By Anthony Marvullo
This past January, Professor Carol Dweck saw her scholarly work get away from her, so she wrote a clarification in the Harvard Business Review. Her now-famous “growth-mindset v. fixed-mindset” TED Talk has over time been misconstrued and popularized beyond its initial meaning. “To briefly sum up the findings,” she writes, “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).”
Perhaps the fault lies in our natural inclination to see things in this or that, or black and white. Perhaps it is the fault of the TED Talk framework; 7–10-minute presentations, regardless of number of cited studies, can only ever be a mile wide and an inch deep.
Say you’ve set a goal to reach the top of the climbing wall in one of the AYF’s many high ropes courses. You haven’t done climbing like this in a while, but you think you can make it to the top. This is a good idea to have—to see a climbing wall only as a possibility for embarrassment or failure is another topic entirely. You step up, your peers are behind you cheering you on, and you start the climb. Two hands first, then your legs.
Gosh, these handholds are small. Where do I put my feet? What is this knob here? How am I supposed to climb this? It’s just bricks! This wall is dumb. I can’t do this. I’m done. Let me down please. This was a mistake.
What you have is a fixed-mindset.
A fixed-mindset manifests itself as negative self-talk. (“Oh, I can’t do math,” you might say, staring down a 20% gratuity on a $38.18 meal check. Or, “I’ve never been good at public speaking,” you say, to no one in particular.) “We all have our own fixed-mindset triggers,” says Dweck. “When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly […] , we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth.” To come off that climbing wall after having not met your goal of reaching the top, you now have a decision to make: do I see this as an outright failure with no room for improvement, or do I look at my process, take what learning I can from it, and try again?
Looking inward to yourself, is it your own? Is it your best? There’s an easiness to the fixed-mindset, especially among peers, and especially in the AYF’s controlled and supportive programming. The trick is to detach from the carabiner and wish for another chance, regardless of perceived success or failure.
A growth-mindset is a great thing to instill or attempt to instill in the participants of the American Youth Foundation. Anyone facing the climbing wall with one thought already in the realm of failure will not reach their goal. Now fear—that is not an element of failure. A growth-mindset is one that accepts or even embraces fear, and AYF programs do instill this mindset in creating safe spaces for participants to explore the boundaries of their comfort, growth, and danger zones, especially during ropes course challenges. Anyone who sees it a failure to climb only halfway—instead of looking at the process and feeling proud of that one athletic movement to a foothold, or that one jump to reach a handhold—might not try again. We want you to try again.