental power
left to do their best on the test.
This doesn’t happen to everybody, however. It mainly happens to people who

are in a fixed mindset. It’s when people are thinking in terms of fixed traits that
the stereotypes get to them. Negative stereotypes say: “You and your group are
permanently inferior.” Only people in the fixed mindset resonate to this
So in the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your

mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when
you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.
When people are in a growth mindset, the stereotype doesn’t disrupt their

performance. The growth mindset takes the teeth out of the stereotype and
makes people better able to fight back. They don’t believe in permanent
inferiority. And if they are behind—well, then they’ll work harder, seek help,
and try to catch up.
The growth mindset also makes people able to take what they can and what

they need even from a threatening environment. We asked African American
students to write an essay for a competition. They were told that when they

finished, their essays would be evaluated by Edward Caldwell III, a
distinguished professor with an Ivy League pedigree. That is, a representative of
the white establishment.
Edward Caldwell III’s feedback was quite critical, but also helpful—and

students’ reactions varied greatly. Those with a fixed mindset viewed it as a
threat, an insult, or an attack. They rejected Caldwell and his feedback.
Here’s what one student with the fixed mindset thought: “He’s mean, he

doesn’t grade right, or he’s obviously biased. He doesn’t like me.”
Said another: “He is a pompous asshole….It appears that he was searching for

anything to discredit the work.”
And another, deflecting the feedback with blame: “He doesn’t understand the

conciseness of my points. He thought it was vague because he was impatient
when he read it. He dislikes creativity.”
None of them will learn anything from Edward Caldwell’s feedback.
The students with the growth mindset may also have viewed him as a

dinosaur, but he was a dinosaur who could teach them something.
“Before the evaluation, he came across as arrogant and overdemanding. [After

the evaluation?] ‘Fair’ seems to be the first word that comes to mind….It seems
like a new challenge.”
“He sounded like an arrogant, intimidating, and condescending man. [What

are your feelings about the evaluation?] The evaluation was seemingly honest
and specific. In this sense, the evaluation could be a stimulus…to produce better
“He seems to be proud to the point of arrogance. [The evaluation?] He was

intensely critical….His comments were helpful and clear, however. I feel I will
learn much from him.”
The growth mindset allowed African American students to recruit Edward

Caldwell III for their own goals. They were in college to get an education and,
pompous asshole or not, they were going to get it.

Do I Belong Here?

Aside from hijacking people’s abilities, stereotypes also do damage by making
people feel they don’t belong. Many minorities drop out of college and many
women drop out of math and science because they just don’t feel they fit in.

To find out how this happens, we followed college women through their
calculus course. This is often when students decide whether math, or careers
involving math, are right for them. Over the semester, we asked the women to
report their feelings about math and their sense of belonging in math. For
example, when they thought about math, did they feel like a full-fledged member
of the math community or did they feel like an outsider; did they feel
comfortable or did they feel anxious; did they feel good or bad about their math
The women with the growth mindset—those who thought math ability could

be improved—felt a fairly strong and stable sense of belonging. And they were
able to maintain this even when they thought there was a lot of negative
stereotyping going around. One student described it this way: “In a math class,
[female] students were told they were wrong when they were not (they were in
fact doing things in novel ways). It was absurd, and reflected poorly on the
instructor not to ‘see’ the students’ good reasoning. It was alright because we
were working in groups and we were able to give & receive support among us
students….We discussed our interesting ideas among ourselves.”
The stereotyping was disturbing to them (as it should be), but they could still

feel comfortable with themselves and confident about themselves in a math
setting. They could fight back.
But women with the fixed mindset, as the semester wore on, felt a shrinking

sense of belonging. And the more they felt the presence of stereotyping in their
class, the more their comfort with math withered. One student said that her sense
of belonging fell because “I was disrespected by the professor with his comment,
‘that was a good guess,’ whenever I made a correct answer in class.”
The stereotype of low ability was able to invade them—to define them—and

take away their comfort and confidence. I’m not saying it’s their fault by any
means. Prejudice is a deeply ingrained societal problem, and I do not want to
blame the victims of it. I am simply saying that a growth mindset helps people to
see prejudice for what it is—someone else’s view of them—and to confront it
with their confidence and abilities intact.

Trusting People’s Opinions

Many females have a problem not only with stereotypes, but with other people’s
opinions of them in general. They trust them too much.

One day, I went into a drugstore in Hawaii to buy dental floss and deodorant,
and, after fetching my items, I went to wait in line. There were two women
together in front of me waiting to pay. Since I am an incurable time stuffer, at
some point I decided to get my money ready for when my turn came. So I
walked up, put the items way on the side of the counter, and started to gather up
the bills that were strewn throughout my purse. The two women went berserk. I
explained that in no way was I trying to cut in front of them. I was just preparing
for when my turn came. I thought the matter was resolved, but when I left the
store, they were waiting for me. They got in my face and yelled, “You’re a bad-
mannered person!”
My husband, who had seen the whole thing from beginning to end, thought

they were nuts. But they had a strange and disturbing effect on me, and I had a
hard time shaking off their verdict.
This vulnerability afflicts many of the most able, high-achieving females.

Why should this be? When they’re little, these girls are often so perfect, and they
delight in everyone’s telling them so. They’re so well behaved, they’re so cute,
they’re so helpful, and they’re so precocious. Girls learn to trust people’s
estimates of them. “Gee, everyone’s so nice to me; if they criticize me, it must
be true.” Even females at the top universities in the country say that other
people’s opinions are a good way to know their abilities.
Boys are constantly being scolded and punished. When we observed in grade

school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for
their conduct. Boys are also constantly calling each other slobs and morons. The
evaluations lose a lot of their power.
A male friend once called me a slob. He was over to dinner at my house and,

while we were eating, I dripped some food on my blouse. “That’s because
you’re such a slob,” he said. I was shocked. It was then that I realized no one had
ever said anything like that to me. Males say it to each other all the time. It may
not be a kind thing to say, even in jest, but it certainly makes them think twice
before buying into other people’s evaluations.
Even when women reach the pinnacle of success, other people’s attitudes can

get them. Frances Conley is one of the most eminent neurosurgeons in the world.
In fact, she was the first woman ever given tenure in neurosurgery at an
American medical school. Yet careless comments from male colleagues—even
assistants—could fill her with self-doubt. One day during surgery, a man
condescendingly called her “honey.” Instead of returning the compliment, she

questioned herself. “ Is a honey,” she wondered, “especially this honey, good
enough and talented enough to be doing this operation?”
The fixed mindset, plus stereotyping, plus women’s trust in other people’s

assessments of them: All of these contribute to the gender gap in math and
That gap is painfully evident in the world of high tech. Julie Lynch, a budding

techie, was already writing computer code when she was in junior high school.
Her father and two brothers worked in technology, and she loved it, too. Then
her computer programming teacher criticized her. She had written a computer
program and the program ran just fine, but he didn’t like a shortcut she had
taken. Her interest evaporated. Instead, she went on to study recreation and
public relations.
Math and science need to be made more hospitable places for women. And

women need all the growth mindset they can get to take their rightful places in
these fields.

When Things Go Right

But let’s look at the times the process goes right.
The Polgar family has produced three of the most successful female chess

players ever. How? Says Susan, one of the three, “My father believes that innate
talent is nothing, that [success] is 99 percent hard work. I agree with him.” The
youngest daughter, Judit, is now considered the best woman chess player of all
time. She was not the one with the most talent. Susan reports, “Judit was a slow
starter, but very hardworking.”
A colleague of mine has two daughters who are math whizzes. One is a

graduate student in math at a top university. The other was the first girl to rank
number one in the country on an elite math test, won a nationwide math contest,
and is now a neuroscience major at a top university. What’s their secret? Is it
passed down in the genes? I believe it’s passed down in the mindset. It’s the
most growth-mindset family I’ve ever seen.
In fact, their father applied the growth mindset to everything. I’ll never forget

a conversation we had some years ago. I was single at the time, and he asked me
what my plan was for finding a partner. He was aghast when I said I didn’t have
a plan. “You wouldn’t expect your work to get done by itself,” he said. “Why is
this any different?” It was inconceivable to him that you could have a goal and

not take steps to make it happen.
In short, the growth mindset lets people—even those who are targets of

negative labels—use and develop their minds fully. Their heads are not filled
with limiting thoughts, a fragile sense of belonging, and a belief that other
people can define them.

Grow Your Mindset

• Think about your hero. Do you think of this person as
someone with extraordinary abilities who achieved with little
effort? Now go find out the truth. Find out the tremendous
effort that went into their accomplishment—and admire them

• Think of times other people outdid you and you just assumed
they were smarter or more talented. Now consider the idea
that they just used better strategies, taught themselves more,
practiced harder, and worked their way through obstacles.
You can do that, too, if you want to.

• Are there situations where you get stupid—where you
disengage your intelligence? Next time you’re in one of those
situations, get yourself into a growth mindset—think about
learning and improvement, not judgment—and hook it back

• Do you label your kids? This one is the artist and that one is
the scientist. Next time, remember that you’re not helping
them—even though you may be praising them. Remember
our study where praising kids’ ability lowered their IQ scores.
Find a growth-mindset way to compliment them.

• More than half of our society belongs to a negatively
stereotyped group. First you have all the women, and then
you have all the other groups who are not supposed to be
good at something or other. Give them the gift of the growth
mindset. Create an environment that teaches the growth
mindset to the adults and children in your life, especially the

ones who are targets of negative stereotypes. Even when the
negative label comes along, they’ll remain in charge of their

Chapter 4


In sports, everybody believes in talent. Even—or especially—the experts. In fact,
sports is where the idea of “a natural” comes from—someone who looks like an
athlete, moves like an athlete, and is an athlete, all without trying. So great is the
belief in natural talent that many scouts and coaches search only for naturals, and
teams will vie with each other to pay exorbitant amounts to recruit them.
Billy Beane was a natural. Everyone agreed he was the next Babe Ruth.
But Billy Beane lacked one thing. The mindset of a champion.
As Michael Lewis tells us in Moneyball, by the time Beane was a sophomore

in high school, he was the highest scorer on the basketball team, the quarterback
of the football team, and the best hitter on the baseball team, batting .500 in one
of the toughest leagues in the country. His talent was real enough.
But the minute things went wrong, Beane searched for something to break. “

It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to
As he moved up in baseball from the minor leagues to the majors, things got

worse and worse. Each at-bat became a nightmare, another opportunity for
humiliation, and with every botched at-bat, he went to pieces. As one scout said,
“Billy was of the opinion that he should never make an out.” Sound familiar?
Did Beane try to fix his problems in constructive ways? No, of course not,

because this is a story of the fixed mindset. Natural talent should not need effort.
Effort is for the others, the less endowed. Natural talent does not ask for help. It
is an admission of weakness. In short, the natural does not analyze his
deficiencies and coach or practice them away. The very idea of deficiencies is
Being so imbued with the fixed mindset, Beane was trapped. Trapped by his

huge talent. Beane the player never recovered from the fixed mindset, but Beane

the incredibly successful major-league executive did. How did this happen?
There was another player who lived and played side by side with Beane in the

minors and in the majors, Lenny Dykstra. Dykstra did not have a fraction of
Beane’s physical endowment or “natural ability,” but Beane watched him in
awe. As Beane later described, “ He had no concept of failure….And I was the
Beane continues, “I started to get a sense of what a baseball player was and I

could see it wasn’t me. It was Lenny.”
As he watched, listened, and mulled it over, it dawned on Beane that mindset

was more important than talent. And not long after that, as part of a group that
pioneered a radically new approach to scouting and managing, he came to
believe that scoring runs—the whole point of baseball—was much more about
process than about talent.
Armed with these insights, Beane, as general manager of the 2002 Oakland

Athletics, led his team to a season of 103 victories—winning the division
championship and almost breaking the American League record for consecutive
wins. The team had the second-lowest payroll in baseball! They didn’t buy
talent, they bought mindset.


Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Physical endowment is not like intellectual endowment. It’s visible. Size, build,
agility are all visible. Practice and training are also visible, and they produce
visible results. You would think that this would dispel the myth of the natural.
You could see Muggsy Bogues at five foot three playing NBA basketball, and
Doug Flutie, the small quarterback who played for the New England Patriots and
the San Diego Chargers. You could see Pete Gray, the one-armed baseball player
who made it to the major leagues. Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all
time, who was completely lacking in grace. Glenn Cunningham, the great
runner, who had badly burned and damaged legs. Larry Bird and his lack of
swiftness. You can see the small or graceless or even “disabled” ones who make
it, and the god-like specimens who don’t. Shouldn’t this tell people something?
Boxing experts relied on physical measurements, called “tales of the tape,” to

identify naturals. They included measurements of the fighter’s fist, reach, chest
expansion, and weight. Muhammad Ali failed these measurements. He was not a
natural. He had great speed but he didn’t have the physique of a great fighter, he
didn’t have the strength, and he didn’t have the classical moves. In fact, he
boxed all wrong. He didn’t block punches with his arms and elbows. He
punched in rallies like an amateur. He kept his jaw exposed. He pulled back his
torso to evade the impact of oncoming punches, which Jose Torres said was
“like someone in the middle of a train track trying to avoid being hit by an
oncoming train, not by moving to one or the other side of the track, but by
running backwards.”
Sonny Liston, Ali’s adversary, was a natural. He had it all—the size, the

strength, and the experience. His power was legendary. It was unimaginable that
Ali could beat Sonny Liston. The matchup was so ludicrous that the arena was
only half full for the fight.
But aside from his quickness, Ali’s brilliance was his mind. His brains, not his

brawn. He sized up his opponent and went for his mental jugular. Not only did
he study Liston’s fighting style, but he closely observed what kind of person
Liston was out of the ring: “I read everything I could where he had been
interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him or had talked with
him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them,
and try to get a picture of how his mind worked.” And then he turned it against
Why did Ali appear to “go crazy” before each fight? Because, Torres says, he

knew that a knockout punch is the one they don’t see coming. Ali said, “Liston
had to believe that I was crazy. That I was capable of doing anything. He
couldn’t see nothing to me at all but mouth and that’s all I wanted him to see!”

Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee
Your hands can’t hit
What your eyes can’t see.

Ali’s victory over Liston is boxing history. A famous boxing manager reflects
on Ali:

“ He was a paradox. His physical performances in the ring were
absolutely wrong….Yet, his brain was always in perfect working
condition.” “He showed us all,” he continued with a broad smile
written across his face, “that all victories come from here,” hitting
his forehead with his index finger. Then he raised a pair of fists,
saying: “Not from here.”

This didn’t change people’s minds about physical endowment. No, we just
look back at Ali now, with our hindsight, and see the body of a great boxer. It
was gravy that his mind was so sharp and that he made up amusing poems, but
we still think his greatness resided in his physique. And we don’t understand
how the experts failed to see that greatness right from the start.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan wasn’t a natural, either. He was the hardest-working athlete,
perhaps in the history of sport.
It is well known that Michael Jordan was cut from the high school varsity

team—we laugh at the coach who cut him. He wasn’t recruited by the college he
wanted to play for (North Carolina State). Well, weren’t they foolish? He wasn’t
drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him. What a blooper!
Because now we know he was the greatest basketball player ever, and we think
it should have been obvious from the start. When we look at him we see
MICHAEL JORDAN. But at that point he was only Michael Jordan.
When Jordan was cut from the varsity team, he was devastated. His mother

says, “I told him to go back and discipline himself.” Boy, did he listen. He used
to leave the house at six in the morning to go practice before school. At the
University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses—his
defensive game and his ball handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback
by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the
last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shots for hours. He was
preparing for the next year. Even at the height of his success and fame—after he
had made himself into an athletic genius—his dogged practice remained
legendary. Former Bulls assistant coach John Bach called him “a genius who
constantly wants to upgrade his genius.”
For Jordan, success stems from the mind. “The mental toughness and the heart

are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have. I’ve
always said that and I’ve always believed that.” But other people don’t. They
look at Michael Jordan and they see the physical perfection that led inevitably to
his greatness.

The Babe

What about Babe Ruth? Now, he was clearly no vessel of human physical
perfection. Here was the guy with the famous appetites and a giant stomach
bulging out of his Yankee uniform. Wow, doesn’t that make him even more of a
natural? Didn’t he just carouse all night and then kind of saunter to the plate the
next day and punch out home runs?
The Babe was not a natural, either. At the beginning of his professional career,

Babe Ruth was not that good a hitter. He had a lot of power, power that came
from his total commitment each time he swung the bat. When he connected, it
was breathtaking, but he was highly inconsistent.
It’s true that he could consume astounding amounts of liquor and unheard-of

amounts of food. After a huge meal, he could eat one or more whole pies for
dessert. But he could also discipline himself when he had to. Many winters, he
worked out the entire off-season at the gym to become more fit. In fact, after the
1925 season, when it looked as though he was washed up, he really committed
himself to getting in shape, and it worked. From 1926 through 1931, he batted
.354, averaging 50 home runs a year and 155 runs batted in. Robert Creamer, his
biographer, says, “Ruth put on the finest display of sustained hitting that baseball
has ever seen….From the ashes of 1925, Babe Ruth rose like a rocket.” Through
He also loved to practice. In fact, when he joined the Boston Red Sox, the

veterans resented him for wanting to take batting practice every day. He wasn’t
just a rookie; he was a rookie pitcher. Who did he think he was, trying to take
batting practice? One time, later in his career, he was disciplined and was
banned from a game. That was one thing. But they wouldn’t let him practice,
either, and that really hurt.
Ty Cobb argued that being a pitcher helped Ruth develop his hitting. Why

would being a pitcher help his batting? “ He could experiment at the plate,”
Cobb said. “No one cares much if a pitcher strikes out or looks bad at bat, so
Ruth could take that big swing. If he missed, it didn’t matter….As time went on,

he learned more and more about how to control that big swing and put the wood
on the ball. By the time he became a fulltime outfielder, he was ready.”
Yet we cling fast to what Stephen Jay Gould calls “the common view that

ballplayers are hunks of meat, naturally and effortlessly displaying the talents
that nature provided.”

The Fastest Women on Earth

What about Wilma Rudolph, hailed as the fastest woman on earth after she won
three gold medals for sprints and relay in the 1960 Rome Olympics? She was far
from a physical wonder as a youngster. She was a premature baby, the twentieth
of twenty-two children born to her parents, and a constantly sick child. At four
years of age, she nearly died of a long struggle with double pneumonia, scarlet
fever, and polio(!), emerging with a mostly paralyzed left leg. Doctors gave her
little hope of ever using it again. For eight years, she vigorously pursued
physical therapy, until at age twelve she shed her leg brace and began to walk
If this wasn’t a lesson that physical skills could be developed, what was? She

immediately went and applied that lesson to basketball and track, although she
lost every race she entered in her first official track meet. After her incredible
career, she said, “I just want to be remembered as a hardworking lady.”
What about Jackie Joyner-Kersee, hailed as the greatest female athlete of all

time? Between 1985 and the beginning of 1996, she won every heptathlon she
competed in. What exactly is a heptathlon? It’s a grueling two-day, seven-part
event consisting of a 100-meter hurdles race, the high jump, the javelin throw, a
200-meter sprint, the long jump, the shotput, and an 800-meter run. No wonder
the winner gets to be called the best female athlete in the world. Along the way,
Joyner-Kersee earned the six highest scores in the history of the sport, set world
records, and won two world championships as well as two Olympic gold medals
(six if we count the ones in other events).
Was she a natural? Talent she had, but when she started track, she finished in

last place for quite some time. The longer she worked, the faster she got, but she
still didn’t win any races. Finally, she began to win. What changed? “Some
might attribute my transformation to the laws of heredity….But I think it was my
reward for all those hours of work on the bridle path, the neighborhood
sidewalks and the schoolhouse corridors.”

Sharing the secret of her continued success, she says, “ There is something
about seeing myself improve that motivates and excites me. It’s that way now,
after six Olympic medals and five world records. And it was the way I was in
junior high, just starting to enter track meets.”
Her last two medals (a world-championship and an Olympic medal) came

during an asthma attack and a severe, painful hamstring injury. It was not natural
talent taking its course. It was mindset having its say.

Naturals Shouldn’t Need Effort

Did you know there was once a strong belief that you couldn’t physically train
for golf, and that if you built your strength you would lose your “touch”? Until
Tiger Woods came along with his workout regimes and fierce practice habits and
won every tournament there was to win.
In some cultures, people who tried to go beyond their natural talent through

training received sharp disapproval. You were supposed to accept your station in
life. These cultures would have hated Maury Wills. Wills was an eager baseball
player in the 1950s and ’60s with a dream to be a major leaguer. His problem
was that his hitting wasn’t good enough, so when the Dodgers signed him, they
sent him down to the minor leagues. He proudly announced to his friends, “In
two years, I’m going to be in Brooklyn playing with Jackie Robinson.”
He was wrong. Despite his optimistic prediction and grueling daily practice,

he languished in the minors for eight and a half years. At the seven-and-a-half-
year mark, the team manager made a batting suggestion, telling Wills, “You’re
in a seven-and-a-half-year slump, you have nothing to lose.” Shortly thereafter,
when the Dodger shortstop broke his toe, Wills was called up. He had his
His batting was still not good enough. Not ready to give up, he went to the

first-base coach for help; they worked together several hours a day aside from
Wills’s regular practice. Still not good enough. Even the gritty Wills was now
ready to quit, but the first-base coach refused to let him. Now that the mechanics
were in place, Wills needed work on his mind.
He began to hit—and, with his great speed, he began to steal bases. He studied

the throws of the opposing pitchers and catchers, figuring out the best moment to
steal a base. He developed sudden, powerful takeoffs and effective slides. His
stealing began to distract the pitchers, throw off the catchers, and thrill the fans.

Wills went on to break Ty Cobb’s record for stolen bases, a record unchallenged
for forty-seven years. That season, he was voted the most valuable player in the
National League.

Sports IQ

You would think the sports world would have to see the relation between
practice and improvement—and between the mind and performance—and stop
harping so much on innate physical talent. Yet it’s almost as if they refuse to see.
Perhaps it’s because, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, people prize natural
endowment over earned ability. As much as our culture talks about individual
effort and self-improvement, deep down, he argues, we revere the naturals. We
like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different
from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made
themselves extraordinary. Why not? To me that is so much more amazing.
Even when experts are willing to recognize the role of the mind, they continue

to insist that it’s all innate!
This really hit me when I came upon an article about Marshall Faulk, the great

running back for the St. Louis Rams football team. Faulk had just become the
first player to gain a combined two thousand rushing and receiving yards in four
consecutive seasons.
The article, written on the eve of the 2002 Super Bowl, talked about Faulk’s

uncanny skill at knowing where every player on the field is, even in the swirling
chaos of twenty-two running and falling players. He not only knows where they
are, but he also knows what they are doing, and what they are about to do.
According to his teammates, he’s never wrong.
Incredible. How does he do it? As Faulk tells it, he spent years and years

watching football. In high school he even got a job as a ballpark vendor, which
he hated, in order to watch pro football. As he watched, he was always asking
the question Why?: “Why are we running this play?” “Why are we attacking it
this way?” “Why are they doing that?” “Why are they doing this?” “That
question,” Faulk says, “basically got me involved in football in a more in-depth
way.” As a pro, he never stopped asking why and probing deeper into the
workings of the game.
Clearly, Faulk himself sees his skills as the product of his insatiable curiosity

and study.

How do players and coaches see it? As a gift. “Marshall has the highest
football IQ of any position player I’ve ever played with,” says a veteran
teammate. Other teammates describe his ability to recognize defensive
alignments flawlessly as a “savant’s gift.” In awe of his array of skills, one coach
explained: “It takes a very innate football intelligence to do all that.”


But aren’t there some naturals, athletes who really seem to have “it” from the
start? Yes, and as it was for Billy Beane and John McEnroe, sometimes it’s a
curse. With all the praise for their talent and with how little they’ve needed to
work or stretch themselves, they can easily fall into a fixed mindset. Bruce
Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner), 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, says,
“If I wasn’t dyslexic, I probably wouldn’t have won the Games. If I had been a
better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come
easily…and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is
hard work.”
The naturals, carried away with their superiority, don’t learn how to work hard

or how to cope with setbacks. This is the story of Pedro Martinez, the brilliant
pitcher then with the Boston Red Sox, who self-destructed when they needed
him most. But it’s an even larger story too, a story about character.
A group of sportswriters from The New York Times and The Boston Globe

were on the Delta shuttle to Boston. So was I. They were headed to Game 3 of
the 2003 American League play-off series between the New York Yankees and
the Boston Red Sox. They were talking about character, and they all agreed—the
Boston writers reluctantly—that the Yankees had it.
Among other things, they remembered what the Yankees had done for New

York two years before. It was October 2001, and New Yorkers had just lived
through September 11. I was there and we were devastated. We needed some
hope. The city needed the Yankees to go for it—to go for the World Series. But
the Yankees had lived through it, too, and they were injured and exhausted. They
seemed to have nothing left. I don’t know where they got it from, but they dug
down deep and they polished off one team after another, each win bringing us a
little bit back to life, each one giving us a little more hope for the future. Fueled
by our need, they became the American League East champs, then the American
League champs, and then they were in the World Series, where they made a

valiant run and almost pulled it off. Everyone hates the Yankees. It’s the team
the whole country roots against. I grew up hating the Yankees, too, but after that
I had to love them. This is what the sportswriters meant by character.
Character, the sportswriters said. They know it when they see it—it’s the

ability to dig down and find the strength even when things are going against you.
The very next day, Pedro Martinez, the dazzling but over-pampered Boston

pitcher, showed what character meant. By showing what it isn’t.
No one could have wanted this American League Championship more than

the Boston Red Sox. They hadn’t won a World Series in eighty-five years, ever
since the curse of the Bambino—that is, ever since Sox owner Harry Frazee sold
Babe Ruth to the Yankees for money to finance a Broadway show. It was bad
enough that he was selling the best left-handed pitcher in baseball (which Ruth
was at the time), but he was selling him to the despised enemy.
The Yankees went on to dominate baseball, winning, it seemed, endless

World Series. Meanwhile Boston made it to four World Series and several play-
offs, but they always lost. And they always lost in the most tragic way possible.
By coming achingly near to victory and then having a meltdown. Here, finally,
was another chance to fight off the curse and defeat their archrivals. If they won,
they would make that trip to the World Series and the Yankees would stay home.
Pedro Martinez was their hope. In fact, earlier in the season, he had cursed the
Yet after pitching a beautiful game, Martinez was losing his lead and falling

behind. What did he do then? He hit a batter with the ball (Karim Garcia),
threatened to bean another (Jorge Posada), and hurled a seventy-two-year-old
man to the ground (Yankee coach Don Zimmer).
As New York Times writer Jack Curry wrote: “We knew we were going to

have Pedro vs. Roger [Clemens] on a memorable afternoon at Fenway
Park….But no one expected to watch Pedro against Garcia, Pedro against
Posada, Pedro against Zimmer.”
Even the Boston writers were aghast. Dan Shaughnessy, of the Globe, asked:

“Which one would you rather have now, Red Sox fans? Roger Clemens, who
kept his composure and behaved like a professional Saturday night, winning the
game for his team despite his obvious anger? Or Martinez, the baby who hits a
guy after he blows the lead, then points at his head and at Yankees catcher Jorge
Posada, threatening, ‘You’re next’?…Red Sox fans don’t like to hear this, but
Martinez was an embarrassment Saturday, and a disgrace to baseball. He gets

away with it because he’s Pedro. And the Sox front office enables him. Could
Martinez one time stand up and admit he’s wrong?”
Like Billy Beane, Pedro Martinez did not know how to tolerate frustration, did

not know how to dig down and turn an important setback into an important win.
Nor, like Billy Beane, could he admit his faults and learn from them. Because he
threw his tantrum instead of doing the job, the Yankees won the game and went
on to win the play-off by one game.
The sportswriters on the plane agreed that character is all. But they confessed

that they didn’t understand where it comes from. Yet I think by now we’re
getting the idea that character grows out of mindset.
We now know that there is a mindset in which people are enmeshed in the

idea of their own talent and specialness. When things go wrong, they lose their
focus and their ability, putting everything they want—and in this case,
everything the team and the fans so desperately want—in jeopardy.
We also know that there is a mindset that helps people cope well with

setbacks, points them to good strategies, and leads them to act in their best
Wait. The story’s not over. One year later, the Sox and the Yankees went

head-to-head again. Whoever won four games out of the seven would be the
American League Champions and would take that trip to the World Series. The
Yankees won the first three games, and Boston’s humiliating fate seemed sealed
once again.
But that year Boston had put their prima donnas on notice. They traded one,

tried to trade another (no one wanted him), and sent out the message: This is a
team, not a bunch of stars. We work hard for each other.
Four games later, the Boston Red Sox were the American League Champions.

And then the World Champions. It was the first time since 1904 that Boston had
beaten the Yankees in a championship series, showing two things. First, that the
curse was over. And second, that character can be learned.

More About Character

Let’s take it from the top with Pete Sampras and the growth mindset. In 2000,
Sampras was at Wimbledon, trying for his thirteenth Grand Slam tennis victory.
If he won, he would break Roy Emerson’s record of twelve wins in top

tournaments. Although Sampras managed to make it to the finals, he had not
played that well in the tournament and was not optimistic about his chances
against the young, powerful Patrick Rafter.
Sampras lost the first set, and was about to lose the second set. He was down

4–1 in the tiebreaker. Even he said, “I really felt like it was slipping away.”
What would McEnroe have done? What would Pedro Martinez have done? What
did Sampras do?
As William Rhoden puts it, “He…searched for a frame of reference that could

carry him through.” Sampras says, “When you’re sitting on the changeover you
think of past matches that you’ve lost the first set…came back and won the next
three. There’s time. You reflect on your past experiences, being able to get
through it.”
Suddenly, Sampras had a five-point run. Then two more. He had won the

second set and he was alive.
“Last night,” Rhoden says, “Sampras displayed all the qualities of the hero:

the loss in the first set, vulnerability near defeat, then a comeback and a final
Jackie Joyner-Kersee talked herself through an asthma attack during her last

world championship. She was in the 800-meter race, the last event of the
heptathlon, when she felt the attack coming on. “ Just keep pumping your arms,”
she instructed herself. “It’s not that bad, so keep going. You can make it. You’re
not going to have a full-blown attack. You have enough air. You’ve got this
thing won….Just run as hard as you can in this last 200 meters, Jackie.” She
instructed herself all the way to victory. “I have to say this is my greatest
triumph, considering the competition and the ups and downs I was going
through….If I really wanted it, I had to pull it together.”
In her last Olympics, the dreaded thing happened. A serious hamstring injury

forced her to drop out of the heptathlon. She was devastated. She was no longer
a contender in her signature event, but would she be a contender in the long
jump a few days later? Her first five jumps said no. They were nowhere near
medal level. But the sixth jump won her a bronze medal, more precious than her
gold ones. “ The strength for that sixth jump came from my assorted heartbreaks
over the years…I’d collected all my pains and turned them into one mighty
Joyner-Kersee, too, displayed all the qualities of a hero: the loss, the

vulnerability near defeat, then a comeback and a final triumph.

Character, Heart, Will, and the Mind of a Champion

It goes by different names, but it’s the same thing. It’s what makes you practice,
and it’s what allows you to dig down and pull it out when you most need it.
Remember how McEnroe told us all the things that went wrong to make him

lose each match he lost? There was the time it was cold and the time it was hot,
the time he was jealous and the times he was upset, and the many, many times he
was distracted. But, as Billie Jean King tells us, the mark of a champion is the
ability to win when things are not quite right—when you’re not playing well and
your emotions are not the right ones. Here’s how she learned what being a
champion meant.
King was in the finals at Forest Hills playing against Margaret Smith (later

Margaret Smith Court), who was at the peak of her greatness. King had played
her more than a dozen times and had beaten her only once. In the first set, King
played fabulously. She didn’t miss a volley and built a nice lead. Suddenly, the
set was over. Smith had won it.
In the second set, King again built a commanding lead and was serving to win

the set. Before she knew it, Smith had won the set and the match.
At first, King was perplexed. She had never built such a commanding lead in

such an important match. But then she had a Eureka! moment. All at once, she
understood what a champion was: someone who could raise their level of play
when they needed to. When the match is on the line, they suddenly “get around
three times tougher.”
Jackie Joyner-Kersee had her Eureka! moment too. She was fifteen years old

and competing in the heptathlon at the AAU Junior Olympics. Everything now
depended on the last event, the 800-meter race, an event she dreaded. She was
exhausted and she was competing against an expert distance runner whose times
she had never matched. She did this time. “I felt a kind of high. I’d proven that I
could win if I wanted it badly enough….That win showed me that I could not
only compete with the best athletes in the country, I could will myself to win.”
Often called the best woman soccer player in the world, Mia Hamm says she

was always asked, “Mia, what is the most important thing for a soccer player to
have?” With no hesitation, she answered, “Mental toughness.” And she didn’t
mean some innate trait. When eleven players want to knock you down, when
you’re tired or injured, when the referees are against you, you can’t let any of it
affect your focus. How do you do that? You have to learn how. “ It is,” said

Hamm, “one of the most difficult aspects of soccer and the one I struggle with
every game and every practice.”
By the way, did Hamm think she was the greatest player in the world? No.

“And because of that,” she said, “someday I just might be.”
In sports, there are always do-or-die situations, when a player must come

through or it’s all over. Jack Nicklaus, the famed golfer, was in these situations
many times in his long professional career on the PGA Tour—where the
tournament rested on his making a must-have shot. If you had to guess, how
many of these shots do you think he missed? The answer is one. One!
That’s the championship mentality. It’s how people who are not as talented as

their opponents win games. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, tells
one of my favorite stories. Once, while Wooden was still a high school coach, a
player was unhappy because he wasn’t included in the big games. The player,
Eddie Pawelski, begged Wooden to give him a chance, and Wooden relented.
“All right Eddie,” he said, “I’ll give you a chance. I’ll start you against Fort
Wayne Central tomorrow night.”
“Suddenly,” Wooden tells us, “I wondered where those words came from.”

Three teams were locked in a battle for number one in Indiana—one was his
team and another was Fort Wayne Central, tomorrow night’s team.
The next night, Wooden started Eddie. He figured that Eddie would last at

most a minute or two, especially since he was up against Fort Wayne’s
Armstrong, the toughest player in the state.
“Eddie literally took him apart,” Wooden reports. “Armstrong got the lowest

point total of his career. Eddie scored 12, and our team showed the best balance
of all season….But in addition to his scoring, his defense, rebounding, and play-
making were excellent.” Eddie never sat out again and was named most valuable
player for the next two years.
All of these people had character. None of them thought they were special

people, born with the right to win. They were people who worked hard, who
learned how to keep their focus under pressure, and who stretched beyond their
ordinary abilities when they had to.

Staying on Top

Character is what allows you to reach the top and stay there. Darryl Strawberry,

Mike Tyson, and Martina Hingis reached the top, but they didn’t stay there. Isn’t
that because they had all kinds of personal problems and injuries? Yes, but so
have many other champions. Ben Hogan was hit by a bus and was physically
destroyed, but he made it back to the top.
“ I believe ability can get you to the top,” says coach John Wooden, “but it

takes character to keep you there….It’s so easy to…begin thinking you can just
‘turn it on’ automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to
keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an
athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than
ability, they have character.’ ”
Let’s take an even deeper look at what character means, and how the growth

mindset creates it. Stuart Biddle and his colleagues measured adolescents’ and
young adults’ mindset about athletic ability. Those with the fixed mindset were
the people who believed that:
“You have a certain level of ability in sports and you cannot really do much to

change that level.”
“To be good at sports you need to be naturally gifted.”
In contrast, the people with the growth mindset agreed that:
“How good you are at sports will always improve if you work harder at it.”
“To be successful in sports, you need to learn techniques and skills and

practice them regularly.”
Those with the growth mindset were the ones who showed the most character

or heart. They were the ones who had the minds of champions. What do I mean?
Let’s look at the findings from these sports researchers and see.


Finding #1: Those with the growth mindset found success in doing their best, in
learning and improving. And this is exactly what we find in the champions.
“ For me the joy of athletics has never resided in winning,” Jackie Joyner-

Kersee tells us, “…I derive just as much happiness from the process as from the
results. I don’t mind losing as long as I see improvement or I feel I’ve done as
well as I possibly could. If I lose, I just go back to the track and work some

This idea—that personal success is when you work your hardest to become
your best—was central to John Wooden’s life. In fact, he says, “there were
many, many games that gave me as much pleasure as any of the ten national
championship games we won, simply because we prepared fully and played near
our highest level of ability.”
Tiger Woods and Mia Hamm are two of the fiercest competitors who ever

lived. They love to win, but what counted most for them is the effort they made
even when they didn’t win. They could be proud of that. McEnroe and Beane
could not.
After the ’98 Masters tournament, Woods was disappointed that he did not

repeat his win of the previous year, but he felt good about his top-ten finish: “I
squeezed the towel dry this week. I’m very proud of the way I hung in there.” Or
after a British Open, where he finished third: “Sometimes you get even more
satisfaction out of creating a score when things aren’t completely perfect, when
you’re not feeling so well about your swing.”
Tiger is a hugely ambitious man. He wants to be the best, even the best ever.

“But the best me—that’s a little more important.”
Mia Hamm tells us, “After every game or practice, if you walk off the field

knowing that you gave everything you had, you will always be a winner.” Why
did the country fall in love with her team? “ They saw that we truly love what
we do and that we gave everything we had to each other and to each game.”
For those with the fixed mindset, success is about establishing their

superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the
nobodies. “ There was a time—I’ll admit it,” McEnroe says, “when my head was
so big it could barely fit through the door.” Where’s the talk about effort and
personal best? There is none. “ Some people don’t want to rehearse; they just
want to perform. Other people want to practice a hundred times first. I’m in the
former group.” Remember, in the fixed mindset, effort is not a cause for pride. It
is something that casts doubt on your talent.


Finding #2: Those with the growth mindset found setbacks motivating. They’re
informative. They’re a wake-up call.
Only once did Michael Jordan try to coast. It was the year he returned to the

Bulls after his stint in baseball, and he learned his lesson. The Bulls were
eliminated in the play-offs. “ You can’t leave and think you can come back and
dominate this game. I will be physically and mentally prepared from now on.”
Truer words are rarely spoken. The Bulls won the NBA title the next three years.
Michael Jordan embraced his failures. In fact, in one of his favorite ads for

Nike, he says: “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three
hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning
shot, and missed.” You can be sure that each time, he went back and practiced
the shot a hundred times.
Here’s how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great basketball player, reacted when

college basketball outlawed his signature shot, the dunk (later reinstated). Many
thought that would stop his ascent to greatness. Instead, he worked twice as hard
on developing other shots: his bank shot off the glass, his skyhook, and his
turnaround jumper. He had absorbed the growth mindset from Coach Wooden,
and put it to good use.
In the fixed mindset, setbacks label you.
John McEnroe could never stand the thought of losing. Even worse was the

thought of losing to someone who was a friend or relative. That would make him
less special. For example, he hoped desperately for his best friend, Peter, to lose
in the finals at Maui after Peter had beaten him in an earlier round. He wanted it
so badly he couldn’t watch the match. Another time, he played his brother
Patrick in a finals in Chicago, and said to himself, “ God, if I lose to Patrick,
that’s it. I’m jumping off the Sears tower.”
Here’s how failure motivated him. In 1979, he played mixed doubles at

Wimbledon. He didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years. Why? He and
his partner lost in three straight sets. Plus, McEnroe lost his serve twice, while
no one else lost theirs even once. “That was the ultimate embarrassment. I said,
‘That’s it. I’m never playing again. I can’t handle this.’ ”
In 1981, McEnroe bought a beautiful black Les Paul guitar. That week, he

went to see Buddy Guy play at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago. Instead of
feeling inspired to take lessons or practice, McEnroe went home and smashed
his guitar to pieces.
Here’s how failure motivated Sergio Garcia, another golden boy with mindset

issues. Garcia had taken the golf world by storm with his great shots and his
charming, boyish ways; he seemed like a younger Tiger. But when his
performance took a dive, so did his charm. He fired caddie after caddie, blaming

them for everything that went wrong. He once blamed his shoe when he slipped
and missed a shot. To punish the shoe, he threw it and kicked it. Unfortunately,
he almost hit an official. These are the ingenious remedies for failure in the fixed


Finding #3: People with the growth mindset in sports (as in pre-med chemistry)
took charge of the processes that bring success—and that maintain it.
How come Michael Jordan’s skill didn’t seem to decline with age? He did

lose some stamina and agility with age, but to compensate, he worked even
harder on conditioning and on his moves, like the turnaround jump shot and his
celebrated fallaway jumper. He came into the league as a slam-dunker and he
left as the most complete player ever to grace the game.
Woods, too, took charge of the process. Golf is like a wayward lover. When

you think you’ve conquered her, she will certainly desert you. Butch Harmon,
the renowned coach, says “the golf swing is just about the farthest thing from a
perfectible discipline in athletics….The most reliable swings are only relatively
repeatable. They never stop being works in progress.” That’s why even the
biggest golf star wins only a fraction of the time, and may not win for long
periods of time (which happened to Woods even at the height of his career). And
that’s also why taking charge of the process is so crucial.
With this in mind, Tiger’s dad made sure to teach him how to manage his

attention and his course strategy. Mr. Woods would make loud noises or throw
things just as little Tiger was about to swing. This helped him become less
distractible. (Do we know someone else who could have profited from this
training?) When Tiger was three years old, his dad was already teaching him to
think about course management. After Tiger drove the ball behind a big clump
of trees, Mr. Woods asked the toddler what his plan was.
Woods carried on what his dad started by taking control of all parts of his

game. He experimented constantly with what worked and what didn’t, but he
also had a long-term plan that guided him: “ I know my game. I know what I
want to achieve, I know how to get there.”
Like Michael Jordan, Woods managed his motivation. He did this by making

his practice into fun: “ I love working on shots, carving them this way and that,

and proving to myself that I can hit a certain shot on command.” And he did it
by thinking of a rival out there somewhere who would challenge him: “ He’s
twelve. I have to give myself a reason to work so hard. He’s out there
somewhere. He’s twelve.”
Mark O’Meara, Woods’s golf partner and friend, had a choice. It’s not easy to

play beside someone as extraordinary as Woods. O’Meara’s choice was this: He
could feel jealous of and diminished by Woods’s superior play, or he could learn
from it. He chose the latter path. O’Meara was one of those talented players who
never seemed to fulfill his potential. His choice—to take charge of his game—
turned him around.
At the age of twenty-one, Woods had won the Masters Tournament. That

night, he slept with his arms around his prize, the famous green jacket. One year
later, he put a green jacket on Mark O’Meara.
From McEnroe, we hear little talk of taking control. When he was on top, we

hear little mention of working on his game to stay on top. When he was doing
poorly, we hear little self-reflection or analysis (except to pin the blame). For
example, when he didn’t do as well as expected for part of ’82, we hear that
“little things happened that kept me off my game for weeks at a time and
prevented me from dominating the tour.”
Always a victim of outside forces. Why didn’t he take charge and learn how

to perform well in spite of them? That’s not the way of the fixed mindset. In fact,
rather than combating those forces or fixing his problems, he tells us he wished
he played a team sport, so he could conceal his flaws: “If you’re not at your
peak, you can hide it so much easier in a team sport.”
McEnroe also admits that his on-court temper tantrums were often a cover for

choking and only made things worse. So what did he do? Nothing. He wished
someone else would do it for him. “When you can’t control yourself, you want
someone to do it for you—that’s where I acutely missed being part of a team
sport….People would have worked with me, coached me.”
Or: “ The system let me get away with more and more…I really liked it less

and less.” He got mad at the system! Hi there, John. This was your life. Ever
think of taking responsibility?
No, because in the fixed mindset, you don’t take control of your abilities and

your motivation. You look for your talent to carry you through, and when it
doesn’t, well then, what else could you have done? You are not a work in
progress, you’re a finished product. And finished products have to protect

themselves, lament, and blame. Everything but take charge.


Does a star have less responsibility to the team than other players? Is it just their
role to be great and win games? Or does a star have more responsibility than
others? What does Michael Jordan think?
“ In our society sometimes it’s hard to come to grips with filling a role instead

of trying to be a superstar,” says Jordan. A superstar’s talent can win games, but
it’s teamwork that wins championships.
Coach John Wooden claims he was tactically and strategically average. So

how did he win ten national championships? One of the main reasons, he tells
us, is because he was good at getting players to fill roles as part of a team. “ I
believe, for example, I could have made Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] the greatest
scorer in college history. I could have done that by developing the team around
that ability of his. Would we have won three national championships while he
was at UCLA? Never.”
In the fixed mindset, athletes want to validate their talent. This means acting

like a superstar, not “just” a team member. But, as with Pedro Martinez, this
mindset works against the important victories they want to achieve.
A telling tale is the story of Patrick Ewing, who could have been a basketball

champion. The year Ewing was a draft pick—by far the most exciting pick of the
year—the Knicks won the lottery and to their joy got to select Ewing for their
team. They now had “twin towers,” the seven-foot Ewing and the seven-foot Bill
Cartwright, their high-scoring center. They had a chance to do it all.
They just needed Ewing to be the power forward. He wasn’t happy with that.

Center is the star position. And maybe he wasn’t sure he could hit the outside
shots that a power forward has to hit. What if he had really given his all to learn
that position? (Alex Rodriguez, then the best shortstop in baseball, agreed to
play third base when he joined the Yankees. He had to retrain himself and, for a
while, he wasn’t all he had been.) Instead, Cartwright was sent to the Bulls, and
Ewing’s Knicks never won a championship.
Then there is the tale of the football player Keyshawn Johnson, another

immensely talented player who was devoted to validating his own greatness.
When asked before a game how he compared to a star player on the opposing

team, he replied, “You’re trying to compare a flashlight to a star. Flashlights
only last so long. A star is in the sky forever.”
Was he a team player? “ I am a team player, but I’m an individual first….I

have to be the No. 1 guy with the football. Not No. 2 or No. 3. If I’m not the No.
1 guy, I’m no good to you. I can’t really help you.” What does that mean? For
his definition of team player, Johnson was traded by the Jets, and, after that,
deactivated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I’ve noticed an interesting thing. When some star players are interviewed after

a game, they say we. They are part of the team and they think of themselves that
way. When others are interviewed, they say I and they refer to their teammates
as something apart from themselves—as people who are privileged to participate
in their greatness.

Every Sport Is a Team Sport

You know, just about every sport is in some sense a team sport. No one does it
alone. Even in individual sports, like tennis or golf, great athletes have a team—
coaches, trainers, caddies, managers, mentors. This really hit me when I read
about Diana Nyad, the woman who holds the world’s record for open-water
swimming. What could be more of a lone sport than swimming? All right,
maybe you need a little rowboat to follow you and make sure you’re okay.
When Nyad hatched her plan, the open-water swimming record for both men

and women was sixty miles. She wanted to swim one hundred. After months of
arduous training, she was ready. But with her went a team of guides (for
measuring the winds and the current, and watching for obstacles), divers
(looking for sharks), NASA experts (for guidance on nutrition and endurance—
she needed eleven hundred calories per hour and she lost twenty-nine pounds on
the trip!), and trainers who talked her through uncontrollable shivers, nausea,
hallucinations, and despair. Her new record was 102.5 miles. It was her name in
the record books, but it took fifty-one other people to do it.


You can already hear the mindsets in young athletes. Listen for them.
It’s 2004. Iciss Tillis is a college basketball star, a six-foot-five forward for

the Duke University women’s basketball team. She has a picture of her father,
James “Quick” Tillis, taped to her locker as a motivator. “But the picture is not a
tribute,” says sportswriter Viv Bernstein. “It is a reminder of all Tillis hopes she
will never be.”
Quick Tillis was a contender in the 1980s. In ’81, he boxed for the world

heavyweight title; in ’85, he was in the movie The Color Purple (as a boxer);
and in ’86, he was the first boxer to go the distance (ten rounds) with Mike
Tyson. But he never made it to the top.
Iciss Tillis, who is a senior, says, “This is the year to win a national

championship. I just feel like I’d be such a failure…[I’d] feel like I’m regressing
back and I’m going to end up like my dad: a nobody.”
Uh-oh, it’s the somebody–nobody syndrome. If I win, I’ll be somebody; if I

lose I’ll be nobody.
Tillis’s anger at her father may be justified—he abandoned her as a child. But

this thinking is getting in her way. “Perhaps nobody else has that combination of
size, skill, quickness, and vision in the women’s college game,” says Bernstein.
“Yet few would rate Tillis ahead of the top two players in the country:
Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi and [Duke’s Alana] Beard.” Tillis’s performance
often fails to match her ability.
She’s frustrated that people have high expectations for her and want her to

play better. “I feel like I have to come out and have a triple-double [double digits
in points scored, rebounds, and assists], dunk the ball over-the-head 360 [leave
your feet, turn completely around in the air, and slam the ball into the basket]
and maybe people will be like, ‘Oh, she not that bad.’ ”
I don’t think people want the impossible. I think they just want to see her use

her wonderful talent to the utmost. I think they want her to develop the skills she
needs to reach her goals.
Worrying about being a nobody is not the mindset that motivates and sustains

champions. (Hard as it is, perhaps Tillis should admire the fact that her father
went for it, instead of being contemptuous that he didn’t quite make it.)
Somebodies are not determined by whether they won or lost. Somebodies are
people who go for it with all they have. If you go for it with all you have, Iciss
Tillis—not just in the games, but in practice too—you will already be a
Here’s the other mindset. It’s six-foot-three Candace Parker, then a seventeen-

year-old senior at Naperville Central High near Chicago, who was going to

Tennessee to play for the Lady Vols and their great coach, Pat Summitt.
Candace has a very different father from Iciss, a dad who is teaching her a

different lesson: “If you work hard at something, you get out what you put in.”
Several years before, when he was coach of her team, her dad lost his cool

with her during a tournament game. She was not going for the rebounds, she was
shooting lazy shots from the outside instead of using her height near the basket,
and she was not exerting herself on defense. “Now let’s go out and try harder!”
So what happened? She went out and scored twenty points in the second half,
and had ten rebounds. They blew the other team away. “He lit a fire under me.
And I knew he was right.”
Candace lights the same fire under herself now. Rather than being content to

be a star, she looks to improve all the time. When she returned from knee
surgery, she knew what she needed to work on—her timing, nerves, and wind.
When her three-point shot went bad, she asked her father to come to the gym to
work on it with her. “Whether it be in basketball or everyday life,” she says,
“nothing is promised.”
Only weeks later, the mindset prophecies were already coming true. Two

things happened. One, sadly, is that Tillis’s team was knocked out of the
championship. The other was that Candace Parker became the first woman ever
to win the basketball dunking championship—against five men.
Character, heart, the mind of a champion. It’s what makes great athletes and

it’s what comes from the growth mindset with its focus on self-development,
self-motivation, and responsibility.
Even though the finest athletes are wildly competitive and want to be the best,

greatness does not come from the ego of the fixed mindset, with its somebody–
nobody syndrome. Many athletes with the fixed mindset may have been
“naturals”—but you know what? As John Wooden says, we can’t remember
most of them.

Grow Your Mindset

• Are there sports you always assumed you’re bad at? Well,
maybe you are, but then maybe you aren’t. It’s not something
you can know until you’ve put in a lot of effort. Some of the

world’s best athletes didn’t start out being that hot. If you
have a passion for a sport, put in the effort and see.

• Sometimes being exceptionally endowed is a curse. These
athletes may stay in a fixed mindset and not cope well with
adversity. Is there a sport that came easily to you until you hit
a wall? Try on the growth mindset and go for it again.

• “Character” is an important concept in the sports world, and it
comes out of a growth mindset. Think about times you’ve
needed to reach deep down inside in difficult sports matches.
Think about the growth-mindset champions from this chapter
and how they do it. What could you do next time to make sure
you’re in a growth mindset in the pinch?

• Athletes with a growth mindset find success in learning and
improving, not just winning. The more you can do this, the
more rewarding sports will be for you—and for those who
play them with you!

Chapter 5



In 2001 came the announcement that shocked the corporate world. Enron—the
corporate poster child, the company of the future—had gone belly-up. What
happened? How did such spectacular promise turn into such a spectacular
disaster? Was it incompetence? Was it corruption?
It was mindset. According to Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker,

American corporations had become obsessed with talent. Indeed, the gurus at
McKinsey & Company, the premier management consulting firm in the country,
were insisting that corporate success today requires the “talent mindset.” Just as
there are naturals in sports, they maintained, there are naturals in business. Just
as sports teams write huge checks to sign outsized talent, so, too, should
corporations spare no expense in recruiting talent, for this is the secret weapon,
the key to beating the competition.
As Gladwell writes, “This ‘talent mindset’ is the new orthodoxy of American

management.” It created the blueprint for the Enron culture—and sowed the
seeds of its demise.
Enron recruited big talent, mostly people with fancy degrees, which is not in

itself so bad. It paid them big money, which is not that terrible. But by putting
complete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing: It created a culture that
worshiped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily
talented. Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset. And we know a lot
about that. We know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not
admit and correct their deficiencies.
Remember the study where we interviewed students from the University of

Hong Kong, where everything is in English? Students with the fixed mindset
were so worried about appearing deficient that they refused to take a course that

would improve their English. They did not live in a psychological world where
they could take this risk.
And remember how we put students into a fixed mindset by praising their

intelligence—much as Enron had done with its star employees? Later, after some
hard problems, we asked the students to write a letter to someone in another
school describing their experience in our study. When we read their letters, we
were shocked: Almost 40 percent of them had lied about their scores—always in
the upward direction. The fixed mindset had made a flaw intolerable.
Gladwell concludes that when people live in an environment that esteems

them for their innate talent, they have grave difficulty when their image is
threatened: “They will not take the remedial course. They will not stand up to
investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.”
Obviously, a company that cannot self-correct cannot thrive.
If Enron was done in by its fixed mindset, does it follow that companies that

thrive have a growth mindset? Let’s see.


Jim Collins set out to discover what made some companies move from being
good to being great. What was it that allowed them to make the leap to greatness
—and stay there—while other, comparable companies just held steady at good?
To answer this question, he and his research team embarked on a five-year

study. They selected eleven companies whose stock returns had skyrocketed
relative to other companies in their industry, and who had maintained this edge
for at least fifteen years. They matched each company to another one in the same
industry that had similar resources, but did not make the leap. He also studied a
third group of companies: ones that had made a leap from good to great but did
not sustain it.
What distinguished the thriving companies from the others? There were

several important factors, as Collins reports in his book, Good to Great, but one
that was absolutely key was the type of leader who in every case led the
company into greatness. These were not the larger-than-life, charismatic types
who oozed ego and self-proclaimed talent. They were self-effacing people who
constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront the most brutal
answers—that is, to look failures in the face, even their own, while maintaining

faith that they would succeed in the end.
Does this sound familiar? Collins wonders why his effective leaders have

these particular qualities. And why these qualities go together the way they do.
And how these leaders came to acquire them. But we know. They have the
growth mindset. They believe in human development. And these are the
They’re not constantly trying to prove they’re better than others. For example,

they don’t highlight the pecking order with themselves at the top, they don’t
claim credit for other people’s contributions, and they don’t undermine others to
feel powerful.
Instead, they are constantly trying to improve. They surround themselves with

the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and
deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in
the future. And because of this, they can move forward with confidence that’s
grounded in the facts, not built on fantasies about their talent.
Collins reports that Alan Wurtzel, the CEO of the giant electronics chain

Circuit City, held debates in his boardroom. Rather than simply trying to impress
his board of directors, he used them to learn. With his executive team as well, he
questioned, debated, prodded until he slowly gained a clearer picture of where
the company was and where it needed to go. “ They used to call me the
prosecutor, because I would hone in on a question,” Wurtzel told Collins. “You
know, like a bulldog. I wouldn’t let go until I understood. Why, why, why?”
Wurtzel considered himself a “plow horse,” a hardworking, no-nonsense

normal kind of guy, but he took a company that was close to bankruptcy and
over the next fifteen years turned it into one that delivered the highest total
return to its stockholders of any firm on the New York Stock Exchange.


Robert Wood and Albert Bandura did a fascinating study with graduate students
in business, many of whom had management experience. In their study, they
created Enron-type managers and Wurtzel-type managers by putting people into
different mindsets.
Wood and Bandura gave these budding business leaders a complex

management task in which they had to run a simulated organization, a furniture

company. In this computerized task, they had to place employees in the right
jobs and decide how best to guide and motivate these workers. To discover the
best ways, they had to keep revising their decisions based on the feedback they
got about employee productivity.
The researchers divided the business students into two groups. One group was

given a fixed mindset. They were told that the task measured their basic,
underlying capabilities. The higher their capacity, the better their performance.
The other group was given a growth mindset. They were told that management
skills were developed through practice and that the task would give them an
opportunity to cultivate these skills.
The task was hard because students were given high production standards to

meet, and—especially in their early attempts—they fell short. As at Enron, those
with the fixed mindset did not profit from their mistakes.
But those with the growth mindset kept on learning. Not worried about

measuring—or protecting—their fixed abilities, they looked directly at their
mistakes, used the feedback, and altered their strategies accordingly. They
became better and better at understanding how to deploy and motivate their
workers, and their productivity kept pace. In fact, they ended up way more
productive than those with the fixed mindset. What’s more, throughout this
rather grueling task, they maintained a healthy sense of confidence. They
operated like Alan Wurtzel.


In contrast to Alan Wurtzel, the leaders of Collins’s comparison companies had
every symptom of the fixed mindset writ large.
Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world

where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly
affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this.
Collins’s comparison leaders were typically concerned with their “reputation

for personal greatness”—so much so that they often set the company up to fail
when their regime ended. As Collins puts it, “After all, what better testament to
your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?”
In more than two-thirds of these leaders, the researchers saw a “gargantuan

personal ego” that either hastened the demise of the company or kept it second-

rate. Once such leader was Lee Iacocca, head of Chrysler, who achieved a
miraculous turnaround for his company, then spent so much time grooming his
fame that in the second half of his tenure, the company plunged back into
Many of these comparison companies operated on what Collins calls a

“genius with a thousand helpers” model. Instead of building an extraordinary
management team like the good-to-great companies, they operated on the fixed-
mindset premise that great geniuses do not need great teams. They just need little
helpers to carry out their brilliant ideas.
Don’t forget that these great geniuses don’t want great teams, either. Fixed-

mindset people want to be the only big fish so that when they compare
themselves to those around them, they can feel a cut above the rest. In not one
autobiography of a fixed-mindset CEO did I read much about mentoring or
employee development programs. In every growth-mindset autobiography, there
was deep concern with personnel development and extensive discussion of it.
Finally, as with Enron, the geniuses refused to look at their deficiencies. Says

Collins: The good-to-great Kroger grocery chain looked bravely at the danger
signs in the 1970s—signs that the old-fashioned grocery store was becoming
extinct. Meanwhile, its counterpart, A&P, once the largest retailing organization
in the world, shut its eyes. For example, when A&P opened a new kind of store,
a superstore, and it seemed to be more successful than the old kind, they closed
it down. It was not what they wanted to hear. In contrast, Kroger eliminated or
changed every single store that did not fit the new superstore model and by the
end of the 1990s it had become the number one grocery chain in the country.

CEOs and the Big Ego

How did CEO and gargantuan ego become synonymous? If it’s the more self-
effacing growth-minded people who are the true shepherds of industry, why are
so many companies out looking for larger-than-life leaders—even when these
leaders may in the end be more committed to themselves than to the company?
Blame Iacocca. According to James Surowiecki, writing in Slate, Iacocca’s

rise to prominence was a turning point for American business. Before him, the
days of tycoons and moguls seemed long past. In the public’s mind, CEO meant
“a buttoned-down organization man, well-treated and well-paid, but essentially
bland and characterless.” With Iacocca, all of that changed. Business journalists

began dubbing executives “the next J. P. Morgan” or “the next Henry Ford.”
And fixed-mindset executives started vying for those labels.
Surowiecki even traces the recent corporate scandals to this change, for as the

trend continued, CEOs became superheroes. But the people who preen their egos
and look for the next self-image boost are not the same people who foster long-
term corporate health.
Maybe Iacocca is just a charismatic guy who, like rock and roll, is being

blamed for the demise of civilization. Is that fair? Let’s look at him more
closely. And let’s look at some other fixed-mindset CEOs: Albert Dunlap of
Scott Paper and Sunbeam; Jerry Levin and Steve Case of AOL Time Warner;
and Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron.
You’ll see they all start with the belief that some people are superior; they all

have the need to prove and display their superiority; they all use their
subordinates to feed this need, rather than fostering the development of their
workers; and they all end by sacrificing their companies to this need. The fixed
mindset helps us understand where gargantuan egos come from, how they
operate, and why they become self-defeating.


