In her seminal book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success‘*, psychologist Carol Dweck identifies two basic ‘mindsets’ – core beliefs about our intelligence and abilities that determine how we learn, how we see ourselves and what motivates us. They are the Fixed mindset and the Growth mindset. Basically, if you have a Fixed mindset, you believe that your intelligence, talent, creativity, ability, whatever, is innate – you are born with a certain capacity, and that’s that. A Growth mindset is just the opposite – you believe that these traits are plastic, flexible, something to nurture and grow and develop over a lifetime.
This is obviously a very simple idea, and a very broad categorization… and yet I believe it is enormously powerful. Dweck’s research is compelling, and indicates unequivocally that the latter ‘mindset’ is a far more effective and empowering way to view ourselves and our interaction with the world of information we live in. I’d like to take a closer look at this in the specific context of creativity.
What’s your motivation?
Obviously, if you feel your faculties are fixed and inalterable, there is little incentive for genuine self-improvement, but this is not the only problem with the Fixed mindset. Another, far more dangerous issue is that the key motivation, instead of being to improve, is merely to prove – to take on tasks that we know we can do well and show ourselves to be competent. In the context of creativity, the motivation to create is to display creativity, demonstrate our abilities… and if possible, prove that they are greater than those of others. The core motivation is competitive.
With a Growth mindset, this motivation may be present, but it is not dominant. The greater motivation is to make ourselves better than we were, to see how far we can go with the raw materials we’ve been given. Self-improvement is its own reward, and the work we do along the way has its own value, not just as a demonstration of our gifts. The focus is on learning, growing, improving – not on competing for attention and making our mark on the world.
I think this is the reason why so many artists and other creative people who have achieved amazing things lose energy and focus and become complacent (or simply mediocre) later in life: they stop wanting to become better. They had enormous talent, but they spent it showing how talented and creative they were, as opposed to always looking for ways to be better, go further. They can’t stay vital and urgent because they can’t keep believing in a better version of themselves that they could become.
This is also why those rare exceptions, artists (of one stripe or another) who stay vital for their entire lives or careers, are so amazing and fascinating to us. Is it because they are better, more talented, more brilliant? No. It’s because they never stop looking for something more, something better to be. They have a Growth mindset – they exist to get better, grow, learn, develop – not to prove to others how clever or talented or brilliant or creative they are.
Mistakes and creativity
Another key reason this difference is so profound is in the attitude towards mistakes. If your motivation is to show how clever and talented you are, you do not want to be seen making mistakes. You want to be always right. Mistakes are anathema to the Fixed mindset, because they show weakness and since weakness, like ability and intelligence, is fixed and immutable, this is admitting a flaw, acknowledging a lesser personal value. So the goal is to avoid ever being in a situation where you would make a visible (or audible) mistake.
To the Growth mindset, being always right is BORING. It goes nowhere! Mistakes are far more interesting, more rewarding, more important, more valuable. Why? Because they teach us things. They show us where there is room for improvement. They open doors. They make growth and development, which are our central concerns, possible.
If mistakes are so important and valuable, how do we make sure we make them? By trying something outside our current comfort zone. Do something crazy, something amazing. Something big, something you don’t think you can do. The Fixed mindset wants to avoid that at all costs. The Growth mindset revels in it, because it knows that’s where the good stuff comes from…
Know who you are?
You’ve heard it a thousand times if you’ve heard it once: the first step towards any kind of success, however you define it, is to know who you are. However, my understanding of the ‘two mindsets model’ is that this first step is precisely where we go wrong. It’s not about knowing who you are – that’s too limiting. It’s about knowing where you are now, and knowing where (roughly) you want to go.
Let me clarify. Knowing who you are sounds like a good idea as far as it goes – it certainly seems important to have a sense of self, not to try to be like other people, but rather to be grounded in a strong and authentic identity. However, the problem is that it plays directly into a Fixed mindset – this is who I am, here are my limits and boundaries. Beyond them I cannot go, so I will not try. The Growth mindset says, here’s where I’m at now, but here’s where I can get better, be more, learn more, transcend my limitations.
The trick is to start from an honest assessment of where you’re at now – no illusions, cut through the Fixed-mindset smokescreen of trying to make youreself appear more than you are, hiding your flaws and limitations, painting yourself in the best light, glossing over the not-so-pretty stuff.
To really be effective, the Growth mindset requires that we take a good hard look at these limitations. Not in a harsh beating-yourself-up kind of way, but clearly and honestly. You can’t get better if you’re lying to yourself and the world about how good you are. Being clear means having that stuff on the table – and then looking beyond it to how much more, how much better, how much fuller and richer your life can become if you stop trying to hide the ways in which it’s not so great…
What color is your Parachute Cerebral Cortex?
Creativity and the Fixed mindset means doing the work to show off, prove your talent, leave your mark on the world. It would be crazy to suggest that this has never led to amazing, even ‘great’ works of art, or that ‘great artists’ have never worked from this mindset. Doubtless many have. But I would wager that they have not gotten much joy from it over the long term. If it seemed for a while that they were ‘the best’, that may have been a rush, but it’s a rush that soon passes, for as the Desiderata has it, “always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself”. You can’t be the best forever. Someone else will always come along.
Creativity in the context of the Growth mindset means doing the work because of what might be learned from it, where it might lead us. It is curiosity of the best kind; creating for the joy of it, for the sake of the work itself, to watch it emerge, engage with it, be a part of the magic of its creation.
It is my contention that this simply is a better mode of creativity, a healthier and more joyful one. It is also a more sustainable one over the long term, and more likely to lead to expansion and continual growth of this same joyful, Fearless Creativity over a lifetime.
I believe, conversely, that Fixed-mindset creativity, however brightly it may burn (assuming a powerful enough talent), leads to gradual suffocation of the creative urge. Why? Because there is so little joy in the process – it is instead full of poisonous jealousy. We are driven to constantly compare ourselves to others, always looking over our shoulder to see if someone else is about to pass us by, do it better, show us up, draw attention to our weaknesses, and prove that we were never really all that great to begin with.
Meanwhile Growth-mindset creativity is not worried about any of that, because it does not conflict with its fundamental motivation, which is a) to learn, grow, explore, improve, expand… and b) to enjoy the process and the work as much as possible.
Hang on a minute – maybe I can think of a simpler, snappier term for this – what about, oh I don’t know, say… Fearless Creativity? I think that has a certain ring to it…
So, which one are you going to choose? Do you want to take the red pill or the blue pill?