Transcript for Carol Dweck on the Psychology of Failure and Success

Jim Fleming: Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has spent decades trying to figure out how to succeed and the right way to fail.  She wrote about her findings in the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  And as it turns out, everyone fails, but not everyone fails the same way.

Carol Dweck: When my research began I started studying how students cope with failure because I understood from the start that failure was an incredibly important part of attaining success.  And what I found was that some kids really fell apart, but others really become mobilized.  They woke up, they said I love a challenge, they said things like I was hoping this would be informative.  And I knew that they had a secret, but I wanted to understand.

Fleming: What is it that kids know about what it means to fail that somehow we don't know?

Dweck: Well, some kids know it and so I essentially devoted my life to finding out what secret those children had.  And what I learned is that they had the right mindset.  They understood that their intelligence, their abilities were things that could be developed.  That's why they want a challenge.  That's why they thought that failure was part of growth and I call this the growth mindset.

Fleming: The other one you call the fixed mindset, the idea that you either have the ability and everything will go right, or

Dweck: Yes.

Fleming: failure is the end of everything.

Dweck: Yes, and the kids who crumble, the ones who fell apart I learned were the ones who had the fixed mindset.  They saw intelligence was just a fixed trait, as you say, you either have it or you don't.  And everything tested them -- every problem we gave them, every test in school -- they thought was a test on how smart they were.  As a result, they avoid a challenge ands they were not resilient in the face of failure.

Fleming: I think that we've all seen this to some extent.  But still unknown to me and I gather from your research you have a better grasp of it than I, is how the kids who get it got it.

Dweck: There are different ways to get it, the growth mindset, but the most fascinating way we do it is through the praise that teachers and parents give to their children.  Some praise fosters a fixed mindset and some praise fosters a growth mindset.  So what we have found is that praising your child's intelligence is bad.  It backfires, it creates a fixed mindset.  It makes the children not want challenging tasks they could learn.  They don't want to make a mistake, they don't want to look bad.  So what do we do instead?  My research shows praise the process the child engaged in -- effort, strategy, taking on hard tasks, persisting in the face of obstacles.  And when we do that the children learn a growth mindset, they enjoy difficulty and they keep on going.  We just finished a stud where we found that the praise, the process praise that parents give to children, when the children are 1-3 years old will predict their mindset and their desire for challenge five years later.

Fleming: So basically what you're saying if I'm understanding this correctly is that we spend too much time saying great job or great result when we should be spending most of our time saying I like the way you got to that answer.

Dweck: Exactly, the self esteem movement almost brainwashed us that we could hand our children self esteem on a silver platter by telling them they're special, they're great, they're brilliant, they're talented, they're gifted.  It doesn't work that way.  Those statements make children more fragile.  But telling them I like the way you worked on that, I like the strategies you tried, I like the way you picked that hard task, you'll learn a lot from that.  Those are the things that teach children how to build and maintain their self esteem on their own while they're growing.

Fleming: Now this is not really anything new, is it?  This is knowledge that has been around and certainly some people have understood it, perhaps just on an might run us through some examples.  Mozart, for instance, everybody think Mozart was a natural, he came out of the oven already done.

Dweck: Right, I think we tend to look at our heroes, Michael Jordan, Mozart, Darwin, and think oh, they just popped out as geniuses and their contributions were just a natural extension of their genius.  That's not true.  You can hardly find anyone who made a great creative contribution without years of passionate dedicated labor, years of overcoming adversity and setbacks.  Anyone who gets to be called a genius is usually someone who--not someone who was talented, sure they were talented, but they took their talent somewhere with their passionate dedication.  They pushed out of their comfort zone.  It's something that psychologists call deliberate practice, constantly pushing out of your comfort zone so you can grow.  And in our interventions, in our workshops for children we teach them that when they do that, when they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new, the neurons in their brains form new connections and they get smarter.

Fleming: Some of this is just in the way you look at it.  You look at Michael Jordan, for instance, and everybody laughs because he wasn't a first round draft pick.  He was recruited by the college that he wanted to go to.  You look at that and say yeah, but that's not what's important.  What's important is why and what he did to cope with that.

Dweck: Exactly, and everyone thinks oh, boy, they made a big mistake not drafting him, but he wasn't Michael Jordan.  And as you're saying, what made him Michael Jordan was the way he reacted to the setbacks and to the challenges of becoming evermore talented.

Fleming: There are others, you mentioned Darwin.  Darwin is an example of somebody from whom very little was expected when he was a young man, but he approached life I'd guess you'd say as a series of failures which he could overcome.

Dweck: Exactly, his father was very disappointed that he had such a dull lad, so that was one obstacle he had in his way, but also The Origin of Species and its epic tone took years and years to write, was the product of hundreds, maybe more conversations with people from all over.  It was really a monumental labor.

Fleming: Of course, the natural next question is is this forever?  Are you by the age of 3 either someone with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, or can we change ourselves just by thinking of ourselves differently?

Dweck: Yes, that's the good news is that at any age you can learn a new mindset.  We have a program for adolescents called Brainology that teaches adolescents a growth mindset and how to apply it to their schoolwork.  People have done research with business managers, mid aged business managers, and shown that they can learn a growth mindset.  And when they do they become more open to learning, more open to feedback from their employees.  They become better mentors of their employees.

Fleming: So if you were talking to a parent of a young child how to equip their kid for success, what's the first order of business?  What do you say to them?

Dweck: I'd say stop telling your child he or she is brilliant or talented.  Then I'd say make sure they are challenged all the time, and that they love challenge, they see challenge as fun, as something they'll learn from.  Then I'd say teach them how to persist on tasks--boy, that's an interesting mistake, really interesting, where should we go now?  Teach them to generate new strategies in the face of setbacks.  As I said earlier, this is going to help them build and maintain self esteem while they take on challenges and achieve.

Fleming: So in some ways we should promote failure.

Dweck: Yes, but within a growth mindset.

Fleming: Carol Dweck studies success and failure at Stanford University where she teaches psychology.  Her book is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.


Comments for this interview

Carol Dweck's "Mindset" (Mark McLeod, 09/30/2012 - 11:16pm)
Mindset (Paulette Clayton, 10/25/2011 - 11:54am)

I believe good teachers have always "praised the process" in their students' learning, and not emphasized only the right answer. This book should be required reading for all teachers.

Prof. Carol Dweck, Stanford Psychologist/researcher (Carol McFarland, 10/22/2011 - 4:10pm)

As a retired teacher, I relate to Prof. Dweck's methods and hope that her theories are taught in teacher education courses. Perhaps the "growth mindset" will rid classrooms of that inflated self-esteem and sense of entitlement that interferes with learning. Thanks for bringing Prof. Dweck to listeners.