I am confused. Some people say you can become everything you want if you just put in enough effort, hard work, and discipline. Others say that you should focus on your strengths, because you will not turn your weaknesses into strengths even in a hundred years of dedicated practice. Who is right? As with all complicated real-world questions, I guess the answer is not that clear or simple, so let’s try to define the two concepts a bit more thoroughly.
Fixed vs. growth
There is an interesting distinction in psychology between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset (10 minute TEDx talk by Carol Dweck). People who have a fixed mindset believe that you are born either more intelligent or less intelligent, more talented or less talented in a certain area, and that you cannot do very much about it. If you are not good at math, you will never be great, no matter how much you practice. If you are quick at learning to play a musical instrument, you will always have to practice less than somebody who is slower, and still stay ahead of them.
On the other side, people with a growth mindset believe that you can improve your abilities drastically through training and exercise. They are convinced that people can grow beyond what is currently reachable for them, and beyond what other people expect from them.
It has been shown that it is possible to teach children a growth mindset instead of a fixed one (1). This has quite a few benefits. Children with a growth mindset are strong at recovering from setbacks, while children with a fixed mindset are more easily discouraged when they face difficult challenges. Children with a growth mindset enjoy such challenges and actively learn from failure, while children with a fixed mindset are unsettled by failure and need regular confirmation of their intelligence and their abilities. They run away from potential errors. This is how, over time, people with a growth mindset improve their brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems more and more, and surpass people with a fixed mindset.
Do, fail, repeat
Today, I believe that the growth mindset camp has a lot speaking for them. This was not always the case. In fact, as a teenager, I used to have a rather fixed mindset. I was always good at school without having to study much. I saw people study hard and still fail miserably in Math, or not progressing beyond average in English. From these observations, I concluded that you were just good at certain things, and bad at others, and that was the way it was.
Then, however, strange things happened. A guy who was a year younger than me, and whose table tennis skills had always been way below mine, suddenly surpassed me, because he exercised more often, and more seriously. Later on, my guitar skills never really got off the ground, because I did not put in enough time and energy. My fixed-mindset world view was shaken.
Since then, I have seen more examples of people progressing past what anybody had thought possible, by being diligent and persistent. I think the value of repetition, of doing a thing over and over and over again, cannot be overstated. Arguably, repetition is greatly underestimated in many modern (Western) societies, and maybe also in our school system. The concept is out of fashion. Of course, repetition is boring. It requires being able to delay gratification, to put up with the frustration of failing, and failing again, and failing yet another time, but giving your best nonetheless, until you succeed. All of this goes against the right-here-right-now thinking that TV advertisements, ubiquitous communication possibilities, and the omnipresent, never-ending stream of information that surrounds us have got us used to.
Things you cannot learn or teach
So I am trying to cultivate and advocate for a growth mindset. However, even though there is empirical as well as scientific truth to the growth mindset theory, I still think there are things that I would not master even if I practiced hard for thousands of hours. For example, I think I could never be a good salesman. I am not a big talker, I do not enjoy being the center of attention, and I find it very hard to talk people into something they are not convinced of - or, even worse, that I am not fully convinced of. No matter how hard I tried, I would probably be a pretty mediocre salesman. I also do not excel at confrontation, and believe I would not make a good trial lawyer, or be great at any profession that involved frequent arguments.
I think there are a lot more things that you cannot really teach somebody, or learn. Drive is among them, as well as strategic thinking. Empathy is definitely among them - good luck trying to teach somebody empathy. As a software engineering manager, I suspect that thinking in code, and rearranging the bits and pieces of a program in your head are also among the things that you cannot learn. Joel Spolsky wrote that if you cannot handle recursion or pointers rather intuitively, you probably never will, and I think he is right.
If you think about it, the thought that there are things that you just cannot become excellent at is also somewhat relieving. If everybody could become arbitrarily good at anything, then all people would be pretty much alike. We are not all alike, however. Everybody has a unique set of talents and a unique mental filter through which they perceive and interpret the world around them.
