This Mindset Fires Passion for Performance


A big, bright bulb just lit up over our heads. We’re convinced that this insight—courtesy of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck—is powerfully relevant for all of us who aspire to high performance.

For years, we’ve been talking and writing about the courageous, adaptive leaders who are passionate about taking the journey of high performance—Friendship Public Charter School’s Pat Brantley, First Place for Youth’s Sam Cobbs, and many others. These leaders are willing and able to look without flinching at where they’re falling short. They use this honest introspection as the basis for learning and improvement—rather than shaming or blaming.

Dweck’s research, which we rediscovered thanks to Bill Gates and a Washington State teacher of the year, has given us an evidence-based understanding of the origin of this drive. It turns out that there’s an easily identifiable common denominator among all these leaders: They exemplify the growth mindset.

As Dweck explains in her outstanding, jargon-free book Mindset, there are two core mindsets that govern how we view ourselves and the world around us. To slightly oversimplify, people with the fixed mindset believe that our intellectual potential is a function of the hand we’re dealt at birth. In contrast, people with the growth mindset believe that one’s destiny is far more mutable; they believe that with enough motivation and hard work we can grow not just our knowledge and skills but also our brains and talent as well.

Dweck’s research demonstrates that these two mindsets exert an enormous influence on our thinking and actions. In one study, Dweck interviewed pre-med students to determine which ones came to their first semester of chemistry with a fixed mindset and which came with a growth mindset. Then she observed the students throughout the semester to see how each group fared. “Students with the fixed mindset stayed interested only when they did well right away,” she wrote. “If it wasn’t a testimony to their intelligence, they couldn’t enjoy it.” The opposite was true for the growth-mindset students. They increased effort when they started to struggle with difficult concepts. One typical growth-mindset student remarked, “It’s a lot more difficult for me than I thought it would be…. That only makes me more determined.”

What accounts for this vast difference? When we operate from the fixed view that intelligence is innate, failure can be a huge threat to our core identity. We don’t dig deeper when we’re faced with the potential for failure. Instead, we go to great lengths to seek outside validation that we’re smart and protect ourselves against anything that could undermine our identity as a smart person—greatly limiting our ability to learn and improve. We cut off our nose to save face.

When we’re in growth mindset, we thrive on challenge, and we’re receptive to anything that can help us improve. “In one world—the world of fixed traits—success is about proving you’re smart or talented,” Dweck wrote. “In the other—the world of changing qualities—it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new…. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?”

The great news is that Dweck’s research proves that even those of us who spend too much time in the fixed mindset can shift to a growth mindset. “Mindsets are just beliefs,” according to Dweck. “They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” In other words, the fixed mindset is not fixed.

We encourage you to pick up a copy of Mindset. It will help you see that you don’t need to wait until the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars before embarking on your journey toward high performance. What you really need to get started is a growth mindset. Your own internal landscape is just as important as the ecosystem of stakeholders around you.

And now for some brief updates from leaders who routinely embrace the growth mindset:

  • We applaud investor and philanthropist Josh Harris for the rigorous way he has made gifts in his community. As we learned in the recent Philadelphia Inquirer article “Sixers owner crunched big data before giving to PAL,” Harris spent more than a year learning about the work of the Police Athletic League and how it can assess improvements in the well-being of the kids it serves before he decided to make the largest investment in the organization’s history. When it comes to multi-year, multimillion-dollar gifts like these, we’d love to see more donors follow Harris’s example. It sounds like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has learned this lesson the hard way. See Dale Russakoff‘s new book, The Prize, about the disappointing results of Zuckerberg’s $100M gift to “transform” the Newark Public Schools.
  • As you’ll see in “Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success,” the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation‘s six-year reproductive health effort has paid huge dividends. Thanks to the foundation’s gift, teens and poor women who requested them could get free IUDs and other long-acting birth-control devices, which can cost up to $900. The outcomes: the teen birthrate plummeted by 40 percent over four years, the teen abortion rate fell by nearly the same amount, and the state saved tens of millions of dollars in the process. Despite these great outcomes, Colorado’s legislature failed this summer to approve funding to continue the program. Eleven foundations have stepped forward with $2M in funding. But state health authorities are still looking for another $3M.
  • Congratulations to the first eight awardees of Michael Bloomberg‘s $42M What Works Cities Initiative: Chattanooga, TN; Jackson, MS; Kansas City, MO; Louisville, KY; Mesa, AZ; New Orleans, LA; Seattle, WA; and Tulsa, OK. The mayor of each city has committed to enhance the city’s use of data and evidence “in order to improve services, inform local decision making, and engage citizens.”
  • Know any direct service workers who are great at inspiring and supporting their clients and use data to ensure their efforts lead to great outcomes? If so, please nominate them for this year’s Veronica Awards, sponsored by the Superstar Foundation, started by our friend Steve Butz. Previous awardees have come from organizations such as Congreso, Roca, the Latin American Youth Center, and Juma Ventures.
  • We salute Leap Ambassador Sue Urahn and her colleagues at the Pew Charitable Trusts for launching the Home Visiting Data for Performance. This effort provides guidance to state and local officials on what information has the highest value for monitoring the performance of home-visitation programs. As Sue pointed out in her Governing op-ed “Why Evidence-Based Policymaking Is Just the Beginning,” using evidence for selecting grantees is a great first step for policymakers. The next step forward is to use evidence “throughout the life of the program—from legislation and planning to design and implementation.” That’s what the new Pew initiative will help policymakers to do for the home-visitation field.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Good luck on your journey,
Mario and Lowell