In our last newsletter I shared a very basic summary of Carol Dweck’s thinking about the importance of Growth Mindsets and Mastery. Dweck’s thinking is not new nor is it particularly contentious – her findings have been replicated many times. Yet society still seems to value the idea of the fixed mindset – to value the inspired genius, the athlete with ‘natural talent’ over the person seeking ‘mastery’.
What is strange about this privileging of the fixed mindset is that it simply doesn’t match up with the stories of the very successful. Two weeks ago, former Emmanuel student Cameron
McEvoy swam what was (in effect) the fastest ever 100 metres freestyle1. Cameron’s swimming career at school perfectly illustrates the point that fixed mindsets and ‘natural talent’ are not the keys to success. True, Cameron had talent, but it took time – lots of time – for that talent to
become mastery. In Junior School, Cameron’s best time was 61 seconds, in Senior it was 52 seconds, now, 5 years later it is 47.04 seconds. Cameron’s mindset had to be one of growth – one focused on Dweck’s “dedication and hard work … and resilience” - otherwise he would neither have persevered for so many years nor would he have achieved such success.
What is even stranger about our culture’s continued obsession with fixed mindsets is that many of the traits of fixed-mindset-thinking, and particularly perfectionism, are known to be damaging.
Theologically/philosophically, fixed-mindset-thinking makes perfection more important than goodness. Fr. Richard Rohr (who calls perfection a “false God”) puts it this way: “The search for supposed perfection is the most common enemy of simple goodness. God wants us to be humanly good. Good people can always accept, even love, imperfection.”2 Personally, I’d rather live with good people than perfect people.
Psychologically and emotionally, the belief that we all have a gift, a perfection that we can and should attain, leads to people making ”impossible demands on themselves and others, resulting in a tendency toward superiority, impatience, dismissiveness, and negative/critical thinking.”(Rohr. It can also lead to a continual sense of failure, and even to psychological illness. (It has long been accepted that “perfectionism is a significant predictor of psychological maladjustments”4). In other words, ultimately, praising achievement rather than effort and integrity, can lead to significant damage to a child’s (and indeed, an adult’s) self-image.
In addition, if we look at the views of well-known TEDspeaker, lawyer and businesswoman, Reshma Saujani, who argues that the privileging of performance-orientation is having both a social and an economic impact. Saujani begins her argument by describing how: “So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers that they know they are going to be great in.” This is what Dweck describes as “pursuing only activities at which they’re sure
to shine – and thereby avoiding the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish.” Saujani then asks why this is the case, and responds to her own question by saying it is because “most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They are taught to smile prettily, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to climb to the top of the monkey bars and jump off… they are habituated to take risk after risk and then they are rewarded for it.
In other words, we are raising our girls to be perfect, and we are raising our boys to be brave” and, Saujani argues that this is effectively removing half the population from huge tranches of the economy, including areas such as Innovation and ICT, which depend upon trial and error – on risk taking and perseverance, on mastery-orientation and a growth mindset. (Personally, I’m not convinced Saujani is entirely right here – we are also, increasingly, raising boys to be perfect, rather than brave!)
So what does all of this mean for Emmanuel? Well, it certainly reinforces the need to focus on effort and conduct, and on the active teaching of perseverance and resilience – things that have always been central to Emmanuel’s approach. However, perhaps we need to more overtly, more deliberately, bring these growth qualities to the forefront, and in so doing, push such things as scholarships, achievement grades and end of year awards into the background. To do this, of course, we need parental help. We need parents who will reinforce the message that mastery is more important than achievement grades, that bravery is more important than perfection, and that trial and error – Goethe’s “seeking and blundering” – is the way, the only way, to fully flourishing success.
1 The world record of 46.91 was achieved in now banned suits.
4 Examining the Link Between Perfectionism and Psychological
Maladjustment: Social Problem Solving as a Buffer, Chang E. Cognitive
Therapy and Research, Vol 25, no 5, Oct 2002.