The vocabulary of mindsets

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a strong believer in Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets. Our daughter is only four weeks old now, but even at this age I’ve already become aware of how easy it is to slip into fixed mindset dialog with her. We noticed after a single week she was holding her head up, and our natural instinct was to refer to her as smart, yet this compliment is exactly the opposite of what the growth mindset would tell us to give.

I buy in strongly to the mindset idea, but even I find it extremely easy to slip into fixed mindset compliments and praise. Why is that? I’ve thought about it a good bit over the past couple weeks and even more historically with my tutoring and instructor responsibilities. Growth-oriented compliments tend to have a negative connotation to them for many students: “You really tried hard on that!” is heard as “You really had to try hard to succeed at that!” Next to a classmate that completed a task easily, “You really persevered despite the difficulty!” can be heard as “You encountered difficulties that others didn’t encounter.”

Part of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is precisely the stigma that the fixed mindset gives to effort that causes the negative connotation students perceive in these compliments. However, I believe there is more to it than that. The fixed mindset gives us simple, accessible, popular compliments: you’re smart, you’re brilliant, you’re artistic, you’re athletic, you’re amazing. The growth mindset cautions us against these positive labels because they teach students to protect their identity rather than take risks and grow; yet, it remains difficult to avoid using these labels simply because of their availability and ease. Thus, even without intending to, we may easily introduce our kids to the fixed mindset. I’m thankful I have at least a few more weeks of Lucy hearing my speech as incoherent babbling to practice avoiding such praise!

The simplest way to avoid these tendencies, of course, would be replacement rather than simply avoidance: rather than avoiding fixed mindset praise, I ought to replace it with growth-oriented praise. It is when a student struggles and eventually conquers a hard-fought challenge that they should be praised, and in those situations it is their effort and perseverance that should be praised rather than some innate ability. In Dweck’s experiments, this was often the experimental condition: not simply withholding fixed praise, but providing praise for the right element of the task.

In Dweck’s work, this took the form of things like, “That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” The target of the praise is the work involved, not some inherent personal characteristic. But the fixed mindset compliments that we aim to avoid don’t simply come up in well-articulated and firmly-structured tasks: they arise in the more mundane day-to-day bits of cleverness or insight we provide. A student notices a deeper connection between a problem in math and a problem in physics. A child realizes that her father always comes home early on Fridays. A teacher recognizes a deeper misconception in a student’s understanding.

In these instances, it is natural to say, “Wow, you’re so smart”, but it is not desirable. Yet, praise is not the villain: the villain is what we praise. ‘Smart’ gives us a quick and easy way to praise the wrong target, but what word would we use to praise the right target?

I have yet to find a suitable vocabulary for growth-oriented praise. In the right situations, compliments like “You must have worked really hard” work fine, but in a great many contexts where positive reinforcement is desirable, that compliment doesn’t work. In fact, many of the words we would use to describe someone who puts forth a lot of effort and perseveres despite challenges have a strongly negative connotation: stubborn, headstrong, obstinate. Even the more neutral words still err on the negative side: strong-willed and persistent are neutral at best. Thus far, the only suitable word I’ve found is tenacious, and even that isn’t precisely matched to the growth mindset; its connotation is at least more positive, but it is not hard to imagine a growth mindset without tenacity.

It is easy to tell my daughter that she’s smart: “you’re smart!” But how do I tell my daughter that she perseveres despite challenges, that she always works her hardest, that she puts forth a lot of effort? The vocabulary simply isn’t as clear. I would argue this is one of the reasons the fixed mindset is so pervasive: it’s simply easier. It’s easier to tell my daughter she’s smart than it is to tell her she’s… I can’t even finish that sentence because the vocabulary isn’t available!

Perhaps this is intentional, of course. The accessibility of vocabulary is so we can label individuals, and the growth mindset generally pushes against labels as a whole. We could shove mindsets down their own throat and discuss how a person has a mindset about their mindset, and being able to praise their current mindset might undermine their effort to improve their mindset. I’d reject this notion, personally: if a person has adopted a growth-oriented mindset, then they will properly frame any praise for their growth-oriented mindset. But I digress.

What is particularly interesting is that while there is a vocabulary for fixed-oriented praise that is absent for growth-oriented praise, both fixed and growth mindsets have a vocabulary available for criticism. You can be dumb, stupid, unimaginative, boring, slow: fixed mindset criticisms are easy. But you can also be a quitter, a pushover, a slacker, a loafer. These criticisms target growth mindset characteristics: how well one perseveres, how much effort one puts forth, and how firmly one pushes for their ideas.

So what are the opposites of these growth-oriented criticisms? The closest thing I can find in the dictionary is ‘stalwart’, a word with a very different connotation. ‘Go-getter’ has an entrepreneurial connotation. ‘Self-starter’ focuses on the phase before obstacles may arise. That’s all I can find that even comes close.

It’s simply difficult to describe a person with a growth mindset as easily as we label people as ‘genius’, ‘idiot’, or ‘quitter’. Even tenacious, the only word that even partially appeals to me, lacks a ‘label’ form of the word that can be used. To more easily encourage people to adopt a growth mindset, there needs to be an accessible vocabulary in which we can even identify the growth mindset in the first place.

So: what would you call someone with the growth mindset?

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