Iacocca: I’m a Hero

Warren Bennis, the leadership guru, studied the world’s greatest corporate
leaders. These great leaders said they didn’t set out to be leaders. They’d had no
interest in proving themselves. They just did what they loved—with tremendous
drive and enthusiasm—and it led where it led.
Iacocca wasn’t like that. Yes, he loved the car business, but more than

anything he yearned to be a muckamuck at Ford. He craved the approval of
Henry Ford II and the royal trappings of office. These were the things he could
measure himself by, the things that would prove he was somebody. I use the
term royal with good reason. Iacocca tells us the Glass House, Ford corporate
headquarters, was a palace and Henry Ford was the king. What’s more, “If
Henry was king, I was the crown prince.” “ I was His Majesty’s special
protégé.” “ All of us…lived the good life in the royal court. We were part of
something beyond first class—royal class….White coated waiters were on call

throughout the day, and we all ate lunch together in the executive dining room…
Dover sole was flown over from England on a daily basis.”
Iacocca achieved great things at Ford, like nurturing and promoting the Ford

Mustang, and he dreamed of succeeding Henry Ford as the CEO of the
company. But Henry Ford had other ideas and, much to Iacocca’s shock and
rage, he eventually forced Iacocca out. It’s interesting that Iacocca was shocked
and that he harbored an enduring rage against Henry Ford. After all, he had seen
Henry Ford fire top people, and he, Iacocca, had used the ax quite liberally on
others. He knew the corporate game. Yet his fixed mindset clouded his vision: “
I had always clung to the idea that I was different, that somehow I was smarter
or luckier than the rest. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.” (Italics
His belief in his inherent superiority had blinded him. Now the other side of

the fixed mindset kicked in. He wondered whether Henry Ford had detected a
flaw in him. Maybe he wasn’t superior after all. And that’s why he couldn’t let
go. Years later, his second wife told him to get over it. “ You don’t realize what
a favor Henry Ford did for you. Getting fired from Ford brought you to
greatness. You’re richer, more famous and more influential because of Henry
Ford. Thank him.” Shortly thereafter, he divorced her.
So the king who had defined him as competent and worthy now rejected him

as flawed. With ferocious energy, Iacocca applied himself to the monumental
task of saving face and, in the process, Chrysler Motors. Chrysler, the once
thriving Ford rival, was on the brink of death, but Iacocca as its new CEO acted
quickly to hire the right people, bring out new models, and lobby the
government for bailout loans. Just a few years after his humiliating exit from
Ford, he was able to write a triumphant autobiography and in it declare, “Today,
I’m a hero.”
Within a short time, however, Chrysler was in trouble again. Iacocca’s fixed

mindset would not stay put. He needed to prove his greatness—to himself, to
Henry Ford, to the world—on a larger and larger scale. He spent his company
time on things that would enhance his public image, and he spent the company’s
money on things that would impress Wall Street and hike up Chrysler’s stock
prices. But he did this instead of investing in new car designs or manufacturing
improvements that would keep the company profitable in the long run.
He also looked to history, to how he would be judged and remembered. But he

did not address this concern by building the company. Quite the contrary.

According to one of his biographers, he worried that his underlings might get
credit for successful new designs, so he balked at approving them. He worried,
as Chrysler faltered, that his underlings might be seen as the new saviors, so he
tried to get rid of them. He worried that he would be written out of Chrysler
history, so he desperately hung on as CEO long after he had lost his
Iacocca had a golden opportunity to make a difference, to leave a great legacy.

The American auto industry was facing its biggest challenge ever. Japanese
imports were taking over the American market. It was simple: They looked
better and they ran better. Iacocca’s own people had done a detailed study of
Honda, and made excellent suggestions to him.
But rather than taking up the challenge and delivering better cars, Iacocca,

mired in his fixed mindset, delivered blame and excuses. He went on the
rampage, spewing angry diatribes against the Japanese and demanding that the
American government impose tariffs and quotas that would stop them. In an
editorial against Iacocca, The New York Times scolded, “The solution lies in
making better cars in this country, not in angrier excuses about Japan.”
Nor was Iacocca growing as a leader of his workforce. In fact, he was

shrinking into the insulated, petty, and punitive tyrant he had accused Henry
Ford of being. Not only was he firing people who were critical of him, he’d done
little to reward the workers who had sacrificed so much to save the company.
Even when the money was rolling in, he seemed to have little interest in sharing
it with them. Their pay remained low and their working conditions remained
poor. Yet even when Chrysler was in trouble again, he maintained a regal
lifestyle. Two million dollars were spent renovating his corporate suite at the
Waldorf in New York.
Finally, while there was still time to save Chrysler, the board of directors

eased Iacocca out. They gave him a grand pension, showered him with stock
options, and continued many of his corporate perks. But he was beside himself
with rage, especially since his successor seemed to be managing the company
quite nicely. So in a bid to regain the throne, he joined a hostile takeover
attempt, one that placed the future of Chrysler at risk. It failed. But for many, the
suspicion that he put his ego before the welfare of the company was confirmed.
Iacocca lived the fixed mindset. Although he started out loving the car

business and having breakthrough ideas, his need to prove his superiority started
to dominate, eventually killing his enjoyment and stifling his creativity. As time

went on and he became less and less responsive to challenges from competitors,
he resorted to the key weapons of the fixed mindset—blame, excuses, and the
stifling of critics and rivals.
And as is so often the case with the fixed mindset, because of these very

things, Iacocca lost the validation he craved.
When students fail tests or athletes lose games, it tells them that they’ve

dropped the ball. But the power that CEOs wield allows them to create a world
that caters night and day to their need for validation. It allows them to surround
themselves only with the good news of their perfection and the company’s
success, no matter what the warning signs may be. This, as you may recall, is
CEO disease and a peril of the fixed mindset.
You know, lately I’ve wondered whether Iacocca has recuperated from CEO

disease. He’s raising money (and giving a lot of his own) for innovative diabetes
research. He’s working for the development of environment-friendly vehicles.
Maybe, released from the task of trying to prove himself, he’s now going for
things he deeply values.

Albert Dunlap: I’m a Superstar

Albert Dunlap saved dying companies, although I’m not sure saved is the right
word. He didn’t get them ready to thrive in the future. He got them ready to sell
for a profit, for example by firing thousands of workers. And profit he did. He
got a hundred million dollars from the turnaround and sale of Scott Paper. One
hundred million for little more than a year and a half of work. “ Did I earn it?
Damn right I did. I’m a superstar in my field, much like Michael Jordan in
basketball and Bruce Springsteen in rock ’n’ roll.”
Iacocca paid lip service to teamwork, the importance of the little guy, and

other good things. Albert Dunlap didn’t even pay lip service: “ If you’re in
business, you’re in business for one thing—to make money.”
He proudly reports an incident at an employee meeting at Scott Paper. A

woman stood up and asked, “Now that the company is improving, can we restart
charitable donations?” To which he replied, “If you want to give on your own,
that is your business and I encourage you to do it. But this company is here to
make a buck….The answer, in a word, is no.”
I’m not here to argue that business isn’t about money, but I do want to ask:

Why was Dunlap so focused on it?

Let’s let him tell us. “ Making my way in the world became a matter of self-
respect for me, of a kid trying to prove he was worth something….To this day, I
feel I have to prove and reprove myself.” And if he has to prove himself, he
needs a yardstick. Employee satisfaction or community responsibility or
charitable contributions are not good yardsticks. They cannot be reduced to one
number that represents his self-worth. But shareholder profits can.
In his own words, “ The most ridiculous term heard in boardrooms these days

is ‘stakeholders.’ ” The term refers to the employees, the community, and the
other companies, such as suppliers, that the company deals with. “You can’t
measure success by the interest of multiple stakeholders. You can measure
success by how the shareholder fares.”
The long haul held no interest for Dunlap. Really learning about a company

and figuring out how to make it grow didn’t give him the big blast of superhero
juice. “ Eventually, I have gotten bored every place I have been.” In his book,
there is a whole chapter called “Impressing the Analysts,” but there is no chapter
about making a business work. In other words, it’s always about Dunlap proving
his genius.
Then in 1996, Dunlap took over Sunbeam. In his typical “Chainsaw Al” style,

he closed or sold two-thirds of Sunbeam’s plants and fired half of the twelve
thousand employees. Ironically, the Sunbeam stock rose so high, it ruined his
plan to sell the company. It was too expensive to buy! Uh-oh, now he had to run
the company. Now he had to keep it profitable, or at least looking profitable. But
instead of turning to his staff or learning what to do, he inflated revenues, fired
people who questioned him, and covered up the increasingly dire straits his
company was in. Less than two years after the self-proclaimed superstardom in
his book (and one year after an even more self-congratulatory revision), Dunlap
fell apart and was kicked out. As he left, Sunbeam was under investigation by
the Securities and Exchange Commission and was expected to be in technical
default on a $1.7 billion bank loan.
Dunlap deeply misunderstood Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen. Both of

these superstars reached the pinnacle and stayed there a long time because they
constantly dug down, faced challenges, and kept growing. Al Dunlap thought
that he was inherently superior, so he opted out of the kind of learning that
would have helped him succeed.

The Smartest Guys in the Room

Yes, it seems as though history led inevitably from Iacocca to the moguls of the
1990s, and none more so than Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the leaders of
Ken Lay, the company’s founder, chairman, and CEO, considered himself a

great visionary. According to Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, authors of The
Smartest Guys in the Room, Lay looked down his nose at the people who
actually made the company run, much the way a king might look at his serfs. He
looked down on Rich Kinder, the Enron president, who rolled up his sleeves and
tried to make sure the company would reach its earning targets. Kinder was the
man who made Lay’s royal lifestyle possible. Kinder was also the only person at
the top who constantly asked if they were fooling themselves: “Are we smoking
our own dope? Are we drinking our own whiskey?”
Naturally, his days were numbered. But in his sensible and astute way, as he

departed he arranged to buy the one Enron asset that was inherently valuable, the
energy pipelines—the asset that Enron held in disdain. By the middle of 2003,
Kinder’s company had a market value of seven billion dollars.
Even as Lay was consumed by his view of himself and the regal manner in

which he wished to support it, he wanted to be seen as a “good and thoughtful
man” with a credo of respect and integrity. Even as Enron merrily sucked the life
out of its victims, he wrote to his staff, “Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance
don’t belong here….We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly
and sincerely.” As with Iacocca and the others, the perception—usually Wall
Street’s perception—was all-important. The reality less so.
Right there with Lay was Jeff Skilling, successor to Rich Kinder as president

and chief operating officer, and later the CEO. Skilling was not just smart, he
was said to be “the smartest person I ever met” and “incandescently brilliant.”
He used his brainpower, however, not to learn but to intimidate. When he
thought he was smarter than others, which was almost always, he treated them
harshly. And anyone who disagreed with him was just not bright enough to “get
it.” When a co-CEO with superb management skills was brought in to help
Skilling during a hard time in his life, Skilling was contemptuous of him: “ Ron
doesn’t get it.” When financial analysts or Wall Street traders tried to press
Skilling to go beyond his pat explanations, he treated them as though they were
stupid. “ Well, it’s so obvious. How can you not get it?” In most cases, the Wall
Street guys, ever concerned about their own intellect, made believe they got it.

As resident genius, Skilling had unlimited faith in his ideas. He had so much
regard for his ideas that he believed Enron should be able to proclaim profits as
soon as he or his people had the idea that might lead to profits. This is a radical
extension of the fixed mindset: My genius not only defines and validates me. It
defines and validates the company. It is what creates value. My genius is profit.
And in fact, this is how Enron came to operate. As McLean and Elkind report,

Enron recorded “millions of dollars in profits on a business before it had
generated a penny in actual revenues.” Of course, after the creative act no one
cared about follow-through. That was beneath them. So, often as not, the profit
never occurred. If genius equaled profit, it didn’t matter that Enron people
sometimes wasted millions competing against each other. Said Amanda Martin,
an Enron executive, “To put one over on one of your own was a sign of
creativity and greatness.”
Skilling not only thought he was smarter than everyone else but, like Iacocca,

also thought he was luckier. According to insiders, he thought he could beat the
odds. Why should he feel vulnerable? There was never anything wrong. Skilling
still does not admit that there was anything wrong. The world simply didn’t get

Two Geniuses Collide

Resident geniuses almost brought down AOL and Time Warner, too. Steve Case
of AOL and Jerry Levin of Time Warner were two CEOs with the fixed mindset
who merged their companies. Can you see it coming?
Case and Levin had a lot in common. Both of them cultivated an aura of

supreme intelligence. Both tried to intimidate people with their brilliance. And
both were known to take more credit than they deserved. As resident geniuses,
neither wanted to hear complaints, and both were ready to fire people who
weren’t “team players,” meaning people who wouldn’t keep up the façade that
they had erected.
When the merger actually took place, AOL was in such debt that the merged

company was on the brink of ruin. You would think that the two CEOs might
work together, marshaling their resources to save the company they created.
Instead, Levin and Case scrambled for personal power.
Levin was the first to fall. But Case was still not trying to make things work.

In fact, when the new CEO, Richard Parsons, sent someone down to fix AOL,
Case was intensely against it. If someone else fixed AOL, someone else would
get the credit. As with Iacocca, better to let the company collapse than let
another prince be crowned. When Case was finally counseled to resign, he was
furious. Like Iacocca, he denied all responsibility for the company’s problems
and vowed to get back at those who had turned against him.
Because of the resident geniuses, AOL Time Warner ended the year 2002

with a loss of almost one hundred billion dollars. It was the largest yearly loss in
American history.

Invulnerable, Invincible, and Entitled

Iacocca, Dunlap, Lay and Skilling, Case and Levin. They show what can happen
when people with the fixed mindset are put in charge of companies. In each case,
a brilliant man put his company in jeopardy because measuring himself and his
legacy outweighed everything else. They were not evil in the usual sense. They
didn’t set out to do harm. But at critical decision points, they opted for what
would make them feel good and look good over what would serve the longer-
term corporate goals. Blame others, cover mistakes, pump up the stock prices,
crush rivals and critics, screw the little guy—these were the standard operating
What is fascinating is that as they led their companies toward ruin, all of these

leaders felt invulnerable and invincible. In many cases, they were in highly
competitive industries, facing onslaughts from fierce rivals. But they lived in a
different reality.
It was a world of personal greatness and entitlement. Kenneth Lay felt a

powerful sense of entitlement. Even as he was getting millions a year in
compensation from Enron, he took large personal loans from the company, gave
jobs and contracts to his relatives, and used the corporate jets as his family fleet.
Even during bad years at Chrysler, Iacocca threw lavish Christmas parties for the
company elite. At every party, as king, he presented himself with an expensive
gift, which the executives were later billed for. Speaking about AOL executives,
a former official said, “You’re talking about men who thought they had a right to
As these leaders cloaked themselves in the trappings of royalty, surrounded

themselves with flatterers who extolled their virtues, and hid from problems, it is

no wonder they felt invincible. Their fixed mindset created a magic realm in
which the brilliance and perfection of the king were constantly validated. Within
that mindset, they were completely fulfilled. Why would they want to step
outside that realm to face the uglier reality of warts and failures?
As Morgan McCall, in his book High Flyers, points out, “Unfortunately,

people often like the things that work against their growth….People like to use
their strengths…to achieve quick, dramatic results, even if…they aren’t
developing the new skills they will need later on. People like to believe they are
as good as everyone says…and not take their weaknesses as seriously as they
might. People don’t like to hear bad news or get criticism….There is tremendous
risk…in leaving what one does well to attempt to master something new.” And
the fixed mindset makes it seem all that much riskier.

Brutal Bosses

McCall goes on to point out that when leaders feel they are inherently better than
others, they may start to believe that the needs or feelings of the lesser people
can be ignored. None of our fixed-mindset leaders cared much about the little
guy, and many were outright contemptuous of those beneath them on the
corporate ladder. Where does this lead? In the guise of “keeping people on their
toes,” these bosses may mistreat workers.
Iacocca played painful games with his executives to keep them off balance.

Jerry Levin of Time Warner was likened by his colleagues to the brutal Roman
emperor Caligula. Skilling was known for his harsh ridicule of those less
intelligent than he.
Harvey Hornstein, an expert on corporate leadership, writes in his book Brutal

Bosses that this kind of abuse represents the bosses’ desire “to enhance their own
feelings of power, competence, and value at the subordinate’s expense.” Do you
remember in our studies how people with the fixed mindset wanted to compare
themselves with people who were worse off than they were? The principle is the
same, but there is an important difference: These bosses have the power to make
people worse off. And when they do, they feel better about themselves.
Hornstein describes Paul Kazarian, the former CEO of Sunbeam-Oster. He

called himself a “perfectionist,” but that was a euphemism for “abuser.” He
threw things at subordinates when they upset him. One day, the comptroller,
after displeasing Mr. Kazarian, saw an orange juice container flying toward him.

Sometimes the victims are people the bosses consider to be less talented. This
can feed their sense of superiority. But often the victims are the most competent
people, because these are the ones who pose the greatest threat to a fixed-
mindset boss. An engineer at a major aircraft builder, interviewed by Hornstein,
talked about his boss: “His targets were usually those of us who were most
competent. I mean, if you’re really concerned about our performance, you don’t
pick on those who are performing best.” But if you’re really concerned about
your competence, you do.
When bosses mete out humiliation, a change comes over the place. Everything

starts revolving around pleasing the boss. In Good to Great, Collins notes that in
many of his comparison companies (the ones that didn’t go from good to great,
or that went there and declined again), the leader became the main thing people
worried about. “The minute a leader allows himself to become the primary
reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have
a recipe for mediocrity, or worse.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Chase Manhattan Bank was ruled by David

Rockefeller, an excessively controlling leader. According to Collins and Porras
in Built to Last, his managers lived day to day in fear of his disapproval. At the
end of each day, they breathed a sigh of relief: “Whew! One more day gone and
I’m not in trouble.” Even long past his heyday, senior managers refused to
venture a new idea because “David might not like it.” Ray Macdonald of
Burroughs, Collins and Porras report, publicly ridiculed managers for mistakes
to the point where he inhibited them from innovating. As a result, even though
Burroughs was ahead of IBM in the early stages of the computer industry, the
company lost out. The same thing happened at Texas Instruments, another leader
in the exciting early days of the computer. If they didn’t like a presentation,
Mark Shepherd and Fred Bucy would yell, bang on tables, insult the speaker,
and hurl things. No wonder their people lost their enterprising spirit.
When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed

mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company
forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged. It starts with the bosses’
worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being
judged. It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive a companywide fixed


Andrew Carnegie once said, “I wish to have as my epitaph: ‘Here lies a man
who was wise enough to bring into his service men who knew more than he.’ ”
Okay, let’s open the windows and let some air in. The fixed mindset feels so

stifling. Even when those leaders are globe-trotting and hobnobbing with world
figures, their world seems so small and confining—because their minds are
always on one thing: Validate me!
When you enter the world of the growth-mindset leaders, everything changes.

It brightens, it expands, it fills with energy, with possibility. You think, Gee, that
seems like fun! It has never entered my mind to lead a corporation, but when I
learned about what these leaders had done, it sounded like the most exciting
thing in the world.
I’ve chosen three of these leaders to explore as a contrast to the fixed-mindset

leaders. I chose Jack Welch of General Electric because he is a larger-than-life
figure with an ego he held in check—not your straight-ahead naturally self-
effacing growth-minded guy. And I chose Lou Gerstner (the man who came in
and saved IBM) and Anne Mulcahy (the woman who brought Xerox back to
life) as contrasts to Alfred Dunlap, the other turnaround expert.
Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner, and Anne Mulcahy are also fascinating because

they transformed their companies. They did this by rooting out the fixed mindset
and putting a culture of growth and teamwork in its place. With Gerstner and
IBM, it’s like watching Enron morph into a growth-mindset mecca.
As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and

development—both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company
as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth—for
themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.
Warren Bennis has said that too many bosses are driven and driving but going

nowhere. Not these people. They don’t talk royalty. They talk journey. An
inclusive, learning-filled, rollicking journey.

Jack: Listening, Crediting, Nurturing

When Jack Welch took over GE in 1980, the company was valued at fourteen
billion dollars. Twenty years later, it was valued by Wall Street at $490 billion.
It was the most valuable company in the world. Fortune magazine called Welch

“the most widely admired, studied, and imitated CEO of his time….His total
economic impact is impossible to calculate but must be a staggering multiple of
his GE performance.”
But to me even more impressive was an op-ed piece in The New York Times

by Steve Bennett, the CEO of Intuit. “I learned about nurturing employees from
my time at General Electric from Jack Welch….He’d go directly to the front-line
employee to figure out what was going on. Sometime in the early 1990s, I saw
him in a factory where they made refrigerators in Louisville….He went right to
the workers in the assembly line to hear what they had to say. I do frequent CEO
chats with front-line employees. I learned that from Jack.”
This vignette says a lot. Jack was obviously a busy guy. An important guy.

But he didn’t run things like Iacocca—from the luxurious corporate headquarters
where his most frequent contacts were the white-gloved waiters. Welch never
stopped visiting the factories and hearing from the workers. These were people
he respected, learned from, and, in turn, nurtured.
Then there is the emphasis on teamwork, not the royal I. Right away—right

from the “Dedication” and the “Author’s Note” of Welch’s autobiography—you
know something is different. It’s not the “I’m a hero” of Lee Iacocca or the “I’m
a superstar” of Alfred Dunlap—although he could easily lay claim to both.
Instead, it’s “I hate having to use the first person. Nearly everything I’ve done

in my life has been accomplished with other people….Please remember that
every time you see the word I in these pages, it refers to all those colleagues and
friends and some I might have missed.”
Or “[These people] filled my journey with great fun and learning. They often

made me look better than I am.”
Already we see the me me me of the validation-hungry CEO becoming the we

and us of the growth-minded leader.
Interestingly, before Welch could root the fixed mindset out of the company,

he had to root it out of himself. And believe me, Welch had a long way to go. He
was not always the leader he learned to be. In 1971, Welch was being considered
for a promotion when the head of GE human resources wrote a cautioning
memo. He noted that despite Welch’s many strengths, the appointment “carries
with it more than the usual degree of risk.” He went on to say that Welch was
arrogant, couldn’t take criticism, and depended too much on his talent instead of
hard work and his knowledgeable staff. Not good signs.
Fortunately, every time his success went to his head, he got a wake-up call.

One day, young “Dr.” Welch, decked out in his fancy suit, got into his new
convertible. He proceeded to put the top down and was promptly squirted with
dark, grungy oil that ruined both his suit and the paint job on his beloved car.
“There I was, thinking I was larger than life, and smack came the reminder that
brought me back to reality. It was a great lesson.”
There is a whole chapter titled “Too Full of Myself” about the time he was on

an acquisition roll and felt he could do no wrong. Then he bought Kidder,
Peabody, a Wall Street investment banking firm with an Enron-type culture. It
was a disaster that lost hundreds of millions of dollars for GE. “ The Kidder
experience never left me.” It taught him that “there’s only a razor’s edge
between self-confidence and hubris. This time hubris won and taught me a
lesson I would never forget.”
What he learned was this: True self-confidence is “the courage to be open—to

welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence
is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of
acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.
Well, humility is a start, but what about the management skills?
From his experiences, Welch learned more and more about the kind of

manager he wanted to be: a growth-minded manager—a guide, not a judge.
When Welch was a young engineer at GE, he caused a chemical explosion that
blew the roof off the building he worked in. Emotionally shaken by what
happened, he nervously drove the hundred miles to company headquarters to
face the music and explain himself to the boss. But when he got there, the
treatment he received was understanding and supportive. He never forgot it.
“Charlie’s reaction made a huge impression on me….If we’re managing good
people who are clearly eating themselves up over an error, our job is to help
them through it.”
He learned how to select people: for their mindset, not their pedigrees.

Originally, academic pedigrees impressed him. He hired engineers from MIT,
Princeton, and Caltech. But after a while, he realized that wasn’t what counted. “
Eventually I learned that I was really looking for people who were filled with
passion and a desire to get things done. A resume didn’t tell me much about that
inner hunger.”
Then came a chance to become the CEO. Each of the three candidates had to

convince the reigning CEO he was best for the job. Welch made the pitch on the
basis of his capacity to grow. He didn’t claim that he was a genius or that he was

the greatest leader who ever lived. He promised to develop. He got the job and
made good on his promise.
Immediately, he opened up dialogue and the channels for honest feedback. He

quickly set to work asking executives what they liked and disliked about the
company and what they thought needed changing. Boy, were they surprised. In
fact, they’d been so used to kissing up to the bosses that they couldn’t even get
their minds around these questions.
Then he spread the word: This company is about growth, not self-importance.
He shut down elitism—quite the opposite of our fixed-mindset leaders. One

evening, Welch addressed an elite executive club at GE that was the place for
movers and shakers to see and be seen. To their shock, he did not tell them how
wonderful they were. He told them, “I can’t find any value in what you’re
doing.” Instead, he asked them to think of a role that made more sense for them
and for the company. A month later, the president of the club came to Welch
with a new idea: to turn the club into a force of community volunteers. Twenty
years later that program, open to all employees, had forty-two thousand
members. They were running mentoring programs in inner-city schools and
building parks, playgrounds, and libraries for communities in need. They were
now making a contribution to others’ growth, not to their own egos.
He got rid of brutal bosses. Iacocca tolerated and even admired brutal bosses

who could make the workers produce. It served his bottom line. Welch admitted
that he, too, had often looked the other way. But in the organization he now
envisioned, he could not do that. In front of five hundred managers, “I explained
why four corporate officers were asked to leave during the prior year—even
though they delivered good financial performance….[They] were asked to go
because they didn’t practice our values.” The approved way to foster
productivity was now through mentoring, not through terror.
And he rewarded teamwork rather than individual genius. For years, GE, like

Enron, had rewarded the single originator of an idea, but now Welch wanted to
reward the team that brought the ideas to fruition. “ As a result, leaders were
encouraged to share the credit for ideas with their teams rather than take full
credit themselves. It made a huge difference in how we all related to one
Jack Welch was not a perfect person, but he was devoted to growth. This

devotion kept his ego in check, kept him connected to reality, and kept him in
touch with his humanity. In the end, it made his journey prosperous and

fulfilling for thousands of people.

Lou: Rooting Out the Fixed Mindset

By the late 1980s, IBM had become Enron, with one exception. The board of
directors knew it was in trouble.
It had a culture of smugness and elitism. Within the company, it was the old

We are royalty, but I’m more royal than you are syndrome. There was no
teamwork, only turf wars. There were deals but no follow-up. There was no
concern for the customer. Yet this probably wouldn’t have bothered anyone if
business weren’t suffering.
In 1993, they turned to Lou Gerstner and asked him to be the new CEO. He

said no. They asked him again. “ You owe it to America. We’re going to have
President Clinton call and tell you to take the job. Please, please, please. We
want exactly the kind of strategy and culture change you created at American
Express and RJR.”
In the end he caved, although he can’t remember why. But IBM now had a

leader who believed in personal growth and in creating a corporate culture that
would foster it. How did he produce it at IBM?
First, as Welch had done, he opened the channels of communication up and

down the company. Six days after he arrived, he sent a memo to every IBM
worker, telling them: “Over the next few months, I plan to visit as many of our
operations and offices as I can. And whenever possible, I plan to meet with
many of you to talk about how together we can strengthen the company.”
He dedicated his book to them: “This book is dedicated to the thousands of

IBMers who never gave up on their company, their colleagues, and themselves.
They are the real heroes of the reinvention of IBM.”
As Welch had done, he attacked the elitism. Like Enron, the whole culture

was about grappling for personal status within the company. Gerstner disbanded
the management committee, the ultimate power role for IBM executives, and
often went outside the upper echelons for expertise. From a growth mindset, it’s
not only the select few that have something to offer. “ Hierarchy means very
little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a
problem, regardless of position.”
Then came teamwork. Gerstner fired politicians, those who indulged in

internal intrigue, and instead rewarded people who helped their colleagues. He
stopped IBM sales divisions from putting each other down to clients to win
business for themselves. He started basing executives’ bonuses more on IBM’s
overall performance and less on the performance of their individual units. The
message: We’re not looking to crown a few princes; we need to work as a team.
As at Enron, the deal was the glamorous thing; the rest was pedestrian.

Gerstner was appalled by the endless failure to follow through on deals and
decisions, and the company’s unlimited tolerance of it. He demanded and
inspired better execution. Message: Genius is not enough; we need to get the job
Finally, Gerstner focused on the customer. IBM customers felt betrayed and

angry. IBM was so into itself that it was no longer serving their computer needs.
They were upset about pricing. They were frustrated by the bureaucracy at IBM.
They were irritated that IBM was not helping them to integrate their systems. At
a meeting of 175 chief information officers of the largest U.S. companies,
Gerstner announced that IBM would now put the customer first and backed it up
by announcing a drastic cut in their mainframe computer prices. Message: We
are not hereditary royalty; we serve at the pleasure of our clients.
At the end of his first three arduous months, Gerstner received his report card

from Wall Street: “[ IBM stock] has done nothing, because he has done
Ticked off but undaunted, Gerstner continued his anti-royalty campaign and

brought IBM back from its “near-death experience.” This was the sprint. This is
when Dunlap would have taken his money and run. What lay ahead was the even
harder task of maintaining his policies until IBM regained industry leadership.
That was the marathon. By the time he gave IBM back to the IBMers in March
2002, the stock had increased in value by 800 percent and IBM was “number
one in the world in IT services, hardware, enterprise software (excluding PCs),
and custom-designed, high performance computer chips.” What’s more, IBM
was once again defining the future direction of the industry.

Anne: Learning, Toughness, and Compassion

Take IBM. Plunge it into debt to the tune of seventeen billion. Destroy its credit
rating. Make it the target of SEC investigations. And drop its stock from $63.69
to $4.43 a share. What do you get? Xerox.

That was the Xerox Anne Mulcahy took over in 2000. Not only had the
company failed to diversify, it could no longer even sell its copy machines. But
three years later, Xerox had had four straight profitable quarters, and in 2004
Fortune named Mulcahy “the hottest turnaround act since Lou Gerstner.” How
did she do it?
She went into an incredible learning mode, making herself into the CEO

Xerox needed to survive. She and her top people, like Ursula Burns, learned the
nitty-gritty of every part of the business. For example, as Fortune writer Betsy
Morris explains, Mulcahy took Balance Sheet 101. She learned about debt,
inventory, taxes, and currency so she could predict how each decision she made
would play out on the balance sheet. Every weekend, she took home large
binders and pored over them as though her final exam was on Monday. When
she took the helm, people at Xerox units couldn’t give her simple answers about
what they had, what they sold, or who was in charge. She became a CEO who
knew those answers or knew where to get them.
She was tough. She told everyone the cold, hard truth they didn’t want to

know—like how the Xerox business model was not viable or how close the
company was to running out of money. She cut the employee rolls by 30 percent.
But she was no Chainsaw Al. Instead, she bore the emotional brunt of her
decisions, roaming the halls, hanging out with the employees, and saying “I’m
sorry.” She was tough but compassionate. In fact, she’d wake up in the middle of
the night worrying about what would happen to the remaining employees and
retirees if the company folded.
She worried constantly about the morale and development of her people, so

that even with the cuts, she refused to sacrifice the unique and wonderful parts of
the Xerox culture. Xerox was known throughout the industry as the company
that gave retirement parties and hosted retiree reunions. As the employees
struggled side by side with her, she refused to abolish their raises and, in a
morale-boosting gesture, gave them all their birthdays off. She wanted to save
the company in body and spirit. And not for herself or her ego, but for all her
people who were stretching themselves to the limit for the company.
After slaving away for two years, Mulcahy opened Time magazine only to see

a picture of herself grouped with the notorious heads of Tyco and WorldCom,
men responsible for two of the biggest corporate management disasters of our
But a year later she knew her hard work was finally paying off when one of

her board members, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, told her, “I never
thought I would be proud to have my name associated with this company again.
I was wrong.”
Mulcahy was winning the sprint. Next came the marathon. Could Xerox win

that, too? Maybe it had rested on its laurels too long, resisting change and letting
too many chances go by. Or maybe the growth mindset—Mulcahy’s mission to
transform herself and her company—would help save another American
Jack, Lou, and Anne—all believing in growth, all brimming with passion.

And all believing that leadership is about growth and passion, not about
brilliance. The fixed-mindset leaders were, in the end, full of bitterness, but the
growth-minded leaders were full of gratitude. They looked up with gratitude to
their workers who had made their amazing journey possible. They called them
the real heroes.

Are CEO and Male Synonymous?

When you look at the books written by and about CEOs, you would think so.
Jim Collins’s good-to-great leaders (and his comparison to not-so-great leaders)
were all men. Perhaps that’s because men are the ones who’ve been at the top for
a long while.
A few years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to think of women at the top

of big companies. In fact, many women who’ve run big companies had to create
them, like Mary Kay Ash (the cosmetics tycoon), Martha Stewart, or Oprah
Winfrey. Or inherit them, like Katharine Graham, the former head of The
Washington Post.
Things are beginning to change. Women now hold more key positions in big

business. They’ve been the CEOs of not only Xerox, but also eBay, Hewlett-
Packard, Viacom’s MTV Networks, Time Warner’s Time, Inc., Lucent
Technologies, and Rite Aid. Women have been the presidents or chief financial
officers of Citigroup, PepsiCo, and Verizon. In fact, Fortune magazine called
Meg Whitman of eBay “maybe…the best CEO in America” of the “world’s
hottest company.”
I wonder whether, in a few years, I’ll be able to write this whole chapter with

women as the main characters. On the other hand, I hope not. I hope that in a
few years, it will be hard to find fixed-mindset leaders—men or women—at the

top of our most important companies.


Researcher Robert Wood and his colleagues did another great study. This time
they created management groups, thirty groups with three people each. Half of
the groups had three people with a fixed mindset and half had three people with
a growth mindset.
Those with the fixed mindset believed that: “People have a certain fixed

amount of management ability and they cannot do much to change it.” In
contrast, those with the growth mindset believed: “People can always
substantially change their basic skills for managing other people.” So one group
thought that you have it or you don’t; the other thought your skills could grow
with experience.
Every group had worked together for some weeks when they were given,

jointly, the task I talked about before: a complex management task in which they
ran a simulated organization, a furniture company. If you remember, on this task
people had to figure out how to match workers with jobs and how to motivate
them for maximum productivity. But this time, instead of working individually,
people could discuss their choices and the feedback they got, and work together
to improve their decisions.
The fixed-and growth-mindset groups started with the same ability, but as

time went on the growth-mindset groups clearly outperformed the fixed-mindset
ones. And this difference became ever larger the longer the groups worked. Once
again, those with the growth mindset profited from their mistakes and feedback
far more than the fixed-mindset people. But what was even more interesting was
how the groups functioned.
The members of the growth-mindset groups were much more likely to state

their honest opinions and openly express their disagreements as they
communicated about their management decisions. Everyone was part of the
learning process. For the fixed-mindset groups—with their concern about who
was smart or dumb or their anxiety about disapproval for their ideas—that open,
productive discussion did not happen. Instead, it was more like groupthink.


In the early 1970s, Irving Janis popularized the term groupthink. It’s when
everyone in a group starts thinking alike. No one disagrees. No one takes a
critical stance. It can lead to catastrophic decisions, and, as the Wood study
suggests, it often can come right out of a fixed mindset.
Groupthink can occur when people put unlimited faith in a talented leader, a

genius. This is what led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, America’s half-
baked secret plan to invade Cuba and topple Castro. President Kennedy’s
normally astute advisers suspended their judgment. Why? Because they thought
he was golden and everything he did was bound to succeed.
According to Arthur Schlesinger, an insider, the men around Kennedy had

unbounded faith in his ability and luck. “ Everything had broken right for him
since 1956. He had won the nomination and the election against all the odds in
the book. Everyone around him thought he had the Midas touch and could not
Schlesinger also said, “Had one senior advisor opposed the adventure, I

believe that Kennedy would have canceled it. No one spoke against it.” To
prevent this from happening to him, Winston Churchill set up a special
department. Others might be in awe of his titanic persona, but the job of this
department, Jim Collins reports, was to give Churchill all the worst news. Then
Churchill could sleep well at night, knowing he had not been groupthinked into a
false sense of security.
Groupthink can happen when the group gets carried away with its brilliance

and superiority. At Enron, the executives believed that because they were
brilliant, all of their ideas were brilliant. Nothing would ever go wrong. An
outside consultant kept asking Enron people, “Where do you think you’re
vulnerable?” Nobody answered him. Nobody even understood the question. “
We got to the point,” said a top executive, “where we thought we were bullet
Alfred P. Sloan, the former CEO of General Motors, presents a nice contrast.

He was leading a group of high-level policy makers who seemed to have reached
a consensus. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I take it we are all in complete agreement
on the decision here….Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this
matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and
perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., reported that the ancient Persians
used a version of Sloan’s techniques to prevent groupthink. Whenever a group
reached a decision while sober, they later reconsidered it while intoxicated.
Groupthink can also happen when a fixed-mindset leader punishes dissent.

People may not stop thinking critically, but they stop speaking up. Iacocca tried
to silence (or get rid of) people who were critical of his ideas and decisions. He
said the new, rounder cars looked like flying potatoes, and that was the end of it.
No one was allowed to differ, as Chrysler and its square cars lost more and more
of the market share.
David Packard, on the other hand, gave an employee a medal for defying him.

The co-founder of Hewlett-Packard tells this story. Years ago at a Hewlett-
Packard lab, they told a young engineer to give up work on a display monitor he
was developing. In response, he went “on vacation,” touring California and
dropping in on potential customers to show them the monitor and gauge their
interest. The customers loved it, he continued working on it, and then he
somehow persuaded his manager to put it into production. The company sold
more than seventeen thousand of his monitors and reaped a sales revenue of
thirty-five million dollars. Later, at a meeting of Hewlett-Packard engineers,
Packard gave the young man a medal “for extraordinary contempt and defiance
beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”
There are so many ways the fixed mindset creates groupthink. Leaders are

seen as gods who never err. A group invests itself with special talents and
powers. Leaders, to bolster their ego, suppress dissent. Or workers, seeking
validation from leaders, fall into line behind them. That’s why it’s critical to be
in a growth mindset when important decisions are made. As Robert Wood
showed in his study, a growth mindset—by relieving people of the illusions or
the burdens of fixed ability—leads to a full and open discussion of the
information and to enhanced decision making.


Are we going to have a problem finding leaders in the future? You can’t pick up
a magazine or turn on the radio without hearing about the problem of praise in
the workplace. We could have seen it coming.
We’ve talked about all the well-meaning parents who’ve tried to boost their

children’s self-esteem by telling them how smart and talented they are. And
we’ve talked about all the negative effects of this kind of praise. Well, these
children of praise have now entered the workforce, and sure enough, many can’t
function without getting a sticker for their every move. Instead of yearly
bonuses, some companies are giving quarterly or even monthly bonuses. Instead
of employee of the month, it’s the employee of the day. Companies are calling in
consultants to teach them how best to lavish rewards on this overpraised
generation. We now have a workforce full of people who need constant
reassurance and can’t take criticism. Not a recipe for success in business, where
taking on challenges, showing persistence, and admitting and correcting
mistakes are essential.
Why are businesses perpetuating the problem? Why are they continuing the

same misguided practices of the overpraising parents, and paying money to
consultants to show them how to do it? Maybe we need to step back from this
problem and take another perspective.
If the wrong kinds of praise lead kids down the path of entitlement,

dependence, and fragility, maybe the right kinds of praise can lead them down
the path of hard work and greater hardiness. We have shown in our research that
with the right kinds of feedback even adults can be motivated to choose
challenging tasks and confront their mistakes.
What would this feedback look or sound like in the workplace? Instead of just

giving employees an award for the smartest idea or praise for a brilliant
performance, they would get praise for taking initiative, for seeing a difficult
task through, for struggling and learning something new, for being undaunted by
a setback, or for being open to and acting on criticism. Maybe it could be praise
for not needing constant praise!
Through a skewed sense of how to love their children, many parents in the

’90s (and, unfortunately, many parents of the ’00s) abdicated their responsibility.
Although corporations are not usually in the business of picking up where
parents left off, they may need to this time. If businesses don’t play a role in
developing a more mature and growth-minded workforce, where will the leaders
of the future come from?


One of the key things that the successful businessperson must be good at is
negotiation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a business could thrive without
skilled negotiators at the helm. Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn have shown
that mindsets have an important impact on negotiation success. In one study,
they taught people either a fixed or a growth mindset about negotiation skills.
Half of the participants read an article called “Negotiation Ability, Like Plaster,
Is Pretty Stable Over Time.” The other half read one called “Negotiation Ability
Is Changeable and Can Be Developed.” To give you a flavor for the articles, the
growth mindset article started by saying, “While it used to be believed that
negotiating was a fixed skill that people were either born with or not, experts in
the field now believe that negotiating is a dynamic skill that can be cultivated
and developed over a lifetime.”
The participants were then asked to select the kind of negotiation task they

wanted. They could choose one that showed off their negotiation skills, although
they would not learn anything new. Or they could choose one in which they
might make mistakes and get confused, but they would learn some useful
negotiation skills. Almost half (47 percent) of the people who were taught the
fixed mindset about negotiation skills chose the task that simply showed off their
skills, but only 12 percent of those who were taught the growth mindset cared to
pursue this show-offy task. This means that 88 percent of the people who learned
a growth mindset wanted to dig into the task that would improve their
negotiation skills.
In their next study, Kray and Haselhuhn monitored people as they engaged in

negotiations. Again, half of the people were given a fixed mindset about
negotiation skills and the other half were given a growth mindset. The people,
two at a time, engaged in an employment negotiation. In each pair, one person
was the job candidate and the other was the recruiter, and they negotiated on
eight issues, including salary, vacation time, and benefits. By the end of the
negotiation, those with the growth mindset were the clear winners, doing almost
twice as well as those with the fixed mindset. The people who had learned the
growth mindset persevered through the rough spots and stalemates to gain more
favorable outcomes.
In three final studies, the researchers looked at MBA students enrolled in a

course on negotiation. Here they measured the mindsets the MBA students
already had, asking them how much they agreed with fixed mindset statements
(“The kind of negotiator someone is is very basic and it can’t be changed very
much,” “Good negotiators are born that way”) and growth mindset statements

(“All people can change even their most basic negotiation qualities,” “In
negotiations, experience is a great teacher”). Similar to before, they found that
the more of a growth mindset the student had, the better he or she did on the
negotiation task.
But does a growth mindset make people good just at getting their own way?

Often negotiations require people to understand and try to serve the other
person’s interests as well. Ideally, at the end of a negotiation, both parties feel
their needs have been met. In a study with a more challenging negotiation task,
those with a growth mindset were able to get beyond initial failures by
constructing a deal that addressed both parties’ underlying interests. So, not only
do those with a growth mindset gain more lucrative outcomes for themselves,
but, more important, they also come up with more creative solutions that confer
benefits all around.
Finally, a growth mindset promoted greater learning. Those MBA students

who endorsed a growth mindset on the first day of the negotiation course earned
higher final grades in the course weeks later. This grade was based on
performance on written assignments, in class discussions, and during class
presentations, and reflected a deeper comprehension of negotiation theory and


Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent each year trying to teach
leaders and managers how to coach their employees and give them effective
feedback. Yet much of this training is ineffective, and many leaders and
managers remain poor coaches. Is that because this can’t be trained? No, that’s
not the reason. Research sheds light on why corporate training often fails.
Studies by Peter Heslin, Don VandeWalle, and Gary Latham show that many

managers do not believe in personal change. These fixed-mindset managers
simply look for existing talent—they judge employees as competent or
incompetent at the start and that’s that. They do relatively little developmental
coaching and when employees do improve, they may fail to take notice,
remaining stuck in their initial impression. What’s more (like managers at
Enron), they are far less likely to seek or accept critical feedback from their
employees. Why bother to coach employees if they can’t change and why get
feedback from them if you can’t change?

Managers with a growth mindset think it’s nice to have talent, but that’s just
the starting point. These managers are more committed to their employees’
development, and to their own. They give a great deal more developmental
coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they
welcome critiques from their employees.
Most exciting, the growth mindset can be taught to managers. Heslin and his

colleagues conducted a brief workshop based on well-established psychological
principles. (By the way, with a few changes, it could just as easily be used to
promote a growth mindset in teachers or coaches.) The workshop starts off with
a video and a scientific article about how the brain changes with learning. As
with our “Brainology” workshop (described in chapter 8), it’s always compelling
for people to understand how dynamic the brain is and how it changes with
learning. The article goes on to talk about how change is possible throughout life
and how people can develop their abilities at most tasks with coaching and
practice. Although managers, of course, want to find the right person for a job,
the exactly right person doesn’t always come along. However, training and
experience can often draw out and develop the qualities required for successful
The workshop then takes managers through a series of exercises in which a)

they consider why it’s important to understand that people can develop their
abilities, b) they think of areas in which they once had low ability but now
perform well, c) they write to a struggling protégé about how his or her abilities
can be developed, and d) they recall times they have seen people learn to do
things they never thought these people could do. In each case, they reflect upon
why and how change takes place.
After the workshop, there was a rapid change in how readily the participating

managers detected improvement in employee performance, in how willing they
were to coach a poor performer, and in the quantity and quality of their coaching
suggestions. What’s more, these changes persisted over the six-week period in
which they were followed up.
What does this mean? First, it means that our best bet is not simply to hire the

most talented managers we can find and turn them loose, but to look for
managers who also embody a growth mindset: a zest for teaching and learning,
an openness to giving and receiving feedback, and an ability to confront and
surmount obstacles.
It also means we need to train leaders, managers, and employees to believe in

growth, in addition to training them in the specifics of effective communication
and mentoring. Indeed, a growth mindset workshop might be a good first step in
any major training program.
Finally, it means creating a growth-mindset environment in which people can

thrive. This involves:

• Presenting skills as learnable

• Conveying that the organization values learning and perseverance, not just
ready-made genius or talent

• Giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success

• Presenting managers as resources for learning

Without a belief in human development, many corporate training programs
become exercises of limited value. With a belief in development, such programs
give meaning to the term “human resources” and become a means of tapping
enormous potential.


When Warren Bennis interviewed great leaders, “They all agreed leaders are
made, not born, and made more by themselves than by any external means.”
Bennis concurred: “I believe…that everyone, of whatever age and circumstance,
is capable of self-transformation.” Not that everyone will become a leader.
Sadly, most managers and even CEOs become bosses, not leaders. They wield
power instead of transforming themselves, their workers, and their organization.
Why is this? John Zenger and Joseph Folkman point out that most people,

when they first become managers, enter a period of great learning. They get lots
of training and coaching, they are open to ideas, and they think long and hard
about how to do their jobs. They are looking to develop. But once they’ve
learned the basics, they stop trying to improve. It may seem like too much
trouble, or they may not see where improvement will take them. They are
content to do their jobs rather than making themselves into leaders.
Or, as Morgan McCall argues, many organizations believe in natural talent

and don’t look for people with the potential to develop. Not only are these
organizations missing out on a big pool of possible leaders, but their belief in

natural talent might actually squash the very people they think are the naturals,
making them into arrogant, defensive nonlearners. The lesson is: Create an
organization that prizes the development of ability—and watch the leaders


When we talked about Lou Gerstner and Anne Mulcahy, we saw the kind of
company they wanted to create—and did create. These were companies that
embraced the development of all employees and not the worship of a handful of
anointed “geniuses.” This raised a question.
Clearly the leader of an organization can hold a fixed or growth mindset, but

can an organization as a whole have a mindset? Can it have a pervasive belief
that talent is just fixed or, instead, a pervasive belief that talent can and should
be developed in all employees? And, if so, what impact will this have on the
organization and its employees? To find out, we studied a group of large
corporations consisting of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies.
An organization might embody a fixed mindset, conveying that employees

either “have it” or they don’t: We called this a “culture of genius.” Or it might
embody more of a growth mindset, conveying that people can grow and improve
with effort, good strategies, and good mentoring: We call this a “culture of
To determine a company’s mindset, we asked a diverse sample of employees

at each organization how much they agreed with statements like these: When it
comes to being successful, this company seems to believe that people have a
certain amount of talent, and they can’t really do much to change it (fixed
mindset). This company values natural intelligence and business talent more
than any other characteristics (also fixed mindset). This company genuinely
values the personal development and growth of its employees (growth mindset).
We then compiled the responses and they revealed something important:

There was a strong consensus within each company about whether the company
had fixed-or growth-mindset beliefs and values. We were now ready to examine
the impact of the company’s mindset—on employees’ trust in the company, on
their sense of empowerment and commitment, and on the level of collaboration,
innovation, and ethical behavior that was embraced in the organization.

What we found was fascinating. People who work in growth-mindset
organizations have far more trust in their company and a much greater sense of
empowerment, ownership, and commitment. For example, when employees
were asked to rate statements such as “People are trustworthy in this
organization,” those in growth-mindset companies expressed far higher
agreement. Right in line with this, employees in growth-mindset companies also
reported that they were much more committed to their company and more
willing to go the extra mile for it: “I feel a strong sense of ownership and
commitment to the future of this company.” Those who worked in fixed-mindset
companies, however, expressed greater interest in leaving their company for
It’s nice that employees in growth-mindset organizations feel trusting and

committed, but what about agility and innovation? That’s something that
organizations should and do care greatly about these days. Perhaps a company
has to sacrifice some comfort and loyalty to be on the leading edge. Perhaps a
belief in fixed talent motivates innovation.
It doesn’t look that way.
It’s actually the employees in the growth-mindset companies who say that

their organization supports (reasonable) risk-taking, innovation, and creativity.
For example, they agreed far more strongly with statements like this: “This
company genuinely supports risk-taking and will support me even if I fail” and
“People are encouraged to be innovative in this company—creativity is
Employees in the fixed-mindset companies not only say that their companies

are less likely to support them in risk-taking and innovation, they are also far
more likely to agree that their organizations are rife with cutthroat or unethical
behavior: “In this company there is a lot of cheating, taking shortcuts, and
cutting corners” or “In this company people often hide information and keep
secrets.” It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When organizations put
the premium on natural talent, then everyone wants to be the superstar, everyone
wants to shine brighter than the others, and people may be more likely to cheat
or cut corners to do so. Teamwork can take a nosedive.
So, employees in growth-mindset companies have more positive views of

their organizations, but is that admiration reciprocated? Yes, it is. Supervisors in
growth-mindset companies had significantly more positive views of their
employees—and on dimensions companies should care about. Supervisors in

growth-mindset companies rated their employees as more collaborative and
more committed to learning and growing. And as more innovative. And as
having far greater management potential. These are all things that make a
company more agile and more likely to stay in the vanguard.
I love this last finding: Supervisors in growth-mindset companies saw their

team members as having far greater management potential than did supervisors
in fixed-mindset companies. They saw future leaders in the making. I love the
irony. The fixed-mindset companies presumably searched for the talent, hired
the talent, and rewarded the talent—but now they were looking around and
saying, “Where’s the talent?” The talent wasn’t flourishing.
Our findings tell us that it’s possible to weave a fixed or growth mindset into

the very fabric of an organization to create a culture of genius or a culture of
development. Everybody knows that the business models of the past are no
longer valid and that modern companies must constantly reinvent themselves to
stay alive. Which companies do you think have a better chance of thriving in
today’s world?

Grow Your Mindset

• Are you in a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset workplace? Do
you feel people are just judging you or are they helping you
develop? Maybe you could try making it a more growth-
mindset place, starting with yourself. Are there ways you
could be less defensive about your mistakes? Could you profit
more from the feedback you get? Are there ways you can
create more learning experiences for yourself?

• How do you act toward others in your workplace? Are you a
fixed-mindset boss, focused on your power more than on your
employees’ well-being? Do you ever reaffirm your status by
demeaning others? Do you ever try to hold back high-
performing employees because they threaten you?

Consider ways to help your employees develop on the job:
Apprenticeships? Workshops? Coaching sessions? Think
about how you can start seeing and treating your employees

as your collaborators, as a team. Make a list of strategies and
try them out. Do this even if you already think of yourself as a
growth-mindset boss. Well-placed support and growth-
promoting feedback never hurt.

• If you run a company, look at it from a mindset perspective.
Does it need you to do a Lou Gerstner on it? Think seriously
about how to root out elitism and create a culture of self-
examination, open communication, and teamwork. Read
Gerstner’s excellent book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
to see how it’s done.

• Is your workplace set up to promote groupthink? If so, the
whole decision-making process is in trouble. Create ways to
foster alternative views and constructive criticism. Assign
people to play the devil’s advocate, taking opposing
viewpoints so you can see the holes in your position. Get
people to wage debates that argue different sides of the issue.
Have an anonymous suggestion box that employees must
contribute to as part of the decision-making process.
Remember, people can be independent thinkers and team
players at the same time. Help them fill both roles.

Chapter 6


What was that about the course of true love never running smooth? Well, the
course to true love isn’t so smooth, either. That path is often strewn with
disappointments and heartbreaks. Some people let these experiences scar them
and prevent them from forming satisfying relationships in the future. Others are
able to heal and move on. What separates them? To find out, we recruited more
than a hundred people and asked them to tell us about a terrible rejection.

When I first got to New York I was incredibly lonely. I didn’t know
a soul and I totally felt like I didn’t belong here. After about a year
of misery I met Jack. It’s almost an understatement to say that we
clicked instantly, we felt like we had known each other forever. It
wasn’t long before we were living together and doing everything
together. I thought I would spend my whole life with him and he
said he felt the same way. Two really happy years passed. Then one
day I came home and found a note. He said he had to leave, don’t
try to find him. He didn’t even sign it love. I never heard from him
again. Sometimes when the phone rings I still think maybe it’s him.

We heard a variation of that story over and over again. People with both
mindsets told stories like this. Almost everyone, at one time or another, had been
in love and had been hurt. What differed—and differed dramatically—was how
they dealt with it.
After they told their stories, we asked them follow-up questions: What did this

mean to you? How did you handle it? What were you hoping for?
When people had the fixed mindset, they felt judged and labeled by the

rejection. Permanently labeled. It was as though a verdict had been handed down
and branded on their foreheads: UNLOVABLE! And they lashed out.

Because the fixed mindset gives them no recipe for healing their wound, all
they could do was hope to wound the person who inflicted it. Lydia, the woman
in the story above, told us that she had lasting, intense feelings of bitterness: “I
would get back at him, hurt him any way I could if I got the chance. He deserves
In fact, for people with the fixed mindset, their number one goal came through

loud and clear. Revenge. As one man put it, “She took my worth with her when
she left. Not a day goes by I don’t think about how to make her pay.” During the
study, I asked one of my fixed-mindset friends about her divorce. I’ll never
forget what she said. “If I had to choose between me being happy and him being
miserable, I would definitely want him to be miserable.”
It had to be a person with the fixed mindset who coined the phrase “Revenge

is sweet”—the idea that with revenge comes your redemption—because people
with the growth mindset have little taste for it. The stories they told were every
bit as wrenching, but their reactions couldn’t have been more different.
For them, it was about understanding, forgiving, and moving on. Although

they were often deeply hurt by what happened, they wanted to learn from it:
“That relationship and how it ended really taught me the importance of
communicating. I used to think love conquers all, but now I know it needs a lot
of help.” This same man went on to say, “I also learned something about who’s
right for me. I guess every relationship teaches you more about who’s right for
There is a French expression: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” To

understand all is to forgive all. Of course, this can be carried too far, but it’s a
good place to start. For people with the growth mindset, the number one goal
was forgiveness. As one woman said: “I’m no saint, but I knew for my own
peace of mind that I had to forgive and forget. He hurt me but I had a whole life
waiting for me and I’ll be damned if I was going to live it in the past. One day I
just said, ‘Good luck to him and good luck to me.’ ”
Because of their growth mindset, they did not feel permanently branded.

Because of it, they tried to learn something useful about themselves and
relationships, something they could use toward having a better experience in the
future. And they knew how to move on and embrace that future.
My cousin Cathy embodies the growth mindset. Several years ago, after

twenty-three years of marriage, her husband left her. Then, to add insult to
injury, she was in an accident and hurt her leg. There she sat, home alone one

Saturday night, when she said to herself, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here
and feel sorry for myself!” (Perhaps this phrase should be the mantra of the
growth mindset.) Out she went to a dance (leg and all) where she met her future
The Contos family had pulled out all the stops. Nicole Contos, in her exquisite

wedding dress, arrived at the church in a Rolls-Royce. The archbishop was
inside waiting to perform the ceremony, and hundreds of friends and relatives
from all over the world were in attendance. Everything was perfect until the best
man went over to Nicole and told her the news. The groom would not be
coming. Can you imagine the shock, the pain?
The family, thinking of the hundreds of guests, decided to go through with the

reception and dinner. Then, rallying around Nicole, they asked her what she
wanted to do. In an act of great courage, she changed into a little black dress,
went to the party, and danced solo to “I Will Survive.” It was not the dance she
had anticipated, but it was one that made her an icon of gutsiness in the national
press the next day. Nicole was like the football player who ran the wrong way.
Here was an event that could have defined and diminished her. Instead it was
one that enlarged her.
It’s interesting. Nicole spoke repeatedly about the pain and trauma of being

stood up at her wedding, but she never used the word humiliated. If she had
judged herself, felt flawed and unworthy—humiliated—she would have run and
hidden. Instead, her good clean pain made her able to surround herself with the
love of her friends and relatives and begin the healing process.
What, by the way, had happened to the groom? As it turned out, he had gone

on the honeymoon, flying off to Tahiti on his own. What happened to Nicole? A
couple of years later, in the same wedding dress and the same church, she
married a great guy. Was she scared? No, she says: “I knew he was going to be
When you think about how rejection wounds and inflames people with the

fixed mindset, it will come as no surprise that kids with the fixed mindset are the
ones who react to taunting and bullying with thoughts of violent retaliation. I’ll
return to this later.


In his study of gifted people, Benjamin Bloom included concert pianists,
sculptors, Olympic swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research
neurologists. But not people who were gifted in interpersonal relationships. He
planned to. After all, there are so many professions in which interpersonal skills
play a key role—teachers, psychologists, administrators, diplomats. But no
matter how hard Bloom tried, he couldn’t find any agreed-upon way of
measuring social ability.
Sometimes we’re not even sure it’s an ability. When we see people with

outstanding interpersonal skills, we don’t really think of them as gifted. We
think of them as cool people or charming people. When we see a great marriage
relationship, we don’t say these people are brilliant relationship makers. We say
they’re fine people. Or they have chemistry. Meaning what?
Meaning that as a society, we don’t understand relationship skills. Yet

everything is at stake in people’s relationships. Maybe that’s why Daniel
Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence struck such a responsive chord. It said: There
are social-emotional skills and I can tell you what they are.
Mindsets add another dimension. They help us understand even more about

why people often don’t learn the skills they need or use the skills they have.
Why people throw themselves so hopefully into new relationships, only to
undermine themselves. Why love often turns into a battlefield where the carnage
is staggering. And, most important, they help us understand why some people
are able to build lasting and satisfying relationships.


So far, having a fixed mindset has meant believing your personal traits are fixed.
But in relationships, two more things enter the picture—your partner and the
relationship itself. Now you can have a fixed mindset about three things. You
can believe that your qualities are fixed, your partner’s qualities are fixed, and
the relationship’s qualities are fixed—that it’s inherently good or bad, meant-to-
be or not meant-to-be. Now all of these things are up for judgment.
The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All—you, your

partner, and the relationship—are capable of growth and change.
In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility.

Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like “they lived happily

ever after.”
Many people want to feel their relationship is special and not just some

chance occurrence. This seems okay. So what’s the problem with the fixed
mindset? There are two.

1. If You Have to Work at It, It Wasn’t Meant to Be

One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to
happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve
their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their
love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by
her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly
transformed by her prince.
Charlene’s friends told her about Max, the new musician in town. He had

come to play cello with the symphony orchestra. The next night, Charlene and
her friends went to see the orchestra’s performance, and when they went
backstage afterward, Max took Charlene’s hand and said, “Next time, let’s make
it longer.” She was taken with his intense, romantic air, and he was taken with
her charming manner and exotic looks. As they went out, the intensity grew.
They seemed to understand each other deeply. They enjoyed the same things—
food, analyzing people, travel. They both thought, Where have you been all my
Over time, though, Max became moody. Actually, that’s how he was. It just

didn’t show at first. When he was in a bad mood, he wanted to be left alone.
Charlene wanted to talk about what was bothering him, but that irritated him.
“Just leave me alone,” he would insist, more and more forcefully. Charlene,
however, would feel shut out.
Plus, his moods didn’t always happen at convenient times. Sometimes the

couple was scheduled to go out. Sometimes they had planned a special dinner
alone. Either he didn’t want to do it, or she would endure his sullen silence
throughout the evening. If she tried to make light conversation, he would be
disappointed in her: “I thought you understood me.”
Friends, seeing how much they cared about each other, urged them to work on

this problem. But they both felt, with great sorrow, that if the relationship were
the right one, they wouldn’t have to work so hard. If it were the right
relationship, they would just be able to understand and honor each other’s needs.

