If life is a game, how do you play it? The answer will have a huge impact on your choices, your satisfaction, and how you achieve success.
James Carse, the Director of Religious Studies at New York University, wrote a book, Finite and Infinite Games, that explores the difference between approaching life as a game with an end, or a game that goes on forever. According to Carse, playing to win isn’t nearly as satisfying as playing to keep the game going.
For starters, what do you do after you win a finite game? You have to sign yourself up for another one, and you must find a way to showcase your past winnings. Finite players have to parade around their wealth and status. They need to display the markers of winning they have accumulated so that other players know whom they are dealing with. Carse argues that these players spend their time in the past, because that’s where their winning is.
Infinite players, in contrast, look to the future. Because their goal is to keep the game going, they focus less on what happened, and put more effort into figuring out what’s possible. By playing a single, non-repeatable game, they are unconcerned with the maintenance and display of past status. They are more concerned with positioning themselves to deal effectively with whatever challenges come up.
Thus, how you play the game of life will define the learning you pursue. Finite players need training. Infinite players need education. Why? According to Carse, “to be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” If you play life as a finite game, you train for the rules. If life is instead an infinite game, you focus on being educated to adapt to unknowns.
“What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.”
Whether you choose the finite or infinite game will also determine how you define success, and what you need to achieve it. Finite players need power. Power gives them the best chance to win in each successive contest. Infinite players need endurance. They need attributes to keep them going. Carse explains, “let us say that where the finite player plays to be powerful, the infinite player plays with strength.”
Ultimately, approaching life as a finite game or infinite game impacts your daily attitude. Carse asserts that “the finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life joyous.” Considering your life through this frame helps you determine if you are making the right choices to be successful at the kind of game you want to play.
Two things drove L’Amour: Adventure and a deep need for self-education. In his memoir, The Education of a Wandering Man, he makes it clear that the two went hand in hand. His travels were his way of learning by direct experience, but he augmented that with a tremendous and voracious appetite for the vicarious learning that comes through reading.
“That was Louis’s way – to find something of value from every printed page.”
— Daniel Boorstein
Writing in in the late 1980’s, L’Amour describes his love of the written word, a pursuit he undertook at all cost:
Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whisky, or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the price of a cheap shirt. You can buy a fair beginning of an education in any bookstore with a good stock of paperback books for less than you would spend on a week’s supply of gasoline.
Often I hear people say they do not have the time to read. That’s absolute nonsense. In one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read twenty-five books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends, many such places. I read on buses, trains and planes. If one really wants to learn, one has to decide what is important. Spending an evening on the town? Attending a ball game? Or learning something that can be with you your life long?
Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro. In Singapore, I came upon a copy of The Annals and Antiquities of Rajahstan by James Tod.
Many of us think we don’t have the time or the inclination to keep learning, but to L’Amour this was a ridiculous idea. If he didn’t educate himself, who else would do the job? In this sense, all education is self-education.
No man or woman has a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.
Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness.
L’Amour was clearly a proponent of direct life experience, and he had more than most. As his memoir details, his young life saw him take on the role of a traveling hobo, sailor, amateur boxer, miner, and ranch hand, jobs that took him all around the world in search of work and adventure.
But throughout, L’Amour knew that his destiny was to become a storyteller, and he also knew that to avoid a lot of misery in life would require a massive amount of experience he couldn’t obtain directly.
So he did it through books.
It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.
So it was with me. I saved myself much hardship by learning from the experiences of others, learning what to expect and what to avoid. I have no doubt that my vicarious experience saved me from mistakes I might otherwise have made—not to say I did not make many along the way.
A love of learning for its own sake creates a massive ancillary benefit. What L’Amour says about writers goes for all of us, in any profession:
I have never had to strive to graduate, never to earn a degree. The only degrees I have are honorary, and I am proud to have them. I studied purely for the love of learning, wanting to know and understand. For a writer, of course, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.
A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.
I have studied a thousand things I never expected to find use in a story, yet every once in a while these things will find a place.
People who read a lot, people like L’Amour, are often asked about what should be read. Is there some program or direction to take?
The answer we give at Farnam Street and the answer L’Amour gave are about the same: You must follow your passions, follow your curiosities. Why does this work? Nassim Taleb once hit it on the head by saying that “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction it is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”
Down the line, as those curiosities are pursued, the course tends to become quite clear. Trying to pursue some difficult course of study is not the way to get your engines going.
For those who have not been readers, my advice is to read what entertains you. Reading is fun. Reading is adventure. It is not important what you read at first, only that you read.
