A little while ago, I found myself stuck in a fixed mindset, where you start to believe that your talents and your intelligence are fixed traits.
People who fall into a fixed mindset may become more occupied with trying to measure how intelligent they are, how their level of intelligence or ability limits them, and why their limited ability is the reason why they can’t do so many things that others around them are able to accomplish because of their higher intelligence.
Because this mindset felt limiting and hopeless, I decided to look up some explanations of growth mindset to see if I could convince myself over to the other side.
I came across a TED Talk titled “Let’s teach for mastery — not test scores” presented by Khan Academy’s founder, Sal Khan. In this talk, he mentioned two key things that helped me change my perspective:
1) Mastery and 2) Mindset
Sal mentioned that if we went 400 years back into the past, to Western Europe, which was considered a more literate population at that time, there was only about 15% of the population who could read.
And if you asked someone who did know how to read, how many people they thought possessed the ability to learn how to read with the right learning structures, they would give you an estimate of about 25%.
But now we know that this estimate doesn’t hold up. Now we know that about everyone has the ability to learn how to read. So why don’t we believe that everyone can also learn how to do calculus? or organic chemistry?
It seems that the reason for the lack of belief is in the mindsets people hold based on not being given the chance to properly master learning material in schools.
After learning a topic, students are given different test grades. But even when these grades indicate that students have not mastered the concepts yet, the class moves on to the next material.
As the concepts build up on top of each other, students’ gaps in understanding keep accumulating, and because they can’t keep up with the class material anymore, they start to believe they don’t have it in them to learn that thing.
They start to think that they’re not a math person or a science person, and that if a fellow student is doing well, it’s because they’re naturally smart and talented at doing so. In reality, they were not taught to persevere and master that content after getting imperfect test scores.
We don’t give ourselves the grade of F when we fall off the bike when learning how to ride it for the first time, and then just accept that we suck at it and give up! We keep trying again and again until we learn to ride the bike.
The same principle can be applied to learning how to do many other things: cooking, calculus, goal-setting, time management, social skills, learning a new language, financial management, etc. Instead of giving ourselves any final grades, we should just give ourselves the grade of “Not yet“.
Given this, I now try not to care about how smart I am, or how other people perceive my intelligence. All I need to know is that I’m a human being who has the capacity to learn and grow, and with time and persistence, I can learn a new skill or master something, even if there are challenges along the way.
In practice, now if I’m doing something that feels difficult, I tell myself that learning something new is right on the other side of this challenge or discomfort. If I failed at something, it means I’m about to learn something new I didn’t know before. And that’s exciting!
Instead of thinking of any failures as a lack of intelligence and getting dejected, having this mindset is helping me stick to problems longer, both in academics and in my personal life. And because I stick to it longer, I usually end up finding solutions and growing in that thing.
1) Let’s teach for mastery — not test scores | Sal Khan