Making the Choice: Mindset Works Director Gives Advice for a Growth-Minded Life

Dr. Carol Dweck didn’t limit sharing her research to Mindset.

With Dr. Lisa Sorich Blackwell, she founded Mindset Works, an organization that helps schools and teachers to implement growth-minded tools. We chatted with Emily Diehl, Director of Professional Learning and Curriculum Design at Mindset Works, about her best tips and tricks in adapting a growth Mindset. Emily is a former teacher and parent herself, who brought her years of experience as well as Dr. Dweck’s research to our conversation.

[Judy T. Oldfield] Can you tell me what Mindset Works is all about and what the goals of the organization are?

[Emily Diehl] We translate educational research into products and services for schools, for students, for teachers, and for districts. Specifically, the research that we apply has to do with motivation and learning, and what drives people to be motivated, and how you can teach people [what] we call “non-cognitive” skills, so how can you teach people and cultivate them to become motivated, deep learners, high achievers, and meet their potential.

[JO] What do you tell people who have read Mindset, seen Dr. Dweck’s TED talk, or attended one of your sessions and say, “I really feel that I want to make a change in my life?”

[ED] My friend Jen Maichin (she’s one of our educator consultants) and I . . . had this goofy thing that rhymed: “You’ve got to hear the voice and make the choice.” She still says this to her students all the time. We [say] this in talks a lot. It’s very, very normal at first when you meet a challenge to have this little voice in your head that’s wondering, “Can I do this? Do I want to? How hard is this going to be? Will people judge me?” There all these things in your head. You hear that fixed-mindset voice, questioning if you can do it, and then you don’t make a growth-mindset choice. So, we tell them to embrace this challenge. Say, “I’m going to look for strategies. I’m going to be inspired by other successful people, I’m going to say things to myself when I make normal mistakes like ‘look what you learned from that.’” We tell them to look to switch to a growth-mindset choice.

[JO] So then, it is all very cognitive?

You know, it really is. The ironic thing about how they’ve labelled it “non-cognitive” is that is a very cognitive thing and just for a lack of better term, “non-cognitive” is what we’ve landed on. But it’s all in your head. That’s why we sometimes use the word belief. Your beliefs affect your success. But the neuroscience is backing all of this up. It’s not just the psychology of your beliefs; your brain literally does grow. The dendrins grow. You remap your neural connections. You physically get smarter, in a real sense.

[ED] What about adults working with young people? Do you have any good tips for daily interactions? For coaches, teachers, parents, working with young people?

Initially we would say, if you want to do one thing tomorrow, try this idea out, and see if it has an effect on the children in front of you. The first thing you can change is your feedback to kids. You want to use the kind of feedback that helps people to learn from their mistakes. Don’t say “Oh no, try not to make a mistake again.” Say “Well, that’s great. These are really hard challenges. These are opportunities to learn; let’s talk about what you learned from this.” You want to use the kind of feedback that isn’t always concentrating on saying “Wow, good job, you’re so smart, you’re so fast, you’re so brilliant.”

It takes more effort to engage and to pay attention to whatever process the other person is going through and to give feedback that is specific to whatever they are doing. That’s our first foray into all of this: learning how you interact with the kids. Are you accidentally promoting a fixed mindset, that things should be easy, that we don’t do hard things so that way we don’t make any mistakes? Or are you encouraging a growth mindset, where you really push people to try the hard thing?

[JO] Would you give that same advice to someone who manages people at work? Adults working with adults?

[ED] Absolutely. Carol did an interview with Harvard Business Review. I really recommend it. It’s called “The Right Mindset for Success” and she talks about this scenario a lot. The reality of the work place is that you don’t want to make a lot of high-risk mistakes because it’s bad for business, but she talks about how we want employees who are willing to take responsible risks and learn.

[JO] Let’s go back to talking about kids. Do you think we overreward kids for participation by giving them trophies for showing up, giving an A for effort? We’re praising kids for participation but not for hard work.

[ED] Absolutely. I have that problem with my own children. I signed them up for a swim team, and starting out my children were a little older than other kids were when they started, who were far better swimmers than my children. I told my children “You aren’t going to win any races this whole year. You won’t win anything. Those kids have been swimming for five years, and this is your first year. You’re not going to win. But we’re doing this. We’re going to learn how to swim and it’ll be fun.” And everyone thought I was this mean mom, right? Well, we go to the first swim meet, and guess what they do? They give my kids ribbons even though they didn’t win anything! My kids started laughing. They were like, “Ha ha Mom, look! You said we wouldn’t get anything and we did.” I was really disappointed. I would have rather they wouldn’t have gotten the ribbon, because they didn’t earn one. Unless the ribbon had said “participant” or if they had been given a ribbon later for improving their time.

[JO] Or even a certificate of completion for going to every single practice.

[ED] Yeah, because, again, we were extremely diligent and they progressed a lot, but they didn’t deserve a ribbon like all the kids who had actually won a race that day.

[JO] Did your kids keep up swimming?

[ED] Yes. They’re still swimming and they’re doing better. They’re still being outswum by the kids who are five years ahead of them in experience but they really understand that. They know that if they had started swimming sooner, they’d be better and that if they keep swimming, eventually it’s all going to even out if they just work hard and practice.

[JO] My nephew is also a swimmer. I don’t live by my nieces and nephews, but ever since reading Mindset, every time I see their parents posting things about what they’re doing on Facebook, I’ve been really trying hard praise effort in my comments, like “It looks like those practices really paid off.” But I notice that in their comments, other people are praising what they perceive to be natural ability, intelligence, or creativity. Do you think that there is a societal condition where we praise natural ability, natural intelligence?

[ED] I think both messages are very strong in our society. It’s very mixed, and so we bring up children in a very confused way. In certain things people are taking those growth-minded messages—“You can do anything,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “keep practicing.”

[JW] It seems like we really encourage children, especially in areas like athletics or the arts up through college and then when people become an adult they say, “Now it’s time to put that away.”

[ED] Exactly. Or all of a sudden you are surrounded by other, high-achieving people.

During early stages it’s easier to learn something sometimes. When you’re young you grow a lot. When you get older, it gets harder and you’re going, “Oh, I’m not as good as I thought I was.” Because you never learned to work hard for it.

[JO] Do you find people who are resistant to the idea of this growth and fixed mindset or are resistant to the idea of changing their mindset?

[ED] We do, but it’s rarer. Their argument is usually not that they don’t buy into the growth mindset—most people are excited to hear about it. Sometimes when parents have older children who they desperately want to really succeed feel like “I can’t let my kid fail. They have to get all A’s.” So I can’t talk to them about just trying the hard thing and how we all make mistakes sometimes. They feel like they have to choose the thing they’ll get an A in because they have to go to Harvard. When you have children yourself and you’ve raised them in a fix-minded world then these messages are difficult to hear. But I wouldn’t say that people don’t want to hear it or that they’re against learning about it.


What’s your favorite tip from Mindset? Let us know in the comments. Haven’t read it yet? Get Mindset here.

Written by

Mark Pearson

Mark Pearson

Mark is a cofounder of Libro.fm. He lives in Seattle where he enjoys running in the rain, playing tennis when the sun makes an appearance, over and undercooking food, and reading The New York Times on paper.

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