Carol Dweck on Perfectionism – Free Ebook

♪[Music]♪ [Applause] [Carol] It’s a tremendous pleasure being here with you today in Conway Hall. I’d like to start with a question. Can a person be perfect? Well, speaking from personal experience, yes. [Laughter] As a child, I was perfect. I was perfectly good at least outwardly. Inwardly I had a lot of mischievous thoughts. I was perfectly smart. I was always at the top of my class. This I believed would ensure respect from others as well as high self-regard. If I ever considered easing up, something would come along to underscore the importance of being perfect. For example, my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Wilson seated us around the room in IQ order. [Laughter] It was already the top IQ class in the school, but she didn’t care. For her, every point of IQ was incredibly important. The lower IQ children were not allowed to wash the blackboard or clap the erasers in the schoolyard or carry the flag in the assembly, take a note to the school principal. For her, your score summarized everything about your intelligence and character. How could you not be affected by that? I was so perfect that I had to start shrinking my world to maintain it. In grade school, I was the best speller in the school. And they wanted to send me to the regional championship spelling bee. I said “no”. The next year, I was the best student of French in the school and they wanted to send me to a citywide competition. I said “no”. Why would I put myself at risk? I was already perfect. And I had to curate that perfection. Now perhaps if life were one large schoolroom, it would be okay to stay perfect, try to stay perfect. But life isn’t like that. It changes radically and it begins to reward taking on challenges, seizing opportunities and sticking with them. My charge today is to speak about a vice or a virtue. Is perfectionism a vice or a virtue? Pam Scott, a friend and colleague surveyed adults asking them to answer the following question. Am I a perfectionist? How would you answer that? On this survey, many, many people said yes, but there were two very different kinds of yes. So listen to this. Am I a perfectionist? One person said “I want to get it perfect the first time everytime. “My inner critic is constant, it is my judge, my warden.” Or in the same vein another person said, “having built a magnificent dam of perfection, I am perpetually plugging all the holes. “It’s tiring, depleting. “It’s about fear of chaos and anxiety that what is is not good enough and that I am not good enough.” But now listen to this, this is a little bit different. Am I a perfectionist? This person says “I do believe it serves a purpose. “It got me where I am today. “I am known for high standards and excellent work. “Why would I ever give up this excellent tool?” So sometimes it sounds like a vice and sometimes it sounds like a virtue. What does the research say? The research says there might be two different kinds of perfectionism. One kind of perfectionist agrees with statements like this “people will probably think less of me if I make a mistake. “If I do not do well all the time, people won’t respect me. “If I fail partly, it is as bad as being a complete failure.” But the other kind of perfectionist, they say agrees with statements like this “I try to do my best in everything I do. “I drive myself rigorously to achieve high standards. “I have a strong need to strive for excellence.” So this kind involves setting and striving toward very high standards. And later we’ll ask if perfectionism is the best word for that. The first, that self-critical kind has many negative consequences. Anxiety, depression, compromised relationships. But the second kind, striving for excellence, can have many positive consequences. Not only higher achievement, but greater life satisfaction. How do we understand where that defensive, self- critical part comes from? That idea that I want to get it perfect the first time and every time as opposed to the more inspiring striving for high standards. To understand this, let’s look at my work on mindsets and let’s listen for the fixed mindsets mandate for perfection. In this research, I identify two kinds of mindsets people can have about their basic talents and abilities. In a fixed mindset, people believe that their basic attributes are well fixed. The talents, abilities and personal qualities they have now, that’s all they’re ever gonna have. They keep asking “is what I have enough? “Is it enough to make me admirable? “Is it enough to make me worthy?” This is what they’re always wondering. But other people have a growth mindset. They believe that their basic talents, abilities, personal attributes can be developed through effort, learning, mentoring from others. What they have now is just a starting point. Now, they don’t necessarily believe that everyone’s the same or that anyone can be Einstein. But they believe that everyone can grow and develop. Let’s look into these mindsets to see exactly how they work. First, what is the number one goal for people in the different mindsets? When we ask people this question. In school, at work, in their relationships, those with the fixed mindset say that their number one goal is to look and feel extremely accomplished at all times. But above all, never to feel dumb or inadequate. Students say this “I like school work best.” Students in a fixed mindset say this “I like school work best when I can do it perfectly without any mistakes.” But students in a growth mindset say their number one goal is learning. The reason they do their school work is to learn new things. They say “I like school work best when it makes me think hard and it’s much more important for “me to learn new things in my classes than it is to get the best grades.” Guess what? They get the best grades because that outcome, that badge of honor that the fixed mindset students want so desperately is achieved by the growth mindset students because they engage deeply and effectively in the learning process. Grades, outcomes are a byproduct of engaging deeply and effectively in a learning process. We’ve been doing a large study of fortune 500 companies. And we hear the same exact thing from the fortune 500 people. The more employees held a fixed mindset the more they wanted to look smart. But not just smart, smarter than everyone else. They said “it’s very important to me to show that I am more talented than others at work. “When working in teams, it is important to me