So they grew apart and eventually broke up.
In the growth mindset, there may still be that exciting initial combustion, but

people in this mindset don’t expect magic. They believe that a good, lasting
relationship comes from effort and from working through inevitable differences.
But those with the fixed mindset don’t buy that. Remember the fixed-mindset

idea that if you have ability, you shouldn’t have to work hard? This is the same
belief applied to relationships: If you’re compatible, everything should just come
Every single relationship expert disagrees with this.
Aaron Beck, the renowned psychiatrist, says that one of the most destructive

beliefs for a relationship is “If we need to work at it, there’s something seriously
wrong with our relationship.”
Says John Gottman, a foremost relationship researcher: “Every marriage

demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is a constant tension…
between the forces that hold you together and those that can tear you apart.”
As with personal achievement, this belief—that success should not need effort

—robs people of the very thing they need to make their relationship thrive. It’s
probably why so many relationships go stale—because people believe that being
in love means never having to do anything taxing.


Part of the low-effort belief is the idea that couples should be able to read each
other’s minds: We are like one. My partner should know what I think, feel, and
need and I should know what my partner thinks, feels, and needs. But this is
impossible. Mind reading instead of communicating inevitably backfires.
Elayne Savage, noted family psychologist, describes Tom and Lucy. After

three months together, Tom informed Lucy that there was an imbalance in their
relationship. Lucy, reading his mind, decided Tom meant that he was less into
the relationship than she was. She felt discouraged. Should she break off the
relationship before he did? However, after a therapy session, Lucy got up the
courage to find out what he meant. Tom, it turned out, had been using a musical
term to convey his wish to fine-tune the relationship and move it to the next
I almost fell into the same trap. My husband and I had met a few months

before, and everything seemed to be going great. Then one evening, as we were

sitting together, he said to me, “I need more space.” Everything went blank. I
couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was I completely mistaken about the
relationship? Finally, I summoned my courage. “What do you mean?” I asked.
He said, “I need you to move over so I can have more room.” I’m glad I asked.


It’s strange to believe in mind reading. But it makes sense when you realize that
many people with a fixed mindset believe that a couple should share all of each
other’s views.
If you do, then you don’t need communication; you can just assume your

partner sees things the way you do.
Raymond Knee and his colleagues had couples come in and discuss their

views of their relationship. Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and
hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their
partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief
that they shared all of each other’s views.
It’s impossible for a couple to share all of each other’s assumptions and

expectations. One may assume the wife will stop working and be supported; the
other, that she will be an equal breadwinner. One may assume they will have a
house in the suburbs, the other that they will have a bohemian love nest.
Michael and Robin had just finished college and were about to get married.

He was the bohemian-love-nest type. He imagined that after they were married,
they’d enjoy the young, hip Greenwich Village life together. So when he found
the ideal apartment, he thought she’d be delighted. When she saw it, she went
berserk. She’d been living in crummy little apartments all her life, and here it
was all over again. Married people were supposed to live in nice houses with
new cars parked outside. They both felt betrayed, and it didn’t get any better
from there.
Couples may erroneously believe they agree on each person’s rights and

duties. Fill in the blank:
“As a husband, I have a right to , and my wife has the duty to

“As a wife, I have a right to , and my husband has the duty to

Few things can make partners more furious than having their rights violated.

And few things can make a partner more furious than having the other feel
entitled to something you don’t think is coming to them.
John Gottman reports: “I’ve interviewed newlywed men who told me with

pride, ‘I’m not going to wash the dishes, no way. That’s a woman’s job.’ Two
years later the same guys ask me, ‘Why don’t my wife and I have sex
anymore?’ ”
Now, a couple may agree on traditional roles. That’s up to them. But that’s

different from assuming it as an entitlement.
When Janet (a financial analyst) and Phil (a real estate agent) met, he had just

gotten a new apartment and was thinking he’d like to have a housewarming
party, a dinner for a bunch of his friends. When Janet said, “Let’s do it,” he was
thrilled. Her emphasis was on the “ ’s,” the us. Because she was the more
experienced cook and party giver, however, she did most of the preparation, and
she did it gladly. She was delighted to see how happy he was to be having this
event. The problem started after the guests arrived. Phil just went to the party.
He acted like a guest. Like she was supposed to continue doing all the work. She
was enraged.
The mature thing to do would have been to take him aside to have a

discussion. Instead, she decided to teach him a lesson. She, too, went to the
party. Fortunately, entitlement and retaliation did not become a pattern in their
relationship. Communication did. In the future, things were discussed, not
A no-effort relationship is a doomed relationship, not a great relationship. It

takes work to communicate accurately and it takes work to expose and resolve
conflicting hopes and beliefs. It doesn’t mean there is no “they lived happily
ever after,” but it’s more like “they worked happily ever after.”

2. Problems Indicate Character Flaws

The second big difficulty with the fixed mindset is the belief that problems are a
sign of deep-seated flaws. But just as there are no great achievements without
setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along
the way.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign

blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner.
And they assign blame to a trait—a character flaw.

But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the
problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.
And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be

So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become

contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship. (People with
the growth mindset, on the other hand, can see their partners’ imperfections and
still think they have a fine relationship.)
Sometimes people with the fixed mindset blind themselves to problems in the

partner or the relationship so they won’t have to go that route.
Everybody thought Yvonne was having a flirtation. She was getting

mysterious phone calls. She was often late picking up the kids. Her “nights out
with the girls” doubled. Her mind was often elsewhere. Her husband, Charlie,
said she was just going through a phase. “All women go through times like this,”
he insisted. “It doesn’t mean she’s got a guy.”
Charlie’s best friend urged him to look into it. But Charlie felt that if he

confronted the reality—and it was negative—his world would come crashing
down. In the fixed mindset, he’d have to confront the idea that either (1) the
woman he loved was a bad person, (2) he was a bad person and drove her away,
or (3) their relationship was bad and irreparable.
He couldn’t handle any of those. It didn’t occur to him that there were

problems that could be solved, that she was sending him a message she
desperately wanted him to hear: Don’t take me for granted. I need more
A growth mindset doesn’t mean he would necessarily confront her, but he

would confront it—the situation. He’d think about what was wrong. Maybe
explore the issue with a counselor. Make an informed decision about what to do
next. If there were problems to be solved, at least there’d be a chance.


Penelope’s friends sat at home complaining that there were no good men.
Penelope went out and found them. Each time, she would find a great guy and
fall head over heels. “He’s the one,” she’d tell her friends as she began reading
the bridal magazines and practically writing the announcement for the local
paper. They’d believe her because he was always a guy with a lot going for him.

But then something would happen. It was over for one of them when he got
her a tacky birthday present. Another put ketchup on his food and sometimes
wore white shoes. Another had bad electronic habits: His cell phone etiquette
was poor and he watched too much TV. And this is only a partial list.
Assuming traits were fixed, Penelope would decide that she couldn’t live with

these flaws. But most of these were not deep or serious character problems that
couldn’t be addressed with a little communication.
My husband and I had been together almost a year and, as my birthday

approached, I sent a clear message: “I’m not mercenary, but I like a good
present.” He said, “Isn’t it the thought that counts?” I replied, “That’s what
people say when they don’t want to put thought into it.
“Once a year,” I continued, “we each have our day. I love you and I plan to

put time and effort into choosing a present for you. I would like you to do that
for me, too.” He’s never let me down.
Penelope assumed that somewhere out there was someone who was already

perfect. Relationship expert Daniel Wile says that choosing a partner is choosing
a set of problems. There are no problem-free candidates. The trick is to
acknowledge each other’s limitations, and build from there.


Brenda and Jack were clients of Daniel Wile, and he tells this tale. Brenda came
home from work and told Jack a long, detailed story with no apparent point. Jack
was bored to tears but tried to hide it to be polite. Brenda, however, could sense
his true feelings, so, hoping to be more amusing, she launched into another
endless story, also about a project at work. Jack was ready to burst. They were
both mentally hurling traits right and left. According to Wile, they were both
thinking: Brenda is boring, Jack is selfish, and our relationship is no good.
In fact, both meant well. Brenda was afraid to say outright that she did some

great work at the office that day. She didn’t want to be boastful. So instead she
talked about the tiny details of her project. Jack didn’t want to be impolite, so
instead of asking Brenda questions or expressing his puzzlement, he steeled
himself and waited for her story to end.
Jack just needed to say, “You know, honey, when you get into so many

details, I lose your point and get frustrated. Why don’t you tell me why you’re
excited about this project? I’d really love to hear that.”

It was a problem of communication, not a problem of personality or character.
Yet in the fixed mindset, the blame came fast and furious.
By the way, I love these stories. When I was a kid, Ladies’ Home Journal

used to have a feature in each issue called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
Usually, the answer was yes. I ate up those stories, fascinated by all the ways a
marriage could go wrong and even more fascinated by how it could be repaired.
The story of Ted and Karen, told by Aaron Beck, is a story of how two people

with the fixed mindset went from all good traits to all bad ones in each other’s
When Ted and Karen met, they were opposites attracting. Karen radiated

spontaneity and lightness. Ted, a serious guy with the weight of the world on his
shoulders, felt that her carefree presence transformed his life. “ Everything she
says and does is charming,” he effused. In turn, Ted represented the rock-like
“father figure” she had never had. He was just the kind of stable, reliable guy
who could give her a sense of security.
But a few short years later, Ted saw Karen as an irresponsible airhead. “ She

never takes anything seriously…I can’t depend on her.” And Karen saw Ted as a
judgmental tyrant, dissecting her every move.
In the end, this marriage was saved—only because the couple learned to

respond to each other not with angry labels, but with helpful actions. One day,
when Karen was swamped with work, Ted came home to a messy house. He was
angry and wanted to scold her, but, drawing on what he’d learned from Beck, he
instead said to himself, “ What is the mature thing to do?” He answered his own
question by starting to clean things up. He was offering Karen support rather
than judgment.


Aaron Beck tells couples in counseling never to think these fixed-mindset
thoughts: My partner is incapable of change. Nothing can improve our
relationship. These ideas, he says, are almost always wrong.
Sometimes it’s hard not to think those thoughts—as in the case of Bill and

Hillary Clinton. When he was president, Clinton lied to the nation and to his
wife about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary defended him: “My
husband may have his faults, but he has never lied to me.”
The truth came out, as it has a way of doing, especially when helped by a

special prosecutor. Hillary, betrayed and furious, now had to decide whether Bill
was a permanently bad and untrustworthy husband or a man who needed a lot of
This is a good time to bring up an important point: The belief that partners

have the potential for change should not be confused with the belief that the
partner will change. The partner has to want to change, commit to change, and
take concrete actions toward change.
The Clintons went into counseling, spending one full day a week for a year in

the process. Through counseling, Bill came to understand how, as the child of
alcoholic parents, he had learned to lead a dual life. On the one hand, he’d
learned to shoulder excessive responsibility at an early age—for example, as a
boy sternly forbidding his stepfather to strike his mother. On the other hand, he
had another part of his life where he took little responsibility, where he made
believe everything was okay no matter what was going on. That’s how he could
appear on TV and earnestly vow that he was not involved with Lewinsky. He
was in that no-responsibility and high-denial space.
People were urging Hillary to forgive him. One evening, Stevie Wonder

called the White House to ask if he could come over. He had written a song for
her on the power of forgiveness, and he played it to her that night.
Yet Hillary could not have forgiven a person she saw as a liar and a cheat. She

could only forgive a man she thought was earnestly struggling with his problems
and trying to grow.


With the fixed mindset, one moment your partner is the light of your life, the
next they’re your adversary. Why would people want to transform the loved one
into an enemy?
When you fail at other tasks, it’s hard to keep blaming someone else. But

when something goes wrong in a relationship, it’s easy to blame someone else.
In fact, in the fixed mindset you have a limited set of choices. One is to blame
your own permanent qualities. And one is to blame your partner’s. You can see
how tempting it is to foist the blame onto the other guy.
As a legacy of my fixed mindset, I still have an irresistible urge to defend

myself and assign blame when something in a relationship goes wrong. “It’s not

my fault!” To deal with this bad habit, my husband and I invented a third party,
an imaginary man named Maurice. Whenever I start in on who’s to blame, we
invoke poor Maurice and pin it on him.
Remember how hard it is for people with the fixed mindset to forgive? Part of

it is that they feel branded by a rejection or breakup. But another part is that if
they forgive the partner, if they see him or her as a decent person, then they have
to shoulder more of the blame themselves: If my partner’s a good guy, then I
must be a bad guy. I must be the person who was at fault.
The same thing can happen with parents. If you have a troubled relationship

with a parent, whose fault is it? If your parents didn’t love you enough, were
they bad parents or were you unlovable? These are the ugly questions that haunt
us within a fixed mindset. Is there a way out?
I had this very dilemma. My mother didn’t love me. Most of my life I’d coped

with this by blaming her and feeling bitter. But I was no longer satisfied just
protecting myself. I longed for a loving relationship with my mother. Yet the last
thing I wanted to be was one of those kids who begged for approval from a
withholding parent. Then I realized something. I controlled half of the
relationship, my half. I could have my half of the relationship. At least I could be
the loving daughter I wanted to be. In a sense, it didn’t matter what she did. I
would still be ahead of where I was.
How did it turn out? I experienced a tremendous sense of growth letting go of

my bitterness and stepping forward to have the relationship. The rest is not really
relevant since I wasn’t seeking validation, but I’ll tell you anyway. Something
unexpected happened. Three years later, my mother said to me: “If anyone had
told me I didn’t love my children, I would have been insulted. But now I realize
it was true. Whether it was because my parents didn’t love us or because I was
too involved in myself or because I didn’t know what love was, I don’t know.
But now I know what it is.”
From that time until her death twenty-five years later, we became closer and

closer. As lively as each of us was, we came even more to life in each other’s
presence. Once, a few years ago, after she’d had a stroke, the doctors warned me
she couldn’t speak and might never speak again. I walked into her room, she
looked at me and said, “Carol, I love your outfit.”
What allowed me to take that first step, to choose growth and risk rejection?

In the fixed mindset, I had needed my blame and bitterness. It made me feel
more righteous, powerful, and whole than thinking I was at fault. The growth

mindset allowed me to give up the blame and move on. The growth mindset
gave me a mother.
I remember when we were kids and did something dumb, like drop our ice-

cream cone on our foot, we’d turn to our friend and say, “Look what you made
me do.” Blame may make you feel less foolish, but you still have a shoe full of
ice cream—and a friend who’s on the defensive. In a relationship, the growth
mindset lets you rise above blame, understand the problem, and try to fix it—


In the fixed mindset, where you’ve got to keep proving your competence, it’s
easy to get into a competition with your partner. Who’s the smarter, more
talented, more likable one?
Susan had a boyfriend who worried that she would be the center of attention

and he would be the tagalong. If she were someone, he would be no one. But
Martin was far from no one. He was very successful, even revered, in his field.
He was handsome and well liked, too. So at first Susan pooh-poohed the whole
thing. Then they attended a conference together. They’d arrived separately and,
in checking in, Susan had chatted with the friendly hotel staff in the lobby. That
evening when the couple walked through the lobby, the whole staff greeted her
warmly. Martin grunted. Next, they took a taxi to dinner. Toward the end of the
ride, the driver started singing her praises: “You better hold on to her. Yes, sir,
she’s a good one.” Martin winced. The whole weekend continued in this vein,
and by the time they got home from the conference their relationship was very
Martin wasn’t actively competitive. He didn’t try to outdo Susan, he just

lamented her seemingly greater popularity. But some partners throw their hats
right into the ring.
Cynthia, a scientist, was amazing at almost everything she did—so much so

that she left her partners in the dust. That might have been all right if she didn’t
always venture into their territory. She married an actor, and then started writing
plays and acting in them—superbly. She said she was just trying to share his life
and his interests, but her part-time hobby outshone his career. He felt he had to
escape from the relationship to find himself again. Next, she married a musician

who was a great cook, and in no time flat she was tickling the ivories and
inventing unbelievable recipes. Once again, the depressed husband eventually
fled. Cynthia left her partners no room for their own identity; she needed to
equal or surpass them in every skill they arrived with.
There are many good ways to support our partners or show interest in their

lives. This is not one of them.


When people embark on a relationship, they encounter a partner who is different
from them, and they haven’t learned how to deal with the differences. In a good
relationship, people develop these skills and, as they do, both partners grow and
the relationship deepens. But for this to happen, people need to feel they’re on
the same side.
Laura was lucky. She could be self-centered and defensive. She could yell and

pout. But James never took it personally and always felt that she was there for
him when he needed her. So when she lashed out, he calmed her down and made
her talk things through with him. Over time, she learned to skip the yelling and
As an atmosphere of trust developed, they became vitally interested in each

other’s development. James was forming a corporation, and Laura spent hours
with him discussing his plans and some of the problems he was encountering.
Laura had always dreamed of writing children’s books. James got her to spell
out her ideas and write a first draft. He urged her to contact someone they knew
who was an illustrator. In the context of this relationship, each partner was
helping the other to do the things they wanted to do and become the person they
wanted to be.
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend about the view some people hold of

childrearing—that parents make little difference. In explaining that view, she
likened it to a marriage relationship: “It’s like partners in a marriage. Each
comes to the relationship fully formed, and you don’t expect to influence who
the partner is.”
“Oh no,” I replied. “To me the whole point of marriage is to encourage your

partner’s development and have them encourage yours.”
By that I didn’t mean a My Fair Lady kind of thing where you attempt an

extreme makeover on partners, who then feel they aren’t good enough as they
are. I mean helping partners, within the relationship, to reach their own goals and
fulfill their own potential. This is the growth mindset in action.


Friendships, like partnerships, are places where we have a chance to enhance
each other’s development, and to validate each other. Both are important.
Friends can give each other the wisdom and courage to make growth-enhancing
decisions, and friends can reassure each other of their fine qualities. Despite the
dangers of praising traits, there are times when we need reassurance about
ourselves: “Tell me I’m not a bad person for breaking up with my boyfriend.”
“Tell me I’m not stupid even though I bombed on the exam.”
In fact, these occasions give us a chance to provide support and give a growth

message: “You gave that relationship everything you had for three years and he
made no effort to improve things. I think you’re right to move on.” Or “What
happened on that exam? Do you understand the material? Did you study
enough? Do you think you need a tutor? Let’s talk about it.”
But as in all relationships, people’s need to prove themselves can tilt the

balance in the wrong direction. Sheri Levy did a study that was not about
friendship, but makes an important and relevant point.
Levy measured adolescent boys’ self-esteem and then asked them how much

they believed in negative stereotypes about girls. For example, how much did
they believe that girls were worse in math or that girls were less rational than
boys? She then measured their self-esteem again.
Boys who believed in the fixed mindset showed a boost in self-esteem when

they endorsed the stereotypes. Thinking that girls were dumber and more
scatterbrained made them feel better about themselves. (Boys with the growth
mindset were less likely to agree with the stereotypes, but even when they did, it
did not give them an ego boost.)
This mentality can intrude on friendships. The lower you are, the better I feel

is the idea.
One day I was talking to a dear, wise friend. I was puzzled about why she put

up with the behavior of some of her friends. Actually, I was puzzled about why
she even had these friends. One often acted irresponsibly; another flirted

shamelessly with her husband. Her answer was that everyone has virtues and
foibles, and that, really, if you looked only for perfect people, your social circle
would be impoverished. There was, however, one thing she would not put up
with: people who made her feel bad about herself.
We all know these people. They can be brilliant, charming, and fun, but after

being with them, you feel diminished. You may ask: “Am I just doing a number
on myself?” But it is often them, trying to build themselves up by establishing
their superiority and your inferiority. It could be by actively putting you down,
or it could be by the careless way they treat you. Either way, you are a vehicle
for (and a casualty of) confirming their worth.
I was at a friend’s fiftieth-birthday party and her sister gave a speech,

supposedly in her honor. Her sister talked about my friend’s insatiable sexual
appetite and how lucky it was she found a younger man to marry who could
handle it. “All in good fun,” she took care of my friend’s looks, brains, and
mothering skills. After this tribute, I suddenly recalled the saying “With friends
like this, you don’t need enemies.”
It’s difficult to realize when friends don’t wish you well. One night I had the

most vivid dream. Someone, someone I knew well, came into my house and one
by one took all my prized possessions. In the dream I could see what was
happening, but I couldn’t see who it was. At one point, I asked the intruder:
“Couldn’t you please leave that one, it means a lot to me.” But the person just
kept taking everything of value. The next morning I realized who it was and
what it meant. For the past year a close friend had been calling upon me
constantly to help him with his work. I obliged. He was under a great deal of
stress, and I was at first happy to use whatever skills I had for his benefit. But it
was endless, it was not reciprocal, and on top of that he punished me for it:
“Don’t think you could ever do work this good. You can help me polish my
work, but you could never be this creative.” He needed to reduce me so he
wouldn’t feel one down. My dream told me it was time to draw the line.
I’m afraid that in the fixed mindset, I was also a culprit. I don’t think I put

people down, but when you need validation, you use people for it. One time,
when I was a graduate student, I was taking the train to New York and sat next
to a very nice businessman. In my opinion, we chatted back and forth pleasantly
through the hour-and-a-half journey, but at the end he said to me, “Thank you
for telling me about yourself.” It really hit me. He was the dream validator—
handsome, intelligent, successful. And that’s what I had used him for. I had

shown no interest in him as a person, only in him as a mirror of my excellence.
Luckily for me, what he mirrored back was a far more valuable lesson.
Conventional wisdom says that you know who your friends are in your times

of need. And of course this view has merit. Who will stand by you day after day
when you’re in trouble? However, sometimes an even tougher question is: Who
can you turn to when good things happen? When you find a wonderful partner.
When you get a great job offer or promotion. When your child does well. Who
would be glad to hear it?
Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people’s self-esteem. Ego-

wise, it’s easy to be sympathetic to someone in need. It’s your assets and your
successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being


In some ways, shyness is the flip side of what we’ve been talking about. We’ve
been examining people who use others to buoy themselves up. Shy people worry
that others will bring them down. They often worry about being judged or
embarrassed in social situations.
People’s shyness can hold them back from making friends and developing

relationships. When they’re with new people, shy people report that they feel
anxious, their hearts race, they blush, they avoid eye contact, and they may try to
end the interaction as soon as possible. Underneath it all, shy people may be
wonderful and interesting, but they often can’t show it with someone new. And
they know it.
What can mindsets teach us about shyness? Jennifer Beer studied hundreds of

people to find out. She measured people’s mindsets, she assessed their shyness,
and then she brought them together two at a time to get acquainted. The whole
thing was filmed, and, later on, trained raters watched the film and evaluated the
Beer found, first, that people with the fixed mindset were more likely to be

shy. This makes sense. The fixed mindset makes you concerned about judgment,
and this can make you more self-conscious and anxious. But there were plenty of
shy people with both mindsets, and when she looked at them more closely, she
found something even more interesting.

Shyness harmed the social interactions of people with the fixed mindset but
did not harm the social relations of people with the growth mindset. The
observers’ ratings showed that, although both fixed-and growth-minded shy
people looked very nervous for the first five minutes of the interaction, after that
the shy growth-minded people showed greater social skills, were more likable,
and created a more enjoyable interaction. In fact, they began to look just like
non-shy people.
This happened for good reasons. For one thing, the shy growth-minded people

looked on social situations as challenges. Even though they felt anxious, they
actively welcomed the chance to meet someone new. The shy fixed people,
instead, wanted to avoid meeting someone who might be more socially skilled
than they were. They said they were more worried about making mistakes. So
the fixed-and growth-mindset people confronted the situation with different
attitudes. One embraced the challenge and the other feared the risk.
Armed with these different attitudes, the shy growth-mindset people felt less

shy and nervous as the interaction wore on, but the shy fixed-mindset people
continued to be nervous and continued to do more socially awkward things, like
avoiding eye contact or trying to avoid talking.
You can see how these different patterns would affect making friends. The

shy growth-mindset people take control of their shyness. They go out and meet
new people, and, after their nerves settle down, their relationships proceed
normally. The shyness doesn’t tyrannize them.
But for fixed-mindset people, the shyness takes control. It keeps them out of

social situations with new people, and when they’re in them, they can’t let down
their guard and let go of their fears.
Scott Wetzler, a therapist and professor of psychiatry, paints a portrait of his

client George, a picture of the shy fixed-mindset person. George was incredibly
shy, especially with women. He was so eager to look cool, witty, and confident
—and so worried that he’d look overeager and inept—that he froze and acted
cold. When his attractive co-worker Jean started flirting with him, he became so
flustered that he began avoiding her. Then one day she approached him in a
nearby coffee shop and cutely suggested he ask her to join him. When he
couldn’t think of a clever response to impress her, he replied, “ It doesn’t matter
to me if you sit down or not.”
George, what were you doing? He was trying to protect himself from rejection

—by trying not to seem too interested. And he was trying to end this awkward

situation. In a strange way, he succeeded. He certainly didn’t seem too
interested, and the interaction soon ended, as Jean got out of there real fast. He
was just like the people in Jennifer Beer’s study, controlled by his fear of social
judgment and prevented from making contact.
Wetzler slowly helped George get over his exclusive focus on being judged.

Jean, he came to see, was not out to judge and humiliate him, but was trying to
get to know him. With the focus switched from being judged to developing a
relationship, George was eventually able to reciprocate. Despite his anxiety, he
approached Jean, apologized for his rude behavior, and asked her to lunch. She
accepted. What’s more, she was not nearly as critical as he feared.


We’re back to rejection, because it’s not just in love relationships that people
experience terrible rejections. It happens every day in schools. Starting in grade
school, some kids are victimized. They are ridiculed, tormented, and beaten up,
not for anything they’ve done wrong. It could be for their more timid
personality, how they look, what their background is, or how smart they are
(sometimes they’re not smart enough; sometimes they’re too smart). It can be a
daily occurrence that makes life a nightmare and ushers in years of depression
and rage.
To make matters worse, schools often do nothing about it. This is because it’s

often done out of sight of teachers or because it’s done by the school’s favorite
students, such as the jocks. In this case, it may be the victims, not the bullies,
who are considered to be the problem kids or the misfits.
As a society, we’ve paid little attention until recently. Then came the school

shootings. At Columbine, the most notorious one, both boys had been
mercilessly bullied for years. A fellow bullying victim describes what they
endured in their high school.
In the hallways, the jocks would push kids into lockers and call them

demeaning names while everyone laughed at the show. At lunch the jocks would
knock their victims’ food trays onto the floor, trip them, or pelt them with food.
While the victims were eating, they would be pushed down onto the table from
behind. Then in the locker rooms before gym class, the bullies would beat the
kids up because the teachers weren’t around.

Who Are the Bullies?

Bullying is about judging. It’s about establishing who is more worthy or
important. The more powerful kids judge the less powerful kids. They judge
them to be less valuable human beings, and they rub their faces in it on a daily
basis. And it’s clear what the bullies get out of it. Like the boys in Sheri Levy’s
study, they get a boost in self-esteem. It’s not that bullies are low in self-esteem,
but judging and demeaning others can give them a self-esteem rush. Bullies also
gain social status from their actions. Others may look up to them and judge them
to be cool, powerful, or funny. Or may fear them. Either way, they’ve upped
their standing.
There’s a big dose of fixed-mindset thinking in the bullies: Some people are

superior and some are inferior. And the bullies are the judges. Eric Harris, one of
the Columbine shooters, was their perfect target. He had a chest deformity, he
was short, he was a computer geek, and he was an outsider, not from Colorado.
They judged him mercilessly.

Victims and Revenge

The fixed mindset may also play a role in how the victim reacts to bullying.
When people feel deeply judged by a rejection, their impulse is to feel bad about
themselves and to lash out in bitterness. They have been cruelly reduced and
they wish to reduce in return. In our studies, we have seen perfectly normal
people—children and adults—respond to rejection with violent fantasies of
Highly educated, well-functioning adults, after telling us about a serious

rejection or betrayal, say and mean “I wanted him dead” or “I could easily have
strangled her.”
When we hear about acts of school violence, we usually think it’s only bad

kids from bad homes who could ever take matters into their own hands. But it’s
startling how quickly average, everyday kids with a fixed mindset think about
violent revenge.
We gave eighth-grade students in one of our favorite schools a scenario about

bullying to read. We asked them to imagine it was happening to them.

It is a new school year and things seem to be going pretty well.

Suddenly some popular kids start teasing you and calling you
names. At first you brush it off—these things happen. But it
continues. Every day they follow you, they taunt you, they make
fun of what you’re wearing, they make fun of what you look like,
they tell you you’re a loser—in front of everybody. Every day.

We then asked them to write about what they would think and what they
would do or want to do.
First, the students with the fixed mindset took the incident more personally.

They said, “I would think I was a nobody and that nobody likes me.” Or “I
would think I was stupid and weird and a misfit.”
Then they wanted violent revenge, saying that they’d explode with rage at

them, punch their faces in, or run them over. They strongly agreed with the
statement: “My number one goal would be to get revenge.”
They had been judged and they wanted to judge back. That’s what Eric Harris

and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, did. They judged back. For a few
long, terrible hours, they decided who would live and who would die.
In our study, the students with the growth mindset were not as prone to see the

bullying as a reflection of who they were. Instead, they saw it as a psychological
problem of the bullies, a way for the bullies to gain status or charge their self-
esteem: “I’d think that the reason he is bothering me is probably that he has
problems at home or at school with his grades.” Or “They need to get a life—not
just feel good if they make me feel bad.”
Their plan was often designed to educate the bullies: “I would really actually

talk to them. I would ask them questions (why are they saying all of these things
and why are they doing all of this to me).” Or “Confront the person and discuss
the issue; I would feel like trying to help them see they are not funny.”
The students with the growth mindset also strongly agreed that: “I would want

to forgive them eventually” and “My number one goal would be to help them
become better people.”
Whether they’d succeed in personally reforming or educating determined

bullies is doubtful. However, these are certainly more constructive first steps
than running them over.
Brooks Brown, a classmate of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, was bullied

from third grade on. He suffered tremendously, yet he didn’t look for revenge.

He rejected the fixed mindset and the right of people to judge others, as in “I am
a football player, and therefore I’m better than you.” Or “I am a basketball
player…pathetic geeks like you are not on my level.”
More than that, he actively embraced a growth mindset. In his own words,

“People do have the potential to change.” Even maybe Eric Harris, the more
depressed, hostile leader of the shootings. Brown had had a very serious run-in
with Eric Harris several years before, but in their senior year of high school,
Brown offered a truce. “I told him that I had changed a lot since that year…and
that I hoped he felt the same way about himself.” Brooks went on to say that if
he found that Eric hadn’t changed, he could always pull back. “However, if he
had grown up, then why not give him the chance to prove it.”
Brooks hasn’t given up. He still wants to change people. He wants to wake up

the world to the problem of bullying, and he wants to reach victims and turn
them off their violent fantasies. So he’s worked for the filmmaker Michael
Moore on Bowling for Columbine and he’s set up an innovative website where
bullied kids can communicate with each other and learn that the answer isn’t to
kill. “ It’s to use your mind and make things better.”
Brooks, like me, does not see the shooters as people who are a world apart

from everyone else. His friend Dylan Klebold, he says, was once a regular kid
from a fine home with loving, involved parents. In fact, he warns, “ We can just
sit back and call the shooters ‘sick monsters, completely different from us.’…Or
we can accept that there are more Erics and Dylans out there, who are slowly
being driven…down the same path.”
Even if a victim doesn’t have a fixed mindset to begin with, prolonged

bullying can instill it. Especially if others stand by and do nothing, or even join
in. Victims say that when they’re taunted and demeaned and no one comes to
their defense, they start to believe they deserve it. They start to judge themselves
and to think that they are inferior.
Bullies judge. Victims take it in. Sometimes it remains inside and can lead to

depression and suicide. Sometimes it explodes into violence.

What Can Be Done?

Individual children can’t usually stop the bullies, especially when the bullies
attract a group of supporters. But the school can—by changing the school

School cultures often promote, or at least accept, the fixed mindset. They
accept that some kids feel superior to others and feel entitled to pick on them.
They also consider some kids to be misfits whom they can do little to help.
But some schools have created a dramatic reduction in bullying by fighting

the atmosphere of judgment and creating one of collaboration and self-
improvement. Stan Davis, a therapist, school counselor, and consultant, has
developed an anti-bullying program that works. Building on the work of Dan
Olweus, a researcher in Norway, Davis’s program helps bullies change, supports
victims, and empowers bystanders to come to a victim’s aid. Within a few years,
physical bullying in his school was down 93 percent and teasing was down 53
Darla, a third grader, was overweight, awkward, and a “crybaby.” She was

such a prime target that half of the class bullied her, hitting her and calling her
names on a daily basis—and winning one another’s approval for it. Several years
later, because of Davis’s program, the bullying had stopped. Darla had learned
better social skills and even had friends. Then Darla went to middle school and,
after a year, came back to report what had happened. Her classmates from
elementary school had seen her through. They’d helped her make friends and
protected her from her new peers when they wanted to harass her.
Davis also gets the bullies changing. In fact, some of the kids who rushed to

Darla’s support in middle school were the same ones who had bullied her earlier.
What Davis does is this. First, while enforcing consistent discipline, he doesn’t
judge the bully as a person. No criticism is directed at traits. Instead, he makes
them feel liked and welcome at school every day.
Then he praises every step in the right direction. But again, he does not praise

the person; he praises their effort. “ I notice that you have been staying out of
fights. That tells me you are working on getting along with people.” You can see
that Davis is leading students directly to the growth mindset. He is helping them
see their actions as part of an effort to improve. Even if the change was not
intentional on the part of the bullies, they may now try to make it so.
Stan Davis has incorporated our work on praise, criticism, and mindsets into

his program, and it has worked. This is a letter I got from him.

Dear Dr. Dweck:

Your research has radically changed the way I work with
students. I am already seeing positive results from my own different

students. I am already seeing positive results from my own different
use of language to give feedback to young people. Next year our
whole school is embarking on an initiative to build student
motivation based on [growth] feedback.

Stan Davis

Haim Ginott, the renowned child psychologist, also shows how teachers can
point bullies away from judgment and toward improvement and compassion.
Here is a letter from a teacher to an eight-year-old bully in her class. Notice that
she doesn’t imply he’s a bad person, and she shows respect by referring to his
leadership, by using big words, and by asking for his advice.

Dear Jay,

Andy’s mother has told me that her son has been made very
unhappy this year. Name-calling and ostracism have left him sad
and lonely. I feel concerned about the situation. Your experience as
a leader in your class makes you a likely person for me to turn to
for advice. I value your ability to sympathize with those who suffer.
Please write me your suggestions about how we can help Andy.

Your teacher.

In a New York Times article on bullying, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are
referred to as “two misfit teenagers.” It’s true. They didn’t fit in. But you never
hear the bullies referred to as misfits. Because they weren’t. They fit right in. In
fact, they defined and ruled the school culture.
The notion that some people are entitled to brutalize others is not a healthy

one. Stan Davis points out that as a society, we rejected the idea that people were
entitled to brutalize blacks and harass women. Why do we accept the idea that
people are entitled to brutalize our children?
By doing so, we also insult the bullies. We tell them we don’t think they’re

capable of more, and we miss the chance to help them become more.

Grow Your Mindset

• After a rejection, do you feel judged, bitter, and vengeful? Or
do you feel hurt, but hopeful of forgiving, learning, and
moving on? Think of the worst rejection you ever had. Get in
touch with all the feelings, and see if you can view it from a
growth mindset. What did you learn from it? Did it teach you
something about what you want and don’t want in your life?
Did it teach you some positive things that were useful in later
relationships? Can you forgive that person and wish them
well? Can you let go of the bitterness?

• Picture your ideal love relationship. Does it involve perfect
compatibility—no disagreements, no compromises, no hard
work? Please think again. In every relationship, issues arise.
Try to see them from a growth mindset: Problems can be a
vehicle for developing greater understanding and intimacy.
Allow your partner to air his or her differences, listen
carefully, and discuss them in a patient and caring manner.
You may be surprised at the closeness this creates.

• Are you a blamer like me? It’s not good for a relationship to
pin everything on your partner. Create your own Maurice and
blame him instead. Better yet, work toward curing yourself of
the need to blame. Move beyond thinking about fault and
blame all the time. Think of me trying to do that too.

• Are you shy? Then you really need the growth mindset. Even
if it doesn’t cure your shyness, it will help keep it from
messing up your social interactions. Next time you’re
venturing into a social situation, think about these things: how
social skills are things you can improve and how social
interactions are for learning and enjoyment, not judgment.
Keep practicing this.

Chapter 7


No parent thinks, “I wonder what I can do today to undermine my children,
subvert their effort, turn them off learning, and limit their achievement.” Of
course not. They think, “I would do anything, give anything, to make my
children successful.” Yet many of the things they do boomerang. Their helpful
judgments, their lessons, their motivating techniques often send the wrong
In fact, every word and action can send a message. It tells children—or

students, or athletes—how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed-mindset
message that says: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them. Or it can be
a growth-mindset message that says: You are a developing person and I am
committed to your development.
It’s remarkable how sensitive children are to these messages, and how

concerned they are about them. Haim Ginott, the child-rearing sage of the 1950s
through ’70s, tells this story. Bruce, age five, went with his mother to his new
kindergarten. When they arrived, Bruce looked up at the paintings on the wall
and said, “Who made those ugly pictures?” His mother rushed to correct him:
“It’s not nice to call pictures ugly when they are so pretty.” But his teacher knew
exactly what he meant. “In here,” she said, “you don’t have to paint pretty
pictures. You can paint mean pictures if you feel like it.” Bruce gave her a big
smile. She had answered his real question: What happens to a boy who doesn’t
paint well?
Next, Bruce spotted a broken fire engine. He picked it up and asked in a self-

righteous tone, “Who broke this fire engine?” Again his mother rushed in:
“What difference does it make to you who broke it? You don’t know anyone
here.” But the teacher understood. “Toys are for playing,” she told him.
“Sometimes they get broken. It happens.” Again, his question was answered:

What happens to boys who break toys?
Bruce waved to his mother and went off to start his first day of kindergarten.

This was not a place where he would be judged and labeled.
You know, we never outgrow our sensitivity to these messages. Several years

ago, my husband and I spent two weeks in Provence, in the south of France.
Everyone was wonderful to us—very kind and very generous. But on the last
day, we drove to Italy for lunch. When we got there and found a little family
restaurant, tears started streaming down my face. I felt so nurtured. I said to
David, “You know, in France, when they’re nice to you, you feel like you’ve
passed a test. But in Italy, there is no test.”
Parents and teachers who send fixed-mindset messages are like France, and

parents and teachers who send growth-mindset messages are like Italy.
Let’s start with the messages parents send to their children—but, you know,

they are also messages that teachers can send to their students or coaches can
send to their athletes.


Messages About Success

Listen for the messages in the following examples:
“You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!”
“Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”
“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”
If you’re like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem-boosting

messages. But listen more closely. See if you can hear another message. It’s the
one that children hear:
If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.
I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.
I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.
How do I know this? Remember chapter 3, how I was thinking about all the

praise parents were lavishing on their kids in the hope of encouraging confidence
and achievement? You’re so smart. You’re so talented. You’re such a natural

athlete. And I thought, wait a minute. Isn’t it the kids with the fixed mindset—
the vulnerable kids—who are obsessed with this? Wouldn’t harping on
intelligence or talent make kids—all kids—even more obsessed with it?
That’s why we set out to study this. After seven experiments with hundreds of

children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s
intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised?
Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their

intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only
for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the
window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart,
then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.
Here is the voice of a mother who saw the effects of well-meant praise for


I want to share my real-life experience with you. I am the mother of
a very intelligent fifth grader. He consistently scores in the 99
percentile on standardized school tests in math, language and
science, but he has had some very real “self-worth” problems. My
husband, who is also an intelligent person, felt his parents never
valued intellect and he has overcompensated with our son in
attempting to praise him for “being smart.” Over the past years, I
have suspected this was causing a problem, because my son, while
he easily excels in school, is reluctant to take on more difficult
work or projects (just as your studies show) because then he would
think he’s not smart. He projects an over-inflated view of his
abilities and claims he can perform better than others (both
intellectually and in physical activities), but will not attempt such
activities, because of course, in his failure he would be shattered.

And here is the voice of one of my Columbia students reflecting on his

I remember often being praised for my intelligence rather than my
efforts, and slowly but surely I developed an aversion to difficult
challenges. Most surprisingly, this extended beyond academic and

even athletic challenges to emotional challenges. This was my
greatest learning disability—this tendency to see performance as a
reflection of character and, if I could not accomplish something
right away, to avoid that task or treat it with contempt.

I know, it feels almost impossible to resist this kind of praise. We want our
loved ones to know that we prize them and appreciate their successes. Even I
have fallen into the trap.
One day I came home and my husband, David, had solved a very difficult

problem we had been puzzling over for a while. Before I could stop myself, I
blurted out: “You’re brilliant!” Needless to say, I was appalled at what I had
done, and as the look of horror spread over my face, he rushed to reassure me. “I
know you meant it in the most ‘growth-minded’ way. That I searched for
strategies, kept at it, tried all kinds of solutions, and finally mastered it.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling sweetly, “that’s exactly what I meant.”
Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by

praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite
effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or
anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing
they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by
mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning. That way, their
children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build
and repair their own confidence.


So what’s the alternative to praising talent or intelligence? David’s reassurance
gives us a hint. One of my students tells us more:

I went home this weekend to find my 12-year-old sister ecstatic
about school. I asked what she was so excited about and she said, “I
got 102 on my social studies test!” I heard her repeat this phrase
about five more times that weekend. At that point I decided to apply
what we learned in class to this real-life situation. Rather than
praising her intelligence or her grade, I asked questions that made
her reflect on the effort she put into studying and on how she has

improved from the year before. Last year, her grades dropped lower
and lower as the year progressed so I thought it was important for
me to intervene and steer her in the right direction at the beginning
of this year.

Does this mean we can’t praise our children enthusiastically when they do
something great? Should we try to restrain our admiration for their successes?
Not at all. It just means that we should keep away from a certain kind of praise—
praise that judges their intelligence or talent. Or praise that implies that we’re
proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than for the work they put in.
We can appreciate them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process

—what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good
strategies. And we can ask them about their work in a way that recognizes and
shows interest in their efforts and choices.
“You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read

the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It
really worked!”
“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you

finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one
that worked!”
“I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will

take a lot of work—doing the research, designing the apparatus, buying the
parts, and building it. Boy, you’re going to learn a lot of great things.”
“I know school used to be easy for you and you used to feel like the smart kid

all the time. But the truth is that you weren’t using your brain to the fullest. I’m
really excited about how you’re stretching yourself now and working to learn
hard things.”
“That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you

concentrated and finished it.”
“That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
“You put so much thought into this essay. It really makes me understand

Shakespeare in a new way.”
“The passion you put into that piano piece gives me a real feeling of joy. How

do you feel when you play it?”
What about a student who worked hard and didn’t do well?

“I liked the effort you put in, but let’s work together some more and figure out
what it is you don’t understand.”
“We all have different learning curves. It may take more time for you to catch

on to this and be comfortable with this material, but if you keep at it like this you
“Everyone learns in a different way. Let’s keep trying to find the way that

works for you.”
(This may be especially important for children with learning disabilities.

Often for them it is not sheer effort that works but finding the right strategy.)
I was excited to learn recently that Haim Ginott, through his lifelong work

with children, came to the same conclusion. “Praise should deal, not with the
child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.”
Sometimes people are careful to use growth-oriented praise with their children

but then ruin it by the way they talk about others. I have heard parents say in
front of their children, “He’s just a born loser,” “She’s a natural genius,” or
“She’s a pea-brain.” When children hear their parents level fixed judgments at
others, it communicates a fixed mindset. And they have to wonder, Am I next?
This caveat applies to teachers, too! In one study, we taught students a math

lesson spiced up with some math history, namely, stories about great
mathematicians. For half of the students, we talked about the mathematicians as
geniuses who easily came up with their math discoveries. This alone propelled
students into a fixed mindset. It sent the message: There are some people who
are born smart in math and everything is easy for them. Then there are the rest
of you. For the other half of the students, we talked about the mathematicians as
people who became passionate about math and ended up making great
discoveries. This brought students into a growth mindset. The message was:
Skills and achievement come through commitment and effort. It’s amazing how
kids sniff out these messages from our innocent remarks.
One more thing about praise. When we say to children, “Wow, you did that so

quickly!” or “Look, you didn’t make any mistakes!” what message are we
sending? We are telling them that what we prize are speed and perfection. Speed
and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning: “If you think I’m smart when
I’m fast and perfect, I’d better not take on anything challenging.” So what
should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly
and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When
this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting

your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”


How do you make a child feel secure before a test or performance? The same
principle applies. Reassuring children about their intelligence or talent backfires.
They’ll only be more afraid to show a deficiency.
Kristina was a really bright high school student who, much to her shame, did

terribly on tests. She always studied, she always knew the material, but every
time it came to the test, she got so wound up that her mind went blank. Her
grades suffered. She disappointed her teachers. She let her parents down. And it
was only going to get worse as she faced the College Board tests that the schools
she longed to attend prized so highly.
The night before each test, her parents, seeing how distraught she was, tried to

build her confidence. “Look, you know how smart you are and we know how
smart you are. You’ve got this nailed. Now, stop worrying.”
They were as supportive as they knew how to be, but they were raising the

stakes even higher. What could they have said instead?
“It must be a terrible thing to feel that everyone is evaluating you and you

can’t show what you know. We want you to know that we are not evaluating
you. We care about your learning, and we know that you’ve learned your stuff.
We’re proud that you’ve stuck to it and kept learning.”

Messages About Failure

Praising success should be the least of our problems, right? Failure seems like a
much more delicate matter. Children may already feel discouraged and
vulnerable. Let’s tune in again, this time to the messages parents can send in
times of failure.
Nine-year-old Elizabeth was on her way to her first gymnastics meet. Lanky,

flexible, and energetic, she was just right for gymnastics, and she loved it. Of
course, she was a little nervous about competing, but she was good at
gymnastics and felt confident of doing well. She had even thought about the
perfect place in her room to hang the ribbon she would win.
In the first event, the floor exercises, Elizabeth went first. Although she did a

nice job, the scoring changed after the first few girls and she lost. Elizabeth also
did well in the other events, but not well enough to win. By the end of the
evening, she had received no ribbons and was devastated.
What would you do if you were Elizabeth’s parents?

1. Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best.

2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers.

3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.

4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time.

5. Tell her she didn’t deserve to win.

There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-
esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this
may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be
harmful in the long run. Why?
Let’s look at the five possible reactions from a mindset point of view—and

listen to the messages:
The first (you thought she was the best) is basically insincere. She was not the

best—you know it, and she does, too. This offers her no recipe for how to
recover or how to improve.
The second (she was robbed) places blame on others, when in fact the

problem was mostly with her performance, not the judges. Do you want her to
grow up blaming others for her deficiencies?
The third (reassure her that gymnastics doesn’t really matter) teaches her to

devalue something if she doesn’t do well in it right away. Is this really the
message you want to send?
The fourth (she has the ability) may be the most dangerous message of all.

Does ability automatically take you where you want to go? If Elizabeth didn’t
win this meet, why should she win the next one?
The last option (tell her she didn’t deserve to win) seems hardhearted under

the circumstances. And of course you wouldn’t say it quite that way. But that’s
pretty much what her growth-minded father told her.
Here’s what he actually said: “Elizabeth, I know how you feel. It’s so

disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win. But

you know, you haven’t really earned it yet. There were many girls there who’ve
been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If
this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work
He also let Elizabeth know that if she wanted to do gymnastics purely for fun,

that was just fine. But if she wanted to excel in the competitions, more was
Elizabeth took this to heart, spending much more time repeating and

perfecting her routines, especially the ones she was weakest in. At the next meet,
there were eighty girls from all over the region. Elizabeth won five ribbons for
the individual events and was the overall champion of the competition, hauling
home a giant trophy. By now, her room is so covered with awards, you can
hardly see the walls.
In essence, her father not only told her the truth, but also taught her how to

learn from her failures and do what it takes to succeed in the future. He
sympathized deeply with her disappointment, but he did not give her a phony
boost that would only lead to further disappointment.
I’ve met with many coaches and they ask me: “What happened to the

coachable athletes? Where did they go?” Many of the coaches lament that when
they give their athletes corrective feedback, the athletes grumble that their
confidence is being undermined. Sometimes the athletes phone home and
complain to their parents. They seem to want coaches who will simply tell them
how talented they are and leave it at that.
The coaches say that in the old days after a little league game or a kiddie

soccer game, parents used to review and analyze the game on the way home and
give helpful (process) tips. Now on the ride home, they say, parents heap blame
on the coaches and referees for the child’s poor performance or the team’s loss.
They don’t want to harm the child’s confidence by putting the blame on the
But as in the example of Elizabeth above, children need honest and

constructive feedback. If children are “protected” from it, they won’t learn well.
They will experience advice, coaching, and feedback as negative and
undermining. Withholding constructive criticism does not help children’s
confidence; it harms their future.


We always hear the term constructive criticism. But doesn’t everyone think the
criticism they give their children is constructive? Why would they give it if they
didn’t think it was helpful? Yet a lot if it is not helpful at all. It’s full of
judgment about the child. Constructive means helping the child to fix something,
build a better product, or do a better job.
Billy rushed through his homework, skipping several questions and answering

the others in a short, sloppy way. His father hit the roof. “This is your
homework? Can’t you ever get it right? You are either dense or irresponsible.
Which is it?” The feedback managed to question his son’s intelligence and
character at the same time and to imply that the defects were permanent.
How could the dad have expressed his frustration and disappointment without

assassinating his son’s attributes? Here are some ways.
“Son, it really makes me upset when you don’t do a full job. When do you

think you can complete this?”
“Son, is there something you didn’t understand in the assignment? Would you

like me to go over it with you?”
“Son, I feel sad when I see you missing a chance to learn. Can you think of a

way to do this that would help you learn more?”
“Son, this looks like a really boring assignment. You have my sympathy. Can

you think of a way to make it more interesting?” or “Let’s try to think of a way
to lessen the pain and still do a good job. Do you have any ideas?”
“Son, remember I told you how tedious things help us learn to concentrate?

This one is a real challenge. This will really take all your concentration skills.
Let’s see if you can concentrate through this whole assignment!”
Sometimes children will judge and label themselves. Ginott tells of Philip, age

fourteen, who was working on a project with his father and accidentally spilled
nails all over the floor. He guiltily looked at his dad and said:

PHILIP: Gee, I’m so clumsy.
FATHER: That’s not what we say when nails spill.
PHILIP: What do you say?
FATHER: You say, the nails spilled—I’ll pick them up!
PHILIP: Just like that?

FATHER: Just like that.
PHILIP: Thanks, Dad.

Children Learn the Messages

Kids with the fixed mindset tell us they get constant messages of judgment from
their parents. They say they feel as though their traits are being measured all the
We asked them: “Suppose your parents offer to help you with your

schoolwork. Why would they do this?”
They said: “The real reason is that they wanted to see how smart I was at the

schoolwork I was working on.”
We asked: “Suppose your parents are happy that you got a good grade. Why

would that be?”
They said: “They were happy to see I was a smart kid.”
We asked: “Suppose your parents discussed your performance with you when

you did poorly on something in school. Why would they do this?”
They said: “They might have been worried I wasn’t one of the bright kids,”

and “They think bad grades might mean I’m not smart.”
So every time something happens, these children hear a message of judgment.
Maybe all kids think their parents are judging them. Isn’t that what parents do

—nag and judge? That’s not what students with the growth mindset think. They
think their parents are just trying to encourage learning and good study habits.
Here’s what they say about their parents’ motives:

Q: Suppose your parents offer to help you with your schoolwork. Why would
they do this?
A: They wanted to make sure I learned as much as I could from my
Q: Suppose your parents are happy that you got a good grade.
A: They’re happy because a good grade means that I really stuck to my work.
Q: Suppose your parents discussed your performance with you when you did
poorly on something in school.
A: They wanted to teach me ways to study better in the future.

Even when it was about their conduct or their relationships, the kids with the
fixed mindset felt judged, but the kids with the growth mindset felt helped.

Q: Imagine that your parents became upset when you didn’t do what they
asked you to do. Why would they be this way?
FIXED-MINDSET CHILD: They were worried I might be a bad kid.
GROWTH-MINDSET CHILD: They wanted to help me learn ways of doing it
better next time.

All kids misbehave. Research shows that normal young children misbehave
every three minutes. Does it become an occasion for judgment of their character
or an occasion for teaching?

Q: Imagine that your parents were unhappy when you didn’t share with other
kids. Why would they be this way?
FIXED-MINDSET CHILD: They thought it showed them what kind of person I
GROWTH-MINDSET CHILD: They wanted to help me learn better skills for
getting along with other kids.

Children learn these lessons early. Children as young as toddlers pick up these
messages from their parents, learning that their mistakes are worthy of judgment
and punishment. Or learning that their mistakes are an occasion for suggestions
and teaching.
Here’s a kindergarten boy we will never forget. You will hear him role-

playing different messages from his two parents. This is the situation: He wrote
some numbers in school, they contained an error, and now he tells us how his
parents would react.

MOTHER: Hello. What are you sad about?
BOY: I gave my teacher some numbers and I skipped the number 8 and now
I’m feeling sad.
MOTHER: Well, there’s one thing that can cheer you up.
BOY: What?
MOTHER: If you really tell your teacher that you tried your best, she wouldn’t

be mad at you. [Turning to father] We’re not mad, are we?
FATHER: Oh, yes we are! Son, you better go right to your room.

I wish I could tell you he listened to his mother’s growth-oriented message.
But in our study, he seemed to heed the judgmental message of his dad,
downgrading himself for his errors and having no good plan for fixing them. Yet
at least he had his mother’s effort message that he could, hopefully, put to use in
the future.
Parents start interpreting and reacting to their child’s behavior at minute one.

A new mother tries to nurse her baby. The baby cries and won’t nurse. Or takes a
few sucks, gives up, and starts screaming. Is the baby stubborn? Is the baby
deficient? After all, isn’t nursing an inborn reflex? Aren’t babies supposed to be
“naturals” at nursing? What’s wrong with my baby?
A new mother in this situation told me: “At first I got really frustrated. Then I

kept your work in mind. I kept saying to my baby, ‘We’re both learning how to
do this. I know you’re hungry. I know it’s frustrating, but we’re learning.’ This
way of thinking helped me stay cool and guide her through till it worked. It also
helped me understand my baby better so I knew how to teach her other things,
Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.


Another way we know that children learn these messages is that we can see how
they pass them on. Even young children are ready to pass on the wisdom they’ve
learned. We asked second-grade children: “What advice would you give to a
child in your class who was having trouble in math?” Here’s the advice from a
child with the growth mindset:

Do you quit a lot? Do you think for a minute and then stop? If you
do, you should think for a long time—two minutes maybe and if
you can’t get it you should read the problem again. If you can’t get
it then, you should raise your hand and ask the teacher.

Isn’t that the greatest? The advice from children with the fixed mindset was
not nearly as useful. Since there’s no recipe for success in the fixed mindset,

their advice tended to be short and sweet. “I’m sorry” was the advice of one
child as he offered his condolences.
Even babies can pass along the messages they’ve received. Mary Main and

Carol George studied abused children, who had been judged and punished by
their parents for crying or making a fuss. Abusive parents often don’t understand
that children’s crying is a signal of their needs, or that babies can’t stop crying
on command. Instead, they judge the child as disobedient, willful, or bad for
Main and George watched the abused children (who were one to three years

old) in their day care setting, observing how they reacted when other children
were in distress and crying. The abused children often became angry at the
distressed children, and some even tried to assault them. They had gotten the
message that children who cry are to be judged and punished.
We often think that the legacy of abuse gets passed on to others only when the

victims of abuse become parents. But this amazing study shows that children
learn lessons early and they act on them.
How did nonabused children react to their distressed classmate, by the way?

They showed sympathy. Many went over to the crying child to see what was
wrong and to see if they could help out.


Many parents think that when they judge and punish, they are teaching, as in
“I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.” What are they teaching? They are
teaching their children that if they go against the parents’ rules or values, they’ll
be judged and punished. They’re not teaching their children how to think
through the issues and come to ethical, mature decisions on their own.
And chances are, they’re not teaching their children that the channels of

communication are open.
Sixteen-year-old Alyssa came to her mother and said that she and her friends

wanted to try alcohol. Could she invite them over for a “cocktail party”? On the
face of it, this might seem outrageous. But here’s what Alyssa meant. She and
her friends had been going to parties where alcohol was available, but they
didn’t want to try it in a setting where they didn’t feel safe and in control. They
also didn’t want to drive home after drinking. They wanted to try it in a
supervised setting, with their parents’ permission, where their parents could

come and pick them up afterward.
It doesn’t matter whether Alyssa’s parents said yes or no. They had a full

discussion of the issues involved. They had a far more instructive discussion
than what would have followed from an outraged, angry, and judgmental
It’s not that growth-minded parents indulge and coddle their children. Not at

all. They set high standards, but they teach the children how to reach them. They
say no, but it’s a fair, thoughtful, and respectful no. Next time you’re in a
position to discipline, ask yourself, What is the message I’m sending here: I will
judge and punish you? Or I will help you think and learn?


Of course parents want the best for their children, but sometimes parents put
their children in danger. As the director of undergraduate studies for my
department at Columbia, I saw a lot of students in trouble. Here is the story of a
great kid who almost didn’t make it.
Sandy showed up in my office at Columbia one week before graduation. She

wanted to change her major to psychology. This is basically a wacky request, but
I sensed her desperation and listened carefully to her story. When I looked over
her record, it was filled with A+’s and F’s. What was going on?
Sandy had been groomed by her parents to go to Harvard. Because of their

fixed mindset, the only goal of Sandy’s education was to prove her worth and
competence (and perhaps theirs) by gaining admission to Harvard. Going there
would mean that she was truly intelligent. For them, it was not about learning. It
was not about pursuing her love of science. It was not even about making a great
contribution. It was about the label. But she didn’t get in. And she fell into a
depression that had plagued her ever since. Sometimes she managed to work
effectively (the A+’s), but sometimes she did not (the F’s).
I knew that if I didn’t help her she wouldn’t graduate, and if she didn’t

graduate she wouldn’t be able to face her parents. And if she couldn’t face her
parents, I didn’t know what would happen.
I was legitimately able to help Sandy graduate, but that isn’t really the point.

It’s a real tragedy to take a brilliant and wonderful kid like Sandy and crush her
with the weight of these labels.
I hope these stories will teach parents to “want the best” for their children in

the right way—by fostering their interests, growth, and learning.


Let’s look more closely at the message from Sandy’s parents: We don’t care
about who you are, what you’re interested in, and what you can become. We
don’t care about learning. We will love and respect you only if you go to
Mark’s parents felt the same way. Mark was an exceptional math student, and

as he finished junior high he was excited about going to Stuyvesant High School,
a special high school in New York with a strong math-and-science curriculum.
There, he would study math with the best teachers and talk math with the most
advanced students in the city. Stuyvesant also had a program that would let him
take college math courses at Columbia as soon as he was ready.
But at the last moment, his parents would not let him go. They had heard that

it was hard to get into Harvard from Stuyvesant. So they made him go to a
different high school.
It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t be able to pursue his interests or develop his

talents as well. Only one thing mattered, and it starts with an H.


