Let’s Like Difficult


Last month, we shared our excitement about research into the “growth mindset” by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. This month, we want to go a little deeper into the concept and show just how critical it is for inspiring and sustaining the journey toward high performance.

Because busy leaders rarely click on links, here’s a quick synopsis of Dweck’s research. The most important determinant of whether we human beings are willing and able to learn and improve is whether we have a “fixed mindset” or “growth mindset.”

The fixed mindset stems from the view that intelligence is primarily a function of the genetic lottery. It leads us to devote more energy to proving that we’re smart than to developing our abilities and confronting our weaknesses.

The growth mindset is the opposite. It is based on the understanding that intelligence is a muscle that gets stronger through hard, persistent effort. It makes us turn toward, not away from, criticism and challenge. In the growth mindset, we’re not out to prove. We’re “all in” to improve.

Exhibit One: Roca’s Molly Baldwin. We have no idea if Molly has read Dweck’s work. We do know that she models it to a T. As she shared with Lowell this past summer, “I wake up every day and make sure we deserve the privilege of working with these young people. How can we be sure we’re not doing harm? How can we keep getting better and better at doing good?” She looks failures in the face: “Kids would come to our program, and we’d feel good. Then they’d go home and shoot people…. We were failing, and we knew it.” She is relentlessly focused on helping her clients succeed: “It can’t be about how hard the work is. No one cares! It has to be about helping the young people we set out to help. To do that, we better stop doing stupid things.”

Exhibit Two: Blue Engine’s Nick Ehrmann. In the coming weeks, we’ll post a set of brief videos featuring Nick and two other leaders who have participated in PropelNext, an initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Here’s a preview of a remarkable growth-mindset story you’ll hear from Nick.

When he was teaching in a low-income DC school early in his career, he put together a dedicated team and created a program to offer a full-ride college guarantee to all of his fourth graders. Years later, he had a chance to examine the results of that program when he was studying for his PhD. “It was the summer of 2008, and I hit enter on the statistics package in the computer, and these green cascading numbers came flowing down the page. I learned for the first time that when it came to academic achievement, absence rates, pass-and-fail rates in their courses … that our students had fared no better [on these measures] than comparable students who hadn’t had access to this opportunity. My stomach hit the floor.”

A fixed-mindset leader might hide from those results or retreat into the comforting notion that there were dozens of reasons for the program’s failure which were completely out of his control. Instead, Nick took the growth-mindset path. He owned the disappointing results. He shared them with the world in his doctoral dissertation. Then he set out to design a program that would build on the promise of the DC program but in more rigorous ways. And that’s just what he’s done at Blue Engine, which has built real-time learning and improvement into its DNA.

As a few of you die-hards will remember, Mario ended his essay in Leap of Reason with a lovely anecdote from Melinda Gates. Melinda said she once overheard her youngest daughter, Phoebe, struggling to tie her shoes and saying to herself, “This is difficult. But I like difficult.” Let’s all aspire to that kind of growth mindset!

And now for updates from around the Leap community:

  • Harvard Business Review‘s “Why Cleveland Clinic Shares Its Outcomes Data with the World” provides a compelling business case for sharing your results publicly. The Cleveland Clinic, of which Mario is a director, reports much more data than regulatory bodies require. So why voluntarily expose the good, the bad, and the ugly? “What we achieve at Cleveland Clinic is obviously not perfect,” wrote Michael Kattan, chair of the Cleveland Clinic Outcomes Books editorial board. “But allowing all comers to see what we do helps everyone, including us, get better…. Annually reporting our results, whether good or bad, motivates us to improve them.” Just imagine if this growth-mindset took hold throughout our sector.
  • We recommend the Vox article “Most research spending is wasted on bad studies. These billionaires want to change that.” The article profiles Laura and John Arnold, philanthropists in Houston who are investing heavily in the unsexy but potentially transformative area of improving data and evidence. We loved Laura Arnold’s “to what end?” explanation: “We believe that policy should be informed by evidence. The reason we believe that isn’t because evidence is the end goal; it’s because we want to help people.” As the Arnolds certainly know, they have their work cut out for them. Check out the Politico article “Evidence comes under attack,” which documents the ways “Congress is killing one of the best ideas in government.” We hope the Arnolds like difficult!
  • Felicitaciones to our friend and fellow Leap Ambassador Cynthia Figueroa, who was just named the winner of this year’s Peter B. Goldberg Aramark Building Community Executive Leadership Award. The award is well-deserved—and well-timed. As you can see in this recent op-ed, Cynthia and her colleagues in Pennsylvania are caught in the middle of the state’s budget battle, draining their lines of credit while they wait for payments on services already delivered.
  • Congratulations as well to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Phil Buchanan and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Kathleen Enright, both of whom recently got the rarest of good news: Their organizations are each getting surprise $1.1 million gifts from a consortium of large, forward-thinking funders. The funders are investing to help CEP and GEO expand their efforts to use data and analysis to “help all of us in philanthropic fields do a better job,” in the words of RWJF CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. (A minor quibble in an otherwise great story: The Chronicle of Philanthropy dubbed the gifts “a MacArthur ‘genius award’ for nonprofits,” which sounds compelling but undermines the growth-mindset intent of the gift.)

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Good luck on your journey,
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

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