Many would advise the great books first, but often readers are not prepared for them. If you want to study the country from which you came, there are atlases with maps and there are good books on all countries, books of history, of travel, of current affairs.
Our libraries are not cloisters for an elite. They are for the people, and if they are not used, the fault belongs to those who do not take advantage of their wealth. If one does not move on from what merely amuses to what interests, the fault lies in the reader, for everything is there.
One mistake made by would-be learners it to think that they need guidance or permission to do so. That they must take a class on Shakespeare to enjoy Shakespeare or take a guided tour of the classics in order to enjoy those.
The great works of the world are there to be enjoyed by all. (Of course, we have some recommendations for how to read books in general.) But as L’Amour guides, you must learn and read what you like, unless there is an important extenuating circumstance. Boredom creates a shut-off valve in the brain. And if you’re always reading something of even moderate depth, you simply can’t avoid learning. A continually curious mind ends up at the classics one way or another anyways.
In the end, in a thought later echoed by the technology great Andrew Ng, L’Amour believed the human mind was capable of incredible creativity, perhaps beyond what we currently believe:
Personally, I do not believe the human mind has any limits but those we impose ourselves. I believe that creativity and inventiveness are there for anybody willing to apply himself. I do not believe that man has even begun to realize who he is or what he can become. So far he has been playing it by ear, following paths of least resistance, getting by — because most others were just getting by too. I believe that man has been living in a Neanderthal state of mind. Mentally, we are still flaking rocks for scraping stones or chipping them for arrowheads. […]
We simply must free the mind from its fetters and permit it to function without restraint. Many of us have learned to supply ourselves with the raw materials and then allow the subconscious to take over. This is what creativity is. One must condition oneself for the process and then let it proceed.
If you liked this post, you might like these too:
Schopenhauer on Reading and Books – One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
“The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts;
it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking.” — Henry Ford
In his memoir My Life and Work, written in 1934, the brilliant (but flawed) Henry Ford (1863-1947) offers perhaps the best definition you’ll find of the value of an education, and a useful warning against the mere accumulation of information for the sake of its accumulation. A devotee of lifelong learning need not be a Jeopardy contestant, accumulating trivia to spit back as needed. In the Age of Google, that sort of knowledge is increasingly irrelevant.
A real life-long learner seeks to learn and apply the world’s best knowledge to create a more constructive and more useful life for themselves and those around them. And to do that, you have to learn how to think on your feet. The world does not offer up no-brainers every day; more frequently, we’re presented with a lot of grey options. Unless your studies are improving your ability to handle reality as it is and get a fair result, you’re probably wasting your time.
From Ford’s memoir:
An educated man is not one whose memory is trained to carry a few dates in history—he is one who can accomplish things. A man who cannot think is not an educated man however many college degrees he may have acquired. Thinking is the hardest work anyone can do—which is probably the reason why we have so few thinkers. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the attitude of contempt toward education, the other is the tragic snobbery of assuming that marching through an educational system is a sure cure for ignorance and mediocrity. You cannot learn in any school what the world is going to do next year, but you can learn some of the things which the world has tried to do in former years, and where it failed and where it succeeded. If education consisted in warning the young student away from some of the false theories on which men have tried to build, so that he may be saved the loss of the time in finding out by bitter experience, its good would be unquestioned.
An education which consists of signposts indicating the failure and the fallacies of the past doubtless would be very useful. It is not education just to possess the theories of a lot of professors. Speculation is very interesting, and sometimes profitable, but it is not education. To be learned in science today is merely to be aware of a hundred theories that have not been proved. And not to know what those theories are is to be “uneducated,” “ignorant,” and so forth. If knowledge of guesses is learning, then one may become learned by the simple expedient of making his own guesses. And by the same token he can dub the rest of the world “ignorant” because it does not know what his guesses are.
But the best that education can do for a man is to put him in possession of his powers, give him control of the tools with which destiny has endowed him, and teach him how to think. The college renders its best service as an intellectual gymnasium, in which mental muscle is developed and the student strengthened to do what he can. To say, however, that mental gymnastics can be had only in college is not true, as every educator knows. A man’s real education begins after he has left school. True education is gained through the discipline of life.
Men satisfy their minds more by finding out things for themselves than by heaping together the things which somebody else has found out. You can go out and gather knowledge all your life, and with all your gathering you will not catch up even with your own times. You may fill your head with all the “facts” of all the ages, and your head may be just an overloaded fact−box when you get through. The point is this: Great piles of knowledge in the head are not the same as mental activity. A man may be very learned and very useless.And then again, a man may be unlearned and very useful.