It’s not just I’m judging you. It’s I’m judging you and I’ll only love you if you
succeed—on my terms.
We’ve studied kids ranging from six years old to college age. Those with the

fixed mindset feel their parents won’t love and respect them unless they fulfill
their parents’ aspirations for them. The college students say:
“I often feel like my parents won’t value me if I’m not as successful as they

would like.”
Or: “My parents say I can be anything I like, but deep down I feel they won’t

approve of me unless I pursue a profession they admire.”
John McEnroe’s father was like that. He was judgmental—everything was

black-and-white—and he put on the pressure. “ My parents pushed me….My
dad was the one mainly. He seemed to live for my growing little junior
career….I remember telling my dad that I wasn’t enjoying it. I’d say, ‘Do you
have to come to every match? Do you have to come to this practice? Can’t you

take one off?’ ”
McEnroe brought his father the success he craved, but McEnroe didn’t enjoy a

moment of it. He says he enjoyed the consequences of his success—being at the
top, the adulation, and the money. However, he says, “Many athletes seem truly
to love to play their sport. I don’t think I ever felt that way about tennis.”
I think he did love it at the very beginning, because he talks about how at first

he was fascinated by all the different ways you could hit a ball and create new
shots. But we never hear about that kind of fascination again. Mr. McEnroe saw
his boy was good at tennis and on went the pressure, the judgment, and the love
that depended on his son’s success.
Tiger Woods’s father presents a contrast. There’s no doubt that this guy is

ambitious. He also sees his son as a chosen person with a God-given destiny, but
he fostered Tiger’s love of golf and raised Tiger to focus on growth and learning.
“ If Tiger had wanted to be a plumber, I wouldn’t have minded, as long as he
was a hell of a plumber. The goal was for him to be a good person. He’s a great
person.” Tiger says in return, “My parents have been the biggest influence in my
life. They taught me to give of myself, my time, talent, and, most of all, my
love.” This shows that you can have superinvolved parents who still foster the
child’s own growth, rather than replacing it with their own pressure and
Dorothy DeLay, the famous violin teacher, encountered pressure-cooker

parents all the time. Parents who cared more about talent, image, and labels than
about the child’s long-term learning.
One set of parents brought their eight-year-old boy to play for DeLay. Despite

her warnings, they had made him memorize the Beethoven violin concerto. He
was note-perfect, but he played like a frightened robot. They had, in fact, ruined
his playing to suit their idea of talent, as in, “My eight-year-old can play the
Beethoven violin concerto. What can yours do?”
DeLay spent countless hours with a mother who insisted it was time for her

son to be signed by a fancy talent agency. But had she followed DeLay’s advice?
No. For quite a while, DeLay had been warning her that her son didn’t have a
large enough repertoire. Rather than heeding the expert advice and fostering her
son’s development, however, the mother refused to believe that anyone could
turn down a talent like his for such a slight reason.
In sharp contrast was Yura Lee’s mother. Mrs. Lee always sat serenely during

Yura’s lesson, without the tension and frantic note taking of some of the other

parents. She smiled, she swayed to the music, she enjoyed herself. As a result,
Yura did not develop the anxieties and insecurities that children with
overinvested, judgmental parents do. Says Yura, “I’m always happy when I


Isn’t it natural for parents to set goals and have ideals for their children? Yes, but
some ideals are helpful and others are not. We asked college students to describe
their ideal of a successful student. And we asked them to tell us how they
thought they measured up to that ideal.
Students with the fixed mindset described ideals that could not be worked

toward. You had it or you didn’t.
“The ideal successful student is one who comes in with innate talent.”
“Genius, physically fit and good at sports….They got there based on natural

Did they think they measured up to their ideal? Mostly not. Instead, they said

these ideals disrupted their thinking, made them procrastinate, made them give
up, and made them stressed-out. They were demoralized by the ideal they could
never hope to be.
Students with the growth mindset described ideals like these:
“A successful student is one whose primary goal is to expand their knowledge

and their ways of thinking and investigating the world. They do not see grades as
an end in themselves but as means to continue to grow.”
Or: “The ideal student values knowledge for its own sake, as well as for its

instrumental uses. He or she hopes to make a contribution to society at large.”
Were they similar to their ideal? They were working toward it. “As similar as

I can be—hey, it takes effort.” Or: “I believed for many years that grades/tests
were the most important thing but I am trying to move beyond that.” Their ideals
were inspiring to them.
When parents give their children a fixed-mindset ideal, they are asking them

to fit the mold of the brilliant, talented child, or be deemed unworthy. There is
no room for error. And there is no room for the children’s individuality—their
interests, their quirks, their desires and values. I can hardly count the times
fixed-mindset parents have wrung their hands and told me how their children

were rebelling or dropping out.
Haim Ginott describes Nicholas, age seventeen:

In my father’s mind there is a picture of an ideal son. When he
compares him to me, he is deeply disappointed. I don’t live up to
my father’s dream. Since early childhood, I sensed his
disappointment. He tried to hide it, but it came out in a hundred
little ways—in his tone, in his words, in his silence. He tried hard to
make me a carbon copy of his dreams. When he failed he gave up
on me. But he left a deep scar, a permanent feeling of failure.

When parents help their children construct growth-minded ideals, they are
giving them something they can strive for. They are also giving their children
growing room, room to grow into full human beings who will make their
contribution to society in a way that excites them. I have rarely heard a growth-
minded parent say, “I am disappointed in my child.” Instead, with a beaming
smile, they say, “I am amazed at the incredible person my child has become.”
Everything I’ve said about parents applies to teachers, too. But teachers have

additional concerns. They face large classes of students with differing skills,
whose past learning they’ve had no part in. What’s the best way to educate these


Many educators think that lowering their standards will give students success
experiences, boost their self-esteem, and raise their achievement. It comes from
the same philosophy as the overpraising of students’ intelligence. Well, it
doesn’t work. Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who
feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.
For thirty-five years, Sheila Schwartz taught aspiring English teachers. She

tried to set high standards, especially since they were going to pass on their
knowledge to generations of children. But they became indignant. “One student,
whose writing was full of grammatical mistakes and misspellings,” she says,
“marched into my office with her husband from West Point—in a dress uniform,

his chest covered with ribbons—because her feelings had been hurt by my
insistence on correct spelling.”
Another student was asked to summarize the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird,

Harper Lee’s novel about a southern lawyer fighting prejudice and
(unsuccessfully) defending a black man accused of murder. The student insisted
the theme was that “all people are basically nice.” When Schwartz questioned
that conclusion, the student left the class and reported her to the dean. Schwartz
was reprimanded for having standards that were too high. Why, Schwartz asks,
should the low standards of these future teachers be honored above the needs of
the children they will one day teach?
On the other hand, simply raising standards in our schools, without giving

students the means of reaching them, is a recipe for disaster. It just pushes the
poorly prepared or poorly motivated students into failure and out of school.
Is there a way to set standards high and have students reach them?
In chapter 3, we saw in the work of Falko Rheinberg that teachers with the

growth mindset brought many low achievers up into the high-achieving range.
We saw in the growth-minded teaching of Jaime Escalante that inner-city high
school students could learn college calculus, and in the growth-minded teaching
of Marva Collins that inner-city grade school children could read Shakespeare.
In this chapter, we’ll see more. We’ll see how growth-oriented teaching
unleashes children’s minds.
I’ll focus on three great teachers, two who worked with students who are

considered “disadvantaged” and one who worked with students considered
supertalented. What do these great teachers have in common?

Great Teachers

The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are
fascinated with the process of learning.
Marva Collins taught Chicago children who had been judged and discarded.

For many, her classroom was their last stop. One boy had been in and out of
thirteen schools in four years. One stabbed children with pencils and had been
thrown out of a mental health center. One eight-year-old would remove the blade
from the pencil sharpener and cut up his classmates’ coats, hats, gloves, and
scarves. One child referred to killing himself in almost every sentence. One hit
another student with a hammer on his first day. These children hadn’t learned

much in school, but everyone knew it was their own fault. Everyone but Collins.
When 60 Minutes did a segment on Collins’s classroom, Morley Safer tried

his best to get a child to say he didn’t like the school. “It’s so hard here. There’s
no recess. There’s no gym. They work you all day. You have only forty minutes
for lunch. Why do you like it? It’s just too hard.” But the student replied, “That’s
why I like it, because it makes your brains bigger.”
Chicago Sun-Times writer Zay Smith interviewed one of the children: “We do

hard things here. They fill your brain.”
As Collins looks back on how she got started, she says, “I have always been

fascinated with learning, with the process of discovering something new, and it
was exciting to share in the discoveries made by my…students.” On the first day
of school, she always promised her students—all students—that they would
learn. She forged a contract with them.
“ I know most of you can’t spell your name. You don’t know the alphabet,

you don’t know how to read, you don’t know homonyms or how to syllabicate. I
promise you that you will. None of you has ever failed. School may have failed
you. Well, goodbye to failure, children. Welcome to success. You will read hard
books in here and understand what you read. You will write every day….But
you must help me to help you. If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything.
Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.”
Her joy in her students’ learning was enormous. As they changed from

children who arrived with “toughened faces and glassed-over eyes” to children
who were beginning to brim with enthusiasm, she told them, “I don’t know what
St. Peter has planned for me, but you children are giving me my heaven on
Rafe Esquith teaches Los Angeles second graders from poor areas plagued

with crime. Many live with people who have drug, alcohol, and emotional
problems. Every day he tells his students that he is no smarter than they are—
just more experienced. He constantly makes them see how much they have
grown intellectually—how assignments that were once hard have become easier
because of their practice and discipline.
Unlike Collins’s school or Esquith’s school, the Juilliard School of music

accepts only the most talented students in the world. You would think the idea
would be, You’re all talented, now let’s get down to learning. But if anything,
the idea of talent and genius looms even larger there. In fact, many teachers
mentally weeded out the students they weren’t going to bother with. Except for

Dorothy DeLay, the wondrous violin teacher of Itzhak Perlman, Midori, and
Sarah Chang.
DeLay’s husband always teased her about her “midwestern” belief that

anything is possible. “Here is the empty prairie—let’s build a city.” That’s
exactly why she loved teaching. For her, teaching was about watching something
grow before her very eyes. And the challenge was to figure out how to make it
happen. If students didn’t play in tune, it was because they hadn’t learned how.
Her mentor and fellow teacher at Juilliard, Ivan Galamian, would say, “Oh, he

has no ear. Don’t waste your time.” But she would insist on experimenting with
different ways of changing that. (How can I do it?) And she usually found a way.
As more and more students wanted a part of this mindset and as she “wasted”
more and more of her time on these efforts, Galamian tried to get the president
of Juilliard to fire her.
It’s interesting. Both DeLay and Galamian valued talent, but Galamian

believed that talent was inborn and DeLay believed that it was a quality that
could be acquired. “ I think it’s too easy for a teacher to say, ‘Oh this child
wasn’t born with it, so I won’t waste my time.’ Too many teachers hide their
own lack of ability behind that statement.”
DeLay gave her all to every one of her students. Itzhak Perlman was her

student and so was his wife, Toby, who says that very few teachers get even a
fraction of an Itzhak Perlman in a lifetime. “She got the whole thing, but I don’t
believe she gave him more than she gave me…and I believe I am just one of
many, many such people.” Once DeLay was asked, about another student, why
she gave so much time to a pupil who showed so little promise. “ I think she has
something special….It’s in her person. There is some kind of dignity.” If DeLay
could get her to put it into her playing, that student would be a special violinist.

High Standards and a Nurturing Atmosphere

Great teachers set high standards for all their students, not just the ones who are
already achieving. Marva Collins set extremely high standards, right from the
start. She introduced words and concepts that were, at first, way above what her
students could grasp. Yet she established on Day One an atmosphere of genuine
affection and concern as she promised students they would produce: “I’m gonna
love you…I love you already, and I’m going to love you even when you don’t
love yourself,” she said to the boy who wouldn’t try.

Do teachers have to love all of their students? No, but they have to care about
every single student.
Teachers with the fixed mindset create an atmosphere of judging. These

teachers look at students’ beginning performance and decide who’s smart and
who’s dumb. Then they give up on the “dumb” ones. “They’re not my
These teachers don’t believe in improvement, so they don’t try to create it.

Remember the fixed-mindset teachers in chapter 3 who said:
“According to my experience students’ achievement mostly remains constant

in the course of a year.”
“As a teacher I have no influence on students’ intellectual ability.”
This is how stereotypes work. Stereotypes tell teachers which groups are

bright and which groups are not. So teachers with the fixed mindset know which
students to give up on before they’ve even met them.

More on High Standards and a Nurturing Atmosphere

When Benjamin Bloom studied his 120 world-class concert pianists, sculptors,
swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists, he found
something fascinating. For most of them, their first teachers were incredibly
warm and accepting. Not that they set low standards. Not at all, but they created
an atmosphere of trust, not judgment. It was, “I’m going to teach you,” not “I’m
going to judge your talent.”
As you look at what Collins and Esquith demanded of their students—all their

students—it’s almost shocking. When Collins expanded her school to include
young children, she required that every four-year-old who started in September
be reading by Christmas. And they all were. The three-and four-year-olds used a
vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-
olds were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of
Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,
Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council. Her reading
list for the late-grade-school children included The Complete Plays of Anton
Chekhov, Physics Through Experiment, and The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and
always Shakespeare. Even the boys who picked their teeth with switchblades,
she says, loved Shakespeare and always begged for more.

Yet Collins maintained an extremely nurturing atmosphere. A very strict and
disciplined one, but a loving one. Realizing that her students were coming from
teachers who made a career of telling them what was wrong with them, she
quickly made known her complete commitment to them as her students and as
Esquith bemoans the lowering of standards. Recently, he tells us, his school

celebrated reading scores that were twenty points below the national average.
Why? Because they were a point or two higher than the year before. “Maybe it’s
important to look for the good and be optimistic,” he says, “but delusion is not
the answer. Those who celebrate failure will not be around to help today’s
students celebrate their jobs flipping burgers….Someone has to tell children if
they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up.”
All of his fifth graders master a reading list that includes Of Mice and Men,

Native Son, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Joy Luck Club, The Diary of
Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Separate Peace. Every one of his
sixth graders passes an algebra final that would reduce most eighth and ninth
graders to tears. But again, all is achieved in an atmosphere of affection and deep
personal commitment to every student.
“Challenge and nurture” describes DeLay’s approach, too. One of her former

students expresses it this way: “ That is part of Miss DeLay’s genius—to put
people in the frame of mind where they can do their best….Very few teachers
can actually get you to your ultimate potential. Miss DeLay has that gift. She
challenges you at the same time that you feel you are being nurtured.”

Hard Work and More Hard Work

But are challenge and love enough? Not quite. All great teachers teach students
how to reach the high standards. Collins and Esquith didn’t hand their students a
reading list and wish them bon voyage. Collins’s students read and discussed
every line of Macbeth in class. Esquith spent hours planning what chapters they
would read in class. “ I know which child will handle the challenge of the most
difficult paragraphs, and carefully plan a passage for the shy youngster…who
will begin his journey as a good reader. Nothing is left to chance….It takes
enormous energy, but to be in a room with young minds who hang on every
word of a classic book and beg for more if I stop makes all the planning

What are they teaching the students en route? To love learning. To eventually
learn and think for themselves. And to work hard on the fundamentals. Esquith’s
class often met before school, after school, and on school vacations to master the
fundamentals of English and math, especially as the work got harder. His motto:
“There are no shortcuts.” Collins echoes that idea as she tells her class, “There is
no magic here. Mrs. Collins is no miracle worker. I do not walk on water, I do
not part the sea. I just love children and work harder than a lot of people, and so
will you.”
DeLay expected a lot from her students, but she, too, guided them there. Most

students are intimidated by the idea of talent, and it keeps them in a fixed
mindset. But DeLay demystified talent. One student was sure he couldn’t play a
piece as fast as Itzhak Perlman. So she didn’t let him see the metronome until he
had achieved it. “I know so surely that if he had been handling that metronome,
as he approached that number he would have said to himself, I can never do this
as fast as Itzhak Perlman, and he would have stopped himself.”
Another student was intimidated by the beautiful sound made by talented

violinists. “We were working on my sound, and there was this one note I played,
and Miss DeLay stopped me and said, ‘Now that is a beautiful sound.’ ” She
then explained how every note has to have a beautiful beginning, middle, and
end, leading into the next note. And he thought, “Wow! If I can do it there, I can
do it everywhere.” Suddenly the beautiful sound of Perlman made sense and was
not just an overwhelming concept.
When students don’t know how to do something and others do, the gap seems

unbridgeable. Some educators try to reassure their students that they’re just fine
as they are. Growth-minded teachers tell students the truth and then give them
the tools to close the gap. As Marva Collins said to a boy who was clowning
around in class, “You are in sixth grade and your reading score is 1.1. I don’t
hide your scores in a folder. I tell them to you so you know what you have to do.
Now your clowning days are over.” Then they got down to work.

Students Who Don’t Care

What about students who won’t work, who don’t care to learn? Here is a
shortened version of an interaction between Collins and Gary, a student who
refused to work, ripped up his homework assignments, and would not participate
in class. Collins is trying to get him to go to the blackboard to do some


COLLINS: Sweetheart, what are you going to do? Use your life or throw it
GARY: I’m not gonna do any damn work.
COLLINS: I am not going to give up on you. I am not going to let you give up
on yourself. If you sit there leaning against this wall all day, you are going to
end up leaning on something or someone all your life. And all that brilliance
bottled up inside you will go to waste.

At that, Gary agreed to go to the board, but then refused to address the work
there. After a while Collins said:
“If you do not want to participate, go to the telephone and tell your mother,

‘Mother, in this school we have to learn, and Mrs. Collins says I can’t fool
around, so will you please pick me up.’ ”
Gary started writing. Eventually, Gary became an eager participant and an

avid writer. Later that year, the class was discussing Macbeth and how his
misguided thinking led him to commit murder. “ It’s sort of like Socrates says,
isn’t it, Miss Collins?” Gary piped up. “Macbeth should have known that
‘Straight thinking leads to straight living.’ ” For a class assignment, he wrote,
“Somnus, god of sleep, please awaken us. While we sleep, ignorance takes over
the world….Take your spell off us. We don’t have long before ignorance makes
a coup d’état of the world.”
When teachers are judging them, students will sabotage the teacher by not

trying. But when students understand that school is for them—a way for them to
grow their minds—they do not insist on sabotaging themselves.
In my work, I have seen tough guys shed tears when they realize they can

become smarter. It’s common for students to turn off to school and adopt an air
of indifference, but we make a mistake if we think any student stops caring.

Growth-Minded Teachers: Who Are These People?

How can growth-minded teachers be so selfless, devoting untold hours to the
worst students? Are they just saints? Is it reasonable to expect that everyone can
become a saint? The answer is that they’re not entirely selfless. They love to

learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they
tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.
Fixed-minded teachers often think of themselves as finished products. Their

role is simply to impart their knowledge. But doesn’t that get boring year after
year? Standing before yet another crowd of faces and imparting. Now, that’s
Seymour Sarason was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school. He

was a wonderful educator, and he always told us to question assumptions.
“There’s an assumption,” he said, “that schools are for students’ learning. Well,
why aren’t they just as much for teachers’ learning?” I never forgot that. In all of
my teaching, I think about what I find fascinating and what I would love to learn
more about. I use my teaching to grow, and that makes me, even after all these
years, a fresh and eager teacher.
One of Marva Collins’s first mentors taught her the same thing—that, above

all, a good teacher is one who continues to learn along with the students. And
she let her students know that right up front: “Sometimes I don’t like other
grown-ups very much because they think they know everything. I don’t know
everything. I can learn all the time.”
It’s been said that Dorothy DeLay was an extraordinary teacher because she

was not interested in teaching. She was interested in learning.
So, are great teachers born or made? Can anyone be a Collins, Esquith, or

DeLay? It starts with the growth mindset—about yourself and about children.
Not just lip service to the idea that all children can learn, but a deep desire to
reach in and ignite the mind of every child. Michael Lewis, in The New York
Times, tells of a coach who did this for him. “I had a new taste for…extra
work…and it didn’t take long to figure out how much better my life could be if I
applied this new zeal acquired on a baseball field to the rest of it. It was as if this
baseball coach had reached inside me, found a rusty switch marked Turn On
Before Attempting to Use and flipped it.”
Coaches are teachers, too, but their students’ successes and failures are played

out in front of crowds, published in the newspapers, and written into the record
books. Their jobs rest on producing winners. Let’s look closely at three
legendary coaches to see their mindsets in action.


Everyone who knows me well laughs when I say someone is complicated.
“What do you think of so-and-so?” “Oh, he’s complicated.” It’s usually not a
compliment. It means that so-and-so may be capable of great charm, warmth,
and generosity, but there’s an undercurrent of ego that can erupt at any time.
You never really know when you can trust him.
The fixed mindset makes people complicated. It makes them worried about

their fixed traits and creates the need to document them, sometimes at your
expense. And it makes them judgmental.

The Fixed-Mindset Coach in Action

Bobby Knight, the famous and controversial college basketball coach, is
complicated. He could be unbelievably kind. One time he passed up an
important and lucrative opportunity to be a sportscaster, because a former player
of his had been in a bad accident. Knight rushed to his side and saw him through
the ordeal.
He could be extremely gracious. After the basketball team he coached won the

Olympic gold medal, he insisted that the team pay homage first and foremost to
Coach Henry Iba. Iba had never been given proper respect for his Olympic
accomplishments, and in whatever way he could, Knight wanted to make up for
it. He had the team carry Coach Iba around the floor on their shoulders.
Knight cared greatly about his players’ academic records. He wanted them to

get an education, and he had a firm rule against missing classes or tutoring
But he could also be cruel, and this cruelty came from the fixed mindset. John

Feinstein, author of Season on the Brink, a book about Knight and his team, tells
us: “Knight was incapable of accepting failure. Every defeat was personal; his
team lost, a team he had selected and coached….Failure on any level all but
destroyed him, especially failure in coaching because it was coaching that gave
him his identity, made him special, set him apart.” A loss made him a failure,
obliterated his identity. So when he was your coach—when your wins and losses
measured him—he was mercilessly judgmental. His demeaning of players who
let him down was, hopefully, without parallel.
In Daryl Thomas, Feinstein says, “Knight saw a player of huge potential.

Thomas had what coaches call a ‘million dollar body.’ ” He was big and strong,
but also fast. He could shoot the ball with his left hand or his right hand. Knight

couldn’t live with the thought that Thomas and his million-dollar body weren’t
bringing the team success:
“ You know what you are Daryl? You are the worst f pussy I’ve ever seen

play basketball at this school. The absolute worst pussy ever. You have more
goddam ability than 95 percent of the players we’ve had here but you are a pussy
from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. An absolute f pussy. That’s
my assessment of you after three years.”
To make a similar point, Knight once put a Tampax in a player’s locker.
Thomas was a sensitive guy. An assistant coach had given this advice: When

he’s calling you an asshole, don’t listen. But when he starts telling you why
you’re an asshole, listen. That way, you’ll get better. Thomas couldn’t follow
that advice. He heard everything, and, after the tirade, he broke down right there
on the basketball court.
The ax of judgment came down on players who had the audacity to lose a

game. Often Knight did not let the guilty parties ride back home with the rest of
the team. They were no longer worthy of respectful treatment. One time, after
his team reached the semifinals of a national tournament (but not the national
tournament), he was asked by an interviewer what he liked best about the team. “
What I like best about this team right now,” Knight answered, “is the fact that I
only have to watch it play one more time.”
Some players could take it better than others. Steve Alford, who went on to

have a professional career, had come to Indiana with clear goals in mind and was
able to maintain a strong growth focus much of the time. He was able to hear
and use Knight’s wisdom and, for the most part, ignore the obscene or
demeaning parts of the tirades. But even he describes how the team broke down
under the yoke of Knight’s judgments, and how he himself became so personally
unhappy at some points that he lost his zest for the sport.
“ The atmosphere was poisonous….When I had been playing well I had

always stayed upbeat, no matter how much Coach yelled….But now his
negativism, piled on top of my own, was drowning me….Mom and Dad were
concerned. They could see the love of the game going out of me.”


Says Alford, “Coach’s Holy Grail was the mistake-free game.” Uh-oh. We know
which mindset makes mistakes intolerable. And Knight’s explosions were

legendary. There was the time he threw the chair across the court. There was the
time he yanked his player off the court by his jersey. There was the time he
grabbed his player by the neck. He often tried to justify his behavior by saying
he was toughening the team up, preparing them to play under pressure. But the
truth is, he couldn’t control himself. Was the chair a teaching exercise? Was the
chokehold educational?
He motivated his players, not through respect for them, but through

intimidation—through fear. They feared his judgments and explosions. Did it
Sometimes it “worked.” He had three championship teams. In the “season on

the brink” described by John Feinstein, the team did not have size, experience, or
quickness, but they were contenders. They won twenty-one games, thanks to
Knight’s great basketball knowledge and coaching skills.
But other times, it didn’t work. Individual players or the team as a whole

broke down. In the season on the brink, they collapsed at the end of the season.
The year before, too, the team had collapsed under Knight’s pressure. Over the
years, some players had escaped by transferring to other schools, by breaking the
rules (like cutting classes or skipping tutoring sessions), or by going early to the
pros, like Isiah Thomas. On a world tour, the players often sat around fantasizing
about where they should have gone to school, if they hadn’t made the mistake of
choosing Indiana.
It’s not that Knight had a fixed mindset about his players’ ability. He firmly

believed in their capacity to develop. But he had a fixed mindset about himself
and his coaching ability. The team was his product, and they had to prove his
ability every time out. They were not allowed to lose games, make mistakes, or
question him in any way, because that would reflect on his competence. Nor did
he seem to analyze his motivational strategies when they weren’t working.
Maybe Daryl Thomas needed another kind of incentive aside from ridicule or
What are we to make of this complicated man as a mentor to young players?

His biggest star, Isiah Thomas, expresses his profound ambivalence about
Knight. “ You know there were times when if I had a gun, I think I would have
shot him. And there were other times when I wanted to put my arms around him,
hug him, and tell him I loved him.”
I would not consider myself an unqualified success if my best student had

considered shooting me.

The Growth-Mindset Coach in Action


Coach John Wooden produced one of the greatest championships records in
sports. He led the UCLA basketball team to the NCAA Championship in 1964,
1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1975. There were seasons
when his team was undefeated, and they once had an eighty-eight-game winning
streak. All this I sort of knew.
What I didn’t know was that when Wooden arrived at UCLA, it was a far cry

from a basketball dynasty. In fact, he didn’t want to work at UCLA at all. He
wanted to go to Minnesota. It was arranged that Minnesota would phone him at
six o’clock on a certain evening to tell him if he had the job. He told UCLA to
call him at seven. No one called at six, six thirty, or even six forty-five, so when
UCLA called at seven, he said yes. No sooner had he hung up than the call from
Minnesota came. A storm had messed up the phone lines and prevented the six
o’clock phone call with the job offer from getting through.
UCLA had grossly inadequate facilities. For his first sixteen years, Wooden

held practice in a crowded, dark, and poorly ventilated gym, known as the B.O.
Barn because of the atmospheric effect of the sweating bodies. In the same gym,
there were often wrestling matches, gymnastics training, trampoline jumping,
and cheerleading workouts going on alongside basketball practice.
There was also no place for the games. For the first few years, they had to use

the B.O. Barn, and then for fourteen more years, they had to travel around the
region borrowing gyms from schools and towns.
Then there were the players. When he put them through their first practice, he

was shattered. They were so bad that if he’d had an honorable way to back out of
the job, he would have. The press had (perceptively) picked his team to finish
last in their division, but Wooden went to work, and this laughable team did not
finish last. It won the division title, with twenty-two wins and seven losses for
the season. The next year, they went to the NCAA play-offs.
What did he give them? He gave them constant training in the basic skills, he

gave them conditioning, and he gave them mindset.


Wooden was not complicated. He was wise and interesting, but not complicated.

He was just a straight-ahead growth-mindset guy who lived by this rule: “ You
have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself
to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time,
you will become a lot better.”
He didn’t ask for mistake-free games. He didn’t demand that his players never

lose. He asked for full preparation and full effort from them. “ Did I win? Did I
lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my
best effort?” If so, he says, “You may be outscored but you will never lose.”
He was not a softy. He did not tolerate coasting. If the players were coasting

during practice, he turned out the lights and left: “Gentlemen, practice is over.”
They had lost their opportunity to become better that day.


Like DeLay, Wooden gave equal time and attention to all of his players,
regardless of their initial skills. They, in turn, gave all, and blossomed. Here is
Wooden talking about two new players when they arrived at UCLA: “ I looked
at each one to see what he had and then said to myself, ‘Oh gracious, if he can
make a real contribution, a playing contribution, to our team then we must be
pretty lousy.’ However, what I couldn’t see was what these men had inside.”
Both gave just about everything they could possibly give and both became
starters, one as the starting center on a national championship team.
He respected all players equally. You know how some players’ numbers are

retired after they move on, in homage to their greatness? No player’s number
was retired while Wooden was coach, although he had some of the greatest
players of all time, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Later on, when
their numbers were retired, he was against it. “ Other fellows who played on our
team also wore those numbers. Some of those other players gave me close to
everything they had….The jersey and the number on it never belong to just one
single player, no matter how great or how big a ‘star’ that particular player is. It
goes against the whole concept of what a team is.”
Wait a minute. He was in the business of winning games. Don’t you have to

go with your talented players and give less to the second stringers? Well, he
didn’t play all players equally, but he gave to all players equally. For example,
when he recruited another player the same year as Bill Walton, he told him that
he would play very little in actual games because of Walton. But he promised

him, “By the time you graduate you’ll get a pro contract. You’ll be that good.”
By his third year, the player was giving Bill Walton all he could handle in
practice. And when he turned pro, he was named rookie of the year in his league.


Was Wooden a genius, a magician able to turn mediocre players into
champions? Actually, he admits that in terms of basketball tactics and strategies,
he was quite average. What he was really good at was analyzing and motivating
his players. With these skills he was able to help his players fulfill their
potential, not just in basketball, but in life—something he found even more
rewarding than winning games.
Did Wooden’s methods work? Aside from the ten championship titles, we

have the testimony of his players, none of whom refer to firearms.
Bill Walton, Hall of Famer: “Of course, the real competition he was preparing

us for was life….He taught us the values and characteristics that could make us
not only good players, but also good people.”
Denny Crum, successful coach: “I can’t imagine what my life would have

been had Coach Wooden not been my guiding light. As the years pass, I
appreciate him more and more and can only pray that I can have half as much
influence on the young people I coach as he has had on me.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hall of Famer: “The wisdom of Coach Wooden had a

profound influence on me as an athlete, but an even greater influence on me as a
human being. He is responsible, in part, for the person I am today.”
Listen to this story.
It was the moment of victory. UCLA had just won its first national

championship. But Coach Wooden was worried about Fred Slaughter, a player
who had started every game and had had a brilliant year up until this final,
championship game. The game had not been going well, and, as it got worse and
worse, Wooden felt a change had to made. So he pulled Fred. The replacement
player did a great job, and Wooden left him in until the game was virtually won.
The victory was a peak moment. Not only had they just won their first NCAA

title by beating Duke, but they had ended the season with thirty wins and zero
losses. Yet Wooden’s concern for Fred dampened his euphoria. As Wooden left
the press conference and went to find Fred, he opened the door to the dressing
room. Fred was waiting for him. “Coach…I want you to know I understand. You

had to leave Doug in there because he played so well, and I didn’t. I wanted to
play in the worst way, but I do understand, and if anyone says I was upset, it’s
not true. Disappointed, yes, but upset, no. And I was very happy for Doug.”
“ There are coaches out there,” Wooden says, “who have won championships

with the dictator approach, among them Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight. I
had a different philosophy….For me, concern, compassion, and consideration
were always priorities of the highest order.”
Read the story of Fred Slaughter again and you tell me whether, under the

same circumstances, Coach Knight would have rushed to console Daryl Thomas.
And would Knight have allowed Thomas to reach down to find his pride,
dignity, and generosity in his moment of disappointment?

Which Is the Enemy: Success or Failure?

Pat Summitt was the coach of the Tennessee women’s basketball team, the Lady
Vols. She coached them to eight national championships. She didn’t come into
the game with Wooden’s philosophical attitude, but was at first more Knight-like
in her stance. Every time the team lost, she couldn’t let go of it. She continued to
live it, beating it to death and torturing herself and the team with it. Then she
graduated to a love–hate relationship with losing. Emotionally, it still made her
feel sick. But she loved what it did. It forces everyone, players and coaches, to
develop a more complete game. It was success that had become the enemy.
Wooden calls it being “infected” with success. Pat Riley, former coach of the

championship Los Angeles Lakers team, calls it the “disease of me”—thinking
you are the success, and chucking the discipline and the work that got you there.
Summitt explained, “Success lulls you. It makes the most ambitious of us
complacent and sloppy.” As Summitt spoke, Tennessee had won five NCAA
Championships, but only once when they were favored to win. “On every other
occasion, we were upset. We’ve lost as many as four or five titles that we were
predicted to win.”
After the 1996 championship, the team was complacent. The older players

were the national champions, and the new players expected to be swept to
victory merely by being at Tennessee. It was a disaster. They began to lose and
lose badly. On December 15, they were crushed by Stanford on their own home
court. A few games later, they were crushed again. Now they had five losses and
everyone had given up on them. The North Carolina coach, meaning to comfort

Summitt, told her, “Well, just hang in there ’til next year.” HBO had come to
Tennessee to film a documentary, but now the producers were looking for
another team. Even her assistants were thinking they wouldn’t make it into the
March championship play-offs.
So before the next game, Summitt met with the team for five hours. That

night, they played Old Dominion, the second-ranked team in the country. For the
first time that season, they gave all. But they lost again. It was devastating. They
had invested, gone for it, and still lost. Some were sobbing so hard, they couldn’t
speak, or even breathe. “ Get your heads up,” Summitt told them. “If you give
effort like this all the time, if you fight like this, I’m telling you, I promise you,
we’ll be there in March.” Two months later they were the national champions.
Conclusion? Beware of success. It can knock you into a fixed mindset: “I won

because I have talent. Therefore I will keep winning.” Success can infect a team
or it can infect an individual. Alex Rodriguez, the baseball star, was not infected
with success. “ You never stay the same,” he says. “You either go one way or
the other.”


I have seen many parents, teachers, and coaches apply growth-mindset concepts
in the most spectacular ways, with wonderful results. Using mindset principles,
many schools and sports teams have risen to the top—they’ve been recognized
for their outstanding culture of learning (and teamwork) and for their exceptional
achievements. Needless to say, this has been extremely gratifying.
Then, a couple of years ago, my colleague in Australia, Susan Mackie, told

me she was seeing an outbreak—of “false growth mindset.” I didn’t know what
she was talking about. In fact, I was a bit irritated. Isn’t a growth mindset a
pretty simple and straightforward idea? Why would anyone have a false growth
mindset if they could have a real one?
But she had planted the seed, and as I went about my business, I soon realized

what she meant. Some parents, teachers, and coaches were indeed
misunderstanding the mindset ideas. All at once I became determined to
understand their misunderstandings and to figure out how to correct them. So
let’s take a closer look at 1) what a growth mindset is and is not, 2) how to
achieve it, and 3) how to pass it on to others.

What a Growth Mindset Is and Is Not

A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities. It’s that
simple. It can have many repercussions, but that’s what it is at its core.
Nonetheless, many people project a different meaning onto it.
Misunderstanding #1. Many people take what they like about themselves and

call it a “growth mindset.” If they’re open-minded or flexible, they say they have
a growth mindset. I often hear people calling it an “open mindset.” But there’s a
difference between being flexible or open-minded and being dedicated to
growing talent. And if people drift away from the actual meaning of a growth
mindset, they drift away from its benefits. They can bask in their own wonderful
qualities but they may never do the hard work of cultivating their own abilities
or the abilities of their children or students.
Misunderstanding #2. Many people believe that a growth mindset is only

about effort, especially praising effort. I talked earlier about how praising the
process children engage in—their hard work, strategies, focus, perseverance—
can foster a growth mindset. In this way, children learn that the process they
engage in brings about progress and learning, and that their learning does not
just magically flow from some innate ability.
The first important thing to remember here is that the process includes more

than just effort. Certainly, we want children to appreciate the fruits of hard work.
But we also want them to understand the importance of trying new strategies
when the one they’re using isn’t working. (We don’t want them to just try harder
with the same ineffective strategy.) And we want them to ask for help or input
from others when it’s needed. This is the process we want them to appreciate:
hard work, trying new strategies, and seeking input from others.
Another pitfall is praising effort (or any part of the process) that’s not there.

More than once, parents have said to me, “I praise my child’s effort but it’s not
working.” I immediately ask, “Was your child actually trying hard?” “Well, not
really,” comes the sheepish reply. We should never think that praising a process
that is not there will bring good results.
But a problem that’s of even greater concern to me is the fact that some

teachers and coaches are using effort praise as a consolation prize when kids are
not learning. If a student has tried hard and made little or no progress, we can of
course appreciate their effort, but we should never be content with effort that is
not yielding further benefits. We need to figure out why that effort is not
effective and guide kids toward other strategies and resources that can help them

resume learning.
Recently, someone asked me, “What keeps you up at night?” And I said, “It’s

the fear that the mindset concept will be used to make kids feel good when
they’re not learning—just like the failed self-esteem movement.” The growth
mindset is meant to help kids learn, not to paper over the fact that they are not
Finally, when people realize I’m the mindset person, they often say, “Oh, yea!

Praise the process not the outcome, right?” Well, not quite. This is such a
common misconception. In all of our research on praise, we indeed praise the
process, but we tie it to the outcome, that is, to children’s learning, progress, or
achievements. Children need to understand that engaging in that process helped
them learn.
Not long ago, a mother told me how very frustrating it was that she was not

allowed to praise her daughter when the child did something wonderful—that
she could only praise her when she was struggling. No! No! No! Of course you
can appreciate your children’s wonderful accomplishments, but then tie those
accomplishments to the process they engaged in.
And remember, we don’t have to always be praising. Inquiring about the

child’s process and just showing interest in it goes a very long way.
Misunderstanding #3. A growth mindset equals telling kids they can do

anything. Many’s the time I’ve heard educators say, “I’ve always had a growth
mindset. I always tell my students, ‘You can do anything!’ ” Few people believe
in children’s potential as much as I do, or yearn to see all children fulfill their
enormous promise. But it doesn’t happen by simply telling them, “You can do
anything.” It happens by helping them gain the skills and find the resources to
make progress toward their goals. Otherwise, it’s an empty reassurance. It puts
the onus entirely on the student and may make them feel like a failure if they
don’t reach their goals.
One final word about putting the onus on the student. It broke my heart to

learn that some educators and coaches were blaming kids for having a fixed
mindset—scolding or criticizing them for not displaying growth-mindset
qualities. Notice that these adults were absolving themselves of the
responsibility, not only for teaching a growth mindset but also for the child’s
learning: “I can’t teach this child. He has a fixed mindset.” Let’s be totally clear
here. We as educators must take seriously our responsibility to create growth-
mindset-friendly environments—where kids feel safe from judgment, where they

understand that we believe in their potential to grow, and where they know that
we are totally dedicated to collaborating with them on their learning. We are in
the business of helping kids thrive, not finding reasons why they can’t.

How Do You Get a (True) Growth Mindset?

You don’t get a growth mindset by proclamation. You move toward it by taking
a journey.
As a growth mindset gained currency and became the “correct” way to think

in some quarters, more and more people claimed to have it. It sort of makes
sense. Don’t we all want to see ourselves as enlightened people who help
children fulfill their potential? A noted educator told me that it had become
politically incorrect for educators to even talk about (and maybe even think
about) having a fixed mindset in any area. And a principal told me that he was
recently giving some mild suggestions to a teacher when she looked at him
indignantly and said, “Are you implying I have a fixed mindset?”
Although for simplicity I’ve talked as though some people have a growth

mindset and some people have a fixed mindset, in truth we’re all a mixture of the
two. There’s no point denying it. Sometimes we’re in one mindset and
sometimes we’re in the other. Our task then becomes to understand what triggers
our fixed mindset. What are the events or situations that take us to a place where
we feel our (or other people’s) abilities are fixed? What are the events or
situations that take us to a place of judgment rather than to a place of
What happens when our fixed-mindset “persona” shows up—the character

within who warns us to avoid challenges and beats us up when we fail at
something? How does that persona make us feel? What does it make us think
and how does it make us act? How do those thoughts, feelings, and actions affect
us and those around us? And, most important, what can we do over time to keep
that persona from interfering with our growth and that of our children? How can
we persuade that fixed-mindset persona to get on board with the goals that
spring from our growth mindset?
I’ll address these questions in the final chapter as we examine the process of

personal change. What I will emphasize here is that it is a long journey, one that
takes commitment and persistence. But once we acknowledge that we all have
recurrent fixed mindsets, we can talk to one another openly. We can talk about

our fixed-mindset personas, when they show up, how they affect us, and how
we’re learning to deal with them. And as we do, we will realize that we have lots
of fellow travelers on our journey.

How Do You Pass a Growth Mindset On?

You would think that once adults adopted more of a growth mindset they would
automatically pass it on to kids. It would simply ooze out in their words and
deeds. That’s what we thought, but it’s not what we’re finding. Many adults are
not passing on their growth mindsets. How is that possible?
First, let’s look at the findings. In a number of studies, we and researchers

looked at the mindsets of parents and their children. In each case, many parents
held a growth mindset, but they were not necessarily passing it on to their
children. In other studies, researchers looked at the mindsets of teachers and
their students. In each case, many teachers held a growth mindset, but they were
not necessarily passing it on to their students. Something else was going on.
Of course, it’s possible that some of these parents or teachers had false growth

mindsets. But beyond that, we’re finding something fascinating. Adults’
mindsets are in their heads and are not directly visible to children. Adults’ overt
actions speak far louder, and this is what children are picking up on.
Unfortunately, these actions often don’t line up with the growth mindsets in
adults’ heads. So what are the actions that convey the different mindsets?
First, no surprise, it’s the praise. Parents’ praise molds their children’s

mindsets. It’s interesting that this doesn’t necessarily line up with the parents’
mindsets. Even parents who hold a growth mindset can find themselves praising
their child’s ability—and neglecting to focus on their child’s learning process. It
can be hard to shake the idea that telling kids they’re smart will build their
Second, it’s the way adults respond to children’s mistakes or failures. When a

child has a setback and the parent reacts with anxiety or with concern about the
child’s ability, this fosters more of a fixed mindset in the child. The parent may
try to gloss over the child’s failure but the very act of doing so may convey that
the failure is an issue. So, although parents may hold a growth mindset, they
may still display worry about their child’s confidence or morale when the child
It’s the parents who respond to their children’s setbacks with interest and treat

them as opportunities for learning who are transmitting a growth mindset to their
children. These parents think setbacks are good things that should be embraced,
and that setbacks should be used as a platform for learning. They address the
setback head-on and talk to their children about the next steps for learning.
In other words, every single day parents are teaching their children whether

mistakes, obstacles, and setbacks are bad things or good things. The parents who
treat them as good things are more likely to pass on a growth mindset to their
Third, passing on a growth mindset is about whether teachers are teaching for

understanding or are simply asking students to memorize facts, rules, and
procedures. Research is showing that when teachers care about deeper
understanding and work with students to achieve it, then students are more likely
to believe that their abilities can be developed. One study found that when math
teachers taught for conceptual understanding, gave feedback that deepened
students’ understanding, and then allowed students to revise their work (to
experience and show their deeper understanding), their students moved toward a
growth mindset in math. These students believed they could develop their basic
mathematical ability.
On the other hand, when teachers thought of math as just a set of rules and

procedures to memorize, they could emphasize the importance of effort or
persistence, but students could not feel their abilities growing and did not tend to
move toward a growth mindset. By the way, many of these teachers used the
words “growth mindset” in their classrooms, but their teaching methods—their
actions—did not foster that growth mindset in their students.
Other studies paint a similar picture. In one study, high school students talked

about their math teachers. Some of them said that when they were stuck, their
teacher sat down with them and said things like this: “Show me what you’ve
done, let’s try to understand how you’re thinking, and then let’s figure out what
you should try next.” The students who were treated like this—as though
understanding was of paramount importance and could be achieved with support
from the teacher—were moving toward a growth mindset in math.
Yet in this era of high-stakes testing, much teaching emphasizes memorization

of facts, rules, and procedures to “insure” that students do well on the all-
important tests. As we have seen, this may promote more fixed mindsets and
perhaps, ironically, undermine students’ performance on these very tests. There
is nothing like deep learning to insure good outcomes.

Sadly, in this atmosphere many students are coming to equate learning with
memorizing. I am hearing from many researchers and educators that students
across the economic spectrum are becoming increasingly unable to grasp the
difference between memorizing facts, rules, and procedures and truly
understanding the concepts underlying the material. Aside from the bad news for
growth mindsets, this also has disturbing implications for our nation. Great
contributions to society are born of curiosity and deep understanding. If students
no longer recognize and value deep learning, where will the great contributions
of the future come from?

We were initially surprised to find that many adults with growth mindsets were
not passing them on. However, the moral of this story is that parents, teachers,
and coaches pass on a growth mindset not by having a belief sitting in their
heads but by embodying a growth mindset in their deeds: the way they praise
(conveying the processes that lead to learning), the way they treat setbacks (as
opportunities for learning), and the way they focus on deepening understanding
(as the goal of learning).


As parents, teachers, and coaches, we are entrusted with people’s lives. They are
our responsibility and our legacy. We now know that the growth mindset has a
key role to play in helping us fulfill our mission and in helping them fulfill their

Grow Your Mindset

• Every word and action from parent to child sends a message.
Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to
the messages you’re sending. Are they messages that say: You
have permanent traits and I’m judging them? Or are they
messages that say You’re a developing person and I’m
interested in your development?

• How do you use praise? Remember that praising children’s
intelligence or talent, tempting as it is, sends a fixed-mindset
message. It makes their confidence and motivation more
fragile. Instead, try to focus on the processes they used—their
strategies, effort, or choices. Practice working the process
praise into your interactions with your children.

• Watch and listen to yourself carefully when your child messes
up. Remember that constructive criticism is feedback that
helps the child understand how to fix something. It’s not
feedback that labels or simply excuses the child. At the end of
each day, write down the constructive criticism (and the
process praise) you’ve given your kids.

• Parents often set goals their children can work toward.
Remember that having innate talent is not a goal. Expanding
skills and knowledge is. Pay careful attention to the goals you
set for your children.

• If you’re a teacher, remember that lowering standards doesn’t
raise students’ self-esteem. But neither does raising standards
without giving students ways of reaching them. The growth
mindset gives you a way to set high standards and have
students reach them. Try presenting topics in a growth
framework and giving students process feedback. I think
you’ll like what happens.

• Do you think of your slower students as kids who will never
be able to learn well? Do they think of themselves as
permanently dumb? Instead, try to figure out what they don’t
understand and what learning strategies they don’t have.
Remember that great teachers believe in the growth of talent
and intellect, and are fascinated by the process of learning.

• Are you a fixed-mindset coach? Do you think first and
foremost about your record and your reputation? Are you
intolerant of mistakes? Do you try to motivate your players
through judgment? That may be what’s holding up your

Try on the growth mindset. Instead of asking for mistake-
free games, ask for full commitment and full effort. Instead of
judging the players, give them the respect and the coaching
they need to develop.

• As parents, teachers, and coaches, our mission is developing
people’s potential. Let’s use all the lessons of the growth
mindset—and whatever else we can—to do this.

Chapter 8


The growth mindset is based on the belief in change, and the most gratifying part
of my work is watching people change. Nothing is better than seeing people find
their way to things they value. This chapter is about kids and adults who found
their way to using their abilities. And about how all of us can do that.


I was in the middle of first grade when my family moved. Suddenly I was in a
new school. Everything was unfamiliar—the teacher, the students, and the work.
The work was what terrified me. The new class was way ahead of my old one, or
at least it seemed that way to me. They were writing letters I hadn’t learned to
write yet. And there was a way to do everything that everyone seemed to know
except me. So when the teacher said, “Class, put your name on your paper in the
right place,” I had no idea what she meant.
So I cried. Each day things came up that I didn’t know how to do. Each time, I

felt lost and overwhelmed. Why didn’t I just say to the teacher, “Mrs. Kahn, I
haven’t learned this yet. Could you show me how?”
Another time when I was little, my parents gave me money to go to the

movies with an adult and a group of kids. As I rounded the corner to the meeting
place, I looked down the block and saw them all leaving. But instead of running
after them and yelling, “Wait for me!” I stood frozen, clutching the coins in my
hand and watching them recede into the distance.
Why didn’t I try to stop them or catch up with them? Why did I accept defeat

before I had tried some simple tactics? I know that in my dreams I had often
performed magical or superhuman feats in the face of danger. I even have a
picture of myself in my self-made Superman cape. Why, in real life, couldn’t I

do an ordinary thing like ask for help or call out for people to wait?
In my work, I see lots of young children like this—bright, seemingly

resourceful children who are paralyzed by setbacks. In some of our studies, they
just have to take the simplest action to make things better. But they don’t. These
are the young children with the fixed mindset. When things go wrong, they feel
powerless and incapable.
Even now, when something goes wrong or when something promising seems

to be slipping away, I still have a passing feeling of powerlessness. Does that
mean I haven’t changed?
No, it means that change isn’t like surgery. Even when you change, the old

beliefs aren’t just removed like a worn-out hip or knee and replaced with better
ones. Instead, the new beliefs take their place alongside the old ones, and as they
become stronger, they give you a different way to think, feel, and act.

Beliefs Are the Key to Happiness (and to Misery)

In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck was working with his clients when he
suddenly realized it was their beliefs that were causing their problems. Just
before they felt a wave of anxiety or depression, something quickly flashed
through their minds. It could be: “Dr. Beck thinks I’m incompetent.” Or “This
therapy will never work. I’ll never feel better.” These kinds of beliefs caused
their negative feelings not only in the therapy session, but in their lives, too.
They weren’t beliefs people were usually conscious of. Yet Beck found he

could teach people to pay attention and hear them. And then he discovered he
could teach them how to work with and change these beliefs. This is how
cognitive therapy was born, one of the most effective therapies ever developed.
Whether they’re aware of it or not, all people keep a running account of

what’s happening to them, what it means, and what they should do. In other
words, our minds are constantly monitoring and interpreting. That’s just how we
stay on track. But sometimes the interpretation process goes awry. Some people
put more extreme interpretations on things that happen—and then react with
exaggerated feelings of anxiety, depression, or anger. Or superiority.

Mindsets Go Further

Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in people’s heads. They
guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal
monologue that is focused on judging: “This means I’m a loser.” “This means
I’m a better person than they are.” “This means I’m a bad husband.” “This
means my partner is selfish.”
In several studies, we probed the way people with a fixed mindset dealt with

information they were receiving. We found that they put a very strong evaluation
on each and every piece of information. Something good led to a very strong
positive label and something bad led to a very strong negative label.
People with a growth mindset are also constantly monitoring what’s going on,

but their internal monologue is not about judging themselves and others in this
way. Certainly they’re sensitive to positive and negative information, but they’re
attuned to its implications for learning and constructive action: What can I learn
from this? How can I improve? How can I help my partner do this better?
Now, cognitive therapy basically teaches people to rein in their extreme

judgments and make them more reasonable. For example, suppose Alana does
poorly on a test and draws the conclusion, “I’m stupid.” Cognitive therapy
would teach her to look more closely at the facts by asking: What is the evidence
for and against your conclusion? Alana may, after prodding, come up with a
long list of ways in which she has been competent in the past, and may then
confess, “I guess I’m not as incompetent as I thought.”
She may also be encouraged to think of reasons she did poorly on the test

other than stupidity, and these may further temper her negative judgment. Alana
is then taught how to do this for herself, so that when she judges herself
negatively in the future, she can refute the judgment and feel better.
In this way, cognitive therapy helps people make more realistic and optimistic

judgments. But it does not take them out of the fixed mindset and its world of
judgment. It does not confront the basic assumption—the idea that traits are
fixed—that is causing them to constantly measure themselves. In other words, it
does not escort them out of the framework of judgment and into the framework
of growth.
This chapter is about changing the internal monologue from a judging one to a

growth-oriented one.


Just learning about the growth mindset can cause a big shift in the way people
think about themselves and their lives.
So each year in my undergraduate course, I teach about these mindsets—not

only because they are part of the topic of the course but also because I know
what pressure these students are under. Every year, students describe to me how
these ideas have changed them in all areas of their lives.
Here is Maggie, the aspiring writer:

I recognized that when it comes to artistic or creative endeavors I
had internalized a fixed mindset. I believed that people were
inherently artistic or creative and that you could not improve
through effort. This directly affected my life because I have always
wanted to be a writer, but have been afraid to pursue any writing
classes or to share my creative writing with others. This is directly
related to my mindset because any negative criticism would mean
that I am not a writer inherently. I was too scared to expose myself
to the possibility that I might not be a “natural.”
Now after listening to your lectures, I have decided to register for

a creative writing class next term. And I feel that I have really come
to understand what was preventing me from pursuing an interest
that has long been my secret dream. I really feel this information
has empowered me!

Maggie’s internal monologue used to say: Don’t do it. Don’t take a writing
class. Don’t share your writing with others. It’s not worth the risk. Your dream
could be destroyed. Protect it.
Now it says: Go for it. Make it happen. Develop your skills. Pursue your

And here’s Jason, the athlete:

As a student athlete at Columbia I had exclusively the fixed
mindset. Winning was everything and learning did not enter the
picture. However, after listening to your lectures, I realized that this
is not a good mindset. I’ve been working on learning while I
compete, under the realization that if I can continually improve,
even in matches, I will become a much better athlete.

Jason’s internal monologue used to be: Win. Win. You have to win. Prove
yourself. Everything depends on it.
Now it’s: Observe. Learn. Improve. Become a better athlete.
And finally, here’s Tony, the recovering genius:

In high school I was able to get top grades with minimal studying
and sleeping. I came to believe that it would always be so because I
was naturally gifted with a superior understanding and memory.
However, after about a year of sleep deprivation my understanding
and memory began to not be so superior anymore. When my natural
talents, which I had come to depend on almost entirely for my self-
esteem (as opposed to my ability to focus, my determination or my
ability to work hard), came into question, I went through a personal
crisis that lasted until a few weeks ago when you discussed the
different mindsets in class. Understanding that a lot of my problems
were the result of my preoccupation with proving myself to be
“smart” and avoiding failures has really helped me get out of the
self-destructive pattern I was living in.

Tony’s internal monologue went from: I’m naturally gifted. I don’t need to
study. I don’t need to sleep. I’m superior.
To: Uh-oh, I’m losing it. I can’t understand things, I can’t remember things.

What am I now?
To: Don’t worry so much about being smart. Don’t worry so much about

avoiding failures. That becomes self-destructive. Let’s start to study and sleep
and get on with life.
Of course, these people will have setbacks and disappointments, and sticking

to the growth mindset may not always be easy. But just knowing it gave them
another way to be. Instead of being held captive by some intimidating fantasy
about the Great Writer, the Great Athlete, or the Great Genius, the growth
mindset gave them courage to embrace their own goals and dreams. And more
important, it gave them a way to work toward making them real.


Adolescence, as we’ve seen, is a time when hordes of kids turn off to school.
You can almost hear the stampede as they try to get as far from learning as
possible. This is a time when students are facing some of the biggest challenges
of their young lives, and a time when they are heavily evaluating themselves,
often with a fixed mindset. It is precisely the kids with the fixed mindset who
panic and run for cover, showing plummeting motivation and grades.
Over the past few years, we’ve developed a workshop for these students. It

teaches them the growth mindset and how to apply it to their schoolwork. Here
is part of what they’re told:

Many people think of the brain as a mystery. They don’t know
much about intelligence and how it works. When they do think
about what intelligence is, many people believe that a person is
born either smart, average, or dumb—and stays that way for life.
But new research shows that the brain is more like a muscle—it
changes and gets stronger when you use it. And scientists have been
able to show just how the brain grows and gets stronger when you

We then describe how the brain forms new connections and “grows” when
people practice and learn new things.

When you learn new things, these tiny connections in the brain
actually multiply and get stronger. The more that you challenge
your mind to learn, the more your brain cells grow. Then, things
that you once found very hard or even impossible—like speaking a
foreign language or doing algebra—seem to become easy. The
result is a stronger, smarter brain.

We go on to point out that nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they
are because they can’t talk. They just haven’t learned yet. We show students
pictures of how the density of brain connections changes during the first years of
life as babies pay attention, study their world, and learn how to do things.
Over a series of sessions, through activities and discussions, students are

taught study skills and shown how to apply the lessons of the growth mindset to
their studying and their schoolwork.

Students love learning about the brain, and the discussions are very lively. But
even more rewarding are the comments students make about themselves. Let’s
revisit Jimmy, the hard-core turned-off student from chapter 3. In our very first
workshop, we were amazed to hear him say with tears in his eyes: “You mean I
don’t have to be dumb?”
You may think these students are turned off, but I saw that they never stop

caring. Nobody gets used to feeling dumb. Our workshop told Jimmy, “You’re
in charge of your mind. You can help it grow by using it in the right way.” And
as the workshop progressed, here is what Jimmy’s teacher said about him:

Jimmy, who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn’t turn in
homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to
finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a
chance to revise it. He earned a B+ on the assignment (he had been
getting C’s and lower).

Incidentally, teachers weren’t just trying to be nice to us by telling us what we
wanted to hear. The teachers didn’t know who was in our growth-mindset
workshop. This was because we had another workshop too. This workshop met
just as many times, and taught them even more study skills. And students got
just as much personal attention from supportive tutors. But they didn’t learn the
growth mindset and how to apply it.
Teachers didn’t know which of their students went to which of the workshops,

but they still singled out Jimmy and many of the students in the growth-mindset
workshop to tell us that they’d seen real changes in their motivation to learn and

Lately I have noticed that some students have a greater appreciation
for improvement….R. was performing below standards….He has
learned to appreciate the improvement from his grades of 52, 46,
and 49 to his grades of 67 and 71….He valued his growth in
learning Mathematics.

M. was far below grade level. During the past several weeks, she
has voluntarily asked for extra help from me during her lunch
period in order to improve her test-taking performance. Her grades

drastically improved from failing to an 84 on the most recent exam.

Positive changes in motivation and behavior are noticeable in K.
and J. They have begun to work hard on a consistent basis.

Several students have voluntarily participated in peer tutoring
sessions during their lunch periods or after school. Students such as
N. and S. were passing when they requested the extra help and were
motivated by the prospect of sheer improvement.

We were eager to see whether the workshop affected students’ grades, so,
with their permission, we looked at students’ final marks at the end of the
semester. We looked especially at their math grades, since these reflected real
learning of challenging new concepts.
Before the workshops, students’ math grades had been suffering badly. But

afterward, lo and behold, students who’d been in the growth-mindset workshop
showed a jump in their grades. They were now clearly doing better than the
students who’d been in the other workshop.
The growth-mindset workshop—just eight sessions long—had a real impact.

This one adjustment of students’ beliefs seemed to unleash their brain power and
inspire them to work and achieve. Of course, they were in a school where the
teachers were responsive to their outpouring of motivation, and were willing to
put in the extra work to help them learn. Even so, these findings show the power
of changing mindsets.
The students in the other workshop did not improve. Despite their eight

sessions of training in study skills and other good things, they showed no gains.
Because they were not taught to think differently about their minds, they were
not motivated to put the skills into practice.
The mindset workshop put students in charge of their brains. Freed from the

vise of the fixed mindset, Jimmy and others like him could now use their minds
more freely and fully.


The problem with the workshop was that it required a big staff to deliver it. This

wouldn’t be feasible on a large scale. Plus, the teachers weren’t directly
involved. They could be a big factor in helping to sustain the students’ gains. So
we decided to put our workshop on interactive computer modules and have
teachers guide their classes through the modules.
With the advice of educational experts, media experts, and brain experts, we

developed the “Brainology”™ program. It presents animated figures, Chris and
Dahlia—seventh graders who are cool but are having problems with their
schoolwork. Dahlia is having trouble with Spanish, and Chris with math. They
visit the lab of Dr. Cerebrus, a slightly mad brain scientist, who teaches them all
about the brain and the care and feeding of it. He teaches them what to do for
maximum performance from the brain (like sleeping enough, eating the right
things, and using good study strategies) and he teaches them how the brain
grows as they learn. The program, all along, shows students how Chris and
Dahlia apply these lessons to their schoolwork. The interactive portions allow
students to do brain experiments, see videos of real students with their problems
and study strategies, recommend study plans for Chris and Dahlia, and keep a
journal of their own problems and study plans.
Here are some of the seventh graders writing about how this program changed


After Brainology, I now have a new look at things. Now, my
attitude towards the subjects I have trouble in [is] I try harder to
study and master the skills….I have been using my time more
wisely, studying every day and reviewing the notes that I took on
that day. I am really glad that I joined this program because it
increased my intelligence about the brain.

I did change my mind about how the brain works and i do things
differently. i will try harder because i know that the more you try
the more your brain works.

ALL i can say is that Brainology changed my grades. Bon Voyage!

The Brainology program kind of made me change the way i work
and study and practice for school work now that i know how my
brain works and what happens when i learn.

Thank you for making us study more and helping us build up our
brain! I actually picture my neurons growing bigger as they make
more connections.

Teachers told us how formerly turned-off students were now talking the
Brainology talk. For example, they were taught that when they studied well and
learned something, they transferred it from temporary storage (working memory)
to more permanent storage (long-term memory). Now they were saying to each
other: “I’ll have to put that into my long-term memory.” “Sorry, that stuff is not
in my long-term memory.” “I guess I was only using my working memory.”
Teachers said that students were also offering to practice, study, take notes, or

pay attention more to make sure that neural connections would be made. As one
student said:
“Yes the [B]rainology program helped a lot….Every time I thought about not

doing work I remembered that my neurons could grow if I did do the work.”
The teachers also changed. Not only did they say great things about how their

students benefited, they also said great things about the insights they themselves
had gained. In particular, they said Brainology was essential for understanding:
“That all students can learn, even the ones who struggle with math and with

“That I have to be more patient because learning takes a great deal of time and

“How the brain works….Each learner learns differently. Brainology assisted

me in teaching for various learning styles.”
Our workshop went to children in twenty schools. Some children admitted to

being skeptical at first: “i used to think it was just free time and a good cartoon
but i started listening to it and i started doing what they told me to do.” In the
end, almost all children reported meaningful benefits.


