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Bike lessons, life lessons and learning agility

A couple of years ago we were sitting around the dinner table when my husband, who has an acerbic sense of humour, detailed the annoying habits of a work colleague, to which my 10-year old daughter responded, “Dad, you have such a fixed mindset”.

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It was the first time I had ever heard the term. Him too.

"A person with a growth mindset truly believes with application you can change, learn and develop new abilities."
Tanya Deery, GGM, Talent and Culture, ANZ

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means you think people can't change and there's no point trying because you are who you are!” he was told.

Children have a way of getting to the heart of a matter. This wasn’t the first time my husband had made comments about the idiosyncrasies of this particular individual.

My daughter went on to share what they had been learning at school about the two types of mindsets you can have - a growth mindset or a fixed mindset - and how much more you will embrace life and learning if you have a growth mindset.

I can't tell you how excited she was about these concepts. It was infectious.

After dinner I ran an internet search for ‘growth mindset’ and found a wealth of information about the research of Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University on the positive educational benefits of having a growth mindset.

It turned out my daughter had landed the teacher who ultimately started the mindset movement at her school. To this day I credit him with changing her outlook on learning and opening up my own.

Since then I have immersed myself in the phenomenal body of research sitting behind these concepts. I became fascinated by their application in education and then even more fascinated by their application in the workplace.

DUALITY

So what are the two mindsets?

In her 2006 book ‘Mindset’ Dweck talks about the beliefs underpinning a growth mindset.

People with a growth mindset fundamentally believe their basic qualities can be cultivated and developed through effort. They see their own true potential as limitless because it is “impossible to see what could be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training”. 

People with a growth mindset believe in stretch. They seek opportunities to test themselves and try different ways to solve problems. They look for feedback to hone and improve their approach.

A person with a growth mindset truly believes with focused dedication and application you can change, learn and develop new abilities.

Dweck contrasts this with people who have a fixed mindset. These people believe one’s characteristics and abilities are fixed. 

Essentially, they believe you are born with a natural set of capabilities and characteristics defining how successful you will be in life. People with a fixed mindset see effort as unnecessary – it is only for people with deficiencies! 

How does mindset play out in real life?

My daughter, now 13, demonstrates a growth mindset most of the time. My son, aged 10, has a natural orientation towards a fixed mindset. This is a good point to inject that a growth mindset can be developed.

INSTRUCTIVE

How my children learned to ride a bike was instructive.

We are fortunate to have a fabulous park near our home which has an enormous synthetic playing surface, ideal for learning to ride. Both kids were about six at the time we embarked on this rite of passage.

My daughter, with new bike and safety gear, was terribly excited about the prospect of acquiring this new skill. She wanted to know how she is going to learn it – what’s the plan?

We explained we’d start by holding on to her seat and running along behind her, and as she gets more confident, we would gradually let go.

She must have spent two hours asking questions like “How do I stop?”, “How do I start?”, taking feedback and instruction about where to put her pedals to start from a standstill, how to break slowly and not suddenly, and so on.

Totally engaged, totally focused, welcoming feedback, trying different approaches, practicing and practicing until ultimately, success!  She did it, and loved every second of learning how.

A few years later it was my son’s turn. Same age, same place, same level of enthusiasm. Same parental approach - completely different outcome.

On arrival at the park, our son’s fundamental belief was he already knew how to ride a bike. He’d seen plenty of others do it. It looked easy and he was confident he already had the necessary skills.

He saw himself getting onto his bike and riding off into the sunset. Just like that!  In his mind, limited effort would be required, and he certainly would not require any support.

So he gets on, us holding onto the seat, and him yelling “Let go, let go”. We do. Within a couple of metres he wobbles over. He was ok with that, he expected a bit of challenge. There’s nothing wrong with his approach and he wants to try again. Same result. Again. Same result.

He has no interest in listening to any ideas or advice on how to do it differently. “Too many words,” he says. “Just let me do it”. Anger and frustration start to build.

My husband kneels down next to him and tries to calmly explain the way he could approach the task. No interest. After several more painful attempts, he threw his helmet to the ground and said “I can’t do it” and stormed off.

Needless to say, he did not learn how to ride his bike that day and no one enjoyed it.  One could say his fixed mindset kicked in, in terms of how he chose to approach the challenge.

People tend to fall fairly evenly into both camps, those who approach a challenge as a learning opportunity (and actively seek challenge!) break it into sub-goals, apply effort, show grit and resilience, seek feedback and try different strategies to achieve the goal and learn along the way.

The good news for those who don’t is research confirms your mindset can be primed one way or another with amazing results.

My son, over time and with the right support from adult role models, will hopefully develop more of a growth mindset and experience the opportunity this re-framing brings.

I am particularly hopeful, as this year he has landed the same teacher who encouraged my daughter in this direction – though I have to say, I think her natural orientation is more towards a growth mindset to begin with!

When my son transforms his mindset his world will open up. Of this I have complete confidence – just as I knew he would eventually learn to ride his bike!

METAMORPHOSIS

As an organisational psychologist a switch flipped for me that night at the dinner table when I heard about growth mindset.

Since then I have watched how my children tackle their schoolwork, friendships, and anything new, and reflected on the parallels I see with learning, development and coaching in the workplace.

If you want a culture of continuous improvement or a learning organisation you need an environment where people can safely test and learn.

You need a critical mass of people who have a growth mindset – who believe if you apply effort, set goals, seek feedback, learn from mistakes, analyse what went wrong, try new strategies – that you have the potential to improve both your own capabilities and deliver better results.

Dweck has done a lifetime of research on these concepts, initially in school settings and more recently in organisations.

In one of her classic studies, a group of children are praised for their intelligence in approaching a maths test and another for their effort. Next they have the choice of a second easy test or something tougher they’ll learn from – the group praised for effort pick the challenge.

I think you can guess what the ‘smart’ group choose.  Suffice to say, if we simply sit around feeling pleased about our innate intelligence and capabilities, making no effort to stretch, it’s as good as a shiny gym membership gathering dust.

I see the way some people around me grasp challenges with both hands, collaborate with difficult people, take planned approaches to developing new skills or tackling new situations and succeed.

Those who do the opposite often stagnate. They are closed to others ideas, often believing they are the smartest person in the room. Mindset is about so much more than attitude, it’s about action – just ask my kids.

So – how did you learn to ride a bike?

On my son’s table at school he has a mindset card about his hero: What would Roger Federer do?

Answers include: 

  • Keep trying
  • Try a different strategy
  • Ask for help – his coach
  • Listen to advice
  • Remember the ladder – you must climb up every rung!

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Tanya Deery is GGM, Talent and Culture at ANZ

Professor Carol Dweck can be seen on TED

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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