‘Whether human qualities are things that can be cultivated or things that are carved in stone is an age old issue,’ writes Dr Carol S. Dweck. Her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, published in 2012, is Dweck’s celebrated and seminal attempt to offer a definitive answer.
By John Portch
Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, sets out her stall by citing a series of successful individuals, including Sir Charles Darwin, Leo Tolstoy, and Jackson Pollock, who were written off early in their careers. She posits that while these luminaries may not have initially displayed remarkable aptitude in their chosen fields, with effort and persistence they were able to rise to the top. Their early detractors exhibited fixed thinking and they themselves displayed growth mindsets. Dweck writes: ‘For 20 years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the thing you value.’ Setbacks do not deter those who continue to work hard.
This dichotomy of fixed and growth mindsets can be found in all walks of life; Dweck cites the worlds of art, education, business, parenting, relationships and, of course, sport. ‘In fact,’ she writes, ‘sports is where the idea of a ‘natural’ comes from – someone who looks like an athlete, moves like an athlete, and is an athlete, all without trying.’ It is an idea she rejects throughout Mindset.
The Leaders Performance Institute focuses on Dweck’s depiction of John McEnroe’s fixed mindset and Muhammad Ali’s growth mindset as prime examples of both.
Was McEnroe’s Mindset Fixed?
Dweck says that as well as holding a belief that talent is a natural endowment, people with fixed mindsets are beset by a constant need to prove themselves. ‘If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well then you’d better prove you have a healthy dose of them.’ They permit themselves no scope for development because they perceive ability to be God-given.
According to Dweck, former tennis player John McEnroe, a seven-time grand slam winner, possessed a fixed mindset. She suggests that his talent was so great that he held that number one ranking for four years, but: ‘He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfil his potential.’
She quotes this admission from McEnroe’s 2003 tome You Cannot Be Serious: “Some people don’t want to rehearse; they just want to perform. Other people want to practice a hundred times. I’m in the former group.”
When he lost, McEnroe would blame anything and anyone else – umpiring decisions, on-court conditions, his racquets – rather than any deficiencies in his game. ‘His on-court temper tantrums were often a cover for choking and only made things worse,’ observes Dweck.
He had a success or bust attitude. ‘In the fixed mindset, setbacks label you,’ she says. ‘John McEnroe could never stand the thought of losing. Even worse was the thought of losing to a friend or a relative. That would make him less special… In 1979, he played mixed doubles at Wimbledon. He didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years. Why? He and his partner lost in straight sets.’
In You Cannot be Serious, McEnroe says of the moment: “That was the ultimate embarrassment. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m never playing again. I can’t handle this.’”
Do you Share Muhammad Ali’s Growth Mindset?
By contrast, with a growth mindset, Dweck says, ‘the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development.’ She continues: ‘This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.’ She does not suggest that anyone can be an Einstein or a Beethoven; simply that a person’s potential is unknowable.
Dweck says that Muhammad Ali, widely acclaimed as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, had a growth mindset during his peak years that stood in stark contrast to McEnroe’s.
Ali initially confounded expectations in the world of boxing of what a natural fighter should be. ‘Boxing experts relied on physical measurements, called ‘tales of the tape,’ to identify naturals,’ Dweck explains. ‘They included measurements of the fighter’s fist, reach, chest expansion, and weight. Muhammad Ali failed these measurements. He was not a natural.’
Ali was set on the path to greatness with his 1964 sixth round stoppage of world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who was considered a ‘natural’ and a shoo-in to retain his belt. Dweck argues that Ali’s physical and mental preparations demonstrated his growth mindset and delivered a resounding technical knockout and his first world title.
‘Aside from his quickness, Ali’s brilliance was his mind,’ she says. ‘His brains, not his brawn. He sized up his opponent and went for his mental jugular. Not only did he study Liston’s fighting style, but he closely observed what kind of person Liston was outside of the ring.’
Dweck quotes Ali’s explanation in Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo’s 2003 biography Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years: “I read everything I could where [Liston had] been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all these things together and think about them, and try to get a picture of how his mind worked.” She adds: ‘And then he turned it against him.’
To read more about the mindsets of Muhammad Ali, John McEnroe and many more in the wider world of sports, education, business and beyond, read Dr Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset. Widely available from Constable & Robinson Ltd.