Is change easy or hard? So far it sounds easy. Simply learning about the growth
mindset can sometimes mobilize people for meeting challenges and persevering.
The other day one of my former grad students told me a story. But first some

background. In my field, when you submit a research paper for publication, that

paper often represents years of work. Some months later you receive your
reviews: ten or so pages of criticism—single-spaced. If the editor still thinks the
paper has potential, you will be invited to revise it and resubmit it provided you
can address every criticism.
My student reminded me of the time she had sent her thesis research to the top

journal in our field. When the reviews came back, she was devastated. She had
been judged—the work was flawed and, by extension, so was she. Time passed,
but she couldn’t bring herself to go near the reviews again or work on the paper.
Then I told her to change her mindset. “Look,” I said, “it’s not about you.

That’s their job. Their job is to find every possible flaw. Your job is to learn
from the critique and make your paper even better.” Within hours she was
revising her paper, which was warmly accepted. She tells me: “I never felt
judged again. Never. Every time I get that critique, I tell myself, ‘Oh, that’s their
job,’ and I get to work immediately on my job.”
But change is also hard.
When people hold on to a fixed mindset, it’s often for a reason. At some point

in their lives it served a good purpose for them. It told them who they were or
who they wanted to be (a smart, talented child) and it told them how to be that
(perform well). In this way, it provided a formula for self-esteem and a path to
love and respect from others.
The idea that they are worthy and will be loved is crucial for children, and—if

a child is unsure about being valued or loved—the fixed mindset appears to offer
a simple, straightforward route to this.
Psychologists Karen Horney and Carl Rogers, working in the mid-1900s, both

proposed theories of children’s emotional development. They believed that when
young children feel insecure about being accepted by their parents, they
experience great anxiety. They feel lost and alone in a complicated world. Since
they’re only a few years old, they can’t simply reject their parents and say, “I
think I’ll go it alone.” They have to find a way to feel safe and to win their
parents over.
Both Horney and Rogers proposed that children do this by creating or

imagining other “selves,” ones that their parents might like better. These new
selves are what they think the parents are looking for and what may win them
the parents’ acceptance.
Often, these steps are good adjustments to the family situation at the time,

bringing the child some security and hope.

The problem is that this new self—this all-competent, strong, good self that
they now try to be—is likely to be a fixed-mindset self. Over time, the fixed
traits may come to be the person’s sense of who they are, and validating these
traits may come to be the main source of their self-esteem.
Mindset change asks people to give this up. As you can imagine, it’s not easy

to just let go of something that has felt like your “self” for many years and that
has given you your route to self-esteem. And it’s especially not easy to replace it
with a mindset that tells you to embrace all the things that have felt threatening:
challenge, struggle, criticism, setbacks.
When I was exchanging my fixed mindset for a growth one, I was acutely

aware of how unsettled I felt. For example, I’ve told you how as a fixed
mindsetter, I kept track each day of all my successes. At the end of a good day, I
could look at the results (the high numbers on my intelligence “counter,” my
personality “counter,” and so on) and feel good about myself. But as I adopted a
growth mindset and stopped keeping track, some nights I would still check my
mental counters and find them at zero. It made me insecure not to be able to tote
up my victories.
Even worse, since I was taking more risks, I might look back over the day and

see all the mistakes and setbacks. And feel miserable.
What’s more, it’s not as though the fixed mindset wants to leave gracefully. If

the fixed mindset has been controlling your internal monologue, it can say some
pretty strong things to you when it sees those counters at zero: “You’re nothing.”
It can make you want to rush right out and rack up some high numbers. The
fixed mindset once offered you refuge from that very feeling, and it offers it to
you again.
Don’t take it.
Then there’s the concern that you won’t be yourself anymore. It may feel as

though the fixed mindset gave you your ambition, your edge, your individuality.
Maybe you fear you’ll become a bland cog in the wheel just like everyone else.
But opening yourself up to growth makes you more yourself, not less. The

growth-oriented scientists, artists, athletes, and CEOs we’ve looked at were far
from humanoids going through the motions. They were people in the full flower
of their individuality and potency.


The rest of the book is pretty much about you. First are some mindset exercises
in which I ask you to venture with me into a series of dilemmas. In each case,
you’ll first see the fixed-mindset reactions, and then work through to a growth-
mindset solution.

The First Dilemma. Imagine you’ve applied to graduate school. You applied to just
one place because it was the school you had your heart set on. And you were
confident you’d be accepted since many people considered your work in your
field to be original and exciting. But you were rejected.

The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. At first you tell yourself that it was extremely
competitive, so it doesn’t really reflect on you. They probably had more first-rate
applicants than they could accept. Then the voice in your head starts in. It tells
you that you’re fooling yourself, rationalizing. It tells you that the admissions
committee found your work mediocre. After a while, you tell yourself it’s
probably true. The work is probably ordinary, pedestrian, and they’d seen that.
They were experts. The verdict is in and you’re not worthy.
With some effort you talk yourself back into your first, reasonable, and more

flattering conclusion, and you feel better. In the fixed mindset (and in most
cognitive therapies), that’s the end of it. You’ve regained your self-esteem, so
the job is finished. But in the growth mindset, that’s just the first step. All you’ve
done is talk to yourself. Now comes the learning and self-improvement part.

The Growth-Mindset Step. Think about your goal and think about what you could do
to stay on track toward achieving it. What steps could you take to help yourself
succeed? What information could you gather?
Well, maybe you could apply to more schools next time. Or maybe, in the

meantime, you could gather more information about what makes a good
application: What are they looking for? What experiences do they value? You
could seek out those experiences before the next application.
Since this is a true story, I know what step the rejected applicant took. She

was given some strong growth-mindset advice and, a few days later, she called
the school. When she located the relevant person and told him the situation, she
said, “I don’t want to dispute your decision. I just want to know, if I decide to

apply again in the future, how I can improve my application. I would be very
grateful if you could give me some feedback along those lines.”
Nobody scoffs at an honest plea for helpful feedback. Several days later, he

called her back and offered her admission. It had indeed been a close call and,
after reconsidering her application, the department decided they could take one
more person that year. Plus, they liked her initiative.
She had reached out for information that would allow her to learn from

experience and improve in the future. It turned out in this case that she didn’t
have to improve her application. She got to plunge right into learning in her new
graduate program.

Plans That You’ll Carry Out and Ones That You Won’t

The key part of our applicant’s reaction was her call to the school to get more
information. It wasn’t easy. Every day people plan to do difficult things, but they
don’t do them. They think, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and they swear to themselves
that they’ll follow through the next day. Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his
colleagues shows that vowing, even intense vowing, is often useless. The next
day comes and the next day goes.
What works is making a vivid, concrete plan: “Tomorrow during my break,

I’ll get a cup of tea, close the door to my office, and call the graduate school.”
Or, in another case: “On Wednesday morning, right after I get up and brush my
teeth, I’ll sit at my desk and start writing my report.” Or: “Tonight, right after the
dinner dishes are done, I’ll sit down with my wife in the living room and have
that discussion. I’ll say to her, ‘Dear, I’d like to talk about something that I think
will make us happier.’ ”
Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a

problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will
you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it?
Think about it in vivid detail.
These concrete plans—plans you can visualize—about when, where, and how

you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through,
which, of course, ups the chances of success.
So the idea is not only to make a growth-mindset plan, but also to visualize, in

a concrete way, how you’re going to carry it out.

Feeling Bad, But Doing Good

Let’s go back a few paragraphs to when you were rejected by the graduate
school. Suppose your attempt to make yourself feel better had failed. You could
still have taken the growth-mindset step. You can feel miserable and still reach
out for information that will help you improve.
Sometimes after I have a setback, I go through the process of talking to myself

about what it means and how I plan to deal with it. Everything seems fine—until
I sleep on it. In my sleep, I have dream after dream of loss, failure, or rejection,
depending on what happened. Once when I’d experienced a loss, I went to sleep
and had the following dreams: My hair fell out, my teeth fell out, I had a baby
and it died, and so on. Another time when I felt rejected, my dreams generated
countless rejection experiences—real and imagined. In each instance, the
incident triggered a theme, and my too-active imagination gathered up all the
variations on the theme to place before me. When I woke up, I felt as though I’d
been through the wars.
It would be nice if this didn’t happen, but it’s irrelevant. It might be easier to

mobilize for action if I felt better, but it doesn’t matter. The plan is the plan.
Remember the depressed students with the growth mindset? The worse they felt,
the more they did the constructive thing. The less they felt like it, the more they
made themselves do it.
The critical thing is to make a concrete, growth-oriented plan, and to stick to


The Number One Draft Choice

The last dilemma seemed hard, but, basically, it was solved by a phone call.
Now imagine you’re a promising quarterback. In fact, you’re the winner of the
Heisman trophy, college football’s highest award. You’re the top draft pick of
the Philadelphia Eagles, the team you’ve always dreamed of playing for. So
what’s the dilemma?

The Second Dilemma. The pressure is overwhelming. You yearn for playing time in
the games, but every time they put you in a game to try you out, you turn
anxious and lose your focus. You were always cool under pressure, but this is
the pros. Now all you see are giant guys coming toward you—twelve hundred

pounds of giant guys who want to take you apart. Giant guys who move faster
than you ever thought possible. You feel cornered…helpless.

The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You torture yourself with the idea that a quarterback is a
leader and you’re no leader. How could you ever inspire the confidence of your
teammates when you can’t get your act together to throw a good pass or
scramble for a few yards? To make things worse, the sportscasters keep asking,
What happened to the boy wonder?
To minimize the humiliation you begin to keep to yourself and, to avoid the

sportscasters, you disappear into the locker room right after the game.
Whoa. Is this a recipe for success? What steps could you take to make things

better? Think about the resources at your disposal and how you could use them.
But first, get your mindset turned around.

The Growth-Mindset Step. In the growth mindset, you tell yourself that the switch to
the professionals is a huge step, one that takes a lot of adjustment and a lot of
learning. There are many things you couldn’t possibly know yet and that you’d
better start finding out about.
You try to spend more time with the veteran quarterbacks, asking them

questions and watching tapes with them. Instead of hiding your insecurities, you
talk about how different it is from college. They, in turn, tell you that’s exactly
how they felt. In fact, they share their humiliating stories with you.
You ask them what they did to overcome the initial difficulties and they teach

you their mental and physical techniques. As you begin to feel more integrated
into the team, you realize you’re part of an organization that wants to help you
grow, not judge and belittle you. Rather than worrying that they overpaid for
your talent, you begin to give them their money’s worth of incredibly hard work
and team spirit.


Entitlement: The World Owes You

Many people with the fixed mindset think the world needs to change, not them.
They feel entitled to something better—a better job, house, or spouse. The world

should recognize their special qualities and treat them accordingly. Let’s move
to the next dilemma and imagine yourself in this situation.

The Next Dilemma. “Here I am,” you think, “in this low-level job. It’s demeaning.
With my talent I shouldn’t have to work like this. I should be up there with the
big boys, enjoying the good life.” Your boss thinks you have a bad attitude.
When she needs someone to take on more responsibilities, she doesn’t turn to
you. When it’s time to give out promotions, she doesn’t include you.

The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. “She’s threatened by me,” you say bitterly. Your fixed
mindset is telling you that, because of who you are, you should automatically be
thrust into the upper levels of the business. In your mind, people should see your
talents and reward you. When they don’t, it’s not fair. Why should you change?
You just want your due.
But putting yourself in a growth mindset, what are some new ways you could

think and some steps you could take? For example, what are some new ways you
could think about effort? About learning? And how could you act on this new
thinking in your work?
Well, you could consider working harder and being more helpful to people at

work. You could use your time to learn more about the business you’re in
instead of bellyaching about your low status. Let’s see how this might look.

The Growth-Mindset Step. But first, let’s be clear. For a long time, it’s frightening to
think of giving up the idea of being superior. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill human
being isn’t what you want to be. How could you feel good about yourself if
you’re no more valuable than the people you look down on?
You begin to consider the idea that some people stand out because of their

commitment and effort. Little by little you try putting more effort into things and
seeing if you get more of the rewards you wanted. You do.
Although you can slowly accept the idea that effort might be necessary, you

still can’t accept that it’s no guarantee. It’s enough of an indignity to have to
work at things, but to work and still not have them turn out the way you want—
now, that’s really not fair. That means you could work hard and somebody else
could still get the promotion. Outrageous.
It’s a long time before you begin to enjoy putting in effort and a long time

before you begin to think in terms of learning. Instead of seeing your time at the

bottom of the corporate ladder as an insult, you slowly see that you can learn a
lot at the bottom that could help you greatly on your rise to the top. Learning the
nuts and bolts of the company could later give you a big advantage. All of our
top growth-mindset CEOs knew their companies from top to bottom, inside out,
and upside down.
Instead of seeing your discussions with your colleagues as time spent getting

what you want, you begin to grasp the idea of building relationships or even
helping your colleagues develop in ways they value. This can become a new
source of satisfaction. You might say you were following in the footsteps of Bill
Murray and his Groundhog Day experience.
As you become a more growth-minded person, you’re amazed at how people

start to help you, support you. They no longer seem like adversaries out to deny
you what you deserve. They’re more and more often collaborators toward a
common goal. It’s interesting, you started out wanting to change other people’s
behavior—and you did.
In the end, many people with the fixed mindset understand that their cloak of

specialness was really a suit of armor they built to feel safe, strong, and worthy.
While it may have protected them early on, later it constricted their growth, sent
them into self-defeating battles, and cut them off from satisfying, mutual

Denial: My Life Is Perfect

People in a fixed mindset often run away from their problems. If their life is
flawed, then they’re flawed. It’s easier to make believe everything’s all right.
Try this dilemma.

The Dilemma. You seem to have everything. You have a fulfilling career, a loving
marriage, wonderful children, and devoted friends. But one of those things isn’t
true. Unbeknownst to you, your marriage is ending. It’s not that there haven’t
been signs, but you chose to misinterpret them. You were fulfilling your idea of
the “man’s role” or the “woman’s role,” and couldn’t hear your partner’s desire
for more communication and more sharing of your lives. By the time you wake
up and take notice, it’s too late. Your spouse has disengaged emotionally from
the relationship.

The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You’ve always felt sorry for divorced people, abandoned
people. And now you’re one of them. You lose all sense of worth. Your partner,
who knew you intimately, doesn’t want you anymore.
For months, you don’t feel like going on, convinced that even your children

would be better off without you. It takes you a while to get to the point where
you feel at all useful or competent. Or hopeful. Now comes the hard part
because, even though you now feel a little better about yourself, you’re still in
the fixed mindset. You’re embarking on a lifetime of judging. With everything
good that happens, your internal voice says, Maybe I’m okay after all. But with
everything bad that happens, the voice says, My spouse was right. Every new
person you meet is judged too—as a potential betrayer.
How could you rethink your marriage, yourself, and your life from a growth-

mindset perspective? Why were you afraid to listen to your spouse? What could
you have done? What should you do now?

The Growth-Mindset Step. First, it’s not that the marriage, which you used to think of
as inherently good, suddenly turned out to have been all bad or always bad. It
was an evolving thing that had stopped developing for lack of nourishment. You
need to think about how both you and your spouse contributed to this, and
especially about why you weren’t able to hear the request for greater closeness
and sharing.
As you probe, you realize that, in your fixed mindset, you saw your partner’s

request as a criticism of you that you didn’t want to hear. You also realize that at
some level, you were afraid you weren’t capable of the intimacy your partner
was requesting. So instead of exploring these issues with your spouse, you
turned a deaf ear, hoping they would go away.
When a relationship goes sour, these are the issues we all need to explore in

depth, not to judge ourselves for what went wrong, but to overcome our fears
and learn the communication skills we’ll need to build and maintain better
relationships in the future. Ultimately, a growth mindset allows people to carry
forth not judgments and bitterness, but new understanding and new skills.
Is someone in your life trying to tell you something you’re refusing to hear?

Step into the growth mindset and listen again.


Many of our children, our most precious resource, are stuck in a fixed mindset.
You can give them a personal Brainology workshop. Let’s look at some ways to
do this.

The Precocious Fixed Mindsetter

Most kids who adopt a fixed mindset don’t become truly passionate believers
until later in childhood. But some kids take to it much earlier.

The Dilemma. Imagine your young son comes home from school one day and says
to you, “Some kids are smart and some kids are dumb. They have a worse
brain.” You’re appalled. “Who told you that?” you ask him, gearing up to
complain to the school. “I figured it out myself,” he says proudly. He saw that
some children could read and write their letters and add a lot of numbers, and
others couldn’t. He drew his conclusion. And he held fast to it.
Your son is precocious in all aspects of the fixed mindset, and soon the

mindset is in full flower. He develops a distaste for effort—he wants his smart
brain to churn things out quickly for him. And it often does.
When he takes to chess very quickly, your spouse, thinking to inspire him,

rents the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film about a young chess
champion. What your son learns from the film is that you could lose and not be a
champion anymore. So he retires. “I’m a chess champion,” he announces to one
and all. A champion who won’t play.
Because he now understands what losing means, he takes further steps to

avoid it. He starts cheating at Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and other
He talks often about all the things he can do and other children can’t. When

you and your spouse tell him that other children aren’t dumb, they just haven’t
practiced as much as he has, he refuses to believe it. He watches things carefully
at school and then comes home and reports, “Even when the teacher shows us
something new, I can do it better than them. I don’t have to practice.”
This boy is invested in his brain—not in making it grow but in singing its

praises. You’ve already told him that it’s about practice and learning, not smart
and dumb, but he doesn’t buy it. What else can you do? What are other ways you
can get the message across?

The Growth-Mindset Step. You decide that, rather than trying to talk him out of the
fixed mindset, you have to live the growth mindset. At the dinner table each
evening, you and your partner structure the discussion around the growth
mindset, asking each child (and each other): “What did you learn today?” “What
mistake did you make that taught you something?” “What did you try hard at
today?” You go around the table with each question, excitedly discussing your
own and one another’s effort, strategies, setbacks, and learning.
You talk about skills you have today that you didn’t have yesterday because

of the practice you put in. You dramatize mistakes you made that held the key to
the solution, telling it like a mystery story. You describe with relish things
you’re struggling with and making progress on. Soon the children can’t wait
each night to tell their stories. “Oh my goodness,” you say with wonder, “you
certainly did get smarter today!”
When your fixed-mindset son tells stories about doing things better than other

children, everyone says, “Yeah, but what did you learn?” When he talks about
how easy everything is for him in school, you all say, “Oh, that’s too bad.
You’re not learning. Can you find something harder to do so you could learn
more?” When he boasts about being a champ, you say, “Champs are the people
who work the hardest. You can become a champ. Tomorrow tell me something
you’ve done to become a champ.” Poor kid, it’s a conspiracy. In the long run, he
doesn’t stand a chance.
When he does his homework and calls it easy or boring, you teach him to find

ways to make it more fun and challenging. If he has to write words, like boy, you
ask him, “How many words can you think of that rhyme with boy? Write them
on separate paper and later we can try to make a sentence that has all the words.”
When he finishes his homework, you play that game: “The boy threw the toy
into the soy sauce.” “The girl with the cirl [curl] ate a pirl [pearl].” Eventually,
he starts coming up with his own ways to make his homework more challenging.
And it’s not just school or sports. You encourage the children to talk about

ways they learned to make friends, or ways they’re learning to understand and
help others. You want to communicate that feats of intellect or physical prowess
are not all you care about.
For a long time, your son remains attracted to the fixed mindset. He loves the

idea that he’s inherently special—case closed. He doesn’t love the idea that he
has to work every day for some little gain in skill or knowledge. Stardom
shouldn’t be so taxing. Yet as the value system in the family shifts toward the

growth mindset, he wants to be a player. So at first he talks the talk (squawking),
then he walks the walk (balking). Finally, going all the way, he becomes the
mindset watchdog. When anyone in the family slips into fixed-mindset thinking,
he delights in catching them. “Be careful what you wish for,” you joke to your
The fixed mindset is so very tempting. It seems to promise children a lifetime

of worth, success, and admiration just for sitting there and being who they are.
That’s why it can take a lot of work to make the growth mindset flourish where
the fixed mindset has taken root.

Effort Gone Awry

Sometimes the problem with a child isn’t too little effort. It’s too much. And for
the wrong cause. We’ve all heard about schoolchildren who stay up past
midnight every night studying. Or children who are sent to tutors so they can
outstrip their classmates. These children are working hard, but they’re typically
not in a growth mindset. They’re not focused on love of learning. They’re
usually trying to prove themselves to their parents.
And in some cases, the parents may like what comes out of this high effort:

the grades, the awards, the admission to top schools. Let’s see how you would
handle this one.

The Dilemma. You’re proud of your daughter. She’s at the top of her class and
bringing home straight A’s. She’s a flute player studying with the best teacher in
the country. And you’re confident she’ll get into the top private high school in
the city. But every morning before school, she gets an upset stomach, and some
days she throws up. You keep feeding her a blander and blander diet to soothe
her sensitive stomach, but it doesn’t help. It never occurs to you that she’s a
nervous wreck.
When your daughter is diagnosed with an ulcer, it should be a wake-up call,

but you and your spouse remain asleep. You continue to see it as a
gastrointestinal issue. The doctor, however, insists that you consult a family
counselor. He tells you it’s a mandatory part of your daughter’s treatment and
hands you a card with the counselor’s name and number.

The Fixed-Mindset Reactions. The counselor tells you to ease up on your daughter: Let

her know it’s okay not to work so hard. Make sure she gets more sleep. So you,
dutifully following the instructions, make sure she gets to sleep by ten o’clock
each night. But this only makes things worse. She now has less time to
accomplish all the things that are expected of her.
Despite what the counselor has said, it doesn’t occur to you that she could

possibly want your daughter to fall behind other students. Or be less
accomplished at the flute. Or risk not getting into the top high school. How could
that be good for her?
The counselor realizes she has a big job. Her first goal is to get you more fully

in touch with the seriousness of the problem. The second goal is to get you to
understand your role in the problem. You and your spouse need to see that it’s
your need for perfection that has led to the problem. Your daughter wouldn’t
have run herself ragged if she hadn’t been afraid of losing your approval. The
third goal is to work out a concrete plan that you can all follow.
Can you think of some concrete things that can be done to help your daughter

enter a growth mindset so she can ease up and get some pleasure from her life?

The Growth-Mindset Step. The plan the counselor suggests would allow your daughter
to start enjoying the things she does. The flute lessons are put on hold. Your
daughter is told she can practice as much or as little as she wants for the pure joy
of the music and nothing else.
She is to study her school materials to learn from them, not to cram everything

possible into her head. The counselor refers her to a tutor who teaches her how
to study for understanding. The tutor also discusses the material with her in a
way that makes it interesting and enjoyable. Studying now has a new meaning. It
isn’t about getting the highest grade to prove her intelligence and worth to her
parents. It’s about learning things and thinking about them in interesting ways.
Your daughter’s teachers are brought into the loop to support her in her

reorientation toward growth. They’re asked to talk to her about (and praise her
for) her learning process rather than how she did on tests. (“I can see that you
really understand how to use metaphors in your writing.” “I can see that you
were really into your project on the Incas. When I read it, I felt as though I were
in ancient Peru.”) You are taught to talk to her this way too.
Finally, the counselor strongly urges that your daughter attend a high school

that is less pressured than the one you have your eye on. There are other fine
schools that focus more on learning and less on grades and test scores. You take

your daughter around and spend time in each of the schools. Then she discusses
with you and the counselor which ones she was most excited about and felt most
at ease in.
Slowly, you learn to separate your needs and desires from hers. You may have

needed a daughter who was number one in everything, but your daughter needed
something else: acceptance from her parents and freedom to grow. As you let go,
your daughter becomes much more genuinely involved in the things she does.
She does them for interest and learning, and she does them very well indeed.
Is your child trying to tell you something you don’t want to hear? You know

the ad that asks, “Do you know where your child is now?” If you can’t hear what
your child is trying to tell you—in words or actions—then you don’t know
where your child is. Enter the growth mindset and listen harder.


Sometimes we don’t want to change ourselves very much. We just want to be
able to drop some pounds and keep them off. Or stop smoking. Or control our
Some people think about this in a fixed-mindset way. If you’re strong and

have willpower, you can do it. But if you’re weak and don’t have willpower, you
can’t. People who think this way may firmly resolve to do something, but they’ll
take no special measures to make sure they succeed. These are the people who
end up saying, “Quitting is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.”
It’s just like the chemistry students we talked about before. The ones with the

fixed-mindset thought: “If I have ability, I’ll do well; if I don’t, I won’t.” As a
result, they didn’t use sophisticated strategies to help themselves. They just
studied in an earnest but superficial way and hoped for the best.
When people with a fixed mindset fail their test—in chemistry, dieting,

smoking, or anger—they beat themselves up. They’re incompetent, weak, or bad
people. Where do you go from there?
My friend Nathan’s twenty-fifth high school reunion was coming up, and

when he thought about how his ex-girlfriend would be there, he decided to lose
the paunch. He’d been handsome and fit in high school and he didn’t want to
show up as a fat middle-aged man.
Nathan had always made fun of women and their diets. What’s the big fuss?

You just need some self-control. To lose the weight, he decided he would just
eat part of what was on his plate. But each time he got into a meal, the food on
the plate disappeared. “I blew it!” he’d say, feeling like a failure and ordering
dessert—either to seal the failure or to lift his mood.
I’d say, “Nathan, this isn’t working. You need a better system. Why not put

some of the meal aside at the beginning or have the restaurant wrap it up to take
home? Why not fill your plate with extra vegetables, so it’ll look like more
food? There are lots of things you can do.” To this he would say, “No, I have to
be strong.”
Nathan ended up going on one of those liquid crash diets, losing weight for

the reunion, and putting back more than he lost afterward. I wasn’t sure how this
was being strong, and how using some simple strategies was being weak.
Next time you try to diet, think of Nathan and remember that willpower is not

just a thing you have or don’t have. Willpower needs help. I’ll come back to this


Controlling anger is something else that’s a problem for many people.
Something triggers their temper and off they go, losing control of their mouths
or worse. Here, too, people may vow that next time they’ll be different. Anger
control is a big issue between partners and between parents and children, not
only because partners and children do things that make us angry, but also
because we may think we have a greater right to let loose when they do. Try this

The Dilemma. Imagine you’re a nice, caring person—as you probably are—usually.
You love your spouse and feel lucky to have them as your partner. But when
they violate one of your rules, like letting the garbage overflow before taking it
out, you feel personally betrayed and start criticizing. It begins with “I’ve told
you a thousand times,” then moves on to “You never do anything right.” When
they still don’t seem properly ashamed, you flare, insulting their intelligence
(“Maybe you aren’t smart enough to remember garbage”) and their character (“If
you weren’t so irresponsible, you wouldn’t…” “If you cared about anyone but
yourself, you’d…”). Seething with rage, you then bring in everything you can
think of to support your case: “My father never trusted you, either,” or “Your

boss was right when he said you were limited.” Your spouse has to leave the
premises to get out of range of your mounting fury.

The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You feel righteous about your anger for a while, but then
you realize you’ve gone too far. You suddenly recall all the ways that your
spouse is a supportive partner and feel intensely guilty. Then you talk yourself
back into the idea that you, too, are a good person, who’s just slipped up—lost it
—temporarily. “I’ve really learned my lesson,” you think. “I’ll never do this
But believing you can simply keep that good person in the forefront in the

future, you don’t think of strategies you could use next time to prevent a flare-
up. That’s why the next time is a carbon copy of the time before.

The Growth Mindset and Self-Control

Some people think about losing weight or controlling their anger in a growth-
mindset way. They realize that to succeed, they’ll need to learn and practice
strategies that work for them.
It’s like the growth-mindset chemistry students. They used better study

techniques, carefully planned their study time, and kept up their motivation. In
other words, they used every strategy possible to make sure they succeeded.
Just like them, people in a growth mindset don’t merely make New Year’s

resolutions and wait to see if they stick to them. They understand that to diet,
they need to plan. They may need to keep desserts out of the house. Or think in
advance about what to order in restaurants. Or schedule a once-a-week splurge.
Or consider exercising more.
They think actively about maintenance. What habits must they develop to

continue the gains they’ve achieved?
Then there are the setbacks. They know that setbacks will happen. So instead

of beating themselves up, they ask: “What can I learn from this? What will I do
next time when I’m in this situation?” It’s a learning process—not a battle
between the bad you and the good you.
In that last episode, what could you have done with your anger? First, think

about why you got so worked up. You may have felt devalued and disrespected
when your spouse shirked the tasks or broke your rules—as though they were

saying to you, “You’re not important. Your needs are trivial. I can’t be
Your first reaction was to angrily remind them of their duty. But on the heels

of that was your retaliation, sort of “Okay big shot, if you think you’re so
important, try this on for size.”
Your spouse, rather than reassuring you of your importance, simply braced for

the onslaught. Meanwhile, you took the silence as evidence that they felt
superior, and it fueled your escalation.
What can be done? Several things. First, spouses can’t read your mind, so

when an anger-provoking situation arises, you have to matter-of-factly tell them
how it makes you feel. “I’m not sure why, but when you do that, it makes me
feel unimportant. Like you can’t be bothered to do things that matter to me.”
They, in turn, can reassure you that they care about how you feel and will try

to be more watchful. (“Are you kidding?” you say. “My spouse would never do
that.” Well, you can request it directly, as I’ve sometimes done: “Please tell me
that you care how I feel and you’ll try to be more watchful.”)
When you feel yourself losing it, you can learn to leave the room and write

down your ugliest thoughts, followed by what is probably really happening
(“She doesn’t understand this is important to me,” “He doesn’t know what to do
when I start to blow”). When you feel calm enough, you can return to the
You can also learn to loosen up on some of your rules, now that each one is

not a test of your partner’s respect for you. With time, you might even gain a
sense of humor about them. For example, if your spouse leaves some socks in
the living room or puts the wrong things in the recycling bins, you might point at
the offending items and ask sternly, “What is the meaning of this?” You might
even have a good laugh.
When people drop the good–bad, strong–weak thinking that grows out of the

fixed mindset, they’re better able to learn useful strategies that help with self-
control. Every lapse doesn’t spell doom. It’s like anything else in the growth
mindset. It’s a reminder that you’re an unfinished human being and a clue to
how to do it better next time.


Whether people change their mindset in order to further their career, heal from a
loss, help their children thrive, lose weight, or control their anger, change needs
to be maintained. It’s amazing—once a problem improves, people often stop
doing what caused it to improve. Once you feel better, you stop taking your
But change doesn’t work that way. When you’ve lost weight, the issue doesn’t

go away. Or when your child starts to love learning, the problem isn’t solved
forever. Or when you and your partner start communicating better, that’s not the
end of it. These changes have to be supported or they can go away faster than
they appeared.
Maybe that’s why Alcoholics Anonymous tells people they will always be

alcoholics—so they won’t become complacent and stop doing what they need to
do to stay sober. It’s a way of saying, “You’ll always be vulnerable.”
This is why mindset change is not about picking up a few tricks. In fact, if

someone stays inside a fixed mindset and uses the growth strategies, it can
Wes, a dad with a fixed mindset, was at his wit’s end. He’d come home

exhausted from work every evening and his son, Mickey, would refuse to
cooperate. Wes wanted quiet, but Mickey was noisy. Wes would warn him, but
Mickey would continue what he was doing. Wes found him stubborn, unruly,
and not respectful of Wes’s rights as a father. The whole scene would
disintegrate into a shouting match and Mickey would end up being punished.
Finally, feeling he had nothing to lose, Wes tried some of the growth-oriented

strategies. He showed respect for Mickey’s efforts and praised his strategies
when he was empathic or helpful. The turnaround in Mickey’s behavior was
But as soon as the turnaround took place, Wes stopped using the strategies. He

had what he wanted and he expected it to just continue. When it didn’t, he
became even angrier and more punitive than before. Mickey had shown he could
behave and now refused to.
The same thing often happens with fixed-mindset couples who start

communicating better. Marlene and Scott were what my husband and I call the
Bickersons. All they did was bicker: “Why don’t you ever pick up after
yourself?” “I might if you weren’t such a nag.” “I wouldn’t have to nag if you
did what you were supposed to do.” “Who made you the judge of what I’m
supposed to do?”

With counseling, Marlene and Scott stopped jumping on the negatives. More
and more, they started rewarding the thoughtful things their partner did and the
efforts their partner made. The love and tenderness they thought were dead
returned. But once it returned, they reverted. In the fixed mindset, things
shouldn’t need such effort. Good people should just act good and good
relationships should just unfold in a good way.
When the bickering resumed, it was fiercer than ever because it reflected all of

their disappointed hopes.
Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s

about seeing things in a new way. When people—couples, coaches and athletes,
managers and workers, parents and children, teachers and students—change to a
growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-
and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes
plenty of time, effort, and mutual support to achieve and maintain.


In chapter 7, I talked about the “false growth mindset.” If you remember, my
colleague Susan Mackie was encountering people who claimed to have a growth
mindset but who, upon closer inspection, did not. Once alerted, I started seeing
false growth mindset everywhere and I understood why it was happening.
Everyone wants to seem enlightened, in the know. Maybe as a parent, educator,
coach, or business professional, having a growth mindset was expected or
Or maybe it was my fault. Did I make the change to a growth mindset seem

too easy, so that people didn’t realize that a journey was required? Or maybe
people didn’t know how to take the journey. So let’s talk more about that

The Journey: Step 1

You’ll be surprised to hear me say this. The first step is to embrace your fixed
mindset. Let’s face it, we all have some of it. We’re all a mixture of growth and
fixed mindsets and we need to acknowledge that. It’s not a shameful admission.
It’s more like, welcome to the human race. But even though we have to accept

that some fixed mindset dwells within, we do not have to accept how often it
shows up and how much havoc it can wreak when it does.

The Journey: Step 2

The second step is to become aware of your fixed-mindset triggers. When does
your fixed-mindset “persona” come home to roost?

• It could be when you’re thinking about taking on a big, new challenge.
Your fixed-mindset persona might appear and whisper, “Maybe you don’t
have what it takes, and everyone will find out.”

• It could be when you’re struggling with something and you keep hitting
dead ends. Your fixed-mindset persona might fly in and offer its advice:
“Give it up. It’s just making you feel frustrated and ashamed. Do
something easier.”

• How about when you feel like you’ve failed decisively? Lost your job.
Lost a cherished relationship. Messed up in a very big way. It’s a rare
person who doesn’t have a fixed-mindset episode. And we all know very
well what that fixed mindset says to us: “You’re not the person you
thought you were—and you never will be.”

• What about when you encounter someone who’s a lot better than you in the
very area you pride yourself on? What does that fixed-mindset voice say to
you? Does it tell you that you’ll never be as good? Does it make you hate
that person just a little?

• What about our fixed mindset toward others? If we’re educators, what
happens after a high-stakes test? Do we judge who’s smart and who isn’t?
If we’re managers, what happens during and after a big project? Do we
judge our employees’ talent? If we’re parents, do we pressure our kids to
prove they’re smarter than others and make them feel judged based on their
grades and test scores?

Think about it. What’s a recent time you were triggered into a fixed mindset?
What happened to summon your fixed-mindset persona? What did it whisper in
your ear, and how did it make you feel?
When I asked people to tell me when their fixed-mindset persona usually

shows up, here’s what they said:

“When I’m under pressure, my fixed-mindset persona appears. He
fills my head with noise and keeps me from paying attention to the
work I have to do. Then I feel like I can’t accomplish anything.
Feelings of anxiety and sadness also attract him. He attempts to
weaken me when I’m already feeling down. He makes comments
like ‘You don’t have the ability to grasp difficult concepts. You
have reached your limit.’ ” (By the way, this was a woman who
thought of her fixed-mindset persona as a male.)

“Whenever I demonstrate my laziness through procrastination,
whenever I have a disagreement with someone, whenever I’m too
shy to talk to anyone at a party, my fixed mindset persona shows
up….He tells me, ‘Your FAILURE doesn’t define you.’ Of course,
he yells the word ‘failure,’ and whispers the rest.”

“Whenever I fail to live up to the image that she—my fixed-
mindset persona—concocted for me, she makes me feel stressed,
defensive, and unmotivated. She doesn’t allow me to take risks that
may affect our reputation as a successful person. She doesn’t let me
speak out for fear of being wrong. She forces me to look like a
person who can understand and do everything effortlessly.”

“When we have a work deadline and my team is under the gun, my
fixed-mindset persona sits in judgment. Instead of empowering my
team, I become a harping perfectionist—no one is doing it right, no
one is working fast enough. Where are all those breakthrough
ideas? We’ll never make it. As a result, I often just take over and do
a lot of the work myself. Needless to say, it doesn’t do wonders for
team morale.” (We will hear more from this team leader and one of
his team members in a moment.)

As you come to understand your triggers and get to know your persona, don’t
judge it. Just observe it.

The Journey: Step 3

Now give your fixed-mindset persona a name.
You heard me correctly.
I watched as Susan Mackie worked with financial executives who had given

their fixed-mindset personas names. They were talking about what triggers their
personas, and the top guy said, “When we’re in a crunch, Duane shows up. He
makes me supercritical of everyone, and I get bossy and demanding rather than
supportive.” A female team member quickly responded: “Yes, and when your
Duane shows up, my Ianni comes roaring out. Ianni is the macho guy who
makes me feel incompetent. So your Duane brings out my Ianni and I become
cowering and anxious, which infuriates Duane.” And on went this amazing
conversation. These sophisticated professionals talked about when their named
persona showed up, how it made them feel and act, and how it affected others
around them. By the way, once they were able to understand each other’s
triggers and personas, they could move their interactions to another level and the
morale in this unit went up by leaps and bounds.
Every fall I teach a freshman seminar—sixteen brand-new Stanford students,

very eager and very nervous. Each week I give them a different assignment for a
short paper: Find something important about yourself that you’d like to change
and take the first step….Do something outrageously growth mindset in the
service of what you’d like to change….Project yourself twenty-five years into
the future and write me a letter about where you are in your life and all the
struggles, disappointments, hardships, and failures you’ve encountered along the
This year I tried a new one. In the past, I had assigned a paper that asked

students to reflect on their mindsets, and I’d always had a few of them laying
claim to a long-standing and total growth mindset. But this year I asked them to
identify their fixed-mindset triggers and to give their fixed-mindset persona a
name. It was fascinating. Not one student claimed to have no triggers or persona.
All of them were able to write eloquently (and painfully) about their fixed-
mindset persona, its triggers, and its impact.

“Meet Gertrude, my cagey, histrionic, self-aggrandizing fixed-
mindset persona. She sneaks into my subconscious and undermines
me. The name Gertrude means ‘strong spear,’ which reflects her
insistence on unwavering, natural strength. She detests hard work,

second place, and imperfections. Any whiff of failure or
imperfection can trigger Gertrude’s entrance. Three seconds slower
in a swim race? No shot at the varsity team. Didn’t draw as good a
self-portrait as another girl in my class? Art isn’t your thing.
Couldn’t use as many big words as my older sister? You’ll never be
as smart as her. Gertrude convinces me that failure is definitive.
One mistake can take away my future success.”

“Almost like marriage, I know Sugardaddy will be with me through
thick and thin, sickness and health, and life and death. He comes
forth when I step out of my comfort zone, get criticized, or
experience a failure, causing me to become defensive, lash out at
others, or stagnate. Sugardaddy finds peace in never leaving his
comfort zone, but his views conflict more and more with mine as
his rigid guidelines try to keep me boxed in his stand-still world.”

“Failure, especially public failure, is my main fixed-mindset trigger.
That’s when Henrietta comes out. She is my critical grandmother,
and in the fixed mindset I remind myself more of her than I’d care
to admit. My Henrietta persona is quick to blame others to preserve
her ego. She rejects failure instead of embracing it, and makes me
worry that if anyone ever sees me fail they will deem me a failure.”

“My fixed-mindset persona is Z, the mirror image of my first initial,
S. Z shows up when I least require her, like after a failed attempt, a
rejection, or a missed opportunity. I’ve always been an avid writer
—the editor of my high school newsletter and the author of a now-
published novel. So when the chance to be a part of The Stanford
Daily [the school newspaper] arrived, I was thrilled to apply. I
worked very hard on the essays for the application and felt they
were well written. Thus, when I awoke to the thundering knocks at
7 A.M. on a Friday morning and I heard the screaming of ‘Stanford
Daily,’ my heart skipped a happy beat. As my roommate opened the
door, the reps from the newspaper yelled out, ‘Welcome to The
Stanford Daily.’ To her. As this happened, Z was screaming too,
but it was ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could you think you’re

capable of getting into the Daily?’ Z was especially ferocious since
my roommate spent exactly half an hour on her essays and even
asked me for ideas for them.” (P.S. For a later assignment—to do
something “outrageously growth mindset”—S actually contacted
The Stanford Daily to see if they needed any new writers. They did
and she got the job! I am still thrilled by her courage in the face of
the painful rejection.)

“Anything that triggers self-doubt triggers my fixed mindset, which
triggers more self-doubt. I’ve decided to name my doubt guy Dale
Denton, Seth Rogen’s character in Pineapple Express. Picturing my
fixed mindset as a lazy, bumbling slob of a guy sitting in the corner
of my brain helps me battle against him. Dale produces a constant
stream of doubt-provoking statements. Whispers of ‘What if you
can never repeat that success?’ trail behind every successful
outcome. And when an endeavor veers in the wrong direction, Dale
is always present to help the doubt blossom.”

Take a moment to think carefully about your own fixed-mindset persona. Will
you name it after someone in your life? A character from a book or a movie?
Will you give it your middle name—it’s part of you but not the main part of
you? Or perhaps you might give it a name you don’t like, to remind you that
that’s not the person you want to be.

The Journey: Step 4

You’re in touch with your triggers and you’re excruciatingly aware of your
fixed-mindset persona and what it does to you. It has a name. What happens
now? Educate it. Take it on the journey with you.
The more you become aware of your fixed-mindset triggers, the more you can

be on the lookout for the arrival of your persona. If you’re on the verge of
stepping out of your comfort zone, be ready to greet it when it shows up and
warns you to stop. Thank it for its input, but then tell it why you want to take this
step and ask it to come along with you: “Look, I know this may not work out,
but I’d really like to take a stab at it. Can I count on you to bear with me?”
When you hit a setback, the chances are excellent it’s going to show up again.

Don’t suppress it or ban it. Just let it do its thing. Let it do its song and dance,
and when it settles down a bit, talk to it about how you plan to learn from the
setback and go forward: “Yes, yes, it’s possible that I’m not so good at this (yet),
but I think I have an idea of what to do next. Let’s just try it.”
When you’re under pressure and you’re afraid your team will let you down,

tell them that Duane is in full bloom and ask them what they need from you to
do their best work. Try to understand and respect where they are and what
they’re thinking, and try to support and guide them. Keep talking to Duane so he
can calm down—and then help you cut them some slack and contribute to team
Remember that your fixed-mindset persona was born to protect you and keep

you safe. But it has developed some very limiting ways of doing that. So educate
it in the new growth mindset ways that it can support you: in taking on
challenges and sticking to them, bouncing back from failure, and helping and
supporting others to grow. Understand the persona’s point of view, but slowly
teach it a different way of thinking, and take it with you on your journey to a
growth mindset.
Understanding that everyone has a fixed-mindset persona can give us more

compassion for people. It allows us to understand their struggles. I mentioned in
a previous chapter how upset I was to learn that some educators were scolding
children for acting in fixed-mindset ways. They would point to the mindset chart
in the front of the room and tell the kids to shape up.
Compare this to the following teacher. Over a period of time, this teacher had

her grade school class talk about their fixed-mindset triggers and then give their
personas a name. One boy wouldn’t do it, which was very much in line with a lot
of his behavior. There were many things he wouldn’t do no matter how much the
teacher gently encouraged him. For weeks he sat there mute while every other
student in the class talked about and drew pictures of their little fixed-mindset
personas—Scared Sally, Lazy Larry, Anxious Andy, or Helpless Hannah. But
the teacher let him know that she was there for him whenever he was ready, and
one day, out of nowhere, he said, “Dumping Dan.” “What?” the teacher asked.
“Dumping Dan,” he repeated. “Whenever I do something, I do it wrong. I can’t
do anything right. That’s why everyone dumps on me.” Whenever he tried to do
his schoolwork, it seemed that Dumping Dan would yell at him so loudly that he
couldn’t proceed. The teacher rushed to his side and worked with him and
Dumping Dan so that eventually Dan relented, gave him some peace, and

allowed him to work. After that, his growth was tremendous.
How many students or employees are considered incompetent, stubborn, or

defiant when they just don’t know how to function well under the current
conditions? How often do we threaten, punish, or write off these people rather
than helping them work it through or helping them find the conditions under
which they can thrive?

Every one of us has a journey to take.

• It starts by accepting that we all have both mindsets.

• Then we learn to recognize what triggers our fixed mindset. Failures?
Criticism? Deadlines? Disagreements?

• And we come to understand what happens to us when our fixed-mindset
“persona” is triggered. Who is this persona? What’s its name? What does it
make us think, feel, and do? How does it affect those around us?

• Importantly, we can gradually learn to remain in a growth-mindset place
despite the triggers, as we educate our persona and invite it to join us on
our growth-mindset journey.

• Ideally, we will learn more and more about how we can help others on
their journey, too.


Let’s say you’ve named and tamed your fixed-mindset persona. That’s great, but
please don’t think your journey is complete. For your growth mindset to bear
fruit, you need to keep setting goals—goals for growth. Every day presents you
with ways to grow and to help the people you care about grow. How can you
remember to look for these chances?
First, make a copy of this graphic summary of the two mindsets, which was

created by the wonderful Nigel Holmes, and tape it to your mirror. Each
morning, use it to remind yourself of the differences between the fixed and
growth mindsets. Then, as you contemplate the day in front of you, try to ask
yourself these questions. If you have room on your mirror, copy them over and

tape them there, too.


What are the opportunities for learning and growth today? For
myself? For the people around me?

As you think of opportunities, form a plan, and ask:

When, where, and how will I embark on my plan?

When, where, and how make the plan concrete. How asks you to think of all the
ways to bring your plan to life and make it work.
As you encounter the inevitable obstacles and setbacks, form a new plan and

ask yourself the question again:

When, where, and how will I act on my new plan?

Regardless of how bad you may feel, chat with your fixed-mindset persona and
then do it!
And when you succeed, don’t forget to ask yourself:

What do I have to do to maintain and continue the growth?

Remember, as Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player, wisely said: “You either
go one way or the other.” You might as well be the one deciding the direction.


Change can be tough, but I’ve never heard anyone say it wasn’t worth it. Maybe
they’re just rationalizing, the way people who’ve gone through a painful
initiation say it was worth it. But people who’ve changed can tell you how their
lives have been enhanced. They can tell you about things they have now that
they wouldn’t have had, and ways they feel now that they wouldn’t have felt.
Did changing toward a growth mindset solve all my problems? No. But I

know that I have a different life because of it—a richer one. And that I’m a more
alive, courageous, and open person because of it.
It’s for you to decide whether change is right for you now. Maybe it is, maybe

it isn’t. But either way, keep the growth mindset in your thoughts. Then, when
you bump up against obstacles, you can turn to it. It will always be there for you,
showing you a path into the future.



When I was a young researcher: This research was conducted with Dick
Reppucci and with Carol Diener.

Through the ages, these alleged physical differences: See Steven J. Gould’s
The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981) for a history of how
people have tried to explain human differences in terms of innate physical

It may surprise you to know: Alfred Binet (Suzanne Heisler, trans.), Modern
Ideas About Children (Menlo Park, CA: Suzanne Heisler, 1975) (original
work, 1911). See also: Robert S. Siegler, “The Other Alfred Binet,”
Developmental Psychology 28 (1992), 179–190; René Zazzo, “Alfred
Binet,” Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education 23
(1993), 101–112.

“A few modern philosophers”: Binet, Modern Ideas, 105–107.

In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb: Gilbert Gottlieb, “Normally Occurring
Environmental and Behavioral Influences on Gene Activity: From Central
Dogma to Probabilistic Epigenesis,” Psychological Review 105 (1995),

Robert Sternberg: Robert Sternberg, “Intelligence, Competence, and Expertise.”
In Andrew Elliot and Carol S. Dweck (eds.), The Handbook of Competence
and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

A View from the Two Mindsets: This research was conducted with Wenjie Zhao
and Claudia Mueller.

In fact, studies show: See the fine work of David Dunning.

Recently, we set out to see: This research was conducted with Joyce Ehrlinger.

Howard Gardner: Howard Gardner, Extraordinary Minds (New York: Basic
Books, 1997).

In a poll of 143 creativity researchers: Robert J. Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of
Creativity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Which mindset do you have?: These measures were developed with Sheri Levy,
Valanne MacGyvers, C. Y. Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong.


Benjamin Barber, an eminent political theorist: Carole Hyatt and Linda
Gottlieb, When Smart People Fail (New York: Penguin Books,
1987/1993), 232.

We offered four-year-olds a choice: This research was done with Charlene
Hebert, and was followed up by work with Pat Smiley, Gail Heyman, and
Kathy Cain.

One seventh-grade girl summed it up: Thanks to Nancy Kim for this quote.

It’s another to pass up an opportunity: This work was done with Ying-yi Hong,
C. Y. Chiu, Derek Lin, and Wendy Wan.

Brain Waves: This research is being conducted with Jennifer Mangels and
Catherine Good and is supported by a grant from the Department of

It’s not just on intellectual tasks: This research was carried out with Stephanie
Morris and Melissa Kamins.

Lee Iacocca had a bad case: Doron Levin, Behind the Wheel at Chrysler: The
Iacocca Legacy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995).

Darwin Smith, looking back: Reported in Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why
Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York:
HarperCollins, 2001), 20.

Albert Dunlap, a self-professed fixed mindsetter: Albert Dunlap with Bob
Andelman, Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good
Companies Great (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1996); John A.
Byrne, “How Al Dunlap Self-Destructed,” Business Week, July 6, 1998.

Lou Gerstner, an avowed growth mindsetter: Lou Gerstner, Who Says
Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround (New York:
HarperCollins, 2002).

“All my life I’ve been playing”: Mia Hamm with Aaron Heifetz, Go for the
Goal: A Champion’s Guide to Winning in Soccer and in Life (New York:

HarperCollins, 1999), 3.

Patricia Miranda was a chubby, unathletic: Judy Battista, “A Tiny Female
Pioneer for Olympic Wrestling,” The New York Times, May 16, 2004.

In 1995, Christopher Reeve, the actor: Christopher Reeve, Nothing Is
Impossible: Reflections on a New Life (New York: Random House, 2002).

I watched it happen: This work was done with Heidi Grant.

We saw the same thing in younger students: This work was with Claudia

Marina Semyonova, a great Russian dancer: Margaret Henry, “Passion and
Will, Undimmed by 80 Years of Ballet,” The New York Times, January 10,

When Do You Feel Smart: This work was carried out with Elaine Elliott and
later with Valanne MacGyvers.

“We were stars”: Stephen Glass, The Fabulist (New York: Simon & Schuster,
2003). This is a moment-by-moment account, which Glass has published
as a novel.

To find out, we showed: This work was done with Jeremy Stone.

So common is the belief: Reported in Steve Young, Great Failures of the
Extremely Successful (Los Angeles: Tallfellow Press, 2002).

“Morton,” Kennedy told him: Ibid., 47.

People with the growth mindset know: This survey was conducted with
Catherine Good and Aneeta Rattan.

Is there another way: Charles C. Manz, The Power of Failure (San Francisco:
Berrett-Koehler, 2002), 38.

Jack Welch, the celebrated CEO: Jack Welch with John A. Byrne, Jack:
Straight from the Gut (New York: Warner Books, 2001).

John McEnroe had a fixed mindset: John McEnroe with James Kaplan, You
Cannot Be Serious (New York: Berkley, 2002).

McEnroe used sawdust: Ibid., 159.

He goes on to tell us: Ibid., 160.

“Everything was about you”: Ibid., 158.

“I was shocked”: From Janet Lowe, Michael Jordan Speaks: Lessons from the
World’s Greatest Champion (New York: John Wiley, 1999), 95.

Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff: Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York:
Bantam, 1980), 31. Also cited in Morgan W. McCall, High Flyers:
Developing the Next Generation of Leaders (Boston: Harvard Business
School Press, 1998), 5.

“There is no such thing”: Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Yeager (New York:
Bantam, 1985), 406. Also cited in McCall, High Flyers, 17.

As a New York Times article: Amy Waldman, “Why Nobody Likes a Loser,”
The New York Times, August 21, 1999.

“I would have been a different”: Clifton Brown, “Out of a Bunker, and Out of a
Funk, Els Takes the Open,” The New York Times, July 22, 2002.

Each April when the skinny envelopes: Amy Dickinson, “Skinny Envelopes,”
Time, April 3, 2000. (Thanks to Nellie Sabin for calling my attention to
this article.) Jim Marshall, former defensive player: Young, Great
Failures of the Extremely Successful, 7–11.

Bernard Loiseau was one of the top: Elaine Ganley, “Top Chef’s Death Shocks
France, Sparks Condemnation of Powerful Food Critics,” Associated Press,
February 25, 2003.

In one study, seventh graders: This work was done with Lisa Sorich Blackwell
and Kali Trzesniewski.

College students, after doing poorly: This work was with David Nussbaum.

Jim Collins tells: Collins, Good to Great, 80.

It was never his fault: McEnroe, You Cannot Be Serious.

John Wooden, the legendary: John Wooden with Steve Jamison, Wooden: A
Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court
(Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1997), 55.

When Enron, the energy giant: Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The
Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of
Enron (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 414.

Jack Welch, the growth-minded CEO: Welch, Jack, 224.

As a psychologist and an educator: The work described was carried out with
Allison Baer and Heidi Grant.

Malcolm Gladwell: Presented in an invited address at the annual meeting of the
American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 2002.

A report from researchers: “Report of the Steering Committee for the Women’s
Initiative at Duke University,” August 2003.

Americans aren’t the only people: Jack Smith, “In the Weight Rooms of Paris,
There Is a Chic New Fragrance: Sweat,” The New York Times, June 21,

Seabiscuit: Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (New York:
Random House, 2001).

Equally moving is the parallel story: Laura Hillenbrand, “A Sudden Illness,”
The New Yorker, July 7, 2003.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg made her violin debut: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg,
Nadja, On My Way (New York: Crown, 1989); Barbara L. Sand, Teaching
Genius: Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician (Portland, OR:
Amadeus Press, 2000).

“I was used to success”: Salerno-Sonnenberg, Nadja, 49.

“Everything I was going through”: Ibid., 50.

Then, one day: Ibid.

There were few American women: Hyatt and Gottlieb, When Smart People Fail,

“I don’t really understand”: Ibid., 27.

“I often thought”: Ibid., 25.

Billie Jean King says: Billie Jean King with Kim Chapin, Billie Jean (New
York: Harper & Row, 1974).

A lawyer spent seven years: Hyatt and Gottlieb, When Smart People Fail, 224.

Can everything about people be changed?: Martin Seligman has written a very
interesting book on this subject: What You Can Change…And What You

Can’t (New York: Fawcett, 1993).

Joseph Martocchio conducted a study: Joseph J. Martocchio, “Effects of
Conceptions of Ability on Anxiety, Self-Efficacy, and Learning in
Training,” Journal of Applied Psychology 79 (1994), 819–825.

The same thing happened with Berkeley students: Richard Robins and Jennifer
Pals, “Implicit Self-Theories in the Academic Domain: Implications for
Goal Orientation, Attributions, Affect, and Self-Esteem Change,” Self and
Identity 1 (2002), 313–336.

Michelle Wie was a teenage golfer: Clifton Brown, “An Education with Hard
Courses,” The New York Times, January 13, 2004.

“I think I learned that I can”: Clifton Brown, “Wie Shows Power but Her
Putter Let Her Down,” The New York Times, January 16, 2004.


Edison was not a loner: Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (New York:
John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

Yet Darwin’s masterwork: Howard E. Gruber, Darwin on Man: A Psychological
Study of Scientific Creativity, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1981); Charles Darwin, Autobiographies (Michael Neve and Sharon
Messenger, eds.) (New York: Penguin Books, 1903/2002).

Mozart labored: Robert W. Weisberg, “Creativity and Knowledge.” In Robert J.
Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of Creativity (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1999).

Back on earth, we measured: This work was done in collaboration with Lisa
Sorich Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski. Thanks also to Nancy Kim for
collecting quotes from the students.

George Danzig was a graduate student: Told by George Danzig in Cynthia
Kersey, Unstoppable (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 1998).

John Holt, the great educator: John Holt, How Children Fail (New York:
Addison Wesley, 1964/1982), 14.

The College Transition: This work was done with Heidi Grant.

In her book Gifted Children: Ellen Winner, Gifted Children: Myths and
Realities (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

Michael’s mother reports: Ibid., 21.

Garfield High School: Jay Matthews, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America
(New York: Henry Holt, 1998).

Marva Collins: Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way:
Returning to Excellence in Education (Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher,

He saw four-year-olds: Ibid., 160.

As the three-and four-year-olds: Marva Collins, “Ordinary” Children,

Extraordinary Teachers (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing,
1992), 4.

Benjamin Bloom: Benjamin S. Bloom, Developing Talent in Young People
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

Bloom concludes: Ibid., 4.

Falko Rheinberg, a researcher in Germany: Falko Rheinberg,
Leistungsbewertung und Lernmotivation [Achievement Evaluation and
Motivation to Learn] (Göttingen: Hogrefe, 1980), 87, 116. Also reported at
the conference of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle,
April 2001.

“Come on, peach”: Collins and Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way, 19.

On the opposite page are the before-and-after: Betty Edwards, The New
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (New York: Tarcher/Putnam,
1979/1999), 18–20.

Jackson Pollock: Elizabeth Frank, Pollock (New York: Abbeville Press, 1983);
Evelyn Toynton, “A Little Here, A Little There,” The New York Times
Book Review, January 31, 1999.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).

“There are no ‘natural’ geniuses”: Ibid., 7.

The Danger of Praise: This work was conducted with Claudia Mueller and with
Melissa Kamins.

Adam Guettel has been called: Jesse Green, “A Complicated Gift,” The New
York Times Magazine, July 6, 2003.

Research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson: Claude M. Steele and Joshua
Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of
African-Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68
(1995), 797–811.

We asked African American students: This research was done with Bonita

To find out how this happens: This work was done with Catherine Good and
Aneeta Rattan, and was supported by a grant from the National Science
Foundation. See also the wonderful research of Gregory Walton (e.g.,

Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “A Question of Belonging:
Race, Social Fit, and Achievement,” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 92 [2007], 82–96).

Many females have a problem not only with: This has been studied by Tomi-
Ann Roberts and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.

When we observed in grade school: This research was conducted with William
Davidson, Sharon Nelson, and Bradley Enna.

Frances Conley: Frances K. Conley, Walking Out on the Boys (New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).

“Is a honey,” she wondered: Ibid., 65.

Julie Lynch, a budding techie: Michael J. Ybarra, “Why Won’t Women Write
Code?” Sky, December 1999.

The Polgar family: Carlin Flora, “The Grandmaster Experiment,” Psychology
Today, August 2005.


As Michael Lewis tells us: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an
Unfair Game (New York: Norton, 2003).

“It wasn’t merely”: Ibid., 9.

As one scout said: Ibid., 48.

“He had no concept of failure”: Ibid., 46.

Beane continues, “I started to get”: Ibid., 47.

Muhammad Ali failed these measurements: Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo,
Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years (New York: Hyperion, 2003).

He pulled back his torso: Ibid., 14.

Not only did he study Liston’s: Ibid., 92.

Ali said, “Liston had to believe”: Ibid., 96.

Float like a butterfly: Ibid., 74.

“He was a paradox”: Ibid., 14.

Michael Jordan: Janet Lowe, Michael Jordan Speaks: Lessons from the World’s
Greatest Champion (New York: John Wiley, 1999).

His mother says: Ibid., 7.

Former Bulls assistant coach John Bach: Ibid., 29.

For Jordan, success stems: Ibid., 35.

The Babe was not a natural, either: Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend
Comes to Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1974/1983).

Robert Creamer, his biographer: Ibid., 301.

“He could experiment at the plate”: Ibid., 109.

Yet we cling fast: Stephen J. Gould, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A
Lifelong Passion for Baseball (New York: Norton, 2003).

What about Wilma Rudolph: Tom Biracree, Wilma Rudolph (New York:

Chelsea House, 1988).

After her incredible career, she said: Ibid., 107.

What about Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Sonja Steptoe, A
Kind of Grace (New York: Warner Books, 1997).

“There is something about seeing myself improve”: Ibid., 60.

Did you know: Clifton Brown, “On Golf: It’s Not How for Tiger, It’s Just by
How Much,” The New York Times, July 25, 2000.

Wills was an eager baseball player: Cynthia Kersey, Unstoppable (Naperville,
IL: Sourcebooks, 1998).