The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking. And it often happens that a man can think better if he is not hampered by the knowledge of the past.
Ford is probably wrong in his very last statement, study of the past is crucial to understand the human condition, but the sentiment offered in the rest of the piece should be read and re-read frequently.
This brings to mind a debate you’ll hear that almost all debaters get wrong: What’s more valuable, to be educated in the school of life, or in the school of books? Which is it?
This is what we call a false dichotomy. There is absolutely no reason to choose between the two. We’re all familiar with the algebra. If A and B have positive value, then A+B must be greater than A or B alone! You must learn from your life as it goes along, but since we have the option to augment that by studying the lives of others, why would we not take advantage? All it takes is the will and the attitude to study the successes and failures of history, add them to your own experience, and get an algebra-style A+B result.
So, resolve to use your studies to learn to think, to learn to handle the world better, to be more useful to those around you. Don’t worry about the facts and figures for their own sake. We don’t need another human encyclopedia.
Educating his children gave him pause as to how the elements of teaching should be employed. By the time his son Carl was four, Feynman was “actively lobbying against a first-grade science book proposed for California schools.”
It began with pictures of a mechanical wind-up dog, a real dog, and a motorcycle, and for each the same question: “What makes it move?” The proposed answer—“ Energy makes it move”— enraged him.
That was tautology, he argued—empty definition. Feynman, having made a career of understanding the deep abstractions of energy, said it would be better to begin a science course by taking apart a toy dog, revealing the cleverness of the gears and ratchets. To tell a first-grader that “energy makes it move” would be no more helpful, he said, than saying “God makes it move” or “moveability makes it move.”
Feynman proposed a simple test for whether one is teaching ideas or mere definitions: “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word energy, tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.”
The other standard explanations were equally horrible: gravity makes it fall, or friction makes it wear out. You didn’t get a pass on learning because you were a first-grader and Feynman’s explanations not only captured the attention of his audience—from Nobel winners to first-graders—but also offered true knowledge. “Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off.” That is knowledge. “To simply say, ‘It is because of friction,’ is sad, because it’s not science.”
Choosing Textbooks for Grade Schools
In 1964 Feynman made the rare decision to serve on a public commission for choosing mathematics textbooks for California’s grade schools. As Gleick describes it:
Traditionally this commissionership was a sinecure that brought various small perquisites under the table from textbook publishers. Few commissioners— as Feynman discovered— read many textbooks, but he determined to read them all, and had scores of them delivered to his house.
This was the era of new math in children’s textbooks: introducing high-level concepts, such as set theory and non decimal number systems into grade school.
Feynman was skeptical of this approach but rather than simply let it go, he popped the balloon.
He argued to his fellow commissioners that sets, as presented in the reformers’ textbooks, were an example of the most insidious pedantry: new definitions for the sake of definition, a perfect case of introducing words without introducing ideas.
A proposed primer instructed first-graders: “Find out if the set of the lollipops is equal in number to the set of the girls.”
To Feynman this was a disease. It confused without adding precision to the normal sentence: “Find out if there are just enough lollipops for the girls.”
According to Feynman, specialized language should wait until it is needed. (In case you’re wondering, he argued the peculiar language of set theory is rarely, if ever, needed —only in understanding different degrees of infinity—which certainly wasn’t necessary at a grade-school level.)
Feynman convincingly argued this was knowledge of words without actual knowledge. He wrote:
It is an example of the use of words, new definitions of new words, but in this particular case a most extreme example because no facts whatever are given…. It will perhaps surprise most people who have studied this textbook to discover that the symbol ∪ or ∩ representing union and intersection of sets … all the elaborate notation for sets that is given in these books, almost never appear in any writings in theoretical physics, in engineering, business, arithmetic, computer design, or other places where mathematics is being used.
The point became philosophical.
It was crucial, he argued, to distinguish clear language from precise language. The textbooks placed a new emphasis on precise language: distinguishing “number” from “numeral,” for example, and separating the symbol from the real object in the modern critical fashion— pupil for schoolchildren, it seemed to Feynman. He objected to a book that tried to teach a distinction between a ball and a picture of a ball— the book insisting on such language as “color the picture of the ball red.”
“I doubt that any child would make an error in this particular direction,” Feynman said, adding:
As a matter of fact, it is impossible to be precise … whereas before there was no difficulty. The picture of a ball includes a circle and includes a background. Should we color the entire square area in which the ball image appears all red? … Precision has only been pedantically increased in one particular corner when there was originally no doubt and no difficulty in the idea.