Four-lane highways and barren wasteland
The short version of how this unique mental filter comes into existence goes something like this: When a child is three years old, there are many, many, many synaptic connections in her brain. Virtually every connection that is possible is also there. The brain, at this point, is like an untouched block of marble, which can be worked into any shape imaginable. The connections are so many, in fact, that the child is overloaded with all the information streams whirling around in her head. Therefore, over the next ten years or so, the brain refines and focuses its network of connections in order to make sense of all these overwhelming impressions. The marble block begins to develop into a statue.
The result of this process is that, when the child is in her early teens, only around half of the synaptic connections are left. The other half has been lost - like the pieces of marble that have been carved away from the initial block. The connections that were used often become stronger. The ones that got used only rarely or not at all become weaker or whither away.
Neural scientist Dr. Harry Chugani introduced the analogy of a highway system. Roads with the most traffic get widened, while others fall into disrepair. This is how a teenager ends up with some frictionless four-lane highways in her brain: Superconductive paths in some brain regions, which are the reason that she is perceived as a “natural” when it comes to, say, communication. At the same time, methodical problem solving might not be her strong point, because the connections in these brain regions have become pretty weak. With many long hours of arduous practice, she might cut a thin path through this barren wasteland, and go from “hopeless” to just “bad”, but she will never be able to establish a four-lane highway in that brain region.
This is why the authors of First, Break All the Rules advise us to emphasize and cultivate our strengths instead of desperately trying to fix our weaknesses. In their words:
“People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.”
In other words: We can, in fact, not become anything we want. There, I said it (or, rather, they said it). Our growth is not unbounded, but there are certain limits to it. If you lack strategic thinking, you will never become an excellent CEO. If you lack empathy, you will not become a great coach or teacher. If your analytical thinking is imprecise, you will not become an outstanding software developer or systems architect.
Some growth-mindset people might object, but thousands of PET scans confirm it. Areas of excellent potential are carved into the human brain by our 16th birthday - or they never will be. You cannot force them into the adult brain, even if you study or practice 24 hours a day.
I read Soft Skills by John Sonmez, and he definitely has a growth mindset which he wants to pass on to the reader. However, parts of the book strike me as overly optimistic, because they suggest that you can arbitrarily establish new four-lane highways in your mental filter. Quotes:
- “If you repeatedly do a thing and act as if you are already what you want to be, you’ll eventually become what you want to be.”
- “The truth of the matter is you aren’t your propensity to feel awkward in social situations or to lose your temper at the drop of a hat. You’re not those things any more than you’re the clothes that you wear.”
- “Imagine being able to go from a shy, socially awkward person to a social butterfly, charming and dazzling without a care in the world.”
Frankly, I find all this a bit naïve, and while the book has its merits, Section 7 (“Spirit”), where these words can be found, might as well have been omitted, in my opinion. Anyway, such views are probably suggested by motivational coaches all over the world. Now you know that they go against hard neuroscience, so don’t fall for them.
So what about being able to grow to unimagined greatness? Even if, at first glance, it seems like the fixed mindset/growth mindset theory and the neuroscience about four-lane highways and barren wastelands are contradictory, I think they are not. You can grow to an extent that you might not imagine. You just have to carefully pick in which area. Identify your strengths, and focus only on them. Your time and energy are limited. Use them on your four-lane highways, not on some footpaths through the wastelands of your brain. Become more of who you already are instead of trying to become somebody else.
Then, let the hard work begin. If you want to reach true excellence, you will require both talent and perseverance. Relentlessly practice what you want to become better at. John Resig advises us to write code every day. Depending on what you want to achieve, you might want to write some text every day. Both are examples of the Seinfeld method, and it works. By doing something as often, as regularly, and with as much dedication as possible, your brain cannot avoid getting better at it.
And, who knows, maybe you can even turn some two-lane highways into three-lane highways on the way. For a software developer, for example, it’s very helpful to have at least average communication and empathic skills instead of terrible ones. In this case, the benefit of reaching a level that is less than excellent might outweigh the cost. Know yourself to make the right choices about where to invest your self-improvement time.
1. For example, if your kid solves a difficult math problem, you should praise her rather for having practiced hard, and put in her best effort, than for being so smart. If a boy wins a sports competition, appreciate how hard he has exercised rather than how he is simply the best (and if he has not exercised, tell him he should).