He proudly announced to his friends: Ibid., 152.

At the seven-and-a-half: Ibid., 153.

This really hit me: Buster Olney, “Speedy Feet, but an Even Quicker Thinker,”
The New York Times, February 1, 2002.

Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner): Mike McGovern and Susan Shelly, The
Quotable Athlete (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 113.

They hadn’t won a World Series: Gould, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville.

As New York Times writer: Jack Curry, “After Melee, Spin Control Takes
Over,” The New York Times, October 13, 2003.

Even the Boston writers were aghast: Dan Shaughnessy, “It Is Time for
Martinez to Grow Up,” The New York Times, October 13, 2003. (During
this series, the Globe sportswriters’ columns appeared in the Times and
vice versa.) Let’s take it from the top: William Rhoden, “Momentous
Victory, Most Notably Achieved,” The New York Times, July 10, 2000.

“Just keep pumping your arms”: Kersee, A Kind of Grace, 280.

“The strength for that sixth jump”: Ibid., 298.

But, as Billie Jean King tells us: King, Billie Jean, 236.

When the match: Ibid., 78.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee had her Eureka!: Joyner-Kersee, A Kind of Grace, 63.

Often called the best woman soccer player: Mia Hamm with Aaron Heifetz, Go
for the Goal: A Champion’s Guide to Winning in Soccer and in Life (New

York: HarperCollins, 1999), 31.

“It is,” said Hamm: Ibid., 36.

By the way, did Hamm think: Ibid., 3.

Jack Nicklaus, the famed golfer: Tom Callahan, In Search of Tiger: A Journey
Through Gold with Tiger Woods (New York: Crown, 2003), 24.

John Wooden: John Wooden with Jack Tobin, They Call Me Coach (Waco, TX:
Word Books, 1972), 63–65.

“I believe ability”: John Wooden with Steve Jamison, Wooden (Lincolnwood,
IL: Contemporary Books, 1997), 99.

Stuart Biddle and his colleagues: “Goal Orientation and Conceptions of the
Nature of Sport Ability in Children: A Social Cognitive Approach,” British
Journal of Social Psychology 35 (1996), 399–414; “Motivation for
Physical Activity in Young People: Entity and Incremental Beliefs About
Athletic Ability,” Journal of Sports Sciences 21 (2003), 973–989. See also
Yngvar Ommundsen, “Implicit Theories of Ability and Self-Regulation
Strategies in Physical Education Classes,” Educational Psychology 23
(2003), 141–157; “Self-Handicapping Strategies in Physical Education
Classes: The Influence of Implicit Theories of the Nature of Ability and
Achievement Goal Orientations,” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 2
(2001), 139–156.

Finding #1: This finding is from the research by Biddle and his colleagues.

“For me the joy of athletics”: Joyner-Kersee, A Kind of Grace, 60.

In fact, he says: Wooden, Wooden, 53.

After the ’98 Masters tournament: Dave Anderson, “No Regrets for Woods,”
The New York Times, April 4, 1998.

Or after a British Open: Callahan, In Search of Tiger, 219.

Tiger is a hugely ambitious man: Ibid., 220.

Mia Hamm tells us: Hamm, Go for the Goal, 201.

“They saw that we truly love”: Ibid., 243.

“There was a time”: John McEnroe with James Kaplan, You Cannot Be Serious
(New York: Berkley, 2002), 10.

“Some people don’t want to rehearse”: Ibid., 155.

Finding #2: Ommundsen, “Implicit Theories of Ability,” 141–157.

“You can’t leave”: Lowe, Michael Jordan Speaks, 99.

Michael Jordan embraced his failures: Ibid., 107.

Here’s how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Wooden, Wooden, 100.

For example, he hoped desperately: McEnroe, You Cannot Be Serious, 112.

“God, if I lose to Patrick”: Ibid., 259.

Here’s how failure motivated him: Ibid., 119.

In 1981, McEnroe bought: Ibid., 274.

Here’s how failure motivated Sergio Garcia: Callahan, In Search of Tiger, 164,

Finding #3: Ommundsen, “Implicit Theories of Ability and Self-Regulation
Strategies,” Educational Psychology 23 (2003), 141–157; “Self-
Handicapping Strategies,” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 2 (2001),

How come Michael Jordan’s skill: Lowe, Michael Jordan Speaks, 177.

Butch Harmon, the renowned coach: Callahan, In Search of Tiger, 75.

With this in mind, Tiger’s dad: Ibid., 237.

“I know my game”: Ibid., 219.

“I love working on shots”: Ibid., 300.

“He’s twelve”: Ibid., 23.

Mark O’Meara, Woods’s golf partner: Ibid., 25.

For example, when he didn’t: McEnroe, You Cannot Be Serious, 166.

In fact, rather than combating: Ibid., 29.

He wished someone else: Ibid., 207.

“The system let me get away”: Ibid., 190.

“In our society”: Lowe, Michael Jordan Speaks, 37.

Coach John Wooden claims: Wooden, Wooden, 113.

“I believe, for example”: Ibid., 78.

When asked before a game: Charlie Nobles, “Johnson Is Gone, So Bucs, Move
On,” The New York Times, November 20, 2003; Dave Anderson,
“Regarding Johnson, Jets Should Just Say No,” The New York Times,
November 21, 2003.

“I am a team player, but”: Anderson, “Regarding Johnson.”

When Nyad hatched her plan: Kersey, Unstoppable, 212.

Iciss Tillis is a college: Viv Bernstein, “The Picture Doesn’t Tell the Story,” The
New York Times, January 24, 2004.

It’s six-foot-three Candace Parker: Ira Berkow, “Stardom Awaits a Prodigy and
Assist Goes to Her Father,” The New York Times, January 20, 2004.


According to Malcolm Gladwell: Malcolm Gladwell, “The Talent Myth,” The
New Yorker, July 22, 2002.

Remember the study where we interviewed: That study was performed with
Ying-yi Hong, C. Y. Chiu, Derek Lin, and Wendy Wan.

And remember how we put students: This research was conducted with Claudia

Jim Collins set out to discover: Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some
Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins,

“They used to call me the prosecutor”: Ibid., 75.

Robert Wood and Albert Bandura: Robert Wood and Albert Bandura, “Impact
of Conceptions of Ability on Self-Regulatory Mechanisms and Complex
Decision Making,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56
(1989), 407–415.

As Collins puts it: Collins, Good to Great, 26.

Says Collins: The good-to-great Kroger: Ibid., 65–69.

According to James Surowiecki: James Surowiecki, “Blame Iacocca: How the
Former Chrysler CEO Caused the Corporate Scandals,” Slate, July 24,

Warren Bennis, the leadership guru: Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
(Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1989/2003), xxix.

Iacocca wasn’t like that: Lee Iacocca with William Novak, Iacocca: An
Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).

What’s more, “If Henry was king”: Ibid., 101.

“I was His Majesty’s special protégé”: Ibid., 83.

“All of us…lived the good life”: Ibid., 101.

“I had always clung to the idea”: Ibid., 144.

He wondered whether Henry Ford: Doron P. Levin, Behind the Wheel at
Chrysler: The Iacocca Legacy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 31.

“You don’t realize what a favor”: Ibid., 231.

Just a few years after: Iacocca, Iacocca, xvii.

Within a short time, however: Levin, Behind the Wheel at Chrysler.

In an editorial: Ibid., 312.

So in a bid: “Iacocca, Spurned in Return Attempts, Lashes Out,” USA Today,
March 19, 2002.

Albert Dunlap saved dying companies: Albert J. Dunlap with Bob Andelman,
Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies
Great (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1996).

“Did I earn it?”: Ibid., 21.

“If you’re in business”: Ibid., 199.

A woman stood up and asked: Ibid., 62.

“Making my way in the world”: Ibid., 107–108.

“The most ridiculous term”: Ibid., 196.

“Eventually, I have gotten bored”: Ibid., 26.

Then in 1996: John A. Byrne, “How Al Dunlap Self-Destructed,” Business
Week, July 6, 1998.

Ken Lay, the company’s founder: Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The
Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of
Enron (New York: Penguin Group, 2003).

Kinder was also the only person: Ibid., 92.

Even as Lay: Ibid., 89.

“Ron doesn’t get it”: Ibid., 69.

“Well, it’s so obvious”: Ibid., 233.

As McLean and Elkind report: Ibid., 40.

Said Amanda Martin, an Enron executive: Ibid., 121.

Resident geniuses almost brought down: Alec Klein, Stealing Time: Steve Case,
Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2003).

Speaking about AOL executives: Ibid., 171.

As Morgan McCall: Morgan W. McCall, High Flyers: Developing the Next
Generation of Leaders (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998),
xiii. McCall also analyzes the effects on corporate culture of believing in
natural talent instead of the potential to develop. “The message of High
Flyers,” he says, “is that leadership ability can be learned, that creating a
context that supports the development of talent can become a source of
competitive advantage, and that the development of leaders is itself a
leadership responsibility,” xii.

Harvey Hornstein, an expert: Harvey A. Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their
Prey (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 49.

Hornstein describes Paul Kazarian: Ibid., 10.

An engineer at a major aircraft: Ibid., 54.

In Good to Great, Collins notes: Collins, Good to Great, 72.

According to Collins and Porras: James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to
Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York:
HarperCollins, 1994/2002), 165.

Ray Macdonald of Burroughs: Ibid., 166.

The same thing happened at Texas: Ibid.

Andrew Carnegie once said: John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around
You (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 15.

Warren Bennis has said: Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, 19.

When Jack Welch took over: “Overvalued: Why Jack Welch Isn’t God,” The
New Republic, June 11, 2001. Even this article, which explains why Welch
should not be regarded as a godlike figure, details his remarkable

Fortune magazine called Welch: Ibid.

But to me even more impressive: Steve Bennett, “The Boss: Put It in Writing

Please,” The New York Times, May 9, 2004.

Instead, it’s “I hate having to”: Jack Welch with John A. Byrne, Jack: Straight
from the Gut (New York: Warner Books, 2001), ix.

Or “[These people] filled my journey”: Ibid., 439.

In 1971, Welch was being considered: Ibid., 42.

One day, young “Dr.” Welch: Ibid., 36.

“The Kidder experience never left me”: Ibid., 228–229.

What he learned was this: Ibid., 384.

When Welch was a young engineer: Ibid., 27.

“Eventually I learned”: Ibid., 54.

One evening, Welch addressed: Ibid., 97–98.

In front of five hundred managers: Ibid., 189.

“As a result, leaders were encouraged”: Ibid., 186.

“You owe it to America”: Louis V. Gerstner, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 16.

Six days after he arrived: Ibid., 78.

He dedicated his book to them: Ibid., v.

“Hierarchy means very little to me”: Ibid., 24.

“[IBM stock] has done nothing”: Ibid., 57.

That was the Xerox Anne Mulcahy: Betsy Morris, “The Accidental CEO,”
Fortune, June 23, 2003.

Fortune named Mulcahy “the hottest turnaround”: “Most Powerful Women in
Business 2004,” Fortune, October 18, 2004.

For example, as Fortune writer Betsy: Morris, “The Accidental CEO.”

She was tough: Ibid.

After slaving away: Ibid.

But a year later she knew: Ibid.

Women now hold more key positions: “Most Powerful Women in Business

In fact, Fortune magazine called Meg: Eryn Brown, “How Can a Dot-Com Be
This Hot?” Fortune, January 21, 2002; Patricia Sellers, “eBay’s Secret,”
Fortune, October 18, 2004.

Researcher Robert Wood and his colleagues: Robert E. Wood, Katherine
Williams Phillips, and Carmen Tabernero, “Implicit Theories of Ability,
Processing Dynamics and Performance in Decision-Making Groups,”
Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney, Australia.

In the early 1970s, Irving Janis: Irving Janis, Groupthink, 2nd ed. (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1972/1982).

“Everything had broken right for him”: Ibid., 35.

Schlesinger also said, “Had one senior”: Ibid., 38.

To prevent this from happening: Collins, Good to Great, 71.

An outside consultant kept asking Enron: McLean and Elkind, The Smartest
Guys in the Room, 241.

“We got to the point”: Ibid., 230.

Alfred P. Sloan, the former CEO: Janis, Groupthink, 71. From Peter F.
Drucker, The Effective Executive (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

Herodotus, writing: Janis, Groupthink, 71.

He said the new, rounder cars: Levin, Behind the Wheel, 102–103.

David Packard, on the other hand: David Packard, The HP Way: How Bill
Hewlett and I Built Our Company (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

You can’t pick up a magazine: Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s
Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More
Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Free Press, 2007).

Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn have shown: Laura Kray and Michael
Haselhuhn, “Implicit Theories of Negotiating Ability and Performance:
Longitudinal and Experimental Evidence.” Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology 93 (2007), 49–64.

Studies by Peter Heslin: Peter Heslin, Gary Latham, and Don VandeWalle,

“The Effect of Implicit Person Theory on Performance Appraisals,”
Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (2005), 842–56; Peter Heslin, Don
VandeWalle, and Gary Latham,“Keen to Help? Managers’ IPT and Their
Subsequent Employee Coaching,” Personnel Psychology 59 (2006), 871–

When Warren Bennis interviewed: Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, xxix.

Bennis concurred: “I believe”: Ibid., xxxii.

John Zenger and Joseph Folkman: John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman, The
Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).

Or, as Morgan McCall argues: McCall, High Flyers.

To find out, we studied a group: This work was conducted with Mary Murphy,
Jenny Chatman, and Laura Kray, with the collaboration of Senn Delaney, a
Heidrick & Struggles company.


What separates them?: This work was carried out with Israela Silberman.

The Contos family: Shown on Weddings Gone Wild, ABC, June 14, 2004.

In his study of gifted people: Benjamin S. Bloom, Developing Talent in Young
People (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

Maybe that’s why Daniel Goleman’s: Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence:
Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York: Bantam, 1995).

Aaron Beck, the renowned psychiatrist: Aaron T. Beck, Love Is Never Enough
(New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 202.

Says John Gottman: John Gottman with Nan Silver, Why Marriages Succeed or
Fail (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1994), 69.

Elayne Savage, noted family psychologist: Elayne Savage, Don’t Take It
Personally: The Art of Dealing with Rejection (Oakland, CA: New
Harbinger, 1997).

Raymond Knee and his colleagues: C. Raymond Knee, “Implicit Theories of
Relationships: Assessment and Prediction of Romantic Relationship
Initiation, Coping, and Longevity,” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 74 (1998), 360–370.

John Gottman reports: Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, 155.

And they assign blame to a trait: This has been studied by Raymond Knee, and
I have found this in my work with Lara Kammrath. (See also the work of
Frank Fincham.) So once people with the fixed mindset: The idea that a
fixed mindset can undermine relationships is also found in the work of Roy
Eidelson and Norman Epstein, and of Susan Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick.
The idea of criticism—attacking the partner’s personality or character—
leading to contempt is explored in the work of John Gottman.

Brenda and Jack were clients: Daniel B. Wile, After the Honeymoon: How
Conflict Can Improve Your Relationship (New York: John Wiley & Sons,

The story of Ted and Karen: Beck, Love Is Never Enough.

“Everything she says and does”: Ibid., 36.

“She never takes anything seriously”: Ibid.

“What is the mature thing”: Ibid., 246.

Aaron Beck tells couples: Ibid., 199.

Hillary defended him: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Living History (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2003), 465.

Through counseling, Bill came to understand: Bill Clinton, My Life (New
York: Knopf, 2004); Bill Clinton on The Charlie Rose Show, June 23,

One evening, Stevie Wonder: H. R. Clinton, Living History.

Jennifer Beer studied hundreds of people: Jennifer S. Beer, “Implicit Self-
Theories of Shyness,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 83
(2002), 1009–1024. See also the excellent work of Phil Zimbardo on

Scott Wetzler, a therapist and professor: Scott Wetzler, Is It You or Is It Me?
Why Couples Play the Blame Game (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

“It doesn’t matter to me”: Ibid., 134.

At Columbine, the most notorious: Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt, No Easy
Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine (New York: Lantern
Books, 2002).

When people feel deeply judged: See the recent research by David Yeager and
his colleagues (e.g., D. S. Yeager, K. H. Trzesniewski, K. Tirri, P.
Nokelainen, and C. S. Dweck, “Adolescents’ Implicit Theories Predict
Desire for Vengeance After Remembered and Hypothetical Peer Conflicts:
Correlational and Experimental Evidence,” Developmental Psychology 47
[2011], 1090–1107, and D. S. Yeager, K. Trzesniewski, and C. S. Dweck,
“An Implicit Theories of Personality Intervention Reduces Adolescent
Aggression in Response to Victimization and Exclusion,” Child
Development 84 [2012], 970–988).

Brooks Brown, a classmate: Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt, No Easy Answers.

He rejected the fixed mindset: Ibid., 47.

In his own words: Ibid., 107.

“It’s to use your mind”: Ibid., 263.

“We can just sit back”: Ibid., 21.

Stan Davis, a therapist: Stan Davis, Schools Where Everyone Belongs:
Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying (Wayne, ME: Stop Bullying
Now, 2003). See also Dan Olweus, Bullying at School (Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 1993).

“I notice that you have been”: Ibid., 34.

Haim Ginott, the renowned child psychologist: Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and
Child (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 167.

In a New York Times article: Jane Gross, “Hot Topic at Summer Camps:
Ending the Rule of the Bullies,” The New York Times, June 28, 2004.


Haim Ginott, the child-rearing sage: Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent & Child
(New York: Avon Books, 1956), 22–24.

Remember chapter 3: This work was with Claudia Mueller and Melissa Kamins.

Ginott tells of Philip: Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent & Teenager (New York:
Macmillan, 1969), 88.

Children Learn the Messages: This research was done with Chauncy Lennon
and Eva Pomerantz.

Here’s a kindergarten boy: This is from work with Gail Heyman and Kathy
Cain: Gail D. Heyman, Carol S. Dweck, and Kathleen Cain, “Young
Children’s Vulnerability to Self-Blame and Helplessness,” Child
Development 63 (1992), 401–415.

We asked second-grade children: This research was with Gail Heyman: Gail D.
Heyman and Carol S. Dweck, “Children’s Thinking About Traits:
Implications for Judgments of the Self and Others,” Child Development 64
(1998), 391–403.

Mary Main and Carol George: Mary Main and Carol George, “Responses of
Abused and Disadvantaged Toddlers to Distress in the Day Care Setting,”
Developmental Psychology 21 (1985), 407–412.

“My parents pushed me”: John McEnroe with James Kaplan, You Cannot Be
Serious (New York: Berkley, 2002), 31.

However, he says, “Many athletes”: Ibid., 30.

“If Tiger had wanted to be”: Tom Callahan, In Search of Tiger: A Journey
Through Gold with Tiger Woods (New York: Crown, 2003), 213.

Tiger says in return: Tiger Woods, How I Play Golf (New York: Warner Books,
2001), 302.

Dorothy DeLay, the famous violin teacher: Barbara L. Sand, Teaching Genius:
Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician (Portland, OR: Amadeus

Press, 2000).

One set of parents: Ibid., 79.

DeLay spent countless hours: Ibid., 144.

Says Yura, “I’m always happy”: Ibid., 153.

We asked college students to describe: This work was with Bonita London.

Haim Ginott describes Nicholas: Ginott, Between Parent & Teenager, 132.

For thirty-five years, Sheila Schwartz taught: Sheila Schwartz, “Teaching’s
Unlettered Future,” The New York Times, August 6, 1998.

Marva Collins taught Chicago children: Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin,
Marva Collins’ Way: Returning to Excellence in Education (Los Angeles:
Jeremy Tarcher, 1982/1990); Marva Collins, “Ordinary” Children,
Extraordinary Teachers (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing,

When 60 Minutes did a segment: Collins, “Ordinary” Children, 43–44.

Chicago Sun-Times writer Zay Smith: Collins and Tamarkin, Marva Collins’
Way, 160.

As Collins looks back: Ibid., 47.

“I know most of you can’t”: Ibid., 21–22.

As they changed from children: Ibid., 68.

Rafe Esquith teaches Los Angeles: Rafe Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts (New
York: Pantheon, 2003).

DeLay’s husband always teased her: Sand, Teaching Genius, 23.

Her mentor and fellow teacher: Ibid., 54.

“I think it’s too easy”: Ibid., 70.

Itzhak Perlman was her student: Ibid., 201.

“I think she has something special”: Ibid., 85.

Yet she established on Day One: Collins and Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way,

When Benjamin Bloom studied his 120: Benjamin S. Bloom, Developing

Talent in Young People (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

When Collins expanded her school: Collins, “Ordinary” Children.

Esquith bemoans the lowering of standards: Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts,

“That is part of Miss DeLay’s”: Sand, Teaching Genius, 219.

“I know which child will handle”: Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts, 40.

Collins echoes that idea: Collins and Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way, 21.

One student was sure he couldn’t: Sand, Teaching Genius, 64.

Another student was intimidated: Ibid., 114.

As Marva Collins said to a boy: Collins and Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way,

Here is a shortened version: Ibid., 85–88.

“It’s sort of like Socrates says”: Ibid., 159.

For a class assignment, he wrote: Ibid., 165.

And she let her students know: Ibid., 87.

Michael Lewis, in The New York Times: Michael Lewis, “Coach Fitz’s
Management Theory,” The New York Times Magazine, March 28, 2004.

Bobby Knight, the famous and controversial: Bob Knight with Bob Hammel,
Knight: My Story (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002); Steve Alford with
John Garrity, Playing for Knight (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster,
1989); John Feinstein, A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bobby Knight
and the Indiana Hoosiers (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1987).

John Feinstein, author of Season: Feinstein, Season on the Brink, 3.

In Daryl Thomas, Feinstein says: Ibid., 3–4.

“You know what you are Daryl?”: Ibid., 7.

An assistant coach had given this advice: Ibid., 4.

“What I like best about this team”: Ibid., 25.

Steve Alford, who went on: Alford, Playing for Knight, 101.

“The atmosphere was poisonous”: Ibid., 169.

Says Alford, “Coach’s Holy Grail”: Ibid., 63.

In the “season on the brink”: Feinstein, Season on the Brink, xi.

“You know there were times”: Ibid., 8–9.

Coach John Wooden produced: John Wooden with Jack Tobin, They Call Me
Coach (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972); John Wooden with Steve Jamison,
Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court
(Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1997).

“You have to apply yourself”: Wooden, Wooden, 11.

“Did I win? Did I lose?”: Ibid., 56.

If so, he says: Ibid., 55.

If the players were coasting: Ibid., 119.

“I looked at each one”: Ibid., 95.

“Other fellows who played”: Ibid., 67.

But he promised him: Ibid., 141–142.

Bill Walton, Hall of Famer: Ibid., ix.

Denny Crum, successful coach: Ibid., xii.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hall of Famer: Ibid., xiii.

It was the moment of victory: Wooden, They Call Me Coach, 9–10.

“There are coaches out there”: Wooden, Wooden, 117.

Pat Summitt was the coach: Pat Summitt with Sally Jenkins, Reach for the
Summit (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).

Wooden calls it being “infected”: Wooden, Wooden.

Pat Riley, former coach: Pat Riley, The Winner Within (New York: Putnam,

Summitt explained, “Success lulls you”: Summitt, Reach for the Summit, 237.

The North Carolina coach: Ibid., 5.

“Get your heads up”: Ibid., 6.

“You never stay the same”: Tyler Kepner, “The Complete Package: Why A-
Rod Is the Best in Business, Even While Learning a New Position,” The
New York Times, April 4, 2004.

First, it’s the praise: E. A. Gunderson, S. J. Gripshover, C. Romero, C. S.
Dweck, S. Goldin-Meadow, and S. C. Levine, “Parent Praise to 1-to 3-
Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later,”
Child Development 84 (2013), 1526–1541.

Second, it’s the way adults respond: K. Haimovitz and C. S. Dweck, “What
Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mindsets? Not Their
Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure,”
Psychological Science (2016).

Third, passing on a growth mindset: K. L. Sun, There’s No Limit: Mathematics
Teaching for a Growth Mindset (doctoral dissertation; Stanford, CA:
Stanford University, 2015).

Other studies paint: S. H. Yang, K. Haimovitz, C. Wright, M. Murphy, and D.
S. Yeager, Transmitting Organizational Theories of Intelligence Is Easier
Done Than Said: Evidence from a Multi-level Analysis at Ten High
Schools (unpublished manuscript, University of Texas at Austin, 2016).


In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck: Aaron T. Beck, “Thinking and
Depression: Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions,” Archives of
General Psychology 9 (1963), 325–333; Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive
Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
(At about the same time, therapist Albert Ellis was discovering a similar
thing: that beliefs are the key to how people feel.) In several studies, we
probed: This work was done with Ying-yi Hong, C. Y. Chiu, and Russell

It does not confront the basic: However, see Jeffrey E. Young and Janet
Klosko, Reinventing Your Life (New York: Plume/Penguin, 1994).
Although Young and Klosko are working in a cognitive therapy tradition, a
core assumption of their approach and one that they teach their clients is
that people can change in very basic ways.

A Mindset Workshop: This workshop was developed with Lisa Sorich
Blackwell with grants from the William T. Grant Foundation and the
Spencer Foundation: L. S. Blackwell, C. S. Dweck, and K. Trzesniewski,
Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an
Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention, 2003. I
would also like to acknowledge other psychologists who have developed
their own student workshops based on the growth mindset: Jeff Howard,
founder of the Efficacy Institute, and Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and
Michael Inzlicht of New York University and Columbia University.

“Many people think of the brain”: This was written for the workshop by Lisa
Sorich Blackwell.

Brainology: The Brainology computer-based program was also developed with
Lisa Sorich Blackwell, with a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.

Psychologists Karen Horney and Carl Rogers: Karen Horney, Neurosis and
Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (New York:
Norton, 1950); Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis
(New York: Norton, 1945); Carl R. Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy (New

York: Houghton Mifflin, 1951); On Becoming a Person (New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 1961).

Research by Peter Gollwitzer: Peter M. Gollwitzer, “Implementation Intentions:
Strong Effects of Simple Plans,” American Psychologist 54 (1999), 493–

Mindset and Willpower: I am researching this issue with Abigail Scholer, Eran
Magen, and James Gross.

Some people think about this: See the recent research by Veronika Job and
colleagues (e.g., V. Job, G. M. Walton, K. Bernecker, and C. S. Dweck,
“Implicit Theories About Willpower Predict Self-Regulation and Grades in
Everyday Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108 [2015],

When I asked people: Some of these and later examples are edited or
paraphrased for brevity and clarity (and for the anonymity of the people).


Beck, Aaron T. Love Is Never Enough. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
———. Prisoners of Hate. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Beck, Judith S. Cognitive Therapy. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.
Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1989/2003.
Binet, Alfred (Suzanne Heisler, trans.). Modern Ideas About Children. Menlo Park, CA: Suzanne Heisler,

1975 (original work, 1909).
Bloom, Benjamin S. Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York:

HarperCollins, 2001.
Collins, Marva, and Civia Tamarkin. Marva Collins’ Way: Returning to Excellence in Education. Los

Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, 1982/1990.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Davis, Stan. Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying. Wayne, ME:

Stop Bullying Now, 2003.
Edwards, Betty. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979/1999.
Ellis, Albert. Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1962.
Ginott, Haim G. Between Parent & Child. New York: Avon Books, 1956.
———. Between Parent & Teenager. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
———. Teacher and Child. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. New York: Bantam, 1995.
Gottman, John, with Nan Silver. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster,

Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.
Holt, John. How Children Fail. New York: Addison Wesley, 1964/1982.
Hyatt, Carole, and Linda Gottlieb. When Smart People Fail. New York: Penguin Books, 1987/1993.
Janis, Irving. Groupthink, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972/1982.
Lewis, Michael. Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. New York: Norton, 2005.
———. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: Norton, 2003.
McCall, Morgan W. High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business

School Press, 1998.
McLean, Bethany, and Peter Elkind. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous

Fall of Enron. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.
Olweus, Dan. Bullying at School. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
Reeve, Christopher. Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life. New York: Random House, 2002.
Sand, Barbara L. Teaching Genius: Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician. Portland, OR: Amadeus

Press, 2000.
Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf,

Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Wetzler, Scott. Is It You or Is It Me? Why Couples Play the Blame Game. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Wooden, John, with Steve Jamison. Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the

Court. Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1997.


CAROL S. DWECK, PH.D., is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers
in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology. She is the
Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has been
elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of
Sciences, and has won nine lifetime achievement awards for her research. She addressed
the United Nations on the eve of their new global development plan and has advised
governments on educational and economic policies. Her work has been featured in almost
every major national publication, and she has appeared on Today, Good Morning America,
and 20/20. She lives with her husband in Palo Alto, California.

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  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Mindsets
    • Why Do People Differ?
    • What Does All This Mean for You? The Two Mindsets
    • A View From the Two Mindsets
    • So, What’s New?
    • Self-Insight: Who Has Accurate Views of Their Assets and Limitations?
    • What’s in Store
  • Chapter 2: Inside the Mindsets
    • Is Success About Learning—or Proving You’re Smart?
      • Beyond Puzzles
      • Brain Waves Tell the Story
      • What’s Your Priority?
      • CEO Disease
      • Stretching
      • Stretching Beyond the Possible
      • Thriving on the Sure Thing
      • When Do You Feel Smart: When You’re Flawless or When You’re Learning?
      • If You Have Ability, Why Should You Need Learning?
      • A Test Score Is Forever
      • Another Look at Potential
      • Proving You’re Special
      • Special, Superior, Entitled
    • Mindsets Change the Meaning of Failure
      • Defining Moments
      • My Success Is Your Failure
      • Shirk, Cheat, Blame: Not a Recipe for Success
      • Mindset and Depression
    • Mindsets Change the Meaning of Effort
      • Seabiscuit
      • High Effort: The Big Risk
      • Low Effort: The Big Risk
      • Turning Knowledge into Action
    • Questions and Answers
  • Chapter 3: The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment
    • Mindset and School Achievement
      • The Low-Effort Syndrome
      • Finding Your Brain
      • The College Transition
      • Created Equal?
      • Can Everyone Do Well?
      • Marva Collins
      • Ability Levels and Tracking
      • Summary
    • Is Artistic Ability a Gift?
      • Jackson Pollock
    • The Danger of Praise and Positive Labels
    • Negative Labels and How They Work
      • Do I Belong Here?
      • Trusting People’s Opinions
      • When Things Go Right
  • Chapter 4: Sports: The Mindset of a Champion
    • The Idea of the Natural
      • Now You See It, Now You Don’t
      • Michael Jordan
      • The Babe
      • The Fastest Women on Earth
      • Naturals Shouldn’t Need Effort
      • Sports IQ
    • “Character”
      • More About Character
      • Character, Heart, Will, and the Mind of a Champion
      • Staying on Top
    • What Is Success?
    • What Is Failure?
    • Taking Charge of Success
    • What Does It Mean to Be a Star?
      • Every Sport Is a Team Sport
    • Hearing the Mindsets
  • Chapter 5: Business: Mindset and Leadership
    • Enron and the Talent Mindset
    • Organizations That Grow
    • A Study of Mindset and Management Decisions
    • Leadership and the Fixed Mindset
      • CEOs and the Big Ego
    • Fixed-Mindset Leaders in Action
      • Iacocca: I’m a Hero
      • Albert Dunlap: I’m a Superstar
      • The Smartest Guys in the Room
      • Two Geniuses Collide
      • Invulnerable, Invincible, and Entitled
      • Brutal Bosses
    • Growth-Mindset Leaders in Action
      • Jack: Listening, Crediting, Nurturing
      • Lou: Rooting Out the Fixed Mindset
      • Anne: Learning, Toughness, and Compassion
      • Are CEO and Male Synonymous?
    • A Study of Group Processes
    • Groupthink Versus We Think
    • The Praised Generation Hits the Workforce
    • Are Negotiators Born or Made?
    • Corporate Training: Are Managers Born or Made?
    • Are Leaders Born or Made?
    • Organizational Mindsets
  • Chapter 6: Relationships: Mindsets in Love (Or Not)
    • Relationships Are Different
    • Mindsets Falling in Love
      • 1. If You Have to Work at It, It Wasn’t Meant to Be
        • Mind Reading
        • Agreeing on Everything
      • 2. Problems Indicate Character Flaws
        • Each One a Loser
        • The Flaws Fly
        • Can This Marriage Be Saved?
    • The Partner as Enemy
    • Competition: Who’s the Greatest?
    • Developing in Relationships
    • Friendship
    • Shyness
    • Bullies and Victims: Revenge Revisited
      • Who Are the Bullies?
      • Victims and Revenge
      • What Can Be Done?
  • Chapter 7: Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come from?
    • Parents (And Teachers): Messages About Success and Failure
      • Messages About Success
        • Sending Messages About Process and Growth
        • Reassuring Children
      • Messages About Failure
        • Constructive Criticism: More About Failure Messages
      • Children Learn the Messages
        • Children Pass on the Messages
        • Isn’t Discipline Teaching?
        • Mindsets Can Be a Life-And-Death Matter
        • Wanting the Best in the Worst Way
        • “we Love You—on Our Terms”
        • Ideals
    • Teachers (And Parents): What Makes a Great Teacher (Or Parent)?
      • Great Teachers
      • High Standards and a Nurturing Atmosphere
      • More on High Standards and a Nurturing Atmosphere
      • Hard Work and More Hard Work
      • Students Who Don’t Care
      • Growth-Minded Teachers: Who Are These People?
    • Coaches: Winning Through Mindset
      • The Fixed-Mindset Coach in Action
        • The Holy Grail: No Mistakes
      • The Growth-Mindset Coach in Action
        • A Coach for All Seasons
        • The Holy Grail: Full Preparation and Full Effort
        • Equal Treatment
        • Preparing Players for Life
      • Which Is the Enemy: Success or Failure?
    • False Growth Mindset
      • What a Growth Mindset Is and Is Not
      • How Do You Get a (True) Growth Mindset?
      • How Do You Pass a Growth Mindset On?
    • Our Legacy
  • Chapter 8: Changing Mindsets
    • The Nature of Change
      • Beliefs Are the Key to Happiness (and to Misery)
      • Mindsets Go Further
    • The Mindset Lectures
    • A Mindset Workshop
    • Brainology
    • More About Change
    • Opening Yourself Up to Growth
      • The First Dilemma. Imagine you’ve applied to graduate school. You applied to just one place because it was the school you had your heart set on. And you were confident you’d be accepted since many people considered your work in your field to be original and exciting. But you were rejected.
      • The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. At first you tell yourself that it was extremely competitive, so it doesn’t really reflect on you. They probably had more first-rate applicants than they could accept. Then the voice in your head starts in. It tells you that you’re fooling yourself, rationalizing. It tells you that the admissions committee found your work mediocre. After a while, you tell yourself it’s probably true. The work is probably ordinary, pedestrian, and they’d seen that. They were experts. The verdict is in and you’re not worthy.
      • The Growth-Mindset Step. Think about your goal and think about what you could do to stay on track toward achieving it. What steps could you take to help yourself succeed? What information could you gather?
      • Plans That You’ll Carry Out and Ones That You Won’t
      • Feeling Bad, But Doing Good
      • The Number One Draft Choice
        • The Second Dilemma. The pressure is overwhelming. You yearn for playing time in the games, but every time they put you in a game to try you out, you turn anxious and lose your focus. You were always cool under pressure, but this is the pros. Now all you see are giant guys coming toward you—twelve hundred pounds of giant guys who want to take you apart. Giant guys who move faster than you ever thought possible. You feel cornered…helpless.
        • The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You torture yourself with the idea that a quarterback is a leader and you’re no leader. How could you ever inspire the confidence of your teammates when you can’t get your act together to throw a good pass or scramble for a few yards? To make things worse, the sportscasters keep asking, What happened to the boy wonder?
        • The Growth-Mindset Step. In the growth mindset, you tell yourself that the switch to the professionals is a huge step, one that takes a lot of adjustment and a lot of learning. There are many things you couldn’t possibly know yet and that you’d better start finding out about.
    • People Who Don’t Want to Change
      • Entitlement: The World Owes You
        • The Next Dilemma. “Here I am,” you think, “in this low-level job. It’s demeaning. With my talent I shouldn’t have to work like this. I should be up there with the big boys, enjoying the good life.” Your boss thinks you have a bad attitude. When she needs someone to take on more responsibilities, she doesn’t turn to you. When it’s time to give out promotions, she doesn’t include you.
        • The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. “She’s threatened by me,” you say bitterly. Your fixed mindset is telling you that, because of who you are, you should automatically be thrust into the upper levels of the business. In your mind, people should see your talents and reward you. When they don’t, it’s not fair. Why should you change? You just want your due.
        • The Growth-Mindset Step. But first, let’s be clear. For a long time, it’s frightening to think of giving up the idea of being superior. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill human being isn’t what you want to be. How could you feel good about yourself if you’re no more valuable than the people you look down on?
      • Denial: My Life Is Perfect
        • The Dilemma. You seem to have everything. You have a fulfilling career, a loving marriage, wonderful children, and devoted friends. But one of those things isn’t true. Unbeknownst to you, your marriage is ending. It’s not that there haven’t been signs, but you chose to misinterpret them. You were fulfilling your idea of the “man’s role” or the “woman’s role,” and couldn’t hear your partner’s desire for more communication and more sharing of your lives. By the time you wake up and take notice, it’s too late. Your spouse has disengaged emotionally from the relationship.
        • The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You’ve always felt sorry for divorced people, abandoned people. And now you’re one of them. You lose all sense of worth. Your partner, who knew you intimately, doesn’t want you anymore.
        • The Growth-Mindset Step. First, it’s not that the marriage, which you used to think of as inherently good, suddenly turned out to have been all bad or always bad. It was an evolving thing that had stopped developing for lack of nourishment. You need to think about how both you and your spouse contributed to this, and especially about why you weren’t able to hear the request for greater closeness and sharing.
    • Changing Your Child’s Mindset
      • The Precocious Fixed Mindsetter
        • The Dilemma. Imagine your young son comes home from school one day and says to you, “Some kids are smart and some kids are dumb. They have a worse brain.” You’re appalled. “Who told you that?” you ask him, gearing up to complain to the school. “I figured it out myself,” he says proudly. He saw that some children could read and write their letters and add a lot of numbers, and others couldn’t. He drew his conclusion. And he held fast to it.
        • The Growth-Mindset Step. You decide that, rather than trying to talk him out of the fixed mindset, you have to live the growth mindset. At the dinner table each evening, you and your partner structure the discussion around the growth mindset, asking each child (and each other): “What did you learn today?” “What mistake did you make that taught you something?” “What did you try hard at today?” You go around the table with each question, excitedly discussing your own and one another’s effort, strategies, setbacks, and learning.
      • Effort Gone Awry
        • The Dilemma. You’re proud of your daughter. She’s at the top of her class and bringing home straight A’s. She’s a flute player studying with the best teacher in the country. And you’re confident she’ll get into the top private high school in the city. But every morning before school, she gets an upset stomach, and some days she throws up. You keep feeding her a blander and blander diet to soothe her sensitive stomach, but it doesn’t help. It never occurs to you that she’s a nervous wreck.
        • The Fixed-Mindset Reactions. The counselor tells you to ease up on your daughter: Let her know it’s okay not to work so hard. Make sure she gets more sleep. So you, dutifully following the instructions, make sure she gets to sleep by ten o’clock each night. But this only makes things worse. She now has less time to accomplish all the things that are expected of her.
        • The Growth-Mindset Step. The plan the counselor suggests would allow your daughter to start enjoying the things she does. The flute lessons are put on hold. Your daughter is told she can practice as much or as little as she wants for the pure joy of the music and nothing else.
    • Mindset and Willpower
      • Anger
        • The Dilemma. Imagine you’re a nice, caring person—as you probably are—usually. You love your spouse and feel lucky to have them as your partner. But when they violate one of your rules, like letting the garbage overflow before taking it out, you feel personally betrayed and start criticizing. It begins with “I’ve told you a thousand times,” then moves on to “You never do anything right.” When they still don’t seem properly ashamed, you flare, insulting their intelligence (“Maybe you aren’t smart enough to remember garbage”) and their character (“If you weren’t so irresponsible, you wouldn’t…” “If you cared about anyone but yourself, you’d…”). Seething with rage, you then bring in everything you can think of to support your case: “My father never trusted you, either,” or “Your boss was right when he said you were limited.” Your spouse has to leave the premises to get out of range of your mounting fury.
        • The Fixed-Mindset Reaction. You feel righteous about your anger for a while, but then you realize you’ve gone too far. You suddenly recall all the ways that your spouse is a supportive partner and feel intensely guilty. Then you talk yourself back into the idea that you, too, are a good person, who’s just slipped up—lost it—temporarily. “I’ve really learned my lesson,” you think. “I’ll never do this again.”
      • The Growth Mindset and Self-Control
    • Maintaining Change
    • The Journey to a (True) Growth Mindset
      • The Journey: Step 1
      • The Journey: Step 2
      • The Journey: Step 3
      • The Journey: Step 4
    • Learn and Help Learn
    • The Road Ahead
  • Notes
    • Chapter 1. The Mindsets
    • Chapter 2. Inside the Mindsets
    • Chapter 3. The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment
    • Chapter 4. Sports: The Mindset of a Champion
    • Chapter 5. Business: Mindset and Leadership
    • Chapter 6. Relationships: Mindsets in Love (Or Not)
    • Chapter 7. Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?
    • Chapter 8. Changing Mindsets
  • Recommended Books
  • What’s Next on Your Reading List?
image of the title page
image of the title page

Copyright © 2015 by Jamie Holmes

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Holmes, Jamie.

    Nonsense : the power of not knowing / Jamie Holmes.—First Edition.

        pages cm

    1. Uncertainty.   2. Decision making.   3. Creative ability.   I. Title.

    BF463.U5H55 2015



ISBN 9780385348379

eBook ISBN 9780385348386

Cover design by Christopher Brand

Cover illustration by Christopher Brand



To my loving parents,

Nancy Maull and Stephen Holmes


IN 1996, LONDONS City and Islington College organized a crash course in French for novices and below-average students. Paula, an earnest teenager wearing wire-rim glasses, had never spoken a word of the language before. Darminder, goateed and earringed, was not only new to French, but had also failed his Spanish General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Abdul had failed his German GCSE. Satvinder and Maria had each flunked their French GCSEs, and Emily’s French teacher was so unimpressed that she advised her to give up on the language entirely. Instead of abandoning all hope, however, the students had signed up for a unique opportunity. For five full days, they’d submit to the eccentric methodology of a linguist named Michel Thomas.

Gray-haired and wearing a blue blazer, Thomas radiated poise and grace. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he told his new students, “and I’m looking forward to teaching you today, but under better physical conditions, because I don’t think that where you’re sitting is very comfortable. I would like you to feel comfortable, so we’re going to rearrange everything.” In a truck outside, Thomas had stashed some unexpected replacements for the standard classroom furniture: armchairs, pillows, coffee tables, plants, a rug, a fan, and even wicker folding screens. With a little effort, the students completely transformed the room. Plush high-backed armchairs formed a half oval, the blue curtains had been drawn, the lights dimmed, and the wicker screens enclosed the armchairs and lent the space an even cozier and more intimate feel.

There would be no desks, blackboards, paper, pens, or pencils. Thomas didn’t want the students to read or write anything. He didn’t want them to try to remember anything they studied either, or even review it at the end of the day. If, during class, they couldn’t remember something, he advised, it wasn’t their problem. It was his. Emily looked incredulous. Darminder and Abdul couldn’t contain their impish smiles. But none of the students could hide their genuine curiosity about the old man in front of them. Was he serious? Never try to remember anything taught in class?

“I want you to relax.”

This scene, Thomas’s methods, and the results of those five days appeared in a BBC documentary titled The Language Master. Margaret Thompson, head of the French department at the school, was tasked with evaluating Thomas’s results. At the end of the week, she watched as the students—many of whom had never uttered a word of French before—translated full sentences using advanced grammatical forms. Emily managed to interpret a phrase that would normally take years to tackle: “I would like to know if you want to go see it with me tonight.” Paula praised Thomas’s strong emphasis on calm and patience. The students felt, they said, as though they’d learned five years’ worth of French in only five days. Rather stunned by the outcome, Thompson bashfully deferred to their self-appraisal.

Michel Thomas knew how intimidating it can be to explore a new language. Students face new pronunciations for familiar letters, words with novel meanings, missing parts of speech, and odd grammatical structures. That’s why the City and Islington students, despite the relaxed atmosphere, still exhibited the signs of confusion: nervous laughter, embarrassed smiles, muttered apologies, stutters, hesitations, and perplexed glances. Learning a foreign language requires you to journey into unfamiliar terrain. Thomas referred to a new language as the “most alien thing” one can learn. To fend off these “alien” intrusions, the mind instinctively erects barricades, and the teacher’s first and often most difficult challenge is to help students pull these walls down. Thomas was able to transform the atmosphere in that City and Islington classroom from one of stressful apprehension to one of calm curiosity. He somehow instilled a greater open-mindedness in the students. Pupils who had habitually dismissed what they didn’t yet grasp suddenly became more likely to venture out into the unknown.

At the time of the BBC documentary, which aired in 1997, Thomas was already legendary. He’d learned eleven languages, opened tutoring centers in Los Angeles and New York, and built something of a cult following thanks to a client list that included Grace Kelly, Bob Dylan, Alfred Hitchcock, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and American Express. Nigel Levy, who studied with Thomas before producing the BBC piece, characterized the lessons as “astonishing.” Emma Thompson described her time with him as “the most extraordinary learning experience of my life.” Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations called him “a miracle worker.” And Herbert Morris, a former dean of humanities at UCLA, confided that he’d learned a year’s worth of Spanish in just a few days with Thomas and remembered it nine months later.

“The most important thing,” Thomas said, was to “eliminate all kinds of tension and anxiety” that are associated with learning. His attention to mood was peculiar, even downright radical. He’d often begin teaching French, for example, by telling his students that French and English share thousands of words. It’s only that they sound a little different. “English is French, badly pronounced,” he once joked. Words ending in -ible, like possible, and -able, like table, all originate from French words, he’d explain. Recasting the unknown as familiar, Thomas provided students, from the outset, with sturdy building blocks. His pupils grafted new knowledge onto existing knowledge, bit by bit, expressing their own thoughts and never reiterating rote phrases. Thomas taught for autonomy and rarely corrected his students directly.

By 2004, Thomas’s French, German, Italian, and Spanish instructional CDs and tapes—recordings of Thomas teaching each subject to two students—were the top-selling language courses in the United Kingdom. But Michel Thomas wasn’t merely a linguist. He was also a war hero. That same year, he was honored at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, where he received the Silver Star. He died in 2005 in New York City, as an American citizen, but he was born in the industrial city of Łódź, Poland, as Moniek Kroskof. He’d survived concentration camps, led troops, and worked as a spy and interrogator for the Allies, netting more than two thousand Nazi war criminals after the war. “Michel Thomas” was his fifth false identity and nom de guerre.

Thomas’s firsthand experience with totalitarian propaganda and his postwar undercover career are no mere biographical curiosities. His insights into the way our minds snap shut or unlock in the face of ambiguity—the central concern of this book—grew from his experiences in Germany. He had witnessed up close how Nazism had fostered a dismissive, even disdainful approach to uncertainty and moral complexity among its most fervent adherents. And he then spent decades developing methods to nurture a diametrically opposed attitude among language learners. Fifty years before the BBC documentary, in fact, Thomas tested his early ideas in an episode that eerily inverts his pedagogical demonstration at City and Islington.

image of the section break
image of the section break

IN 1946, RUDOLF Schelkmann—formerly a major in the intelligence service of Hitler’s SS—was hiding in Ulm, Germany, coordinating a loose network of loyalists hell-bent on reestablishing Nazi rule. That November, Schelkmann and three other former SS officers had been baited into meeting the purported commander of a more powerful and centralized underground neo-Nazi resistance. In reality, they were about to meet Moniek Kroskof, aka Michel Thomas, a Polish-born Jew and undercover agent of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC).

Tasked with bringing war criminals to justice, Thomas was on a mission to identify and eventually dismantle Schelkmann’s network. Another CIC agent who went by the name of Hans Meyer had been carefully building a rapport with members of the network, but Schelkmann remained reticent. The former SS man had agreed to share contacts and operational details, but only after meeting face-to-face with Meyer’s commander. Thomas had to keep Schelkmann and his men from smelling a rat. Toward that end, he had meticulously arranged for the SS conspirators to be run through a tortuous routine in the hours leading up to the big meeting.

Earlier that night, the SS men had been waiting, on Meyer’s orders, in a “safe house” southwest of Ulm. Without warning, motorbikes arrived to pick them up. Thomas had deliberately waited for stormy weather; as the conspirators sat on the backs of the bikes, sharp winds pressed at the men’s rain-soaked clothes. Dropped off on a deserted road, the conspirators were blindfolded and hustled into two cars. In the darkness, they heard passwords exchanged as they navigated a series of staged security checks. They were pulled from the cars, marched blindly down a muddy path, and led through deep, icy puddles. They were kept waiting in an unheated corridor and were forbidden to speak. Still blindfolded, they listened to terse commands, scurrying footsteps, and doors opening and closing hurriedly. By the time Schelkmann and his men were finally led into a lodge hall and were allowed to see, it was past midnight.

Thomas—or Frundsberg to the SS men—greeted the conspirators from behind a large desk. Wearing civilian clothes except for a brown, military-style shirt, he’d been described to the Nazi loyalists as a former senior officer of the RSHA, an intelligence group once overseen by Himmler. Frundsberg’s hunting lodge, as the faux headquarters of the underground “Grossorganisation” resistance, was artfully embellished with portraits of Hitler and other Nazi bigwigs and decorated with grenades, machine guns, pistols, flame throwers, and sabotage kits. Stacks of cash sat in an open safe.

Thomas nodded curtly, sit, and the men sat. He studied a dossier of unknown contents in silence. Then he made his position clear to Schelkmann: he would not tolerate any splinter resistance groups. Military actions taken outside his command were acts of treason, plain and simple. With seemingly offhand gestures, Thomas belittled Schelkmann and his small group, taking frequent phone calls to emphasize his indifference to them. Subordinates came and went with apparently urgent communiqués. Flustered, the Nazi major now offered some of the details that Thomas was after: his background, the backgrounds of the other SS men in the room, the name of his network, its charter, methods, and structure, and how its members were recruited.

The CIC’s operation that night wasn’t flawless. Thomas’s elaborate fiction required roughly thirty people acting in concert, each with assigned scripts. Small mistakes and inconsistencies in the theatrical performance were inevitable. Counterintelligence operations turn on such minutiae—on whether the strange hesitation, bizarre response, or involuntary twitch is interpreted as sinister or benign. That’s why a certain Soviet spy, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted, smoked a pipe. It immobilized his facial expressions. Buttons whose holes were sewn in a crisscross rather than a parallel pattern could reveal an agent’s nationality and destroy an otherwise perfect operation. In Egypt, a foreign agent was once discovered because of his giveaway stance at a public urinal. No detail is insignificant to the intelligence operative, as Thomas knew, and Schelkmann’s background in intelligence was formidable.

Schelkmann had two chances to unmask that night’s hoax. His first came when he asked to be appointed Thomas’s head of intelligence. “I had not anticipated this,” Thomas later told his biographer, Christopher Robbins. “I could hardly grant the man’s request without bringing him into the organization, which was obviously impossible. I pointed out the weakness in his operation, which in reality I was forced to admire.” Thomas not only had to feign the workings of a fake espionage conspiracy, but also had to disparage a well-managed spy network on cue. Schelkmann didn’t catch on and didn’t protest. The second make-or-break moment of the night—the most dangerous one, according to Thomas—was when Schelkmann unexpectedly asked for orders.

“Und was befehlen Sie uns jetzt zu tun?”

And what would you command us to do now? Thomas feared, as Robbins recounted it, that “his mask had momentarily slipped and that he had stepped out of character.” Yet again, the SS men didn’t notice. Thomas recovered, ordering the Germans to hold off on any pending operations and to prepare for an inspection. His performance was vulnerable twice. But Schelkmann had missed it both times. Here was the payoff of the gauntlet of blindfolds, switched vehicles, muddy marching, rain-soaked clothing, and humiliating treatment that the conspirators had been forced to endure: clues ignored, tells overlooked. The success of that night’s scheme didn’t depend on its perfect execution. On the contrary, Thomas knew there would inevitably be slip-ups that might reveal the charade and force him to arrest the Nazis immediately. His talent was to manipulate their mood and undermine their sense of control so that they would be less likely to notice such momentary stumbles.

Some months later, when Thomas left his work with the CIC in Germany for America, a new agent took over the task of roping in the diehard Nazi underground. Posing as Frundsberg’s deputy, this replacement arranged a meeting with Schelkmann and his men at a local beer hall. Wives and girlfriends were allowed. This time, when a tense moment came and the undercover agent seemed flustered, the German conspirators sensed that something was off. They questioned him aggressively. The panicking CIC agent pulled a gun, and the other CIC undercover officers tucked elsewhere at the bar—his backup—had no choice but to move in and arrest the men, netting far fewer of the group’s contacts than they’d hoped.

Schelkmann himself would serve twelve years in prison. When they were initially charged, he and his men vehemently denied the prosecution’s seemingly incomprehensible claim that Frundsberg, too, had been working for the Americans. Just as Thomas’s students opened their minds, the SS men had closed theirs.

image of the section break
image of the section break

THIS BOOK LOOKS at how we make sense of the world. It’s about what happens when we’re confused and the path forward isn’t obvious. Of course, most of the challenges of daily life are perfectly straightforward. When it’s snowing, we know to put on a jacket before venturing out. When the phone rings, we pick it up. A red stoplight means we should brake. At the other end of the spectrum, vast stores of knowledge completely confound most of us. Stare at Babylonian cuneiform or listen to particle physicists debate, and if you’re like me, your mind will draw a blank. We can’t be confused without some foothold in knowledge. Instead of feeling uneasy because we half understand, we’re as calmly certain in our ignorance as we are assured in our everyday rituals. This book examines the hazy middle ground between these two extremes, when
the information we need to make sense of an experience seems to be missing, too complex, or contradictory. It’s in these partially meaningful situations that ambiguity resides.

The mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable. The delight of crossword puzzles, for example, comes from pondering and resolving ambiguous clues. Detective stories, among the most successful literary genres of all time, concoct their suspense by sustaining uncertainty about hints and culprits. Mind-bending modern art, the multiplicities of poetry, Lewis Carroll’s riddles, Márquez’s magical realism, Kafka’s existential satire—ambiguity saturates our art forms and masterpieces, suggesting its deeply emotional nature. Goethe once said that “what we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive.” So it is with ambiguity.

Tourism, science museums, and brainteasers testify to the extraordinary potential of ambiguity and mystery to captivate the imagination. But they also suggest just how tentative our relationship to perceived disorder can be. We like our uncertainty to be as carefully curated as a modern art exhibit. Most contexts in which we enjoy ambiguity are unthreatening, as when music flirts with dissonance or horror films toy with madness. When we face unclear experiences beyond these realms, we rarely feel so safe. Real-life uncertainties take the form of inexplicable events, indistinct intentions, or inconclusive financial or medical news. Maybe your spouse doesn’t get a job that he or she seemed exceptionally qualified for. Or perhaps you’re not feeling well, but the doctor’s diagnosis doesn’t explain all of your symptoms. Maybe you’re negotiating a business deal with someone you don’t quite trust. Or maybe you’re trying to work out a business plan in a rapidly shifting, highly competitive market. The key decision points in our lives—from choosing a college to deciding on a place to live—have always involved handling ambiguous information in high-stakes circumstances. Today, though, the world feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever.

The paradox of modern life is that while technological acceleration—in transportation, communication, and production—should provide more free time, those same inventions increase our options at an exponential rate. Email was far faster than snail mail, but the Internet also brought Twitter, YouTube, and so on. As the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa described it, “no matter how much we increase the ‘pace of life,’ ” we cannot keep up with the deluge of information and options. The result is that “our share of the world” feels continually squeezed, even as we gain more efficient access to it. Estimates are that 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years. We’re all drowning in information, a reality that makes even the simplest decisions—where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy—more fraught.

Meanwhile, we face the social anxieties of increasing inequality and an uncertain economic future as machines appear set to replace humans in many industries. Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill. The economist Noreena Hertz recently argued that one of today’s fundamental challenges is “disorder—a combination of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age.”

Automation and outsourcing will require tomorrow’s workers to be more innovative and creative. Success or failure, as Harvard economist Lawrence Katz recently put it, will hinge on one question: “How well do you deal with unstructured problems, and how well do you deal with new situations?” Jobs that can be “turned into an algorithm,” in his words, won’t be coming back. “What will be rewarded,” Katz told me, “are the abilities to pick up new skills [and] remain attuned to your environment and the capacity to discover creative solutions that move beyond the standard way of doing things.”

Just as workers today must learn to adapt to the unknown, tomorrow’s workforce has to prepare for it. Miguel Escotet, a social scientist and education professor, has framed the argument well. Schools should “educate for uncertainty,” he said, simply because for many students, “it is almost impossible to know what will happen by the time they will join the job market.” For Escotet, educating for uncertainty involves helping students be flexible, self-critical, curious, and risk-embracing—the very capacities that tend to disappear when anxiety gets the better of us. Similarly, entrepreneurs cannot innovate without the ability to dwell calmly among multiple unknowns. Being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t a function of intelligence. In fact, as we’ll see, this ability has no relationship whatsoever to IQ. It is, however, an emotional challenge—a question of mind-set—and one we would all do well to master. Today’s puzzle is to figure out what to do—in our jobs, relationships, and everyday lives—when we have no idea what to do.

Scientific interest in ambiguity has exploded over the last decade. Much of that attention has focused on exploring a concept called the need for closure. Developed by a brilliant psychologist named Arie Kruglanski, a person’s need for closure measures a particular “desire for a definite answer on some topic, any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity.” Like Michel Thomas’s unorthodox teaching methods, Kruglanski’s concept—and indeed the modern psychological study of ambiguity—can be traced to an attempt to understand Nazism.

In 1938, a Nazi psychologist named Erich Jaensch published Der Gegentypus (The antitype), an odious text in which he described certainty as a sign of mental health. To Jaensch, the very tolerance of doubt was evidence of psychological illness. After the war, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, a psychologist at the University of California, introduced the concept of ambiguity intolerance. In one experiment, she showed subjects a progression of images, starting with a sketch of a dog. The images gradually morphed slide by slide into the image of a cat. Subjects intolerant of ambiguity—people who tended to see the world in rigid categories—would insist stubbornly that the image was still a dog. Neatly reversing Jaensch, Frenkel-Brunswik suggested that the intolerance of unclear information was what characterized the unhealthy mind.

Kruglanski would offer a more modest and somehow more disturbing proposal than Frenkel-Brunswik’s. He understood that humans have a need to resolve uncertainty and make sense of nonsense. It wouldn’t be very adaptive, he reasoned, if we had no mechanism pushing us to settle discrepancies and make decisions. Without some type of urge for resolution, we’d never get anything done. That’s the need for closure. But Kruglanski also suspected that our aversion to uncertainty isn’t static. What if, he wondered, extremism results when our thirst for clear answers goes into hyperdrive? What if Nazism was partly fueled by the dangerous pairing of a hateful ideology with its adherents’ inflated aversion to doubt?

That, in fact, is what Kruglanski and other researchers discovered. Our need to conquer the unresolved, as we’ll see, is essential to our ability to function in the world. But like any mental trait, this need can be exaggerated in some people and heightened in certain circumstances. As Kruglanski told me, “the situation you’re in, your culture, your social environment—change any of these factors, and you’re going to change someone’s need for closure.” Aversion to uncertainty can be contagious, picked up subconsciously from those around us. In stressful situations, we trust people in our social groups more and trust outsiders less. Fatigue heightens our appetite for order. So does time pressure. When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions. We may stubbornly insist, like Rudolf Schelkmann, that the dog is still a dog and not a cat.

Michel Thomas came to grips with the power of context to open or close the mind. He learned how to manipulate the situational levers controlling our discomfort with ambiguity. Think of how perfectly the CIC’s setup in Ulm inverted Thomas’s lessons at City and Islington. Wanting the SS men to feel time-pressured, he answered telephone calls during the meeting and made sure his “aides” interrupted him. He wanted to intimidate the conspirators, so he stocked the hunting lodge with weapons and bundles of cash. To put the SS men on the defensive, he lodged them at an unfamiliar safe house. To tire them out and make them uncomfortable, he had them ride through the rain, wait in the cold, and march through icy puddles. In London, by contrast, Thomas encouraged his students to have patience. To ensure that they were relaxed, he told them it wasn’t their responsibility to remember anything. He even had them cart away the classroom desks and replace them with living room furniture and wicker screens. His students arranged their own learning space. To further help them take control, he assured them that they were already familiar with thousands of French words.