In the real world absolute precision can never be reached and the search for degrees of precision that are not possible (but are desirable) causes a lot of folly.
Feynman has his own ideas for teaching children mathematics.
Process vs. Outcome
Feynman proposed that first-graders learn to add and subtract more or less the way he worked out complicated integrals— free to select any method that seems suitable for the problem at hand.A modern-sounding notion was, The answer isn’t what matters, so long as you use the right method. To Feynman no educational philosophy could have been more wrong. The answer is all that does matter, he said. He listed some of the techniques available to a child making the transition from being able to count to being able to add. A child can combine two groups into one and simply count the combined group: to add 5 ducks and 3 ducks, one counts 8 ducks. The child can use fingers or count mentally: 6, 7, 8. One can memorize the standard combinations. Larger numbers can be handled by making piles— one groups pennies into fives, for example— and counting the piles. One can mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces— a method that becomes useful, Feynman noted, in understanding measurement and fractions. One can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10.
To Feynman the standard texts were flawed. The problem
was considered a third-grade problem because it involved the concept of carrying. However, Feynman pointed out most first-graders could easily solve this problem by counting 30, 31, 32.
He proposed that kids be given simple algebra problems (2 times what plus 3 is 7) and be encouraged to solve them through the scientific method, which is tantamount to trial and error. This, he argued, is what real scientists do.
“We must,” Feynman said, “remove the rigidity of thought.” He continued “We must leave freedom for the mind to wander about in trying to solve the problems…. The successful user of mathematics is practically an inventor of new ways of obtaining answers in given situations. Even if the ways are well known, it is usually much easier for him to invent his own way— a new way or an old way— than it is to try to find it by looking it up.”
It was better in the end to have a bag of tricks at your disposal that could be used to solve problems than one orthodox method. Indeed, part of Feynman’s genius was his ability to solve problems that were baffling others because they were using the standard method to try and solve them. He would come along and approach the problem with a different tool, which often led to simple and beautiful solutions.
If you give some thought to how Farnam Street helps you, one of the ways is by adding to your bag of tricks so that you can pull them out when you need them to solve problems. We call these tricks mental models and they work kinda like lego — interconnecting and reinforcing one another. The more pieces you have, the more things you can build.
Harvard’s great biologist/psychologist Steven Pinker is one of my favorites, even though I’m just starting to get into his work.
What makes him great is not just his rational mind, but his multidisciplinary approach. He pulls from many fields to make his (generally very good) arguments. And he’s a rigorous scientist in his own field, even before we get to his ability to synthesize.
I first encountered Pinker in reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack: Charlie Munger gives him the edge over Noam Chomsky and others in the debate over whether the capacity for language has been “built into” our DNA through natural selection. Pinker wrote the bestseller, The Language Instinct, in which he argued that the capacity for complex language is innate. We develop it, of course, throughout our lives, but it’s in our genes from the beginning (an idea that has since been criticized).
A little Googling told me that Pinker, himself a professor at an Ivy League school, responded with an even better piece on why Deresiewicz was imprecise in his criticisms and anecdotes.
I was fascinated most by Pinker’s discussion of what an elite education should entail. This tells you a lot about his mind:
This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.
I think we can be more specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.
On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge. If on top of all this, students want to build a self, they can do it on their own time.
If this seems familiar to some of you, that’s because it very closely parallels thoughts by Charlie Munger, who has argued many times for something similar in his demand for multidisciplinary worldly wisdom. We must learn the big ideas from the big disciplines. Notice the buckets Pinker talks about: 13 billion years of organic and inorganic history, 10,000 years of human culture, hundreds of years of modern civilization. These are the most reliable forms of wisdom.
If the goal of university education is to build the self, we will be disappointed.
Rather, the goal of university education should be to: (1) give people an idea of our prehistory; (2) the basic laws governming the physical and living words; (3) the timeline of human history; (4) multiple cultures; (5) the formative events in human history; (6) the principles behind democracy and the rule of law; (7) read the great works of fiction and appreciate the great works of art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and reflections on the human condition; (8) make the habits of rationality second nature; (9) learn how to express ideas clearly in writing and talking; (10) appreciate objective knowledge; (11) learn how to reason and think statistically; (12) think causally rather than magically and understand the difference between causation and correlation and coincidence; and (13) appreciate human fallibility, most notably our own.
You can’t blame the education system if you don’t get this education, it’s up to you.
There are two main mindsets we can navigate life with: growth and fixed. Having a growth mindset is essential for success. In this post, we explore how to develop the right mindset for improving your intelligence.