that I am the star of the team.” Goodbye teamwork. [Laughter] It’s what we call the culture of genius. And it’s about looking and feeling smart at all times and at all costs. But those with a growth mindset in the fortune 500 companies said “it’s much more important for “me to learn things at work than it is to get the highest accolades.” They wanted to learn, innovate, collaborate. And those are gonna be the star performers. Remember how when I was busy being perfect I was also protecting myself? Protecting myself from the spelling bee and the French contest. I wanted to remain part of the culture of genius. And we’ve looked at people in relationships. Those with a fixed mindset tell us they want to be worshipped. They want to always be right. Those with a growth mindset want their partner to challenge them to grow. When I had a fixed mindset, my worst fault was always wanting to be right. Even I was put off by the glee, the relish with which I said “I told you so.” [Laughter] On the rare occasion I was wrong, I looked for someone… [Laughter] I looked for someone or something to blame, anyone but me. My husband and I finally had to invent a third party. We named in Maurice. [Laughter] And he was the person we blamed for everything. [Laughter] So that we could get around that blame game and start getting to the important things. Let’s talk about role models. They’re supposed to be inspiring right? You see someone who succeeded in your field, who’s like you and it should give you confidence. It should excite you. If you’re a person with a fixed mindset, that wouldn’t be right. People, Jenny Burnett and her colleagues showed in their research, people with a fixed mindset are demoralized by successful role models. They think “Oh that’s a different kind of person from me, I could never be like that.” That comparison, that gap where they don’t see the bridge is undermining to their confidence. But people in a growth mindset are inspired by role models. They think, that person has found a path, I can find a path too. Maybe I can even find someone like that person to mentor me and lead me along the way. This first part says, that in fixed mindset, there’s this constant issue of proving that one is without fault. That one is king or queen of the hill. Sounds an awful lot like perfectionism doesn’t it? Second, there is a question of effort. In a fixed mindset, even effort may shout imperfection, inadequacy. People in a fixed mindset believed that if you have high ability, you shouldn’t need effort. And that if you have to exert effort, why that means that you don’t have high ability. Effort to them is only for the lesser, the imperfect beings. The fixed mindset students in our studies tell us “to tell the truth, when I work hard at my school work, it makes me feel like I’m not very good at it.” But the students with a growth mindset value effort and appreciate it’s power to ignite our abilities and help them grow. They say “the harder you work at something, the better you’ll be at it.” Same thing with the fortune 500 people, the ones with a fixed mindset devalued effort. If you’re really good at something, they agreed, you shouldn’t have to work hard at it. I think this is the worst belief that anyone could have. Everything important, and this is the sermon part. [Laughter] Everything important in life requires huge amounts of effort over long periods of time. And if effort makes you feel inadequate, incompetent, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Fascinating studies now show the power of any little effort to undermine the confidence of people in a fixed mindset. David Miele and his colleagues did a series of fascinating studies where they gave people reading passages and for some of them, they made it feel more effortful. For example, they made the font more difficult to read or they made the sentences in the passage… They made the syntax a little more complex. Every little thing that increased the effort you needed undermined the confidence of people with a fixed mindset. They rated themselves as less competent and less good at comprehending the passage. Every time they had to apply more effort. Even when effort was induced in these silly and irrelevant ways. Since I wrote my book “Mindset” I get letters from people who were once child prodigies. Many of them have not finished university or found meaningful work. They expected effortless achievement and people promised it to them. They said “oh you’re so brilliant, you’ll be this, you’ll be that.” So they sat there and waited for that to happen. But guess what, it doesn’t work that way. You actually have to do something. Also, being talented became for them something that others had to do. Being talented became equated with not having to work hard like other people. When the day finally arrived, and it always does, that they did have to work hard, they weren’t able to do it. It made them feel just the way they didn’t want to feel. Now, not long ago I spoke to the top athletes in a nearby country and they told me not one of them had been number one as a teenager. The number ones were the naturals. They coasted on their natural ability. And they were no longer there. Put the people I was speaking to, the people who had been number 4 or 9 or 16, they knew they had to work hard to get where they wanted to go, and they did it. They were now the people going to the Olympics and the world championships. Now this idea of effortless superiority or perfection is prevalent in our 2 cultures. Your former Prime Minister H.H. Asquith once described Oxford men from his college as possessing “the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.” [Laughter] And there is something rampant at my university, Stanford University called duck syndrome. What is duck syndrome? Well you know how ducks appear to glide along the water effortlessly, but they’re paddling madly underneath? That’s how many Stanford students are and many students at lead institutions. They look like they’re not working hard, they go to parties, they have lots of other things, but they are paddling madly, they’re studying secretly. [Laughter] So they will look smart. One of my crusades is to get rid of duck syndrome. Because it comes out of this fixed mindset belief that you’re only smart if you don’t have to apply effort. Every year I teach a freshman seminar to 16 Stanford freshmen. And I have them do a paper on their hero. And how their hero go to be where he or she got to. Originally many of them