In the movie The Four Seasons, Rita Moreno plays Claudia Zimmer, a talkative, outspoken artist who believes she can help others by sharing her insights about their lives. She can be quite blunt. When other characters criticize her candor, she has a stock response: “I can’t help it. I’m Italian!”
According to the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Claudia has a fixed mindset. Claudia believes that her personality is set; it’s not going to change. Similarly, her impulsiveness is also pre-set. She can’t help it. That’s just the way she is. There’s no point in discussing it.
But are personality traits – like impulse control, willpower, and intelligence –actually fixed? Do you really have to play with the hand you were dealt? And how do all these variables affect life achievement?
There’s an increasing body of research suggesting that personality traits are very malleable. Numerous variables can change them for better or worse. One of the most powerful variables is our own desire to change them.
I used to think that IQ was stable (fixed) and resulted primarily from genetics. Eric Turkheimer, however, suggests that the genetic component of IQ is not a quantity but an upper limit. Your ability to reach that limit depends on an array of variables. In general, children raised in intellectually enriched environments are more likely to reach the limit. Children raised in intellectually impoverished environments are less likely to do so.
I now think of IQ as akin to a car’s top speed. Assume that we have two identical race cars; under ideal conditions, each one could reach a top speed of 200 miles per hour. Then we fill one with jet fuel. We fuel the other with low-grade gasoline. Clearly, the jet-fueled car is more likely to reach the top speed. According to Turkheimer, IQ is similar.
Angela Duckworth has also found that self-discipline (also known as impulse control) plays a key role in success. In fact, in academic environments, self-discipline may well be a better predictor of success than IQ.
Roy Baumeister has found that impulse control, like IQ, is not a fixed quantity. Baumeister writes that “Willpower resembles a muscle … in that it can be strengthened by exercise.” He also notes that willpower requires energy and, as energy is depleted, so is willpower. That’s why we have immoral afternoons.
Carol Dweck takes studies like these (and her own) and describes the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Claudia Zimmer represents the fixed mindset. As Dweck points out, people like Claudia “…believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.”
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, “…believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”
Basically, it’s nature versus nurture. And which one wins? Well … nurture. If you believe talent is fixed, you won’t learn anything by making mistakes. So, you’ll avoid making mistakes. On the other hand, making mistakes is an excellent strategy if you believe you can grow your talents. Dweck writes, “… people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”
According to New Scientist, Dweck has “…improved the grades and attendance records of thousands of … students across the US simply by teaching them that intelligence isn’t fixed, that hard work can make you smarter ….”
What’s your attitude? Do you think you have to play with the cards you were dealt or can you ask for new cards from time to time?