Carol Dweck studies human motivation. She spends her days diving into why people succeed (or don’t) and what’s within our control to foster success. Her theory of the two mindsets and the difference they make in outcomes is incredibly powerful.
As she describes it: “My work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behavior. My research looks at the origins of these mindsets, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal processes.”
Her inquiry into our beliefs is synthesized in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The book takes us on a journey into how our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect us and how something as simple as wording can have a powerful impact on our ability to improve.
Dweck’s work shows the power of our most basic beliefs. Whether conscious or subconscious, they strongly “affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it.” Much of what we think we understand of our personality comes from our “mindset.” This both propels us and prevents us from fulfilling our potential.
What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?
The Two Mindsets
Your view of yourself can determine everything. If you believe that your qualities are unchangeable — the fixed mindset — you will want to prove yourself correct over and over rather than learning from your mistakes.
If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character— well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves— in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
These things are culturally desirable. We value intelligence, personality, and character. It’s normal to want this. But …
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.
Changing our beliefs can have a powerful impact. The growth mindset creates a powerful passion for learning. “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are,” Dweck writes, “when you could be getting better?”
Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Putting it into Practice
Our ideas about risk and effort come from our mindset. Some people realize the value of challenging themselves, they want to put in the effort to learn and grow, a great example of this is The Buffett Formula. Others, however, would rather avoid the effort feeling like it doesn’t matter.
We often see books with titles like The Ten Secrets of the World’s Most Successful People crowding the shelves of bookstores, and these books may give many useful tips. But they’re usually a list of unconnected pointers, like “Take more risks !” or “Believe in yourself!” While you’re left admiring people who can do that, it’s never clear how these things fit together or how you could ever become that way. So you’re inspired for a few days, but basically, the world’s most successful people still have their secrets.
Instead, as you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another— how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.
Sure, people with the fixed mindset have read the books that say: Success is about being your best self, not about being better than others; failure is an opportunity, not a condemnation; effort is the key to success. But they can’t put this into practice because their basic mindset— their belief in fixed traits— is telling them something entirely different: that success is about being more gifted than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t make it on talent.
The other thing exceptional people seem to have is a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future successes. Creativity researchers concur. In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by the growth mindset.
In fact Dweck takes this stoic approach, writing: “in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.”
We can still learn from our mistakes. The legendary basketball coach John Wooden says that you’re not a failure until you start to assign blame. That’s when you stop learning from your mistakes – you deny them.
The Power of … Yet
In this TED talk, Dweck describes “two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve.” Operating in this space — just outside of your comfort zone — is the key to improving your performance. It’s also the critical element to deliberate practice. People approach these problems with the two mindsets… “Are you not smart enough to solve it …. or have you just not solved it yet.”
Speaking to the cultural pressure to raise our kids for now instead of not yet, in the TED talk Dweck says:
I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade “Not Yet.” And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.
“Not Yet” also gave me insight into a critical event early in my career, a real turning point. I wanted to see how children coped with challenge and difficulty, so I gave 10-year-olds problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of them reacted in a shockingly positive way. They said things like, “I love a challenge,” or, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative.” They understood that their abilities could be developed. They had what I call a growth mindset. But other students felt it was tragic, catastrophic. From their more fixed mindset perspective, their intelligence had been up for judgment and they failed. Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they were gripped in the tyranny of now.
So what do they do next? I’ll tell you what they do next. In one study, they told us they would probably cheat the next time instead of studying more if they failed a test. In another study, after a failure, they looked for someone who did worse than they did so they could feel really good about themselves. And in study after study, they have run from difficulty. Scientists measured the electrical activity from the brain as students confronted an error. On the left, you see the fixed mindset students. There’s hardly any activity. They run from the error. They don’t engage with it. But on the right, you have the students with the growth mindset, the idea that abilities can be developed. They engage deeply. Their brain is on fire with yet. They engage deeply. They process the error. They learn from it and they correct it.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of now. Our kids become obsessed with getting A’s – they dream of the next test to prove themselves instead of dreaming big like Elon Musk. A by-product of this is that we’re making them dependent on the validation that we’re giving them — the gamification of children.
What can we do about this? Don’t praise intelligence or talent, praise the work ethic.
… [W]e can praise wisely, not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed. Don’t do that anymore. But praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.
How we word things affects confidence, the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ “give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence.” We can change mindsets.
In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter. … students who were not taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades over this difficult school transition, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades. We have shown this now, this kind of improvement, with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.