Thomas turned the Nazis’ own doubt-repressing tools against them and later employed their logical opposites to help students learn. Intimidation, discomfort, time pressure—all allies of Thomas the CIC officer—were his enemies as a teacher. He knew how to raise the likelihood that Schelkmann and his men would blot out potential contradictions, just as the spy-turned-teacher later learned how to lower the chances that his students would disengage from a peculiar new language. He understood that our need for closure isn’t always tied to the particular ambiguity we’re dealing with. Comfy chairs have nothing to do with French pronouns, just as cold puddles have no direct bearing on whether to trust someone. Our response to uncertainty, he saw, is extraordinarily sensitive even to unrelated stress.

As Kruglanski pointed out, we typically aren’t aware of how a situation raises or lowers our need for closure or how drastically this affects our reactions to ambiguity. That’s what makes Thomas’s methods so striking. We don’t normally think about closed- and open-mindedness as being so strongly influenced by our circumstances. While we may acknowledge that some people are more or less comfortable with uncertainty, we tend to see this trait as hardwired. But we’re not as beholden to our genes as we once thought.

This book argues that we often manage ambiguity poorly and that we can do better. Over the last several years, new discoveries from social psychology and cognitive science have extended our understanding of how people respond to ambiguity in ways that researchers couldn’t have fathomed in the 1950s. The researchers’ breakthroughs suggest new and smarter approaches to handling uncertainty at work and at home. Their insights point to ways that ambiguity can help us learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.

Part 1 will lay the groundwork. We’ll explore the trade-offs inherent in our mental machinery and meet a young psychologist in the Netherlands who is leading a vanguard movement toward a new, unified theory of how we make sense of the world. Part 2 focuses on the hazards of denying ambiguity. We’ll look at the differences between wise and hasty reactions to destabilizing events, watch a master FBI negotiator deal with an ambivalent cult leader, and see how a cancer patient’s comfort with uncertainty is helping change the way that we make medical decisions. We’ll also learn how one business readies for the future by acknowledging the futility of predicting it. Part 3 highlights the benefits of ambiguity in settings where we’re more challenged than threatened: innovation, learning, and art. What are the uses of uncertainty? How can teachers better prepare students for unpredictable challenges? Can embracing uncertainty help us invent, look for answers in new places, and even deepen our empathy? We’ll see how a Grand Prix motorcycle manufacturer responded to a surprisingly dismal season, and we’ll get to know a Massachusetts inventor who pushes beyond the hidden limitations of language. We’ll look at the advantages of bilingualism and meet a daring filmmaker in Jerusalem.

Along the way, I’ll hope to convince you of a simple claim: in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.


Making Sense


The Resolving Mind


GÖRAN LUNDQVIST ARRIVED home from work and asked his wife a rhetorical question. “Today,” he said to her, “we made a deal with Damien Hirst and another with John Irving. Guess which business I’m in?” In a past life, Lundqvist had been a professional athlete. He had competed in the Olympics as a diver twice, in 1960 and 1964. He was also an actor, appearing in four Ingmar Bergman films, including the Golden Globe–winning Wild Strawberries. But in the late 1990s, he was the president of a company.

At that time, the company was in the midst of one of the most productive advertising campaigns in the history of marketing. The campaign, which was launched in November 1980, was not only immensely effective, but also exceedingly long-running. In 1992, the company was inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Hall of Fame, in a class with only two others, Coca-Cola and Nike. It achieved that honor, uniquely, without the help of television ads.

In its heyday, the company ran ads developed by Andy Warhol, Kurt Vonnegut, the New Yorker’s cartoonists, Marc Jacobs, T. C. Boyle, Helmut Lang, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Versace. Ads featured Salman Rushdie, Chuck Close, David Bowie, and Gus Van Sant. The company hired painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, interior and fashion designers, and folk artists. In 2002, Forbes ranked them as the world’s top “luxury brand,” ahead of Gucci, Tiffany, and BMW.

The company’s product was vodka. Its name was Absolut.

In 1979, Absolut sold five thousand cases of vodka in the United States. Ten years later, it was shipping 2.5 million cases and had passed its rival Stolichnaya, completing a move from last to first in US imported vodka sales. As sales of spirits were dropping overall, Absolut was seeing annual growth of over 30 percent. In 1979, it had a 1 percent share of imported vodka sales. By 1989, it had a 60 percent share. “Absolut is in a category of its own,” one prominent industry consultant gushed.

Carried out primarily in a single medium—glossy print magazines—Absolut’s campaign was so compelling that it grew addictive. People who didn’t even drink liquor would cut out the ads from magazines: collect, sell, and trade them. The Absolut Collectors Society was founded in 1995. It had a monthly newsletter and, at its peak, 2,500 members. High school and college librarians had to start streaking the ads with black markers so that students wouldn’t remove them.

Absolut’s success is especially noteworthy considering the long odds it faced. For one, vodka is hard to market. It doesn’t have much of a taste or smell. It’s not like whiskies, wines, or lagers. Vodka-tasting courses and vodka connoisseurs are rare. People don’t usually order vodka flights at bars. There are also restrictions on how you can advertise liquor. You can’t pass out samples door-to-door like detergent. Perhaps most dauntingly, Absolut is from Sweden. This drew a blank for many Americans, who often confused the country with Switzerland. At most, Americans thought of Volvo, blond women, or snow. They didn’t think of vodka. Russians drink vodka. Stolichnaya had the right heritage. Even Smirnoff, one of the top-selling American vodkas, had a Slavic name. It was a lot to overcome.

The company decided that for starters, it needed a unique bottle. In advertising, there’s an adage: if you can’t sell the product, sell the package. Nothing distinctive about vodka? Create a distinctive bottle. Absolut would mimic the perfume industry and transform the bottle into a work of craftsmanship or a fashion accessory. High-end perfume bottles are sculptures. Made of frosted or colored glass, the most exotic seem to have emerged from the sea or space or some foreign civilization.

Absolut took its inspiration from old Swedish medicine bottles. While most liquor bottles had long necks and square shoulders, Absolut’s would have round shoulders and a short neck. Instead of a paper label, as other liquor bottles had, its label would be printed directly onto the glass. As final touches, the designers added decorative text and a seal of the Swedish distiller Lars Olsson Smith.

The advertising outfit TBWA (now TBWA Worldwide) was hired to promote Absolut. In his book Adland, Mark Tungate described the consumer feedback the ad company got when it tested the product. “We were given three pieces of advice,” Claude Bonnange, the B in TBWA, explained. “First, change the name, because Absolut sounds arrogant. Second, change the bottle, because it looks like it’s designed for urine samples. And third, change the logo, because the blue lettering is printed directly onto the glass, which means you can’t see it on the shelf.” But Michel Roux, head of Absolut’s US distributor, liked the bottle’s uniqueness. It would stay as it was.

Now TBWA just needed a memorable way to market the product. Traditionally, liquor ads were bottle-and-glass ads, which you can probably picture, or lifestyle ads, with photos of smiling models at fashionable parties. One of TBWA’s first ideas was to poke fun at Sweden’s climate. A mock-up pictured a man ice bathing. THERE’S NOTHING THE SWEDES ENJOY MORE WHEN IT’S COLD, it read. An image of the Absolut bottle sat in one corner. TBWA’s Geoff Hayes and Graham Turner knew it wasn’t good enough, and it was Hayes who made the first breakthrough. He was lounging around one night in a Spartan apartment Turner described as consisting of “a bed and a mug.” Sketching Absolut bottles, Hayes drew a halo over one of them. “Absolut,” he wrote. “It’s the perfect vodka.” Turner simplified the catchphrase the next day to “Absolut Perfection.”

The slogan set the template for hundreds of ads to come: a two-word headline, with Absolut as the first word. In the campaign’s early years, the bottles in the ads were presented realistically and often embodied a person or a thing. In “Absolut Perfection,” the bottle was an angel (or a haloed rascal). In “Absolut Elegance,” the bottle was sporting a bow tie. “Absolut Profile” showed the bottle turned ninety degrees to one side.

One virtue of the ads was their touch of humor. Many of them flirted with self-parody. When Hayes created the “Absolut Perfection” ad, he knew that he was toying with comic-strip elements by presenting vodka as an angel as mischievous as Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. “Absolut Dream” was also cartoonish. It portrayed a thought bubble with the bottle’s innermost fantasy: filling up a pair of martini glasses.

Richard Lewis, who was in charge of Absolut at TBWA and authored two books on its advertising story, emphasized that the ads also took a moment to digest. “Any piece of learning should take a second or two,” Lewis told me. “We always believed that one of the cardinal aspects of the campaign was to treat the audience as smart. You create a little puzzle, or game, to bring them in, and then they feel better about themselves and better about us.” Lewis knew that the ads challenged and “even befuddled” readers. The clues couldn’t be too obvious. The haloed bottle didn’t read “Absolut Angel.” “Absolut Elegance” didn’t read “Absolut Black Tie.” The ads hollowed out tiny spaces for readers to fill in with their imagination, like little brainteasers whose solutions were flavored with comedy. It’s worth pausing to reflect on how outlandishly fruitful this simple approach became, and what Absolut’s triumph tells us about the mind’s attitude toward ambiguity.

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IN 1949, TWO Harvard psychologists published a landmark experiment on reactions to incongruity that offers a complementary perspective to Absolut’s case study. Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman believed that human perception, and more broadly how we make sense of the world, wasn’t an altogether passive process. At that time, theorists had begun to conceptualize the mind as a computer, as if our brains simply respond by rote formula to different inputs, a view that stubbornly persists today across swaths of psychological science. Bruner and Postman instead thought that sense making was more active than reactive, and they engineered a way to test their suspicions: a peculiar set of playing cards where some of the black and red colors were reversed.

Bruner had first tried to get an American playing card company to produce the reverse-colored cards, taking care to use Harvard stationery to avoid looking like a card shark running a scam. But despite his best efforts and intentions, the company was reluctant to help out. “They were being a pain in the ass,” he later recalled. Eventually he went to an art store accompanied by T. S. Eliot’s sister-in-law, with whom he’d taken drawing lessons, to purchase the paints to create the trick cards.

Reverse-colored cards, observed for an instant, are ambiguous. A red spade can look like a black spade or a red heart. A black heart could be a red heart or a black spade, and so on. Bruner and Postman guessed that the trick cards, glimpsed briefly, would trigger competing interpretations. For their experiment, they asked subjects to identify playing cards flashed before their eyes and describe what they saw. Mixed in with normal cards were those that shouldn’t exist: red spades, red clubs, black hearts, and black diamonds. Each card was shown for a hundredth of a second and then for longer durations up to a full second, or until people correctly identified the card.

A remarkable 96 percent of participants, at first, described the trick cards as normal cards. People saw what they expected to see, denying any possible anomalies. One subject identified the black three of hearts as a red three of hearts sixteen times. Another described the same card as the three of spades twenty-four times. Yet another did the same thing forty-four times. Normal cards, the psychologists found, were identified after an average of twenty-eight milliseconds. People could name the number and suit of the normal cards almost instantaneously. Trick cards took four times longer, and even at a full second of exposure, subjects failed to identify the trick cards 10 percent of the time.

When some cards were flashed for longer durations, Bruner and Postman discovered, the subjects seemed torn between two different ideas of what the cards were. Here’s how some people described the colors of red spades and red clubs:


Black and red mixed

Black with red edges

Black in red light


Black but redness somewhere

Rusty color

Rusty black

Black on reddish card

Olive drab

Grayish red

Looks reddish, then blackens

Blackish brown

Blurred reddish

Near black but not quite

Black in yellow light

Fifty percent of subjects were suspended in this cognitive limbo at some point. Even when they partially grasped that the trick cards were different, the subjects’ perception still wasn’t working like a camera. Reality was being skewed, dynamically constructed to align with drilled-in expectations. And when the subjects were stuck and yet still had to describe what they saw, many of them experienced the ambiguity of the trick cards as strikingly unpleasant. One subject, after seeing a red spade card, said this: “I can’t make out the suit, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like! My God!”

Another subject was just as upset. “I’ll be damned if I know now whether it’s red or what!” Fifty-seven percent of participants shared this reaction.

Bruner and Postman unmasked the mind’s natural tendency to paper over anomalies. They also revealed our distaste for ambiguity when we’re under pressure—in this case, brought on by the experimenter’s request to describe the cards. The stress of the experiment made the mental conflicts caused by the trick cards unpleasant. (Absolut ads aren’t unpleasant, partly because readers aren’t being observed or evaluated.) More generally, Bruner and Postman vividly illustrated how mechanically our minds fill in gaps and dissolve discrepancies, and how preconceptions actively distort our experiences.

Our preconceptions are vital for making sense of things, planning, and taking action. Every day, automatically, we rely on small conjectures about the world to function. Think of them as the cause-and-effect associations—between objects, actions, events, people, and ideas—that guide our actions. For example, when driving a car, we expect that a red light means stop. We expect that when we turn on the kitchen faucet, beer won’t pour out, but water will. We assume that working overtime will eventually lead to a raise. And we trust that spades will be black, not red. The stronger these assumed relationships are, the more automatically and actively our minds foist them upon whatever we encounter. That’s why the subjects in Bruner and Postman’s study saw red spades as black spades or red hearts. Playing cards’ prototypes are ingrained so deeply that the subjects recognized them without truly looking.

Maybe the wildest example of expectations warping perception is the so-called McGurk effect, first reported in 1976. Imagine watching a silent video where a pair of lips utters the syllable “va.” If you sync that video to an audio clip of the syllable “ba,” what you see will dominate what you should hear. If you’re looking at the lips, you’ll actually hear “va.” Close your eyes, and the correct “ba” sound will return. Our expectation that the syllables we hear and the way lips move will match is so strong that it changes the perception of sound. Check it out on YouTube—you’ll be astonished.*1

Here’s another illustration. In this example, we’re consciously aware of the problem even as we unconsciously resolve it:

Aoccdrnig to rseearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oerdr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.

Amzanig, huh? What academic publications now call the “Cambridge University effect” actually began as a hoax. The scrambled words were circulated online in 2003, and there was never any study at Cambridge. But the hoaxer had made his or her point.

We should be thankful that the brain works in this way. It has to. We encounter so much information every day, we can’t possibly absorb it all in fine-grained detail. We have to overgeneralize. The “fundamental problem of life,” as the psychologist Jordan Peterson described it, “is the overwhelming complexity of being.” To make our way, we have to be constantly stemming the deluge and, in his words, “eradicating vast swathes of information” irrelevant to our goals. Peterson praises this capacity of the mind as “the miracle of simplification.” The only way we can manage the flood of perception is by creating and automatically deferring to working theories of what we’re going to encounter—beliefs about the world, in the broadest sense.

Belief,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “is the engine that makes perception operate.” Our expectations and assumptions—whether generous or hopeful, pitiless or woebegone—constantly bend and even warp the world we see. That’s how we cope with what William James called life’s “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” We’re endlessly reducing ambiguity to certainty, and in general, the system works well. Absolut’s marketing triumph showed that the mind’s resolution urge is so powerful and innate that simply by baiting our habituated associations, by hinting at connections left out, advertisers could transform liquor ads into captivating little puzzles.

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IN 1953, A writer named Leonard Stern was working on a script for the television show The Honeymooners. Stern was in his New York City apartment overlooking Central Park, sitting at his typerwriter, and he was at a loss. He was trying to figure out how to describe the nose of one particular character, Ralph Kramden’s boss, and for half an hour, as he later remembered it, he found himself “wallowing in clichés.”

Stern’s best friend, Roger Price, dropped by the apartment. They were writing a comedic book together: What Not to Name the Baby. Stern assured Price that he’d be with him in just a minute and they’d get to work on it.

“No, we won’t,” Price retorted. “You’re in your idiosyncratic-pursuit-of-a-word mode. I could be standing here for hours. Do you want help?”

“I need an adjective that—”

“Clumsy and naked.”

Stern laughed. Ralph Kramden’s boss now had either a clumsy nose or a naked nose. “Clumsy and naked,” Stern recounted, “were appropriately inappropriate adjectives that had led us to an incorrect but intriguing, slightly bizarre juxtaposing of words.” Price thought it was funny, too.

Instead of cataloging regrettable baby names, the pair spent the day writing stories with key words removed from them. At a party that night, they tested their new invention: they’d ask people for a part of speech to replace the removed words and then read back the completed story. Another five years would pass before the pair came up with a suitable name for the game. It wasn’t until 1958, at Sardi’s restaurant in New York, that they overheard a conversation between an agent and an actor. The actor had decided to ad-lib an interview, which the agent told him was a mad idea.

It was the birth of Mad Libs. The children’s game is absurdly simple. You may remember that the blanks ask for nouns, adjectives, adverbs, body parts, exclamations, silly words, or animals. Here’s a Mad Libs snippet that will prove a useful reference as we go: “A good wine, served ___________ (adverb), can make any meal a truly ___________ (adjective) occasion. The red wines have a/an ___________ (adjective) flavor that blends with boiled ___________ (plural noun) or smoked ___________ (noun).” You end up with sentences like: “A good wine, served happily, can make any meal a truly fast occasion. The red wines have a purple flavor that blends with boiled pants or smoked road.”

How could this game possibly be successful? Why is it funny? These aren’t glib questions. Mad Libs is such a cultural phenomenon that it now seems obvious that having readers fill in “appropriately inappropriate” words to construct little stories would make for a runaway hit product. But is it really so obvious?

It wasn’t at the time. Stern and Price’s publisher didn’t think it would work as a book, and suggested they take the idea to a game manufacturer. So they took it to a game manufacturer, and were told that it wouldn’t really work as a game, but that a book publisher might be interested. In the end, Stern and Price had to publish it themselves. To help promote their new product, Stern asked Steve Allen, whose top-rated Sunday night television show he wrote for, to try using the idea in his introductions. Allen employed the winning format to bring out Bob Hope, allowing the audience to fill in the missing words in the bio line: “And here’s the scintillating Bob Hope, whose theme song is ‘Thanks for the Communist.’ ”

Mad Libs became a bestseller, with over 150 million copies sold. To put that in perspective, one of the top-selling novels of all time, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, has sold over 200 million copies. The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million. Taken together, then, the Mad Libs series ranks among a select group of the top-selling titles in the history of book publishing. That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? What treasure, precisely, had Stern and Price stumbled upon? Why does the human mind enjoy filling in words and laughing at their appropriate inappropriateness?

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IN 1970, THE Swedish psychologist Göran Nerhardt was developing a thesis about the nature of humor. His hypothesis, expressed in stiff academic vernacular, was that “the inclination to laugh is a function of the divergence of a perceived state of affairs from the expected state”—in other words, the kinds of weird juxtapositions in Mad Libs stories. We expect wine might have a fruity flavor and so “purple flavor” is funny.

To test his sweeping theory, Nerhardt devised an experiment. His subjects were not informed of the true purpose of the study. They were merely told to close their eyes and hold out their hands as an experimenter passed them a series of weights, one by one, and asked them to judge whether the weight was light or heavy. Depending on the reply, experimenters also asked if the weight was very light, quite light, or between light and heavy, or alternatively, very heavy, quite heavy, or between heavy and light. The weights varied from 20 to 2,700 grams.

Nerhardt’s experimenters first habituated people to a limited range of weights. Then, once subjects had formed a rough idea of what to expect, they were handed an oddly out-of-place weight. So, for example, a subject might get a series of weights of 740, 890, 1,070, 1,570, and 2,700 grams, and then they’d be handed a 70-gram weight. When people picked up the odd weight, Nerhardt found, something unusual happened. They laughed. Not only that, but the greater the difference between the weights they’d been holding and the suddenly odd weight, the more people giggled. Michael Godkewitsch, another humor psychologist, reported a similar effect. His subjects found adjective-noun word pairs funnier the odder they were, so that “hot poet” was funnier than “wise egg,” which was funnier than “happy child.”

Nerhardt and Godkewitsch seemed to be onto the very thing that made Mad Libs enjoyable. But Nerhardt might have been aware that he didn’t have the full story. After all, humor can’t be that simple, can it? In testing his odd-weights experiment outside of the laboratory, in fact, Nerhardt experienced an interesting failure. He attempted a version of the study in Stockholm subway stations, telling people that he was conducting a consumer survey and having them pick up suitcases of various weights. When they picked up a much lighter or much heavier suitcase than expected…nothing happened. Nobody thought it was funny. No one laughed. Psychologist Rod Martin, who published a history of the psychology of humor, thinks that the critical difference was that commuters at a train station had different expectations for the experiment.

At the train station,” Martin explained, “passengers were either getting off or about to get on a train. Maybe they were going to work. They were in a serious mode of thinking. But subjects in a lab setting know it’s a psychology experiment. They’re more likely to think, ‘Why would an experimenter give me a weight that is so obviously different and ask what it weighs? Something strange is going on.’ ” People were ready to partake in a serious scientific experiment, and it turned out to be a silly game. That’s what was funny. Subjects were laughing at the idea of the experiment. In Nerhardt’s lab, the odd weight was unexpected and it allowed people to make bizarre sense of the situation. At the train station, there was no puzzle that people could solve. An oddly weighted suitcase was unexpected, but not in any meaningful way.

Surprise, to be sure, is critical to the humor in Mad Libs. But for the bizarre word combinations to be truly funny, the surprises have to mean something. Certainly, “purple flavor” and “served happily” and “fast occasion” are slightly odd. But they do make sense by some strange logic. Kids might say grape juice has a purple flavor. A drunk serves wine happily. Drunkenness can speed an evening along. You can imagine a universe not so far from our own where an eccentric sommelier reported catching a whiff of “boiled pants” or “smoked road” in a Barbaresco.

Many jokes follow similar rules. Think, for example, about the elements that constitute this joke:

There are only three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t.

First, we expect to hear about three types of people. (If we know it’s a joke, we guess that the punch line will involve the third type.) Second, we’re a little surprised when there’s no description for the third kind of person. Finally, we discover an alternative rule that makes sense of the surprise: the joke teller can’t count. Try to consider each element as you read through these English phrases that tourists found abroad:

On a Swiss menu: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.

In a hotel lobby in Bucharest: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

In a cocktail lounge in Norway: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.

In an airline ticket office in Copenhagen: We take your bags and send them in all directions.

In a French hotel elevator: Please leave your values at the front desk.

In an Athens hotel: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.

In a Swiss mountain inn: Special today—no ice cream.

In a tailor shop in Rhodes: Order your summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.

From a hotel air conditioner instruction booklet in Japan: Cooles and Heates: If you want just condition of warm in your room, please control yourself.

We imagine what the texts should say. Our wines won’t disappoint you, you won’t be able to take the elevator because it’s broken, please don’t bring your children to the bar, and so on. Second, there’s an odd juxtaposition between what’s expected and what is. Third, we are able to make appropriately inappropriate sense of them. We picture the cartooned worlds they animate: despairing wine drinkers, cranky hotel guests, and women impolitely giving birth in cocktail lounges. The humor here hinges on ambiguous meanings. “Nothing to hope for” could mean either “not wanting” or “hopeless.” “Unbearable” could be “untransportable” or “intolerable.” “Have children” could mean either “give birth” or “bring children.” We get the joke when we grasp how the alternative meanings are actually somehow sensible.

Here’s another example where the humor clearly depends on uncovering an ambiguity (a pun) that we first overlook:

There’s an expectation. You’d expect someone to reply “no problem” or “right away.” The actual reply doesn’t fit, and then we go back and get the joke by noticing that the first line is ambiguous. It could mean “please refer to me as a taxi.” Now take a look at two altered versions of the same joke:

2) Call a cab for me.

You’re a cab.

3) Call me a cab.

Yes, ma’am.

Number two removes the ambiguity from the first line. So it’s still weird, but like Nerhardt’s train-station experiment, it’s not funny. There’s no way to make sense of it. In number three, the double meaning in “Call me a cab” is back, but it doesn’t register because the ambiguity is never exposed. Humor experts at McGill University tested the preceding example and similar variations on kids in grades one, three, five, and seven. The youngest kids, the researchers found, were equally satisfied with versions one and two of the joke. Children in grades three and up, by contrast, enjoyed the first version the most. Older kids preferred to discover the hidden meaning.

Laughter, psychologists Howard Pollio and Rodney Mers once wrote, “is a partial exclamation of achievement rather than an expression of surprise over incongruity.” For puns and jokes, laughter is a testament to the voracious power of our sense-making minds, as all three of the processes involved—expectation, surprise, and the discovery of a rule that resolves the puzzle—happen almost instantaneously. Not all humor, of course, derives its alchemistic power this way, and the solution doesn’t always lie in a hidden pun. Stand-up, parody and caricature, everyday humor, and slapstick often play by different rules. But chuckling also springs from our exploration of hidden meanings and our delighting in clever, unexpected connections that we normally disregard.

One of the fascinating things about humor is the way it acknowledges how our minds fill in gaps, resolve discrepancies, and reduce the hypercomplexity of everyday life. It exposes our lightning-fast assumptions by toying with them.

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IN 1998, BILL Cosby was hosting a television show on CBS. The idea for Kids Say the Darndest Things was that Cosby would conduct on-stage interviews with small children. To coax the funniest moments out of his tiny interviewees, Cosby had developed a number of shrewd strategies. One was to ask the kids about concepts that would stump them. Here’s a chat, for example, that he had with five-year-old Kemett Hayes:

Cosby: I have a cut [he shows the boy his finger]. See it? What do you do for that?

Kemett [without hesitation]: You’ve got to put a little Neosporin on it. And then put a bandage over it. Then it’ll go away.

Cosby: Where does it go?

Kemett: It go, um, it go…down here [he points to his finger]…in your blood.

Cosby: And where does it go?

Kemett: Then it’ll go in another country.

The audience laughed. Cosby let the crowd enjoy the idea. Then he made good use of it. (“What country do you think mine is going to go to?” “Uh, China.” Kemett, aware of the joke now, smiles.) Think about how similar the comedy here is to the humor in Mad Libs. Kemett fills in an answer almost automatically, it doesn’t fit, and then the crowd laughs, without malice, at his mistake and the alternative world it animates. What truly made the show was the fascinating logic that kids—and all of us, by extension—employ to explain the world. And to be fair, Kemett’s first explanation for where a cut goes when it heals, “in your blood,” is actually pretty good. Compare his logic with that of another five-year-old:

Interviewer: What makes the wind?

Julia: The trees.

Interviewer: How do you know?

Julia: I saw them waving their arms.

Interviewer: How does that make the wind?

Julia [waving her hand in front of his face]: Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.

The interviewer here is Jean Piaget, the renowned Swiss philosopher and psychologist. His investigative techniques included interviews with small children, and many of the interviews were amusingly similar to Cosby’s. As Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology once put it, Piaget “was the first to take children’s thinking seriously.”

Piaget found that when children try to understand a mysterious phenomenon, they often just extend a concept they already have about how the world works. Where can things go when they go away? They can go to another country. How is wind made? It’s made in the same way I create a breeze with my hand. Piaget called this kind of reasoning assimilation. Children assume that things that move must be alive, for example. In their model of the world, which is built up from observing animals, there is an assumed link between movement and life. If it seems to move by itself, it’s alive. They assimilate other moving things into this conception. The sun, moon, and wind move, and so, like animals, must be alive. The sun and moon even follow us when we’re out walking, just like a pet dog. It’s the same kind of analogical thinking that has trees waving their arms and cuts migrating to parts unknown. As one child phrased it, the wind feels “Because it blows” and water feels “Because it flows.” A six-year-old, asked what it means to be alive, replied very clearly: “To be able to move all alone.” Piaget showed that all of us have mental models of the world—he called them schème—and that we apply them to new situations or things we don’t understand. That’s often appropriate. This hotel-room faucet probably works like that faucet at home.

But sophisticated thinking requires more flexibility, and when children were challenged by an inconsistency, they also sometimes adjusted the way they saw the world. Piaget called this reaction accommodation. Kids accommodate their thinking when they allow new information to change their minds, a process that often begins with isolating a contradiction, as when one child retorted, after being told that dead leaves were certainly not alive, “but they move with the wind!” Leaves move, things that move spontaneously are alive, and now the boy has learned that fluttering leaves are dead. He’s facing a direct challenge to his assumption that movement equals life. He can engage in denial, or he can decide that not all things that move “on their own” are alive, as one of Piaget’s ten-year-olds did when he admitted, at last, that the moon wasn’t really following him around or running after him, as he once imagined.*2
Alternatively, the child may remain stuck between assimilation and accommodation, believing that the sun follows him yet remaining slightly aware that this can’t be true. This child, Piaget writes, “tries to avoid the contradiction so far as he can,” reasoning that maybe “the sun does not move but its rays follow us, or the sun remains in the same place but turns so it can always watch us.” He’s motivated to resolve uncertainty.

Our propensity for avoiding or shutting down what could otherwise be a process of endless deliberation was probably a product of natural selection. It’s what allows us to stop thinking and move on with our daily lives. There comes a point when we just have to decide. Our need to simplify means that we all have an innate ability to form impressions based on limited information. We must have the capacity to see people in stereotypes and envision objects and ideas prototypically. Our urge for resolution is vital both for managing complexity and, as Piaget understood, for learning. Clarifying ambiguity helps us to act and to build knowledge. Our appetite for consistency is a means to an end.

Mad Libs flourished partly because children enjoy the shocking and silly. But this doesn’t entirely explain the pleasure of Mad Libs. We’re also laughing at the discovery of colorful new meanings, just as Leonard Stern chuckled when he realized that a clumsy nose was meaningful in a way he’d never considered. Absolut ads succeeded, too, not only by portraying the bottle in strange ways, but also because they achieved some new kind of logic, expanding the ways we normally think of things. Kids Say the Darndest Things was based on exposing the naive assumptions and imagined worlds that children (really, all of us) project onto the mysterious world.

“I use the analogy of a Swiss Army knife,” Rod Martin, the humor psychologist, said. “Our brain is the knife. It has all these tools for processing information and making sense of the world, and what we do in humor is play with them. We turn them upside down, and use them in ways they’re not normally used.” We’re amused by fiddling with our own brains’ remarkably proactive, ambiguity-eliminating tendencies. Puzzles and humor illustrate our relationship with the particular ways our minds cope with the incoherent. Evolution has endowed us with a powerful magnet by which to haul the messy world toward clarity. Sometimes, we seek out little brainteasers to exercise this mental machinery. Sometimes, admirably, we laugh at its follies.

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IN THE 1980S, Absolut’s competitor,
Stolichnaya, had some image problems. In 1983, the Soviets accidentally shot down a Korean Air Lines flight that had ventured into Soviet airspace. Over 250 people on the flight—including a US congressman—were killed, and in 1984 the USSR boycotted the Olympic games in Los Angeles, citing “anti-Soviet hysteria.” Absolut took advantage of its rival’s misfortunes, and during the latter half of the 1980s, the Swedish company expanded its famous ad campaign, having made a vital conceptual leap by removing the realistic bottle from some of the ads.

Instead of the actual bottle always taking center stage, ads in the late 1980s and 1990s conveyed the iconic bottle’s shape either plainly or slightly disguised. In an “Absolut Boston” ad, the “bottle” was formed by dozens of Absolut boxes floating in a nighttime harbor. In “Absolut Philadelphia,” Benjamin Franklin’s old-fashioned spectacles were subtly redesigned as two bottles touching at the bridge of his nose. Most of the ads retained the dash of humor, verging on parody, that had always endeared them to fans. Some were visual puns that baited expected connections, and still others created I Spy–type puzzles, where the reader hunts for the bottle shape.

Even early on in the campaign, the Absolut bottle had become so iconic that readers recognized it automatically, mentally filling it in at a glance like Bruner and Postman’s subjects staring confidently at red spades and calling them black. In the “Absolut Rarity” ad, that assumed familiarity resulted in a comic outcome. In the ad, the blue letters on the bottle read “Asbolut Vodka.” The rarity was the typo. But readers didn’t notice it. The misspelling didn’t register, and the ad had to be pulled.

Harry McGurk and John MacDonald first discovered the effect accidentally. They had been studying something else, and when MacDonald first watched the video, he thought that the technicians had misaligned the syllables and moving lips. The audio technicians hadn’t noticed it, MacDonald told me, because as the audio was playing they had been looking down at their dubbing instrumentation. Search “BBC McGurk” on YouTube, and you’ll find a nice demonstration of the effect.

To be fair to the seven-year-old, the illusion that the sun and the moon follow us is real and is based on the comparatively rapid movement of other landscape features. As Piaget noted, the illusion is more convincing with the moon. Remember the book Goodnight Moon?


The Hidden A’s


TILBURG, IN THE Netherlands, is the kind of European town where well-behaved citizens stroll around politely on brick sidewalks. As a boy, Van Gogh took his first serious drawing lessons here. Trappist monks produce a delicious beer, La Trappe, on the eastern outskirts of the city. When I traveled there in the fall of 2012, the De Pont contemporary art museum, formerly a wool spinning mill, was exhibiting the sculptor Anish Kapoor. Visitors circled a pale, tubular mass with red lacquered lips; a gigantic funhouse mirror flipped the exhibition hall upside down; and a bloodied cannon sat aimed at a corner clotted with red, tumorous lumps like some sad war’s spent organic ammo. At the town’s central train station, long rows of bicycles hung from hooks on the wall and lined the racks like plates stacked neatly in a dishwasher.

The Netherlands is a hotbed of psychological research, competing in cited papers with the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Travis Proulx, a social psychologist at Tilburg University and a rising star in his field, was the reason for my trip. With animated blue eyes and sporting a reddish stubble, Proulx conveys a slightly frenzied energy. If his friends described him, he half-joked, they’d call him a “neurotic extrovert.” He spent his twenties studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and working at an independent video store. “In many ways, I’m a reformed hipster,” he said, grinning. He is surprisingly direct, in person and in his research and writing.

Over the last few years, Proulx and another psychologist, Steven Heine, have conducted a series of extraordinary experiments. Their goal has been to build a deeper understanding of how people react to confusing and ambiguous events. In one 2009 study, they had subjects read a version of one of the most disorienting short stories of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” In the surreal original, a doctor gets a call to help a boy ten miles away. There’s heavy snow, and the doctor doesn’t have a horse. A stranger appears with horses and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek. Reaching the patient, the doctor sees that the boy isn’t ill at all, but then, no, he realizes, the child has a wound filled with worms; he’s going to die. Villagers strip the doctor naked and ask impossible things of him. The story dissolves.

“A Country Doctor” describes a nightmare world. Literary critic Henry Sussman wrote that the tale actually “never becomes what might be properly called a story. The results are so inconclusive, the characters so blurred as to deny any pretense to narrative cohesion.” Yet for all its twists and turns, Sussman adds, “There is no lack of structure here.” The story employs the musical logic of consonance and dissonance. Albert Camus, as Proulx and Heine noted, pointed to “the fundamental ambiguity” of Kafka’s talent: “These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning.”

For their experiment, Proulx and Heine created an altered version of Kafka’s story, removing all references to death so that the subjects wouldn’t be distracted by thoughts of mortality—a powerful psychological factor, as other studies have shown. A control group read another, coherent version of the story that followed a standard narrative arc.

After reading the story, the subjects were shown a series of forty-five letter strings and asked to copy them down. Each string was between six and nine letters long and was made up of the letters M, R, T, V, and X. What the participants didn’t yet know was that the strings contained patterns. Precise rules governed this artificial grammar, or Grammar A. Next, subjects received a sheet of paper with sixty new letter strings. Half of these novel letter strings followed the Grammar A rules, and half of them followed rules of a different artificial grammar. The participants were then told for the first time about the patterns in the strings they’d previously copied, and were asked to place a check mark beside the new strings that they thought matched.

The results reflected the subtle power of incoherence. Those who had read the surreal Kafka story checked off 33 percent more letter strings than the control group. The Kafka subjects saw more patterns and showed improvements in identifying which of the patterns were in fact Grammar A. These increases, critically, were the result of unconscious processes. Subjects weren’t looking for particular letter sequences when they copied down the Grammar A strings. Yet even without knowing it, people who had read a disorienting story were more alert to the patterns.

In another experiment, Proulx and Heine had people argue against their “self-unity.” The researchers asked participants to remember a situation in which they had been bold and one in which they’d been shy. Some people were then asked to argue that these two memories showed that they had “two different selves,” while others were asked to argue that despite these conflicting memories, they were a “unified self.” Subjects then performed the Grammar A letter-strings task. The results echoed the Kafka experiment. Those who argued against their self-unity—a potentially confused position—identified more patterns in the letter strings. In yet another experiment led by Daniel Randles, subjects were subliminally presented with nonsense word pairs that might have pleased Mad Libs fans. Having phrases like “turn-frog,” “quickly-blueberry,” “juicy-sewing,” and “belly-slowly” flashed before their eyes again made people more pattern hungry. In yet another study, subjects shown the René Magritte painting The Son of Man, which depicts a man in an overcoat and a bowler hat, his face obscured by an apple, reported feeling a greater need for order in their lives than those who looked at a more conventional landscape painting.

What was going on here?

Jean Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation, it turns out, aren’t our only reactions to confusing experiences. Scientists have uncovered other, hidden A’s.

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PROULX AND I marched across the Tilburg University campus to the nondescript psychology building. His office looked out to birch trees on a flat landscape. There was a single plant on the windowsill beside a Dutch translation of Kafka’s short stories and some classical music CDs. Scattered elsewhere were a DVD of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Freud’s Civilization, Society, and Religion, a stray bottle cap, a loose roll of tape, mountainous stacks of psychology papers, an unopened bottle of Château Beaulieu Côtes de Bourg, 2009, and a book on Søren Kierkegaard.

Proulx sat me down at his desk and opened a computer program. He’d agreed to let me try out a recent experiment that he and University of California, Santa Barbara, psychologist Brenda Major had adapted from Bruner and Postman’s trick-card study. After subjects fill in some background information, Proulx explained, they’re assigned to either the reverse-colored cards or the control condition, where only normal cards appear on the screen. One by one, the subjects see a particular card and are asked to designate its value as odd or even. Jacks are odd, queens even, and kings odd, Proulx added. Then he stepped out into the hallway to grab coffee.

The red queen of spades appeared on the screen. Three seconds passed, and I clicked the “even” option. Next were a black two of spades, a red seven of hearts, and a king of clubs, whose red suit I didn’t notice at first. I began to grasp that as I was calculating whether a card was odd or even, I’d miss its suit. That’s apparently the point. The experiment is designed so that people look at the anomalous cards without consciously noticing their atypical color. Reporting whether the card is odd or even is merely meant to be distracting. The funny thing is, I soon knew perfectly well that some of the cards were trick cards, and I still didn’t catch them all. The same thing actually happened to Proulx. He’d received some scans of the reverse-colored cards from a colleague who had employed them for a different experiment. “I’m thinking,” he said, “this idiot didn’t send me any anomalous cards. These are all normal cards! So I’m starting to type out this email, and my colleague says, ‘Travis, look at the screen. The four of hearts is black.’ ”

Proulx and Major put Bruner and Postman’s cards to a completely new use. They asked their subjects (via a questionnaire) whether differences in how hard people work justified social inequality. Then, some subjects were subliminally exposed to the reverse-colored cards as they were busy calculating the cards’ values. Finally, Proulx and Major measured people’s support for affirmative action. Those who believed that inequality was unjust—and who’d seen the trick cards—expressed greater support for affirmative action. Somehow, seeing anomalous cards made people more committed to their existing beliefs. Again, the increased commitment was the result of exposure to anomalies that didn’t reach conscious awareness. Anyone who later reported consciously noticing the trick cards was excused from the experiment. People didn’t register the reverse-colored cards, yet the incoherence of what they’d encountered stayed active in their unconscious minds, leading them to ardently affirm unrelated beliefs.

Proulx has spent his career studying how disorder—be it in the form of a surreal story, the idea of a contradictory self, a nonsense word pair, or reverse-colored cards—can stimulate behaviors that seem completely unrelated. Working toward nothing less than a comprehensive theory of how people deal with inconsistency, he describes through his research a sort of homeostasis that people seek to maintain between sense and nonsense, uncertainty and clarity. Along the way, he has helped spark a movement of psychologists and other researchers who are now collaborating on a general model of how people react to contradictions and threats. Together, they have detailed the precise relationship between Proulx’s two major research threads: how confusion motivates the search for new patterns; and how it leads to the avid affirmation of ideals. A hunger for new connections in the face of uncertainty may seem opposed to a heightened commitment to existing beliefs. Yet these two reactions are actually sequential, integral parts of coevolved and functionally intertwined cognitive systems.

Proulx’s work builds on Piaget’s, as well as on that of another giant of twentieth-century psychology, Leon Festinger. It was Festinger who, in the 1950s, pioneered a new understanding of mental conflicts.

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ON DECEMBER 16, 1954
, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran an exceptional headline: HE QUITS JOB TO WAIT END OF WORLD DEC. 21. The “he” in question was a forty-four-year-old physician named Charles Laughead who had been working for the Michigan State College hospital. Laughead (pronounced “laughed”) had apparently predicted that the world would end only five days later, on a Tuesday.

John Hannah, president of the college, explained that Laughead seemed quite certain that before the world ended, flying saucers from Mars would scoop up a few select people from a Vermont mountaintop. Hannah asked Laughead to resign for holding “sect” meetings at his home and upsetting some of the students. One pupil even made a down payment on a Cadillac because, Hannah said, “he figured he wouldn’t have to make the rest of the payments and wanted to enjoy it while he could.”

Hannah described Laughead as happy to resign, saying that the physician “only seemed concerned about getting his way…for the balance of the month”—until doomsday hit. Laughead had gone off to Chicago to meet up with other believers.

The day after the Chicago Daily Tribune article, the Los Angeles Times ran a longer, more detailed accounting, along with two photos: one of Laughead looking respectable in a tie and jacket, and another of a fifty-four-year-old dark-haired woman with a bony frame. The caption read: “Mrs. Dorothy Martin of Oak Park, Ill., describes communications from outer space she gave Dr. Charles Laughead.” Martin, it seemed, was one of Laughead’s direct connections to the aliens.

There were more details. Laughead had not actually predicted the world’s end, but rather a cataclysmic event that would affect Chicago and both seaboards. He foretold that the underwater continents of Atlantis and Mu would rise again. A new sea would cover central North America. Martin had received a number of communications via automatic writing: “My arm feels warm. It’s hard to explain, but I just put a pencil to paper and write.” She asked that alien spacecraft not be referred to by the vulgar name of “flying saucers,” but instead as “disks.”

Additional particulars emerged, also on the seventeenth, from a Tribune follow-up. “There will be much loss of life, practically all of it, in 1955,” Laughead said. “There will be a tidal wave, a volcanic action, and a rise in the ground extending from Hudson’s bay to the Gulf of Mexico which will seriously affect the center of the United States.

“It is an actual fact that the world is a mess,” he added. “But the Supreme Being is going to clean house by sinking all of the land masses as we know them now and raising the land masses now under the sea….There will be a washing of the world with water. Some will be saved by being taken off the earth in space craft.” Laughead wasn’t the only devotee to visit Dorothy Martin’s Oak Park home. Fifteen believers, eight of whom were deeply convinced of the upcoming flood, would congregate there between the middle of November and December 20. Some would take drastic steps, quitting school, their jobs, or throwing away their belongings.

Martin informed the group that the spacemen, fulfilling their promise to save the believers, would pick them up in her backyard on the seventeenth. When it didn’t happen, the group concluded that this “false alarm” had been a training session. Eager reporters fishing for additional kooky details were now regularly ringing Martin’s phone. The story had gone national, and all sorts of visitors began to show up in person. Martin started to receive prank calls, including one, the Washington Post relayed, inviting her to a party at a Chicago bar that would last until the end of the world. “That is typical of the moronic calls I’ve been getting,” Martin said. “We have to expect that.” The Post further noted that “Chicago newsmen, armed with ball-point pens that write under water,” were prepared for the impending flood.

On the night of the twentieth, Laughead and the other believers again waited expectantly at Martin’s house, where pickup was set for midnight—and not, it seemed, on a Vermont mountaintop. They were to be carried off just hours before the onset of the flood. By this time, among the eclectic group of believers now crowded into Martin’s home was a cast of characters later identified only by pseudonyms. Mark Post had flunked out of a technical institute and was still dependent on his mother. Bob Eastman, a student of educational administration, spent three years in the army and liked to swear and drink. Arthur Bergen was a pale, thin, deferential boy of around fifteen. Bertha Blatsky was a former beautician from the northwest side of town.

At about 11:15 p.m., Dorothy Martin received another message from the aliens: prepare for pickup. The mood among the believers was anxious and excited. They’d packaged up Martin’s “secret books” filled with the aliens’ messages to take with them on their journey. Because wearing metal in a flying disk is apparently dangerous, they had taken care to remove their zippers, metal clasps, belt buckles, and bobby pins. Arthur Bergen peeled the tinfoil from every last stick of gum in his pocket. They were ready.

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IT WAS NEARING midnight in Martin’s home. But unbeknownst to the believers, they were not alone. A group of psychologists from the University of Minnesota had secretly infiltrated the group. Led by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter and posing as believers, the researchers had set out to document how the group would react when the world wasn’t destroyed. The result was a riveting minute-by-minute account.

There were two clocks in the room that night, one of which ran nine minutes faster than the other. When the first reached 12:05 a.m., one of the infiltrators pointed out that midnight had passed. No no, everyone said, the slower clock was correct. Four minutes remained. The second passing of midnight brought hushed silence:

There was no talking, no sound. People sat stock still, their faces seemingly frozen and expressionless. Mark Post was the only person who even moved. He lay down on the sofa and closed his eyes, but did not sleep. Later, when spoken to, he answered monosyllabically, but otherwise lay immobile. The others showed nothing on the surface, although it became clear later that they had been hit hard.

The believers’ initial reaction was to not react at all. They couldn’t even move, stuck between their beliefs and a cold reality. Hours passed. Poor Dorothy Martin “broke down and cried bitterly.” The rest of the group didn’t fare too well, either. “They were all, now, visibly shaken and many were close to tears,” the psychologists reported.

Five a.m. had nearly arrived before Martin received another message from the aliens. The cataclysm had been called off. The believers’ own good spirits had saved the earth from the tidal wave and earned Chicago a reprieve. There had been some seismic activity, actually, in Italy and in Eureka, California. As part of a string of interviews, Martin told reporters that these quakes “might have been” part of the “advance information” of the disaster. “It all ties in,” she said. “The California earthquake is bearing this out.” Even though a higher power had intervened, disaster would still eventually come, and she predicted it would strike “like a thief in the night.”

Over the following days, Martin and Laughead fought to keep the group together. But as time went on, Martin couldn’t help but keep relaying intergalactic messages that were consistently disproven. When yet another prediction of a pickup on Christmas Eve proved faulty, Laughead was put in the awkward position of having to explain himself to a reporter. The aliens had instructed them to sing Christmas carols on the sidewalk until pickup, but once again the “space brothers” had pulled a no-show:

Newsman: Didn’t you say you were going to be picked up by the spacemen?

Laughead: No.

Newsman: Well, what were you waiting out in the street for singing carols?

Laughead: Well, we went out to sing Christmas carols.

Newsman: Oh, you just went out to sing Christmas carols?

Laughead: Well, and if anything happened, well, that’s all right, you know. We live from one minute to another. Some very strange things have happened to us and—

Newsman: But didn’t you hope to be picked up by the spacemen? As I understand it—

Laughead: We were willing.

Newsman: You were willing to be picked up by the spacemen. But didn’t you expect them to pick you up? As I understand it, you said that you expected them to come but they might change their minds, that they’re unpredictable. Is that correct?

Laughead: Well, ahh, I didn’t see the paper, what was actually printed in the paper.

Newsman: Well, no, but isn’t that what you said?

This conversation, a “mélange of incompatible and halfhearted denial, excuse, and reaffirmation,” as the psychologists put it, was “typical of the untidy fashion” in which the believers tried to explain away the failed pickup that Christmas Eve.

Believers were spending most of their time in between Piaget’s two reactions of assimilation and accommodation, in that uncomfortable middle ground. They couldn’t possibly feel assured that their beliefs had been entirely correct, but they also weren’t willing to simply replace their false beliefs about the cataclysm. Like the child who knows that the sun doesn’t follow him or her but still insists that its rays do, Martin’s followers felt that they had to adjust to reality and yet were reluctant to alter their views.

Festinger and his colleagues were interested in the side effects of this mental limbo. After the no-show cataclysm, in particular, he and his coauthors described two fascinating and noteworthy reactions—responses that would later be confirmed beyond the realm of fanatical doomsday prophets and their followers.

First, the psychologists noted an increase in the number of visitors to Martin’s home that she and the other believers suspected might be spacemen. Disconfirming events, in fact, had led them to scrutinize visitors more intently and made them more generally suspicious:

Following the major disconfirmation, [Dorothy Martin] made additional predictions….[T]here was a growing tendency on the part of the group to identify their visitors as spacemen….Though one or two visitors had been identified as spacemen in the months before the [first] disconfirmation of December 17th, after [that] disconfirmation not a day passed without two or three telephoners or visitors being nominated for the position….Floundering, increasingly disoriented as prediction after prediction failed, they cast about for clues, watching television for orders, recording phone calls the better to search for coded messages, [and] pleading with spacemen to do their duty.

Martin’s disciples could neither deny the series of failed prophecies nor shed their belief that she was in touch with aliens. Imprisoned by a chronic uncertainty, they grew pattern hungry in their search for confirmation.

Second, especially in the long term, Festinger and his colleagues noticed that the believers turned to one another for social support. In the weeks following those December events, for example, the former beautician Bertha Blatsky found comfort in the network of group members. When she tried to cope alone with what hadn’t happened, Bertha’s “life had been a misery.” But after getting together with some of the group on January 7, her spirits lifted. She described it as an answer to a prayer. “The funny thing about it is that previously, I am the one that others leaned on—and now all of a sudden I am the one to need the help.” Instead of bolstering her beliefs by discovering new information, she found confirmation by surrounding herself with fellow believers.

Some of the believers, of course, came to acknowledge that Martin wasn’t in touch with aliens after all. Pale Arthur Bergen followed this route, modifying his views slightly, as he reported in February: “Arthur indicated that he no longer had faith in Mrs. Martin. He still believed in flying saucers, still believed in the possibility of contact with outer space, but he had given up on [Martin] and her beliefs.” Bergen had left Martin’s home at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the twenty-first, just a few hours after the failed pickup and before the onset of the “flood.” He never returned.

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FESTINGER, RIECKEN, AND Schachter’s 1956 narrative report on the doomsday group, When Prophecy Fails, painted a comprehensive picture of the believers’ responses. At a basic level, each of their reactions served the same end: stabilizing a belief system that had been shaken by devastating counterevidence.

Festinger used the case study to further develop his theory of cognitive dissonance
, a now-classic term that refers to the disturbing feeling of experiencing two conflicting cognitions—opinions, ideas, desires, or beliefs about the world, oneself, or one’s behavior. We experience cognitive dissonance, for example, when we feel an urge to smoke despite a desire to be healthy, or when we flirt even when we expect to be rejected, or when we’re fired from a job we thought we were good at. Festinger was focused on conflicts between beliefs and behaviors—for instance, how people react when they know a task is boring but have to publicly defend it later. He found that subjects try to dispel the unpleasant anxiety these inconsistencies cause, often by changing their opinions to align with past actions. Over a thousand published studies have made cognitive dissonance one of the most thoroughly confirmed theories of attitude change in all of psychology.

For Festinger, the unpleasant feeling of uncertainty was the signal that a discrepancy needed resolving. In 1974, psychologists Mark Zanna and Joel Cooper reported critical support for this idea in a study titled “Dissonance and the Pill.” They told their subjects that they were interested in the effects of drug “M.C. 5771” on memory. Then they gave participants a placebo pill—just powdered milk—and told one group of subjects that it might make them tense, and another group that the pill would have no effect. Afterward, the participants were asked to support an opinion unrelated to the experiment and that ran counter to their beliefs. In this case, some subjects were gently requested to write an essay in support of banning inflammatory speakers from campus. Others were more forcefully instructed. Finally, all of the subjects completed a questionnaire assessing their views on excluding radical orators.

Participants who had been asked (but not instructed) to write anti–free speech essays were more likely to tell researchers that they supported such measures. This result reflects Festinger’s classic finding: if we feel responsible for doing something that we believe to be wrong, we sometimes change our beliefs so that they align with our past actions. We resolve the dissonance by changing our minds.

Here’s where things get interesting. When Zanna and Cooper’s subjects were told that the placebo pill might make them feel tense, this readjustment effect disappeared. Subjects who had been asked nicely to support a ban on inflammatory speakers didn’t revise their opinions in the questionnaire. If their discomfort was explainable, they weren’t compelled to revisit their beliefs. When people had a plausible reason for their physical anxiety—even when the pill was powdered milk—they ignored having contradicted themselves. Zanna and Cooper’s finding, known as the misattribution of arousal, implied that the physical discomfort of mental conflicts motivates attitude change. Any reasonable explanation for anxiety, it turned out, shut down the mind’s drive for consistency: the heat or ventilation in the room, or even the lights.

Since Zanna and Cooper’s study, the theory of cognitive dissonance has been subject to an intense tug-of-war. Some researchers questioned whether Festinger was correct at all. One camp argued that the true motivation underlying cognitive-dissonance effects was the need to maintain a positive self-image. Another camp claimed that Festinger’s studies were actually concerned with “ego defense.” Yet another group emphasized that the consistency urge was about avoiding negative outcomes. Part of the problem, especially in the 1980s, was that the measures used to detect dissonance—like changes in skin moisture—were unreliable. In the 1990s, however, researchers developed more-subtle measures and designed cleaner experiments to control for the role of self-interest. In the last fifteen years, accumulating research and advances in neuroscience have empowered a remarkable resurgence of Festinger’s theory. Today’s researchers have moved far beyond Festinger’s early focus on attitude change toward a broader exploration of any conflict between opinions, beliefs, behaviors, desires, and ideas.

In 2014, nine researchers (including Proulx) across seven universities published an in-depth treatise laying out the growing evidence that a subtle physical anxiety is in fact the engine motivating us to reestablish order after encountering disorder. But the psychologists had in mind something even more ambitious than resurrecting elements of Festinger’s original thesis.

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THE STUDY OF human psychology, as Travis Proulx and others have mournfully
detailed, is fragmented. Far too frequently, researchers fail to collaborate on general theories. Instead, they design micro-theories around provocative experimental effects. Gaps between related theories, consequently, are too rarely explored and identical psychological phenomena are too often reframed and presented as new.

We’ve seen the unhealthy outcomes of scientific competition in other times, in other fields. One illustrative case concerned the fossil hunters and rivals Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. In the 1870s, Cope and Marsh were unearthing huge horned mammals and colossal Jurassic dinosaurs in the American West, revealing, to the world’s amazement, a slew of gigantic creatures never before imagined, including Stegosaurus and Triceratops. But the men hated each other. They were in a fierce struggle to be the first to name new species in what became known as the Bone Wars. Fossils from Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Kansas were quickly classified and published as new discoveries. A third fossil hunter, Joseph Leidy, was also in the mix. The problem was that the three men were separately “revealing” and classifying the same species under different names.* Between Cope and Marsh alone, one species was “discovered” no less than twenty-two times. The paleontologists were making great discoveries, but were making overlapping discoveries.

Now imagine a field of inquiry in which the “bones”—that is, human reactions classified by psychologists—are far more difficult to parse. Researchers are enticed not merely to discover new evidence but to generate new explanations, a problem compounded by the bedeviling issue of language: there are many ways to say essentially the same thing. As psychologists (and husband and wife) Eddie and Cindy Harmon-Jones wrote in 2012, too often “social psychologists try to make their mark by coming up with a new name for an old phenomenon….[T]his tendency has been rewarded by a field that prizes innovation.” Proulx, in a 2012 article with the University of Toronto’s Michael Inzlicht, was more bruising, arguing that fragmentation has resulted in a “scientific field that runs somewhat in reverse, generating an increasing number of labels for an increasing number of descriptions of increasing numbers of analogous effects.” As Proulx, Inzlicht, and Eddie Harmon-Jones put it, it’s as if “Newton had replaced his theory of gravity with a separate theory for every object that falls.”

Proulx and his colleagues proposed that swaths of current theories are simply different parts of the same skeleton. When assembled—using the broadest conception of cognitive dissonance as the spine—these pieces reveal that humans have a central meaning-making system that responds to incoherence in a predictable sequence.

First, some situation, event, or message disturbs our sense of order and consistency. There’s a mismatch, an “error” between what is and what should be. Rain is falling but the ground is not wet. You try to push open a door, but the door doesn’t open that way. Whenever our assumptions about the world are violated, we experience a spike in brain activity, an error message that may or may not reach consciousness, and a jolt of adrenaline. Different brain regions have been implicated in error detection, but the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, appears to play a special role.

This human alarm system, as it has been described, goes off even if the violation ends up being good news. In a 2010 experiment out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Harvard University, Latinas, who expected to—but did not—encounter prejudice in a social setting, exhibited cardiovascular stress responses. In another study led by Wendy Mendes, subjects encountering an “error” as mild as an Asian American person speaking with a Southern accent reacted as if they were experiencing a threat. In a 2013 experiment, subjects with low self-esteem displayed lower changes in blood pressure when they received negative rather than positive feedback.

During the second phase of our response to incoherence, we enter a state of anxious vigilance. Here, we’re more alert, motivated to seek out new information. In light of the pattern retrieval characterizing the phase, Proulx and Inzlicht have dubbed this response abstraction. It’s when we’re galvanized to collect clues from our environment. Abstraction probably evolved, Proulx and his colleagues suggest, as a tool for overcoming obstacles to our goals. Think, for example, of a mouse that’s looking for food and smells a cat nearby. The mouse becomes more hesitant and anxious. It continues to look for food but does so more alertly now, scanning the environment for the cat, rearing its head and sniffing. The neural network responsible for error detection and abstraction is called the behavioral inhibition system, and mice with lesions to this system are unable to solve problems by altering their course of action. Abstraction happens in a hyperattentive, anxious, and impulsive state of mind.

After some period, a second neural network, known as the behavioral approach system, takes over. This system coevolved with the behavioral inhibition system to deal with the anxiety of mental conflicts. It soothes our angst by pushing us toward
commitment to an idea or a course of action. The approach system satisfies the need for closure, and Piaget’s two A’s—assimilation and accommodation—likewise enter the picture here. Let’s say, for example, you see a white crow. At first you’re a little surprised. You peer at the bird with heightened attention, and then eventually you switch into the more domineering mind state that making decisions requires. You can assimilate the experience and decide that the bird is a dove. Or you can accommodate it and recognize that albino crows exist. The rub, as Proulx’s collaborator Steven Heine told me, is that “assimilation is so often incomplete.” We act as if we’re sure the bird is a dove, but the feeling that it’s not is still there in the unconscious, leaving us trapped in a similar middle ground as the doomsday believers were, stuck between assuming we’ve understood and sensing we haven’t. One way we respond to these lingering anxieties is by finding comfort in our social groups and passionately emphasizing our ideals.

Proulx and Inzlicht called this reaction affirmation. Affirmation is the intensification of beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, in response to a perceived threat. In Proulx’s research, it’s when subjects grew strident about affirmative action after seeing anomalous playing cards (without realizing it). After being reminded of death, authoritarian-leaning participants in a recent study evaluated an immigrant more critically than like-minded subjects who hadn’t received such a reminder. The same effect held true for liberal participants’ positive evaluation of the immigrant: their views grew more favorable. In another study, subjects who felt a lack of control expressed greater faith in God or Darwin’s theory of evolution, as long as Darwin’s theory was presented as predictable. Through affirmation, we turn to our existing sources of meaning for stability. We swim back to friendly shores.

Researchers have been selecting different parts of this puzzle—error detection, vigilant abstraction, and affirmation—and describing their effects under different banners. Proulx and his colleagues have argued that the theory of willpower depletion, for example, derives its evidence from cognitive dissonance: most famously, by forcing you to resist the chocolate that you want to eat. The so-called depletion occurs because anxious vigilance makes people impulsive.

Similarly, different theories describe various forms of affirmation. One of the theories under Proulx’s scrutiny suggests that when we feel that we’re losing control over an experience, we emphatically assert control elsewhere. Another theory suggests that when our personal goals are threatened, we affirm our personal values. After being reminded of death, another model suggests, we affirm our beliefs. All of these theories share the same pattern, and Proulx’s most novel claim is that the beliefs we affirm can be completely distinct from the fact or beliefs that were violated. He calls it fluid compensation. In one of the strangest studies showing just how content-free our counter-adjustments to feelings of uncertainty can be, participants who ate an unexpectedly bitter chocolate later described their lives as more meaningful.

Our search for patterns (abstraction) and our fervent expression of beliefs (affirmation) are sequential. That’s why researchers studying affirmation effects observe them most easily after a delay: in experimental settings, it’s roughly five minutes after a subject encounters a jolt to his or her sense of normalcy. In fact, Proulx found that reading an ambiguous Kafka tale not only led people to identify more patterns, but in another experiment, the reading also pushed subjects, after a delay, to express their nationalism more fervently. The same held for nonsense word pairs. People grew pattern hungry, but after a delay in a different experiment, they ardently affirmed their beliefs. Festinger seemed to make the same observation of the doomsday believers. In the near term, they anxiously scanned their environment for new evidence, but later on, they reverted to their social support systems. Just holding a loved one’s hand, a 2006 study found, mutes the activity of the brain’s error center, the ACC.

