Growth mindset sure is controversial.

Magical thinking goofballs love it because it seems to indicate that – just by changing your mindset – you can become better at just about everything that you want to do.

Rationalist-leaning scientists hate growth mindset because – well – magical-thinking goofballs love it.

And, Carol Dweck didn’t do herself any favors in her popular science book on growth mindset (called “Mindset”) by citing a bunch of examples that read like some sort of inspirational Horatio Alger rags to riches tale. “Ragged Dick sure was downtrodden and struggling. Then – he discovered the growth mindset! And his fortunes were changed henceforth!”

Growth mindset also sure does seem to check a lot of the boxes for a social science study that will fail to replicate that will be chalked up as part of the expanding replication crisis.

Depending on who you talk to, it seems like it either does replicate (with a small effect size) or it doesn’t actually do anything.

What I think we’ve got here is a really complicated situation. Any time we’ve got small effect sizes in complex systems, stuff gets really messy. Have you tried to keep up with which which foods and mechanisms actually cause heart disease, for example?

So, what’s the actual deal?

Growth mindset research seems to show that – through some framing and priming effects – children can be primed to work harder and longer on challenging problems or to quit more quickly. This result is surprising and counter-intuitive, since complimenting children on a trait like intelligence in a way that implies that it’s a static trait that you either “have” or “don’t have” results in them putting forth less effort.

So, what do I think?

I think that growth mindset is an actual thing. The research seems to have shown an effect across multiple scenarios. However, the effect isn’t quite what people – including Dweck in her popular writing – make it out to be.

While growth mindset critics pounced on the study from this year showing that growth mindset had no impact, I can’t say that this is terribly surprising – since the methodology of the study involves training teachers to implement growth mindset lessons in their classrooms.

I spend a significant amount of my weekly time and energy trying to teach coaches – most of whom I see nearly every day – to coach in more effective ways.

And it’s really, really, really hard.

Transmission of knowledge is hard.

Creating behavior change is hard.

Creating accountability structures to make sure that policies are being followed is hard.

We do a pretty good job, and we put a lot more energy into coaching development than any gym I’ve ever seen, and there’s still a huge gap between what I think should be happening and what is actually happening on a daily basis.

(This is not meant to put our coaches on blast – more just a recognition that transferring a skill or knowledge from one practitioner to another is just unbelievably challenging).

So, I can’t say that growth mindset failing to create a tangible effect in a third or fourth-hand scenario is terribly damning evidence against it.

Still, I am skeptical of the framing of growth mindset as some sort of elixir for success in business, fitness, love, wealth and success.

Is “the willingness to stick to a hard problem longer and to not think of yourself as a failure with an inability to get better” the actual limiting factor for most people’s performance in the things that they care about?

Likely not.

Is there potentially a difference between short-term “stick-to-it-iveness” than can be primed up or down through growth mindset style interventions and long-term “stick-to-it-iveness” that is a relatively stable personality trait (or maybe another TED Talk)

If someone’s mindset, per say, isn’t their limiting factor, what could it be?

How about:

•Interest in the subject matter

•Understanding and application of effective learning strategies (like spaced repetition, active learning, etc)

•Intelligence (dun dun dun)

•Ability to transfer learning across multiple domains

•For CrossFit athletes: the ability to do high volume dynamic contractions without creating occlusions

In some cases, could a poor mindset prevent someone from taking the steps necessary to move forward on their actual limiting factors…and thus be the one true cause of all lack of progress? I mean yeah I guess so.

In other cases, can transcendent talent or overwhelming interest more than make up for a lack of a growth mindset? Sure can.

[In fact, many of the examples that Dweck used in her book of athletes or business people with fixed mindsets behaving badly and shooting themselves in the foot were, in fact, stories of world champion athletes and billionaire business owners. So, in these cases, clearly the fixed mindset was not too much of a limiting factor.

She also mentions Michael Jordan as a shining example of the growth mindset. This may be true, but – if you saw the controversy around Michael’s acceptance speech – you may think of him more as a ruthlessly competitive crazy person who manufactured endless perceived slights and thrived off of negativity and proving others wrong. And that might be an excellent way to get really good at something. Better even than having a growth mindset!]

So, yes, I still coach my athletes in ways that utilize lessons I’ve learned from Dweck’s work. I try to praise effort rather than innate talent. I try to frame things as “improvable” – because they usually are.

I discuss growth mindset in our coaches meetings. We use the framework of the fixed mindset to understand why clients sometimes behave strangely when they think they’re being evaluated. We also use the the fixed mindset to understand why some clients constantly beat themselves up for falling short of their own unrealistic expectations.

it’s a valuable tool. I think it makes a difference in the performance of our competitive athletes. I think it improves the long-term results of our clients. I think that it helps our coaches better understand what clients are experiencing.

But I still hate magical thinking.