The Highlands Company Blog

Challenging the Theory of the Fixed Mindset

If you have a strong interest in something—say, computer programming—and start to pursue it, how do you know if it’s worth sticking with? What if you enroll in courses related to computer programming and they turn out to be more difficult than you expected? Does that mean it’s wrong for you . . . or do you simply need to work harder and push through?

That’s the crux of the current debate over theories of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. According to an article in The Atlantic, ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice, the term “follow your passion” has become increasingly prevalent since the early 90s. And while it has a ring of hopefulness, there is proving to be a dark side to this advice.

The idea behind following your passion is that if you base a career on what you love to do, work won’t be as hard. Consequently, many young people go through their days waiting for that passion to hit them, like a tidal wave. And that’s where the fixed mentality comes into play—the idea that once you find your passion (or your passion finds you), the rest takes care of itself.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, believes that the popular concept of following your passion is steering people wrong. She is an advocate for what is known as a growth mindset, which is the theory that interests can be cultivated over time. As described in the Atlantic article, she and two other researchers (Greg Walton, also of Stanford, and Paul O’Keefe of Yale—NUS College) set out to investigate whether passions are found or whether they are more likely to be developed.

They discovered that students with fixed theories of interests might forego opportunities that don’t align with their previously-stated passions, or they might overlook ways that other disciplines intersect with their own areas of interest.

Another key finding was that students with a fixed mindset tend to give up more easily when things get difficult. They are motivated by quick and positive results (equating those things with passion) and interpret frustrations as a sign that they are not on the right path.

The Highlands Company and a Growth Mindset

This study, as well as other research like it, are beginning to illuminate how a growth mindset is more positive and beneficial to long term happiness than a fixed mindset. The Highlands Whole Person Model has supported the growth mindset theory since its inception in 1992. Based on the belief that people are made up of more than just interests or talents, the Whole Person Model identifies eight distinct factors that make up who we are, and in turn influence the type of career that might be the best fit. And we espouse that “fit” can, and likely will, change over time.

Highlands makes a distinction between natural abilities and skills. Abilities are foundational and their use often effortless. Working from natural abilities requires less time, effort and energy and can typically be maintained even when they are not regularly used. Skills take intention to develop and more time, effort, and energy to acquire; skills also need practice to be maintained.

Abilities and skills work in tandem to create our performance. For example, a person may have the natural abilities to become a surgeon but must learn (acquire the skills) to use the equipment. Applying the concept of a growth mindset means that additional skills can be learned over time that modify the expression of natural abilities both on and off the job. In other words, abilities don’t change, but the way they are used can change.

In addition to the continuously changing interactions between abilities and skills, other factors are going to change throughout a lifetime. Examples include changes in:

  • interests, which can influence where you want to apply yourself;
  • goals, which can change with circumstances;
  • values, which can become clarified or modified; and
  • stage of career, which influences our expectations for ourselves.

Learning to address these changes requires a growth mindset. For example, we’ve identified six turning points that mark times in life when people are either faced with changes or experience some type of tension that causes them to pause, reflect, and seek change. As a result, you may find that a once-satisfying career is suddenly less fulfilling, or that the degree you’ve been pursuing no longer makes sense.

Don’t Waste Your Talent Coaching Program

That’s why we have developed the comprehensive coaching program Don’t Waste Your Talent (DWYT). During the course of this eight-session program, participants develop a Personal Vision Statement that serves as a solid guide for future decisions. What’s more, they also have familiarity with a process that can be repeated throughout their lives.

Our trained facilitators know how to guide people through the process so that they aren’t figuring things out on their own. Participants work closely with a Highlands Certified Consultant (HCC) as their growth partner and receive encouragement, feedback, and expertise.

Change is inevitable, but growth is optional. The better prepared you are for what lies ahead, the more likely you are to experience growth, nurture your current passions, and discover new ones. Click here to learn more about the Don’t Waste Your Talent Coaching Program, or purchase the book that describes our process here.