One prominent Australian to overcome a rough start in life is Kerry Stokes, who was not born into a life of privilege and power. A dyslexic child, Melbourne-born Stokes was abandoned by his mother at age three and his foster parents at age 15. Today he is worth $2.47 billion.
Photo: Bohdan Warchomij
Why are some people destroyed by misfortune, while others rise above it?
I have a friend who grew up in Dickensian poverty, whose mother and grandmother prostituted themselves to pay the bills. She was taken advantage of in so many horrific ways, but managed to become a successful businesswoman and a loving mother. Among her siblings, some swam and others sank – into heroin, prison and an early death.
I used to wonder what made her so resilient. It seemed she just didn’t understand that someone with her background should not be able to become a writer, a musician, a business person, a landlord, and to have a wonderful life. For her, it seems, everything is possible.
Musings like these inspired Stanford University professor Carol Dweck to study mindset and its influence on resilience. “I wanted to know who crumbled in the face of failure and who coped with it,” she says on the phone from her office in California.
“Some people not only coped with it, they were energised by it and thrived.”
Dweck says people with a “fixed” mindset believe their basic talents and abilities are fixed traits. They are apt to become victims of circumstance. “Often, with a fixed mindset, a negative experience can become life-defining. It is something about you,” she says.
Meanwhile, those with “growth” mindsets believe traits and abilities can be developed. When they have a setback, they believe they can learn from it and they are resilient. Luckily, the orientation of mindsets can be changed – by teaching people about their brains. “Every time they stretch outside their comfort zones to learn something new, the brain makes new connections. Setbacks are the times you are becoming smarter.”
Learning to overcome challenges
Dweck says she is collaborating with an oncologist who noticed that some patients saw the diagnosis of cancer as the end of their identity.
“They were no longer the same person they were. They were now a ‘cancer’ person.”
Others believed they were the same person, but they had a challenge to deal with. They had a growth mindset.
One way parents can encourage resilience in their children is to stop praising them for their natural gifts. “It makes children afraid of challenges, and less resilient.” Praise instead their persistence, the effort they are making, their focus and their willingness to rise to a challenge.
“Those children with a fixed mindset want to keep showing you how brilliant they are. Even when they are part of a team, they want to be a star. They also hope to do it without much effort because that shows true genius.”
Growth mindsets in the workplace
Dweck says that in the work setting, managers can be taught a growth mindset, and how to encourage it in others.“Organisations have to learn how to reward people for appropriate risk-taking, and reward people for their innovation efforts,” she says.
First, they should see feedback as something they can learn from.
Then, they should make an effort to become a better mentor. “In fixed mindsets, people feel they don’t need to mentor because brilliance will rise to the top”.
When managers learned a growth mindset, they tuned into improvement more and gave people credit for it.
In her research on Fortune 500 companies, Dweck says with a fixed mindset, cultures were perceived as “dog-eat-dog” environments where people were prepared to cut corners, kept secrets and managers didn’t value teamwork.
“Where there were growth mindsets, they saw organisations where collaboration, dedication and improvement were valued – not just lone geniuses.”
“Research on who goes to the top of their profession and who makes a great creative contribution [shows that it] really is about persistence and resilience.”
The “fail early, fail often and succeed sooner” credo of Silicon Valley companies is an example of how organisations can use a growth mindset. Some organisations that celebrate the rewards of failure are:
- FAILFaire. Events celebrating and exploring failures in mobile technology development.
Institute of Brilliant Failures (motto: Failure is an Option). This organisation hands out awards for the greatest “learning opportunities” submitted. It is the brainchild of Dialogues, which is an initiative of ABN-AMRO.
- Admitting Failure. A website from Engineers Without Borders, which states “The only truly ‘bad’ failure is one that’s repeated”.
Be Fearless. Established by Jean and Steve Case’s The Case Foundation to encourage risk-taking: “We have to take risks, be bold, and fail forward. We have to Be Fearless”. Steve Case was a co-founder of AOL.
Dweck is the author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, and will speak at the Happiness & Its Causes conference in Melbourne on June 19.