The Danger of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

An appropriate first entry in the new Enabled Word’s book blog. The title and themes may make more sense if you’ve read about my journey to this point, but in any case–Carol Dweck’s Mindset is famous in the personal development literature and deserves treatment here as my first book review and recommendation.

Dr. Dweck is a psychologist and professor at Stanford and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Despite her first edition’s release in 2006, this is one of the most popular books I know of on growth, education, and personal development. Yet I spent a long time putting it off. I have no idea why. Perhaps I was skeptical of the premise (I don’t think so?). Perhaps I succumbed to the allure of other books (likely). Or perhaps I was scared of what the book would tell me, and of the flaws in me it would unmask. Definitely that last one. I picked up Dweck’s book as part of a mini-binge on Amazon; I was building my own crash course in business, leadership, and finance ahead of an anticipated transition from the active duty military into finance and/or business. With job leads forming in financial services, I was at the same time excited and scared s&itl#ss about the prospect of doing something a universe away from my last occupation.

Dweck begins by defining the two competing mindsets: “fixed” and “growth.” She expands in depth into each; in a nutshell, we experience a fixed mindset if we assume intelligence or ability does not change over time. If we believe we’re not able to add to our knowledge base or repository of skills, the most important task becomes proving that we are ‘good enough’ in what we’re doing and that we deserve the chance to keep doing it. This makes failure an abhorrent prospect as it indicates weaknesses, weaknesses that remain permanent. Instead of taking on a new role, new responsibilities, or a new project … a fixed mindset leads us to shun the new in favor of the old. I was (…am…) worried that I’d never be good at anything new after my previous career, I know for a fact I had fallen victim to the fixed mindset.

The growth mindset, by contrast, treats failure as an opportunity. New roles, new responsibilities, and new projects all present chances to learn and hone new skills. And learning new skills can’t ever be bad, can it? No matter our industry or calling, the more varied our skillset and experience, the more diverse our perspective. The more diverse our perspective, the better the solutions are that we create to the latest problem facing us. Failure is a natural part of skill-building. Failure begets learning, which begets success, which begets comfort with future failure … then future learning, future success, and so on. And so on.

My purpose here isn’t to re-hash all of the book, primarily because I think you should read it. Fair warning, I think the book becomes repetitive at times–Dweck has spent years studying this topic and so her history is filled with anecdotes from students, peers, and fellow academics. I think she tried too hard to include as much of this material as possible at the expense of telling any of the stories to fruition. You see the fixed vs. growth mindset conundrum in the scenario but not the end result. That said, on a scale of Borrow-Buy-Gift, I recommend buying this book. There are other books out there discussing growth, learning from failure, and the value of embracing new challenges. But Dweck’s has risen to canonical status and includes references to other reading material useful for those who want to learn more.

So what does this have to do with leadership? That’s why we’re here, after all. Dweck addresses this several times–if we stick to a fixed mindset individually, we tend toward the same as leaders of others. If our approach to the world is rooted in the fixed mindset, we’re apt to respond poorly to how we perceive others’ abilities, knowledge, or attempts at solving a problem. Aspiring leaders who do not believe in growth register “failure” as an indicator of a person’s utility. So-called ‘leaders’ with a fixed mindset then won’t prioritize investment in their teammates; they are less likely to facilitate training opportunities, coaching and mentorship, and the type of attention leaders owe their teams to drive growth and lasting impact in their sector. At worst, a fixed mindset results in letting someone go because they simply can’t ‘cut it.’ If you lead from a position of fear, it makes total sense. If you’re afraid of how your image or perceived utility is affected by your team’s performance, you won’t invest the time and energy into growth and development. You’ll do a disservice to your team and yourself. You won’t grow and you won’t deserve your team’s respect. By contrast, if you see new problems as learning opportunities–and mistakes as stepping stones to future capabilities–you’re more inclined to encourage calculated risk-taking, innovation, and true leadership in the face of adversity. Image before the bosses be damned. There’s no worrying over your boss’ perception of you when you lead in a manner true to yourself and your team.

Mindset reminded me how often I fall victim to the fixed mindset and the consequences. Fear, anxiety, and excess hesitation before jumping head-long into something new. I’ve learned the hard way (and been reminded by close friends recently): the fear associated with tackling a new challenge represents a golden opportunity–to learn, grow, and succeed in a way that can be extremely rewarding. Buy it, read it, see yourself in it. Then go take on something new and run head-long into it.

Published by Arun L. Chittur

I'm a teacher, writer, and coach with 20 years' experience in the military, biotechnology, and education. My mission is to help leaders build themselves and have lasting impact on their teams.

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