“What’s amazing,” Proulx said, “is how much of human behavior bottlenecks at this very basic system.” He speculates that dissonance reduction—broadly understood as our various efforts to restore order after sensing disorder—may explain as much as 60 percent of our day-to-day behavior.

As we’ll see next, the effect of unrelated contradictions on our general relationship to uncertainty has wide implications. In Part 2, we’ll explore how to handle ambiguity in daily life, especially in stressful situations. When we’re under pressure, our urgent search for patterns and our dogmatic avowal of ideals can play out with dramatic consequences. Guarding against the pitfalls of the most powerful feelings of uncertainty in our lives means coming to grips with how our minds wrestle with ambiguity under hardship. Instability doesn’t have to derail us. Understanding how and when we’re vulnerable to mistakes, even in the face of shocking tragedies like natural disasters, makes uncertainty easier to master.

* Keith Thomson, in The Legacy of the Mastodon, writes: “It turns out that the suspicions first voiced out in Wyoming in July 1872 were correct: these rivals did all have the same materials. Marsh’s Dinoceras and Tinoceras were really Leidy’s Uintatherium. Leidy’s Uintamastrix was his own Uintatherium. Cope’s Loxolophodon was also the same as Leidy’s Uintatherium. These uintatheres form the basis of Marsh’s Dinocerata. Cope’s Eobasileus was really Leidy’s Titanotherium and therefore belonged with Leidy’s Palaeosyops in the different group of giant, hornless mammals called titanotheres. Cope’s Megaceratops was really the animal that Leidy in 1871 had described as Megacerops and it, too, was a titanothere.”


Handling Ambiguity


Shocks and Tremors


IN THE DAYS after the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake—one of the worst natural disasters in US history—a number of unusual events occurred. Rumors spread of a newly formed Matrimonial Bureau, a cooperative of single women who were now homeless after the quake and looking for husbands. Hearing the news, a man named William Perkins hurried over to Harbor Hospital, where he believed the bureau was located, and immediately proposed to the young matron on duty.

“Don’t judge me by my clothes,” he pleaded. “I am a brakeman and did not have time to dress up. I saw in The Call where a man from Fresno and another from Seattle had put in applications and I said to myself, ‘We need all our pretty girls at home,’ and as soon as I could get away I hurried over. Are you the only one left?”

Rebuffed, Perkins continued his frantic search for a refugee with a “reasonable love of pleasure” who could “make a cherry pie in a minute.” Ideally, the woman would be “rather small and blond,” but not “too small and not too blond.” His mother would vet applications. Another suitor, J. M. Meyers of San Diego, wrote a letter to the mayor of Oakland requesting a respectable woman with a dark complexion and who was willing to live on a farm. Yet another gentleman, J. Loganbiel, spread word that he was seeking “a brunette, plump and not afraid to work,” preferably of German ancestry. He could also offer her work: $8 a month and, if he earned a raise, $16 a month.

Initially, the city coroner William Walsh reported only 428 “deaths from shock from earthquake and fire.” That figure was misleading. Government officials and business interests were afraid of scaring away investors and slowing down efforts to rebuild the city. In reality, the disaster would claim over 3,000 victims. The massive rupture of the San Andreas Fault, at a magnitude of 7.9, shook the ground all the way up to Coquille, Oregon, down to Anaheim and as far east as central Nevada. Beds of sand and silt liquefied under the pressure, shifting swaths of earth along the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers and bubbling to the surface through cracks like miniature volcanoes. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless, and Golden Gate Park and the Presidio were blanketed with makeshift tents. The refugees arrived in a sad parade, “some of them carrying nothing but a birdcage,” by one reckoning. In all, roughly 80 percent of the city was destroyed by the quake and the resulting fires. Over three days, more than four square miles of San Francisco burned to the ground.

Eyewitness descriptions of the quake portrayed it “as a violent to-and-fro interspersed with sudden jolts and terrifying circular swings.” During the forty-five or so seconds of the main quake, one former reporter wrote, there were no human sounds to be heard, no screams. “It was as if every man, woman, and child was stunned into silence.” Roads split open, streetcar tracks were bent upward “into hideous shapes…revealing gaping chasms beneath. Loosened cobblestones danced about like popcorn in a pan. Power cables snapped and fell to the ground, ‘writhing and hissing like reptiles,’ in the words of one eyewitness.” At an animal exhibit on Haight Street, lions trembled like kittens. Monkeys huddled in a corner.

Then it was over, in less than a minute.

William James, lying awake in a flat at Stanford University, “felt the bed begin to waggle,” got up, and took a train into the city. “It was indeed a strange sight,” he observed, “to see an entire population in the streets, busy as ants in an uncovered ant-hill scurrying to save their eggs and larvae.”

As deliberately as the newly homeless recovered their keepsakes, suitors wandered amid the rubble. In the days following the disaster, more couples were married than in any similar period in San Francisco’s history up to that time. From April 18 to May 18, according to the county clerk’s office, 418 couples married, breaking (by 18) the high-water mark for any calendar month on record. San Francisco’s marriage clerk, Grant “Cupid” Munson, estimated that if you included couples married without a license by ministers in public parks, the true figure was over 700. (Munson, it was noted, had been “besieged by several ministers who officiated at these weddings for requisite papers.”) April 28, ten days after the quake, marked the single busiest day in the history of Alameda County’s marriage bureau. In those ten days in San Francisco and Alameda, 180 couples married, over four times the normal rate. The Louisville Courier-Journal remarked on the strange phenomenon of couples “earthquaked into marriage.”

The Oakland Tribune recounted the “amusing sights at the ruined City Hall in San Francisco,” where “young couples [were] scrambling about among the ruins trying to find where marriage licenses were issued. As they usually refused to tell anyone what they were looking for they were considerably hampered in their search.” Some couples had moved up long-planned weddings. Others who had previously split were reuniting. Some met for the first time in refugee camps, having lost everything.

One couple met on a train fleeing the city, fell in love, and were engaged before they had disembarked in Seattle. Another pair rushed into marriage so quickly that the groom, Murty Sullivan, hadn’t even asked the bride’s first name. Three weeks after the quake, this minor detail came to light in a conversation with a county clerk.

“What’s the lady’s name?” asked the clerk.

“It’s on the paper,” replied Sullivan.

“But her first name?” persisted the clerk.

“It’s on the paper,” Sullivan said. “That’s all I know.”

“What did you call her when you proposed?” the clerk insisted.

“That’s my business,” Sullivan snapped. The clerk relented, issuing the marriage license to Murty Sullivan and “Mrs. Waler.”

These were not normal times.

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ROUGHLY 15 PERCENT of Americans will experience a natural or human-made disaster in their lifetimes. If you include personal traumas like the untimely death of a loved one or a serious car crash, the figure rises to over two-thirds. After a sudden catastrophe, people experience what
psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman called a “double dose of anxiety.” The first dose reflects longer-term fear for our well-being: suddenly, the world doesn’t feel as safe. The second dose of uncertainty comes from the challenge to our working models of the world, from the threat to our “conceptual system, which is in a state of upheaval.” The world feels less safe, but the assumptions that provided us with a sense of coherence are also often challenged.

After a trauma, many people have to face the reality that, in Janoff-Bulman’s words, “the known, comforting old assumptive world is gone, and a new one must be constructed.” As we saw with the doomsday believers—who battled over days and weeks to explain a series of unfulfilled prophesies—that’s no straightforward task. We don’t say to ourselves, “It’s time to reconstruct my worldview.” Janoff-Bulman compared this struggle to cope with posttraumatic instability to the frustrations and anxieties that scientists face when confronting ambiguous new evidence that doesn’t fit their theories. We somehow have to manage this “powerful data.” The psychology of how we resolve these discrepancies—particularly when they’re accompanied by feelings of physical vulnerability—helps explain what happened in San Francisco over a hundred years ago.

Feeling threatened is often all it takes to raise our desire for certainty. A 2010 study showed that simply reminding Americans of 9/11 increased their need for closure. Getting experimental subjects to focus on mortality, in fact, is one of the most common and reliable methods in experimental psychology for studying people’s increased commitment to their worldviews after threats. But our craving for certainty doesn’t have to be triggered by anything so dire. An event doesn’t have to be dangerous to increase our need for closure. It merely has to challenge how we see the world.

Seeing the earth from space, for example, seems to raise our desire for certainty. Indeed, the recollections of astronauts and others who have ventured into space reveal the same psychological reactions that we explored in the last chapter. Being in space led some to search for new explanations, while others with existing religious beliefs grew more confident in them. In both cases, they rejected uncertainty and moved toward firmer and clearer views. Journalist Frank White dedicated an entire book, The Overview Effect, to experiences of space, interviewing over twenty astronauts and other “space flyers” with a focus on the “shifts in consciousness that can occur.”

White detailed similar reactions to space from people like Russell Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut; Michael Collins, who accompanied Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon; Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon; and Bill Nelson, now a senator from Florida. These men weren’t merely astonished by what they saw. Each of them described an enlightening realization. Many spoke in rapturous language of the same moral revelation: that seen from space, the earth has no borders, tribalism looks petty, and violent boundary disputes seem absurd. Not all astronauts reacted the same way to being in space, of course. Some felt that the experience reflected a self-fulfilling prophecy. Space travel was supposed to be powerful and life-changing, so it was. Others said that the view above earth eventually felt commonplace. But for many of those who were affected spiritually, it upended their lives.

In 2014, psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and Jesse Graham showed that mere simulations of experiences of wonder can increase our desire for certainty. First, they showed some of their subjects awe-inspiring clips from BBC’s Planet Earth, including picturesque shots of space, mountains, plains, and canyons. Then they showed participants a series of twelve-digit number strings and asked them to determine which had been created intentionally (by people) and which had been produced by a computer. In reality, all the number strings had been randomly computer generated. Yet subjects who had watched the awe-inspiring clip, as opposed to control videos, identified more numbers as intentionally patterned.

Even something as harmless as watching videos of space can heighten our need for closure. The threat to physical safety that natural disasters can bring is piled on top of the awe and wonder that they convey, raising the stakes further and making ambiguity even harder to deal with. After a disaster, “sure things” soon become essential.

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ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1989, a tropical depression developed off the coast of Africa south of the Cape Verde Islands, where it became Hurricane Hugo. It traveled west over Guadeloupe and Saint Croix, passing Saint Thomas before skirting the tip of Puerto Rico. On the twenty-second, it reached the United States at Charleston, South Carolina.

Winds in Bulls Bay north of town reached 135 miles per hour. Electricity went out as uprooted trees and debris severed power lines. Roofs peeled off as easily as yogurt tops. Tides of twenty feet flooded the coast up to Myrtle Beach, and McClellanville was entombed under five feet of water and mud. Timely warnings kept the death toll low. But they didn’t stop Hugo from causing $9 billion in economic losses, mostly in the United States, making it then the costliest hurricane in American history. Twenty-four counties in South Carolina were declared disaster areas.

Hugo, like San Francisco’s quake, permanently altered the life course of many families. In 2002, Pennsylvania State University’s Catherine Cohan and UCLA’s Steve Cole investigated the effects of Hugo on couples. They examined aggregate data on marriages, divorces, and births before and after the storm. It turned out that the average number of marriages had been consistently declining in South Carolina, but that in 1990, the trend reversed. Remarkably, Cohan and Cole found increases not only in marriages but also in divorces and birth rates. And these changes were significantly more pronounced in the areas hardest hit by the hurricane. Roughly 800 more marriages and 570 more divorces took place than predicted. Some 780 more babies were born than expected. Hugo literally brought new life into the world.

Not all natural disasters produce these strange effects, in part because different catastrophes can feel so different psychologically. An earthquake in 2006 isn’t as unexplainable as one in 1906, just as a tornado that causes no casualties in a town is radically unlike one that leaves forty families homeless. But recent natural disasters seem to tell a similar story. Following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, there were accounts of a spike in marriages, and according to Reuters, divorce ceremonies tripled in the months afterward. After Hurricane Katrina, there were reports of impulsive romancing. “People were doing crazy things, like they do in wartime,” one New Orleans resident, Janelle Simmons, told the Daily Beast. “People were having a lot of sex with people they didn’t know. It was just such a crazy time.” Simmons herself filed for divorce two weeks after Katrina and went “gallivanting around the country” with a new beau.

Cohan, for her part, has come to see natural disasters as events that cause reappraisal. “Whoever is standing next to you,” she told me, “you reevaluate that person.” A natural disaster can apparently make existing feelings of uncertainty more unpleasant and compel us toward clearer judgments. Under a high need for closure, couples who felt confused but slightly pessimistic about their relationships presumably grew more pessimistic, prompting divorces. Other partners who felt unclear but fairly optimistic would have resolved their misgivings, too, and gotten married. Hugo probably took existing feelings of romantic uncertainty and amplified them. Decades earlier, couples who met as strangers after the San Francisco earthquake seemed to have been carried along by the same impulse toward certainty. Uncertainty from a traumatic event (a natural disaster) made ambiguity in other areas less tolerable. Clarity in general grew more valuable.

Natural disasters and space travel are extreme cases. But they help illustrate one key difference between psychological experiments in the lab and events in the real world. As Travis Proulx demonstrated, a single ambiguity can push us to affirm unrelated judgments and beliefs or pick out new patterns. His playing-card study, for example, tested a single cause of uncertainty: trick cards. But most day-to-day experiences involve more variables than Proulx examined in his studies. That’s because lab experiments aim to carefully tease out cause and effect, whereas real life is messy and involves many kinds of ambiguity at once. Feelings of uncertainty often come from multiple sources. An earthquake can be a physical threat, an existential crisis, and an economic disaster. Space can feel both unexplainable and a little scary.

As uncertainties add up, they ultimately accelerate our drive toward certainty. This tendency has vast repercussions. It affects whom we love or befriend or hire or fire. It influences whether we admit to mistakes or stereotype someone (a particularly damaging but cognitively cheap form of certainty). It changes the way we evaluate an idea or consider an explanation, and it makes us less creative and more confident about a course of action even when we are wrong. We’ve already seen that cognitive closure is a bit like shutting the windows of our open minds. When various pressures pile up, these windows don’t merely close. They slam shut, and then they lock.

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IN THE 1980S and 1990s, Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues began to examine how minor, additional pressures affected people’s comfort with ambiguity. Could even small amounts of extra stress affect our willingness to dwell in uncertainty? In one study, the researchers explained to participants that they were conducting
a simulation of how juries work. Then they handed participants a judge’s instructions and a case summary: after a plane crash and fire, a lumber company was suing an airliner. Half of the participants were left without a strong opinion in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. The other half read an expert legal analysis that laid out clear evidence one way or another. Subjects reported their views and then were asked to reach a shared verdict with another “juror”—actually a confederate who was working for the researchers and who had been prepped to disagree with them. The critical twist was that for some subjects, a rickety printer was working noisily in the background while they argued.

For participants who received no expert advice, the irritating printer made them more likely to change their relatively uncertain minds and agree with the confederate. It also significantly sped up that process. When the participants who didn’t read the legal analysis were arguing in a quiet room, the average time it took for the pairs to agree was 5 minutes and 40 seconds. With the printer going, the time fell to about 3 minutes 50 seconds. Subjects resolved ambiguity faster.

For subjects who did read the expert analysis, the noisy printer made them less likely to change their original views. Unlike their waffling counterparts, people were less inclined to agree with the confederate, and those who did took longer to do so. These subjects were just as eager to escape uncertainty as the first group—but they found their exits through dogmatism rather than deference.

Both of these outcomes reflect what are called the urgency and permanence tendencies. As Kruglanski and Donna Webster put it, the urgency tendency “represents an individual’s inclination to attain closure as soon as possible,” whereas permanence is “an individual’s inclination to maintain [closure] for as long as possible.” Additional pressures lead people to grab on to certainty faster and more firmly.

Urgency, in short, makes for inflexible minds.

Substitute a screaming toddler or an angry boss for the rickety printer, and you can see how this tendency toward inflexibility might play out in the real world. Urgency can cause serious headaches, for example, when conducting job interviews. Imagine that you’re part of a panel evaluating a candidate for president of your firm. Let’s call her Jane. Jane’s answers impress you during the first half of the interview. She comes across as an effective leader; productive, sensitive, and courteous toward customers; and caring about her employees. During the second half of the interview, however, Jane’s performance dives a bit. It comes to light that she failed to lure an important client to her previous company, that she was inattentive to employee problems, and that she can occasionally be disorganized. The interview ends, and you have to rate how likely you’d be to hire her. Now imagine the same interview but with one crucial difference: in this version, Jane performs poorly initially but ends the interview commandingly.

Across a range of experiments simulating hypotheticals like this, participants under time pressure—another tool that Kruglanski and his colleagues employ to raise subjects’ need for closure—seized on early information and ignored later cues. In one study, subjects were asked to rate how effective a job candidate would be on a scale from 1 to 10. When people had time to think about their appraisals, they rated candidates at about a five, regardless of whether the flattering facts emerged earlier or later. But when subjects had to make a decision quickly, job applicants with strong first impressions were rated at a 7 on average, while candidates with faults conveyed early on were rated at a 3. (This is a little surprising, given the usual emphasis on finishing strong.) In both cases, it wasn’t merely that subjects formed their impressions faster, but they also ignored the later, contradictory information about the candidates. Other studies showed that under similar pressures, people fit early impressions into stereotypes—about women in the workforce, for instance, or ethnic groups. Since fatigue also raises people’s need for closure, any additional stress can lead to urgency.

The same inflexibility under pressure shows up in recent experiments on the psychology of trust. Faith in others, it turns out, is one of the primary ways we manage uncertainty. That’s because social interactions always involve calculating unknowns. Think of trust as the oil greasing the wheels of social life, a shortcut freeing us from otherwise agonizing Machiavellian calculations.

In 2014, researchers at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo published a series of remarkable experiments on trust and our malleable need for closure. In one study, the researchers had participants play a variation on a classic investment game. The original version of the game requires two players, whom we’ll call the investor and the broker. The investor is given a sum of money to start and told that he or she can transfer any amount of it to an unknown counterpart, the broker. Any money the investor sends would triple by the time it reaches the counterpart. After that, the broker can send any, all, or no money back to the investor. Nothing happens to the money the broker sends back ($20 sent is $20 received), and both sides learn the rules up front. The more the investor transfers, the greater the risk of losing that money, but the more the investor might be rewarded for the gamble, too. In the Norwegian study, all subjects played the role of the investor, and for some participants, the broker was anonymous (as in the original experiment). For another group, the subjects were told that the broker was “a good friend who was particularly close to them.” The researchers manipulated people’s need for closure via time pressure, and all subjects also rated the brokers’ trustworthiness.

On average, subjects risked 63 percent of their endowment. For participants not under pressure, whether or not they knew the broker didn’t change how much they decided to transfer. When the broker was a good friend, the subjects sent a little more money on average (but not significantly more). Subjects whose need for closure had been artificially heightened, however, sent 80 percent of their money to the good friend and 51 percent to the stranger. Participants’ trust evaluations reflected the same effect: without time to think, they expressed greater trust in the close friend than they would have ordinarily and less trust in the anonymous stranger than normal. Just as Hurricane Hugo seems to have led to more marriages and more divorces, trust judgments were polarized, leading both to undeserved trust and undeserved distrust.

Some years ago, investigators observed a similar rigidity at play in romantic relationships. The higher someone’s baseline “uncertainty intolerance” was, the more extreme their judgments of trust in their partners were. Men and women who in general didn’t like uncertainty found trusting their partners a moderate amount more unpleasant than trusting them a lot or a little (as both trust and distrust, perhaps counterintuitively, are comforting insofar as they provide certainty). As you’d guess, they also tended to shoehorn any conflicting or ambiguous information about their partners into preexisting views. They were more mentally locked in.

Unfortunately, what’s called for during uncertain times is greater flexibility.

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GROUP DECISIONS UNDER a high need for closure mirror individual ones. Struggling to cope with today’s shifting economic and cultural realities, then, some groups only naturally grab for farfetched conspiracies, whereas
others fall back on their groups’ core beliefs. The present age seems likely—through both acute events like 9/11 and chronic cultural and economic instability—to continue to intensify people’s appetite for absolutes. And the explanations that we hold on to can do permanent harm, compounding the problem. “We’re going to exhibit these tendencies,” Dan Ariely said in 2008, “at the times when they’re most dangerous for us.”

Under time pressure, one study showed, group members who voiced opposition to a given consensus were more quickly marginalized and ignored. Another study found that when a stressful noise was present, group members were again less tolerant of any information that conflicted with their beliefs. A 2003 experiment revealed that groups under a high need for closure adopt more dictatorial decision-making styles, favoring autocratic leaders who tend to dominate the discussion.

For better or for worse—although often for the worse—what human nature craves in the face of psychologically acute threats like the 2008 economic meltdown, ISIS, or Ebola is decisiveness. That’s partly why the approval of George W. Bush, who famously bragged, “I don’t do nuance,” jumped more than 30 percentage points after 9/11. Americans found closure in expressing increased trust in a self-convinced government. Bush’s popularity tracked up and down with the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded threat warning. Inflated DHS threat levels even boosted Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of the economy. Among the more immediate impacts, 9/11 left Americans with less room for unrelated doubts.

In 2012, Kruglanski and Edward Orehek pointed out that a heightened need for closure has been linked to “support for militancy, torture, the use of secret prisons in foreign countries, and the notion that national security is more important than individual rights.” In a climate where indecision is chronically unpleasant, opinions on both sides of controversial issues can become amplified as people flee the uncertain ground in between. When the world is less predictable, people are more likely to jump to conclusions or entrench their existing views. That’s the problem with striving for certainty or making rashly informed judgments of trust to escape from ambiguity. Urgently fixating on certainty is our defense mechanism against the unknown and unstable. However, what we need in turbulent times is adaptability and calculated reevaluation.

There’s a reason why, one 2009 study found,
over 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded in a recession or bear market. It’s the same reason that led economist Frank Knight to note famously that “profit arises out of the inherent, absolute unpredictability of things.” While uncertain times can be painful, they are also by definition eras of change. They’re destabilizing because they’re a threat to the status quo, which is also precisely why they represent an opportunity for innovation and cultural rebirth.

In 1929, John Dewey published The Quest for Certainty, a book concerned with the natural human urge to move beyond subjective beliefs to the firmer ground of knowledge. Experimental psychologists have now shown that the quest for certainty that shapes our actions isn’t calm and static but is rather an ever-changing tide—rising and ebbing after shocking events and during periods of disorder.

An awareness of these psychological insights isn’t sufficient. It’s not enough simply to know that when making hiring decisions, coping with organizational change, forming a political opinion, or making other decisions, we should take our time. Dwelling calmly among feelings of uncertainty, to be clear, will help you make a more rational decision. Accepting uncertainty for longer periods will improve your odds of making rational decisions, even when you’re nearly positive that you’re correct. It’s good advice to string decisions that involve ambiguity over a period of days and revisit them in different moods. But reading that advice here, or even embracing it, will only go so far.

Across a range of experiments, psychologists have successfully counteracted the problem of urgency by cautioning people to make deliberate judgments before the judgments are about to be made. Subjects are usually told that they’ll have to justify their evaluations in front of a group afterward, that their judgments will be compared with the actual performance of candidates later on, or that their evaluations will be contrasted to expert ones. In a study where soldiers evaluated military recruits, for example, the participants were informed that their decisions would affect soldiers’ actual placement and that misjudgments could harm recruits’ military careers. In a study on medical decisions, researchers counteracted urgency by emphasizing the harmful consequences of poor choices beforehand. These subjects presumably knew not to make rushed decisions. But for people to actually change their minds in light of late information, they needed reminders at the start of the experiment.

To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering a greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments. As we’ll see in the next chapter, our need for closure can be scientifically measured in as few as fifteen questions. Adding these kinds of questions to periodic polls might provide a useful tracking tool and point of reference. Measuring our shifting attitudes toward uncertainty—even in large groups—can help us avoid its pitfalls by highlighting periods of danger in collective decision making.

Finding ways to bear in mind our personal shifting attitudes toward ambiguity is a little easier. When making a decision, make a habit of consciously considering your stress level at that time. Are you feeling rushed? Are you tired? Are you having personal problems? Formalize reminders of how different kinds of anxiety affect your decisions and the consequences of those judgments. In hiring, you can deliberately set up policies to create accountability. Hires are investment decisions, and making the wrong judgment is extremely costly in terms of time, efficiency, and company morale. Yet few firms have in place formal systems that reward or punish managers for employees’ later performance. Incentives like these would work to slow unduly fast closure and to expand the time frame in which ambiguity is tolerated and even embraced.

Taken across their range of manifestations, stressful or otherwise order-disrupting events alter how we deal with uncertainty. They can turn a deliberate decision into a rushed one or an undecided voter into a staunch partisan. In the wake of calamity, the psychology of urgency means that we need to be wary of the disproportionate power of early explanations. We have to find ways to remind ourselves that dogmatism comes in subtle shades. When trying to make sense of a confounding event, like San Franciscans in 1906, we need tools that help us remain aware of our wild search for answers in places where they may or may not exist. And above all, we need to be reminded of the stakes. Dashing into war can be a total catastrophe, while rushing into marriage may or may not be a personal disaster. Ultimately, urgency can sometimes be a good thing
: while it can lead to stereotyping (as we’ll see), a high need for closure also makes us more prone to commit to ideas, beliefs, and courses of action. Surrounded by the right people, we may stumble on the right course of action—or even the right person.

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ON APRIL 18, 1969, Joseph Alioto, the mayor of San Francisco, held an “anti-earthquake party” in memory of those who had lost their lives in 1906 and in honor of those who survived. The crowd gathered in front of City Hall before 5 a.m. to commemorate the precise moment that the quake struck. Five thousand people showed.

The 1930s classic film San Francisco played on an outdoor screen. Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy strode determinedly through the rubble. The crowd observed a moment of silence. The bard known as Brother Antoninus read a poem called “The City Does Not Die.” The band played, and the crowd sang the song “San Francisco” in unison. They munched on free doughnuts, drank free coffee, and sipped minestrone soup. It was, the Boston Globe reported, a “frolicsome festival.”

Mayor Alioto had staged his bold antiquake bash in response to predictions from amateur prophets that the San Andreas Fault would soon split open and dump San Francisco into the sea. “I want to make it plain,” he said from the balcony, “that nobody is here to tempt the gods or anger them. We are here to demonstrate that, though we know we live in earthquake country, nobody has to get hysterical.”

Alioto had a personal connection to the quake. His father, Giuseppe Alioto, was a fish dealer and, on the morning of the disaster, was down by Fisherman’s Wharf. Not far from Giuseppe were the Lazios, a Sicilian family, also in the fish trade, that had come to San Francisco in 1892. In the midst of the quake, rushing from their home on Filbert Street, the Lazios had gathered on one of their boats for safety. When Mr. Lazio saw Giuseppe running by, he called out to the stranger: “Salta, giovanotto! Salta! Jump, young man! Jump!”

Giuseppe jumped aboard the boat, and in that moment, a strange feeling overtook him. He couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Lazio’s oldest daughter was. She was too young for marriage, but Giuseppe knew then that she was the one.

She must have made a permanent impression, because eight years later, he did marry Domenica Lazio. She was Mayor Alioto’s mother.


Fifty Days in Texas


THE 1993 STANDOFF outside of Waco, Texas, ended on April 19, after a tense and protracted siege. The Branch Davidians, a religious sect, had holed up at a ranch they called the Mount Carmel Center, or more fondly, the “anthill.” Their leader was thirty-three-year-old David Koresh, born Vernon Howell. He was suspected of converting semiautomatic weapons to fully automatic ones in violation of federal law. Months earlier, a UPS driver had spotted the outlines of grenade casings in a package addressed to Mount Carmel.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) found additional evidence in shipping and sales records and ultimately planned a raid on the compound. In the background hovered allegations of child and sexual abuse against Koresh.

ATF agents set February 28 as the date of the raid. Surprise was essential, but they did a poor job of hiding their plans. Some 150 hotel rooms had been reserved for the night of the twenty-eighth. The agents had notified area hospitals to stay at the ready and had contacted an ambulance service. That morning, ten reporters and camera people were already circling Mount Carmel in six vehicles. One of these media members was Jim Peeler. Driving a white Chevy Blazer, he got lost and asked directions from a rural mailman. The mail carrier turned out to be David Koresh’s brother-in-law, David Jones, who promptly drove to the compound and told the Branch Davidians that something was afoot. An undercover source inside the compound warned the ATF honchos that Koresh now knew about the raid, but they decided to proceed as planned regardless.

A little before 10 a.m., ATF tactical units stormed Mount Carmel with warrants to search the premises and arrest Koresh. Three National Guard helicopters were employed. The agents were decked out in bulletproof vests and helmets. The team assigned to breach the front door carried a battering ram and fire extinguishers to ward off the dogs. It was meant to be a public relations triumph. Instead, the raid quickly devolved. A firefight broke out. Scaling walls and breaking windows, ATF troopers threw flash-bang grenades. Forty minutes passed with few lulls in the shooting.

Five Branch Davidians were killed along with four ATF agents. Sixteen more agents were wounded. In The Ashes of Waco, Dick Reavis describes how videotape “showed the federal raiders in a rout, loading their dead onto the hoods of civilian vehicles. Wounded, bloodied agents hobbled away gasping, arms across the shoulders of retreating comrades.” Somehow the Davidians, he wrote, these “Texas—Child Molester—Gun Cult—Crazies,” as the government painted them, had engaged in a military-style confrontation with US law enforcement, and won.

The FBI was called in. For fifty days, negotiators worked to resolve the siege with as little loss of life as possible. On the fifty-first day, at about 6 a.m., combat engineering vehicles equipped with hydraulic booms began punching holes in the compound and filling it with tear gas. Bradley armored vehicles shot in football-size tear-gas canisters or ferret rounds. Inside, the Davidians had gas masks, but the FBI knew that the masks could only function for a few hours. Loudspeakers delivered a message:

This is not an assault. Do not fire. If you fire, your fire will be returned. We are introducing non-lethal tear gas. Exit the compound now and follow instructions. No one will be injured. Submit to proper authorities.

By ten in the morning, the FBI had been gassing the Mount Carmel compound for four hours. There were still no signs of surrender—high winds may have been diluting the effects of the gas. Then, around noon, the FBI saw smoke coming from the southwest corner of the compound. A man was spotted crawling across the roof. A fire broke out. Helicopters circling the scene spotted flames in three locations. Snipers peeking through telescopic sights reported seeing Branch Davidians spreading what might be flammable liquids. Apparently, munitions stockpiled inside the compound exploded. By half past noon, the fire had completely engulfed Mount Carmel.

Waco was a national embarrassment. Over seventy Davidians died, including twenty-five children. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the US government was responsible for the catastrophe and that agents set the blaze intentionally, though audiotapes revealed that the Davidians themselves set the fires. Whatever mistakes were made by the US government, Koresh was ultimately to blame for the tragedy. Here was a man who used his charismatic power to mesmerize adults and children and ultimately send many to their deaths. Americans’ eyes were opened to the dark influence of cults. But there were other lessons to be learned from Waco.

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OUR DESIRE FOR certainty, as we’ve seen, isn’t stagnant. For all of us, it surges in high-pressure situations and dwindles in controlled, comfortable ones. But people also have different individual baseline degrees of discomfort with ambiguity and disorder. These propensities can make the difference between a prudent decision and a reckless one.

Donna Webster and Arie Kruglanski’s 1994 need-for-closure scale was designed to measure these individual differences in our baseline craving for clarity. Of course, a strong natural longing for structure isn’t always bad, just as a low need for closure isn’t always good. Nor do high scores on the scale necessarily suggest adherence to one side or the other of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals can be equally dogmatic and defensive. The scale has less to do with what you believe than how anxious you become when those beliefs are challenged. One caveat is that conservative beliefs, by definition, tend to be more structured, more black-and-white, and more authoritarian in content than liberal beliefs. Say that you had a deep-rooted need for closure and could choose allegiances: if you lived in a neighborhood with an equal number of liberals and conservatives, you’d be more likely to gravitate toward the conservative ideology.

Originally, the need-for-closure scale was composed of forty-two questions, revised down to forty-one in 2007. But given how widely the scale is now used—and that researchers were selecting groups of questions from it arbitrarily—psychologists Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel published a shorter version of the scale in 2010. Their fifteen-item adaptation pulls three questions from each of the original five subdomains identified by Webster and Kruglanski: the desire for order and structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness, desire for predictability, and closed-mindedness. When tested with a sample of over 1,500 people, Roets and Van Hiel’s version showed no significant differences in measurements from the complete scale. To score yourself on it, mark each statement between a 1 (completely disagree) and a 6 (completely agree):

1. I don’t like situations that are uncertain.

2. I dislike questions that could be answered in many different ways.

3. I find that a well-ordered life with regular hours suits my temperament.

4. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life.

5. I feel irritated when one person disagrees with what everyone else in the group believes.

6. I don’t like to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it.

7. When I have made a decision, I feel relieved.

8. When I am confronted with a problem, I’m dying to reach a solution very quickly.

9. I would quickly become impatient and irritated if I could not find a solution to a problem immediately.

10. I don’t like to be with people who are capable of unexpected actions.

11. I dislike it when a person’s statement could mean many different things.

12. I find that establishing a consistent routine enables me to enjoy life more.

13. I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life.

14. I do not usually consult many different opinions before forming my own views.

15. I dislike unpredictable situations.

Now simply add up the total. Your need for closure (right now) is above average
if you scored 57 or above. Note that this scale can be used either to measure individual differences in the need for closure or to measure situational differences. Depending on your mood, your score may go up or down, but different people will still end up having a range of average scores. A greater need for closure simply implies that the mind’s natural aggressiveness in papering over anomalies, resolving discrepancies, and achieving the “miracle of simplification” is set a bit higher.

Developing research led by Northwestern University’s Bobby Cheon has produced some of the first evidence that the need for closure also has a genetic component. Subjects with at least one short allele (a gene variant) of a gene associated with greater emotional response to threat—called 5-HTTLPR—reported greater discomfort with ambiguity and unpredictable situations. People with at least one short allele of 5-HTTLPR appear less able to control their moods because of an inefficient regulation of serotonin levels in the brain. In 2013, Cheon and his colleagues published evidence on 5-HTTLPR’s link to another outcome consistently associated with having a high need for closure—prejudice—and in 2015, they confirmed that subjects with at least one short allele of 5-HTTLPR showed higher levels of need for closure.

In 2015, psychologists in Poland also enriched the picture by looking directly at how someone’s need for closure might affect neurocognitive processes. When people with a high need for closure faced a complex task, it turned out they exhibited greater brain activity in the early stages of cognitive processing. How would this lead to errors? The researchers suggested that a higher need for closure leads to heightened attention early on, which paradoxically makes people less able to resist their first impulses and leaves them less aware of their own mistakes. In a low-stakes environment, that might be okay. But in stressful circumstances, missing key information can be disastrous.

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ONE OF THE best examples of the effects of varying needs for closure comes from a careful case study that the University of Haifa’s Uri Bar-Joseph coauthored with Kruglanski. Their detailed review of Israel’s Yom Kippur War also sheds light on what went so disastrously wrong in Waco.

The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. The conflict lasted a long twenty days before Israel prevailed. While the Soviet Union provided support to its Cold War allies Egypt and Syria, the United States rushed supplies to Israel. The intensifying melee threatened to draw the two superpowers into direct conflict. One reason the war lasted as long as it did was that Israel was taken by surprise. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal with startling efficiency, penetrating the Sinai Peninsula. Syria, meanwhile, opened up a successful attack on the Golan Heights. It took several days for Israeli forces to regroup.

Israel shouldn’t have been unprepared for the initial attack. Its intelligence services had collected sufficient evidence that Egyptian forces were preparing for war and not simply engaged in a training exercise. On October 2, the Israeli Directorate of Military Intelligence (AMAN) disseminated an updated version of the Syrian plan to go to war. Since early 1972, AMAN had known about Egypt’s intention to cross the Suez Canal. By 1973, there had been hundreds of warnings about an imminent attack. The Agranat Commission, which investigated the Yom Kippur War, concluded that military intelligence “had plenty of warning indicators” in the days before the surprise offensive. The head of Mossad, Zvi Zamir, estimated in April 1973 that Egypt had built up its military and was more capable than ever of launching an attack on Israel.

So why was Israel caught off guard? Bar-Joseph and Kruglanski pin a large part of the blame on two key military figures, Major-General Eli Zeira and Lieutenant-Colonel Yona Bandman. Zeira was the director of AMAN. Bandman was the head of Branch 6 of AMAN, responsible for analyzing intelligence streaming out of Egypt and North Africa. Both men were very bright. But they shared a fatal penchant for overconfidence and absolutism. As Bar-Joseph and Kruglanski write:

Both exhibited a highly authoritative and decisive managerial style. Both lacked the patience for long and open discussions, and regarded them as “bullshit.” Zeira used to humiliate officers who, in his opinion, came unprepared for meetings. At least once he was heard to say that those officers who estimated in spring 1973 that a war was likely should not expect promotion. Bandman, although less influential in AMAN than Zeira…[was] known for his total rejection of any attempt to change a single word, even a comma, in a document he wrote.

For both Zeira and Bandman, their personalities seem to have led them to freeze on the idea that neither Egypt nor Syria had the capacity or ambition to attack Israel. They shared that assessment since at least 1972, and despite subsequent mounting evidence to the contrary, they wouldn’t reconsider it. In September 1973, a month before the attack, they confidently asserted that Egypt would be unlikely to try to occupy part of the Sinai desert in the next five years. Zeira and Bandman were so self-assured that they deliberately excluded, when reporting to policymakers, contradictory assessments within AMAN regarding Egyptian and Syrian military intentions.

Twenty-four hours before the war began, Bandman remained persuaded that Israel was safe. He described massive Egyptian movements of tanks and other heavy weaponry as “routine activity.” Zeira, meanwhile, was meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir to explain why the Soviets were conducting an emergency evacuation from Syria and Egypt. He offered three confused explanations. The Soviets, he suggested, might have suspected that Israel was going to attack Egypt and Syria. Or perhaps they imagined that Egypt and Syria were intending to attack Israel. Last, there may have been a crisis in Soviet-Egyptian and Soviet-Syrian relations. Zeira then simply reverted to his old assessment. Even if the Soviets did think that Egypt and Syria planned to attack, he told Meir, it was only because “they don’t know the Arabs well enough.” His confidence had led to a botched analysis. The Russians had somehow been given a heads-up.

Zeira’s need for certainty was even more apparent in a statement he made to some Knesset (Parliament) members a few months earlier. Zeira, as the director of military intelligence (DMI), was, remarkably, describing his own role here:

The Chief of Staff [of the Israel Defense Forces] has to make decisions and his decisions should be clear. The best support that the DMI can provide him with—if this is objectively possible—is to provide him with an estimate as clear and as sharp as possible. It is true that the clearer and sharper the estimate is, then if it is a mistake, it is a clear and sharp mistake—but this is the risk of the DMI.

Zeira apparently felt that the role of an intelligence analyst was to winnow out all doubts before briefing a higher-up. Sure, he admitted, that meant that the analyst was either completely right or completely wrong, but at least there was “precision.” Zeira’s predecessor, by contrast, was known for considering alternative opinions. When reporting to superiors, he’d present his own analysis alongside contradictory viewpoints. For the Yom Kippur War, Zeira and Bandman’s frozen analyses proved costly. Israel lost over two thousand soldiers, many in the early days of the war.

War isn’t the only situation in which a high need for closure can be detrimental. In business negotiations, parties at the table often have to manage missing or conflicting information. If negotiators read too much into any one fact, if they stretch for answers, they typically make mistakes. A wide range of studies shows that negotiating a good deal requires someone who can handle confusing and contradictory messages without getting emotional, assuming too much, or fixating on one tidbit or another. At the same time, feeling pressured or threatened makes uncertainty feel more unpleasant. Negotiating requires handling ambiguity; crisis situations heighten the need for closure. Imagine, then, the challenges of negotiating in the midst of a crisis.

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WHEN MOST PEOPLE hear a gunshot,” Gary Noesner told me when we first spoke, in 2012, “they assume someone is being killed.” I’d asked Noesner, a former FBI hostage negotiator, about his first major standoff, in October 1982.

The trouble began on October 7, at 10:40 p.m., to be precise, when a man listed on an Amtrak passenger manifest as “W. Rodriguez” boarded a New York–bound Silver Star in Jacksonville, Florida. He’d reserved a first-class sleeping car for himself, his sister Maria, her nearly four-year-old daughter, Julie, and her nine-month-old son, Juan. Rodriguez’s real name was Mario Villabona. He was a twenty-nine-year-old Colombian drug trafficker.

On Friday, October 8, passengers in the next berth woke up to the sound of Mario and Maria arguing loudly in Spanish. Then they heard gunshots. The conductor called in the incident to the police, who were waiting as the train pulled into Raleigh, North Carolina. The officers evacuated the other passengers, detached the car that held Mario, Maria, and her children, and moved it onto a side track. Using a loudspeaker to talk to Mario, the police received no response. An officer stealthily attached a microphone and speaker to the train car to communicate with the gunman. At a little past noon, officers heard four more gunshots. There was another at 8 p.m., and two more at 11:37 a.m. the next day.

Noesner had gotten the call from his negotiation instructor at Quantico. Local law enforcement needed a negotiator who spoke Spanish. Noesner’s first thought was Ray Arras, a recent graduate of the FBI hostage-negotiations training course. So Noesner and Arras flew down to Raleigh together from Virginia, arriving at the station at around 6 p.m. on Saturday, just as Villabona fired two shots through the compartment door. From the listening device, the local police chief guessed that Maria was dead. Mario, they had learned, had been incarcerated in three US prisons before being paroled on the condition that he return to Colombia. His file noted that he had a vicious temper.

Should the officers do nothing? Should they raid the car? Should they simply wait? Was Villabona shooting his captives? They just didn’t have enough information. “This is Ray,” Arras said in Spanish through the speaker system. “I’m here to help you. How are the children?” No reply. As the sun rose the next morning, a wafting stench would confirm that Villabona’s sister was in fact dead inside the compartment.

The information available to those trying to resolve the crisis was about as ambiguous as it could be. There was no clear motive—Villabona had probably shot his sister in anger. What he would do next was unpredictable. From the rapid-fire bursts, law enforcement knew he had a machine gun. With a child and baby inside the car, an assault was too risky. The Amtrak car was built with heavy-gauge steel, and the glass windows were effectively bulletproof. Their best chance was to patiently lure Villabona out, yet the threat of the children dying from dehydration was rising. Arras emphasized the need to end the standoff safely and the importance of the kids getting food and water.

Slowly, Villabona began to open up to Ray Arras. He told Arras that the infant had died overnight: “I woke up today and he was blue and stiff.” In the background, Arras and Noesner could hear the girl complaining that her stomach hurt.

“Will you meet me at the window and give me Julie?” Arras asked. “I will come unarmed.” Before Noesner could think to stop him, Arras walked to the train car and took Villabona’s hand in a show of good faith, and Villabona handed the girl to him. In all likelihood, Arras saved the girl’s life. He’d been negotiating for over thirty hours. The next day, with the help of his onetime attorney, Villabona peacefully surrendered.

“Different police departments have different perspectives,” Noesner told me. “But when I was very actively involved in this business, there would be some tactical people who would draw automatic conclusions from a gunshot. The gun went off, therefore we have to go in to stop the killing….And then you stop for a minute and say, wait a minute, maybe that was an accidental discharge, or firing into the ceiling out of frustration. Maybe it was a warning shot. We don’t know what it was. We don’t have enough information to take an action that could end up being even more dangerous.” Noesner recounted the Mario Villabona ordeal and Arras’s heroism in his 2010 memoir, Stalling for Time. He described it as one of the bravest things he’d ever seen an FBI agent do.

Noesner retired from the FBI in 2003 after thirty years, including twenty-three as a hostage negotiator. During his last decade on the job, he was the FBI’s chief negotiator. Throughout his career, he was involved in more than one hundred international kidnapping cases involving US citizens. He interrogated terrorists, negotiated with airplane hijackers, ended a prison-riot-turned-hostage-standoff, talked down right-wing separatists, and even helped solve international diplomatic crises. Along the way, he reformed how FBI negotiators are trained, encouraging the bureau to incorporate active-listening techniques used by therapists. He knows how to talk to despicable and desperate people to save lives.

Noesner is not an indecisive or squeamish man. The very first episode he recounts in his memoir has him successfully coaxing a hostage taker into an open field so that a sniper can get a clean shot at him. When a situation is beyond hope, Noesner has no qualms about acting swiftly and conclusively. What he does believe in, under more ambiguous circumstances, is delaying for however long it takes to make his case and deliberately weigh the risks. Successful negotiations often require marathon-level patience, the kind that he and Arras displayed with Villabona.

Effective negotiators, he told me, have at least one thing in common: “They’re all people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”

Not everyone who gets embroiled in hostage situations responds with such restraint. Consider the July 1993 case of Joel Souza. The man was holding his two kids at gunpoint in Antioch, California, where he had retreated to an upstairs bedroom of the home he had once shared with his estranged wife. A trained hostage negotiator, Officer Michael Schneider, spoke with Souza over several hours. Schneider even managed to get Souza to lower four rifles out of the window. The officer told him to take his shirt off when he surrendered, so that the SWAT team outside would know that he wasn’t armed. About five hours into the standoff, a police captain arrived on the scene. He suggested to Schneider that they set a time limit. Schneider talked him out of it, and the captain allowed his subordinate four more hours before finally insisting on a deadline.

“I’m tired of this shit,” the captain said. “Give him ten minutes—then we’re coming in.” Nine minutes later, Souza killed his two children and himself. He was found shirtless. As Noesner detailed in Stalling for Time, of the case:

Oddly enough, though, the captain and Joel Souza may have had more in common than the captain imagined. The psychological makeup of traditional law enforcement officers tends to include a fair amount of classic controlling behavior, though they may not be self-aware enough to realize it.

Crisis negotiators, Noesner said, sometimes have to conduct two negotiations at once. They have to talk to the hostage taker, of course. But sometimes, he told me, they also have to convince their fellow law enforcement officers to have more patience and more faith in the negotiations:

The very first slide in the negotiation course that I taught for many years at the academy was on self-control. If you cannot control your own emotions, how can you expect to try to control someone else’s? Self-control not only applies to you as a negotiator, but it also affects commanders and SWAT team leaders and everybody else. If they allow their emotional response to events to dictate their actions, chances are they won’t be making the best decisions they can. I’m not saying negotiators don’t get emotional. But we try to make decisions according to the outcomes we want instead of how we feel about something.

Noesner’s ability to keep a cool head in a crisis set him apart. It was also a capacity that was sorely tested when he arrived in Texas, on the last day of February 1993, and picked up the phone to speak to David Koresh.

“Hi, David. This is Gary. I just got down here, and I want to make sure that you and your family get out of this situation safe and sound.”

“Yeah,” Koresh told him. “We’re not ready to come out.”

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ON THE DAY the ATF had its initial lethal firefight with the Davidians, Noesner got a page as he was leaving his local hardware store in Virginia. His boss told him to go to the airport. Two FBI planes waited on the tarmac. The smaller, slower propeller plane was for him. The larger plane, an executive jet, was for other FBI and ATF brass, including Dick Rogers, the head of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).

Rogers’s nickname was “Sergeant Severe.” His red hair, tense jaw, and adamantine posture fit the moniker. Just months earlier, Rogers had called the shots at the deadly standoff on Ruby Ridge, in north Idaho. A man named Randy Weaver, a former factory worker planning to escape a corrupt world, had moved his family to a remote patch of land. Weaver had attended an Aryan Nations meeting and, in 1989, sold two sawed-off shotguns to an ATF informant. Indicted, he never showed up for the trial. By the end of the summer of 1992, the US Marshals Service had decided to try to arrest Weaver near his Ruby Ridge cabin, and six marshals set out into the wilderness with M16 rifles. An exchange of fire broke out, and Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son and a deputy marshal were shot and killed.

When Rogers arrived, Weaver had taken refuge in his cabin. Rogers sent HRT snipers to find a vantage point on him. The Justice Department, looking into the incident afterward, reported that Rogers had essentially “instructed the snipers that before a surrender announcement was made they could and should shoot all armed adult males appearing outside the cabin.” Those rules of engagement were later criticized as unconstitutional. At the sound of an FBI helicopter, Weaver stepped outside and a sniper fired, wounding Weaver and killing his wife as she held their ten-month-old daughter.

Heading to Texas, Noesner’s smaller plane couldn’t make it in one hop and had to refuel in Little Rock. Someone up top apparently felt that Rogers, the head of the HRT, had to reach the scene immediately, but that Noesner, the head of the negotiation team, did not. At around 10 p.m., Noesner arrived at a former air force base outside Waco; the base would function as the group’s command post. Hustling past a group of technicians setting up computers and phone lines, Noesner met with Jeff Jamar, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Antonio and the FBI on-scene commander. About six feet four, Jamar had the look, Noesner wrote, of “a pro football player on game day.”

One important consideration was how the negotiation team would coordinate with Rogers and the tactical unit. When Noesner asked about it, Jamar said that he, Jamar, would be the relay with Rogers. Contrary to standard protocol, communications with the tactical command would go through Jamar. Normally, the tactical and negotiations units conferred more directly.

Noesner and Jamar were set up about eight miles from Mount Carmel. Rogers waited with some of his tactical team just outside the compound at the forward command post. When Noesner arrived at the base, the ATF was still nominally in charge as the FBI awaited the formal transfer of power from Washington. Led to what looked like a former World War II–era military barracks, Noesner found about a dozen ATF agents and others looking haggard, along with Jim Cavanaugh, the ATF supervisor who had been on the phone with Koresh in the hours after the shootout.

One of the most pressing problems Noesner encountered was that the two phone lines inside Mount Carmel hadn’t been secured to prevent unwanted calls. Koresh and others inside could still reach anyone they wanted. News organizations, including A Current Affair and CNN, were conducting interviews, interrupting the negotiation process. Koresh called his mother to tell her good-bye, something Noesner would have liked to prevent. But it wasn’t all bad news. After negotiators arranged for a radio station to recite a verse of scripture, Koresh allowed four children to leave.

Cavanaugh phoned Koresh, introduced Noesner, and handed over the line. Koresh was wounded from the firefight and sounded exhausted. Throughout that first night, Noesner and Koresh spoke by phone every few hours. Noesner emphasized that there was no need for further bloodshed and that the important thing was the safety of the children. The FBI transcripts show Noesner fishing for information:

Noesner: How many kids are there, David?

Koresh: You’ll find out when you get them all.

Noesner: Okay.

Koresh: There’s a lot, okay?

Noesner: Oh, there is? Do we need any special—I mean, are they all old enough to walk or—

Koresh: No, some of them are like, newborns.

Noesner: Newborns, yeah, okay.

Noesner also spoke, in those early hours of the standoff, with Steve Schneider, a Branch Davidian who would act as a spokesman and intermediary for Koresh throughout the siege. Schneider told Noesner that people inside Mount Carmel had seen an “army tank” or an “armored carrier vehicle of some sort” and were worried about an escalation. “I mean, what is this going to be, World War III or what?” he asked.

“Don’t, don’t misinterpret what that stuff means,” Noesner told him. “The, the way the federal government responds to these things—”

Schneider brought up Ruby Ridge. “Well, I do remember reading about that Weaver story and a number of other stories—”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“In the past—”

“That’s right.”

“—in the past and, you know, it definitely unsettles a person,” Schneider said.


“I know a lot of the people involved are just people doing their job and don’t understand and—”

“But, but you have to know…in the, in the Weaver case,” Noesner said, “from the moment negotiations started, there wasn’t a single shot fired and there wasn’t a single person hurt after that point in time…[O]nce we started talking up there it, it worked out in the best way that it could, which was no further loss of life.”

The irony of this exchange speaks volumes about what would eventually happen at Mount Carmel. By the morning of March 1, negotiations had secured the release of eight children. The negotiators had begun to gain Koresh’s trust, and yet the tactical team seemed to be working at cross purposes with the negotiation team. Schneider couldn’t, of course, have known that Rogers, the same man who had botched Ruby Ridge, was at the forward command post just yards from the compound at that very moment.

Noesner set about the business of getting as many people safely out of the compound as he could. Over the next weeks, he would work not as the negotiator on the phone, but as the strategic coordinator making sure both teams of negotiators were well coordinated. It meant sixteen-plus-hour days. Two teams of five would work in twelve-hour shifts. Next to the negotiator on the phone, a “coach” would listen to the call and pass notes as required. A third team member operated the phone system and tape recorder. A fourth kept a log of key points discussed. Beyond this core group and a fifth negotiator (the shift team leader), only Noesner was allowed in the room during live negotiations. A speaker relayed conversations with Mount Carmel into an adjacent room, where the rest of the negotiation team and others could listen in. After each shift, the two teams debriefed and prepared for the next call.

By the night of March 1, the second day of the siege, Koresh had let four more children go. The kids were brought to the negotiators, who would then call the parents still inside the compound and confirm that their children were safe and being treated well. By the afternoon of March 2, negotiations had ushered the release of eighteen children and two adults. Even more promising, Koresh claimed that he’d surrender if he was allowed a national broadcast of his message about the Book of Revelation. The negotiators asked that the message be taped so that they could review it first. At 1:32 p.m., the Christian Broadcasting Network finally aired it. In what turned out to be the pivotal moment of the standoff, the Davidians prepared to surrender peacefully. Buses pulled up in front of Mount Carmel. Koresh was to be brought out on a stretcher by fellow Davidians, and Schneider would stay on the phone with the negotiators to ensure that the whole process went smoothly. The HRT was standing by.

“Everybody’s lined up with their stuff, ready to go out,” Schneider told the negotiator on the phone. But the HRT had reported that nothing was happening. No one came out. Schneider said that Koresh wanted to give one final sermon before they left. Everyone waited patiently, hoping that Koresh would follow through on his promise. At about 6 p.m., Schneider informed the negotiators that Koresh had changed his mind. God had spoken to him and told him not to leave the compound.

Noesner was used to negotiating with all sorts of people, and he knew not to overreact. The bottom line was that the negotiations were working. He and his team had gotten a steady stream of people out of Mount Carmel safely. But Noesner also knew that Rogers and Jamar wouldn’t react well to Koresh’s backing out of the planned surrender deal. When Noesner walked into Jamar’s office, Rogers was already there. Both Jamar and Rogers looked enraged at hearing the news, as Noesner recounted it:

“This joker is screwing with us,” Rogers said. “It’s time to teach him a lesson.”

“I don’t think that’s going to advance our cause,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if Koresh is jerking us around. The point is, we’re getting people out of there.”

“My people can get in there and secure that place in fifteen minutes,” Rogers said.

“Still too soon for that,” Jamar said. “But I agree it’s time to teach him a lesson.”

Noesner’s pleas for patience fell on deaf ears. “When Koresh reneged on that promise to surrender,” he told me, “it didn’t affect the negotiation team as much as others, because we understood that there’s a potential for people not doing what they said they would. But the on-scene commander—I wish I had a videotape of when I told him that.”

In a show of power, Jamar ordered armored Bradley vehicles to advance onto the compound property. From that point on, the negotiation team and the HRT were increasingly at odds with each other. HRT agents didn’t seem fully aware of the negotiators’ ongoing strategy. Noesner offered to brief members of the HRT after their shifts ended, but Rogers said no. Noesner proposed that he, Jamar, and Rogers have regular face-to-face meetings to coordinate strategy. Jamar didn’t feel a need for that.

On March 3 and 4, two more children were released, followed by another on March 5. To personalize themselves, Noesner and the other primary negotiators who had spoken to Koresh sent in a videotape of themselves. In it, they each held up photographs of their families. On March 8, the ninth day of the standoff, Koresh replied with his own videotape, including footage of his wife Rachel and a number of his kids. The negotiators again seemed to be making progress, yet that very night, Jamar had turned off all the electrical power going into Mount Carmel. Noesner had just helped arrange for fresh milk to be delivered to the compound, and Schneider questioned why the power had been turned off. How were they now supposed to keep the milk cold? Noesner went to Jamar, who replied that there was nothing inconsistent about cutting the power.

At one point, on March 11, Jamar visited the negotiation room to discuss the capabilities of the M1 Abrams tanks the FBI had ordered. He seemed excited that the M1 could drive straight through Mount Carmel without stopping. The negotiation team was speechless, but an all-too-predictable pattern was now established. The negotiators would build rapport and arrange the safe exit of more people, and then their colleagues would undercut them. Rogers aimed highpower lights at the compound. Strange sounds were blasted from loudspeakers: dying rabbits, Tibetan chants, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Noesner had protested the plan, and Jamar had assured him that he’d stop it from going forward. But that didn’t happen.

The bright lights and blaring noises made the nightly news. Why didn’t Jamar make sure it stopped? Another special agent in charge who was helping Rogers apparently had nothing better to do during the night shift than to harass the Davidians. It took Noesner several more nights before he finally convinced Jamar to shut down the needlessly confrontational antics.

Despite the provocations, the procession of Branch Davidians leaving the compound continued. Two left on March 19, and seven more followed on the twenty-first. That same day, the HRT conducted “clearing operations” around the compound, crushing a gorgeous restored red Chevy Ranchero. Additional clearing operations were carried out days later. Schneider asked Noesner’s team why this was happening, as the Davidians had been cooperating so dependably. The team had no satisfying answer.

On March 25, after twenty-six days, Noesner was rotated off as head of the negotiation team. No Davidians would leave Mount Carmel after his departure.

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F. SCOTT FITZGERALD once wrote that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” David Koresh, as Noesner recognized, was of two minds about surrendering. But Fitzgerald’s quote better highlights the failures of Dick Rogers and Jeff Jamar.

The Waco siege turned catastrophic when Koresh promised to surrender and didn’t. From that point on, Rogers and Jamar decided that Koresh couldn’t be trusted. When confronted with a special form of ambiguity—someone else’s ambivalence—they latched on to the easiest explanation they could find, namely, that Koresh was toying with them. Just as Israel’s Zeira and Bandman denied critical counterevidence leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Rogers and Jamar obliterated the instability of Koresh’s intention. Koresh both wanted to leave the compound and wanted to stay, Noesner knew. The negotiator didn’t presume to have a fix on Koresh’s motivations or beliefs, and told him so directly when they spoke: “I wouldn’t begin to pretend to know everything that’s in your mind and in your heart, David.” Noesner knew that Koresh’s plans were in flux, while Rogers and Jamar fixated on a snapshot. They picked out a fleeting moment in time and decided to treat an unstable and changeable intention as a stable, hidden one. There was no unequivocal answer to the question of what Koresh wanted. Like many hostage takers, he was caught in a situation that he didn’t know quite how to get out of.

“My experience suggests,” Noesner told me, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender. And what I’ve found is that police officers and military people tend to want to say this person is a bad person, and therefore everything they do, everything they say, is bad and not believable. They assume the person has a specific purpose and manipulation in mind.”

Rogers and Jamar felt that Koresh reversed his offer to surrender because he was intentionally “screwing” with them. Yet the reality was subtler than what the two FBI men believed. The Davidians had, after all, been fully prepared to exit, and even Steve Schneider seemed to believe that Koresh was on the verge of surrendering.

Noesner never claimed that Rogers and Jamar wanted to see anyone hurt or that they were somehow hell-bent on vengeance. He doesn’t believe that. He just thinks that they saw the world too simply—that they were “black-and-white guys.” They didn’t know how to deal with ambiguity. Thinking about ambivalence, it turns out, causes a form of cognitive dissonance and risks the same pitfalls. Recent experiments looking directly at ambivalence showed that subjects who were made to think about contradicting opinions exhibited the same behaviors that we saw in Travis Proulx’s research: people saw more patterns in obscure pictures, even where no patterns existed, and expressed their beliefs more fervently.

Good negotiators appreciate the role of ambivalence and can resist drawing conclusions from contradictory information. Like Noesner, they all have a quality of character that the poet John Keats made famous:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Having negative capability means having a low need for closure, even in stressful situations. It’s not the same as being indecisive. Negative capability just means not fixating or clutching on one aspect of a complex and shifting reality. It’s a special form of restraint. As Jonathan Shay emphasized in Achilles in Vietnam, when discussing berserkers in combat: “Restraint is always in part the cognitive attention to multiple possibilities in a situation; when all restraint is lost, the cognitive universe is simplified to a single focus.”

Jamar and Rogers couldn’t cope with the uncertainties inherent in the Waco situation. When briefing the newly appointed attorney general, Janet Reno, during the siege, they made the same mistake that Major-General Zeira made when reporting to Israeli policymakers. They didn’t present the full, messy picture. They presented evidence that supported their preconceived appraisals. Jamar brought Rogers to the br