think “oh these were just supremely talented beings, geniuses, or naturals who floated effortlessly to these great heights.” Not once has that been the case. They see that these people they admire worked harder than anyone else, often encountered seemingly insurmountable setbacks and succeeding in surmounting them. I think that’s much more admirable than being born with something that just propels you somewhere and I think we should make that the admirable thing throughout our culture. In a fixed mindset, it’s not just perfection, but effortless perfection, good luck. [Laughter] Third, and finally, in a fixed mindset, errors and setbacks are calamities. [Baby talks] Hello. [Laughter] Errors and setback are calamities, it’s never too young, actually to hear this. [Laughter] Because as an aside, and this is aimed at you mom, we published a study a few months ago showing that parents praise to their babies, 1 to 3 years of age, predicted the child’s mindset and desire for challenge 5 years later. Mothers who gave their babies process praise about the process their engaging in, good effort, good trying, good strategies had babies who had more of a growth mindset and more desire for challenge 5 years later. So none of this “you’re brilliant, you’re great, you’re a genius”. Now I feel qualified to intervene when I hear a mother in an airport. [Laughter] Telling her baby what a genius you are. No, no, no, no, no. [Laughter] Third and finally, in a fixed mindset, errors and setback are calamities. They are the surest sign of incompetence or unworthiness and what we find is that people in a fixed mindset run from their errors or hide their errors. In a study with David Nussbaum, we gave engineering students 3 short engineering tests. Tests we said were tests of engineering aptitude. They did really well on 2 of the tests, but poorly on the third. And then we said “hey which one do you want to take a tutorial in and then redo the test and at the “end we’ll give you a certificate with your score on this last test on the certificate.” Those with the growth mindset overwhelmingly chose to take a tutorial on the exam that they didn’t do so well in. That makes sense. But those with a fixed mindset overwhelmingly chose to take a tutorial in something they were already perfect at. They didn’t want to risk having a less than perfect score emblazoned on our certificate. You can see how this fear of errors closes people off to learning and growth. Do you want to know what happens in the brain when people encounter errors? It depends on your mindset. Jason Mosure and his colleagues measured the electrical impulses from the part of the brain that deals with errors as people worked on a task and occasionally made errors. When you look at the pictures of the brains of people with a growth mindset, while they’re making the errors, that part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex is red hot. They are detecting their error, processing the error and correcting it. Detecting, processing, correcting. They are gloming onto it and extracting everything they can from it. But when they looked at the brains of people in a fixed mindset as they encountered the errors, nothing happened. That brain was deep green cold. They did not process or correct the errors, they ran from the errors as quickly as possible. Oh that didn’t happen to me, next. And again, you can see how not attending to your errors, not processing them robs you of valuable information that you need to learn, grow and succeed. No wonder because of what errors mean, errors are deeply diagnostic of their ability. No wonder we find that students in a fixed mindset say after a poor score on an exam they’d consider cheating next time. The poor score meant they weren’t good at it, they don’t like effort, they don’t believe in effort. Cheating becomes a viable option. Or in some studies we’ve found, they lie about a poor score when they have the opportunity. It’s as though admitting imperfection makes it real. And that imperfection in a fixed mindset is permanent. In my book “Mindset” I write about the tragic cases of two young people, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass whose lives were completely derailed. They were both young journalists who skyrocketed to the top by unfabricated articles. Janet Cooke actually won a Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post article about an 8 year old boy who was a drug addict. The boy did not exist and she was later stripped of her prize. Stephen Glass was the wizkid of the New Republic Magazine. He seemed to have stories and sources that other reporters only dreamed of. The problem was, he dreamt it all up. The sources didn’t exist, the stories weren’t true. Did Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass feel that admitting ignorance would discredit them with their colleagues? Did they feel they should already be like the big time expert reporters before they did the hard work of learning how? Stephen Glass said “we were the stars, precocious stars and that was what mattered.” The public understands them as cheats and cheat they did. But I understand them as talented young people who succumbed to the pressures of a fixed mindset. Who felt they had to be perfect. There was a saying in the 60’s that went like this. The 1960’s. “Becoming is better than being.” The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming, they already have to be. And be perfect. The good news as we were told at the beginning is that a growth mindset can be taught. It can be taught at any age. It can be taught to little kids and in fact parents tell me often. I got an email from an executive at Apple not long ago. He said his 4 and ½ year old son was taking piano lessons and was struggling through his practice. The good dad started marching over where upon the son turned around and said “don’t worry dad, I have a growth mindset.” [Laughter] Many parents tell me their 3 year olds will say “good effort mommy.” [Laughter] Or a “good try daddy, maybe you can try another way.” My former student Jason Platts is now doing studies with elderly individuals showing that teaching a growth mindset improves their memory performance. In our studies where we teach a growth mindset, we teach people that every time they push out of their comfort zone, work on something really hard and learn something new, their brains form new connections and overtime they can get smarter. This is a thrilling message. We’ll never forget the one boy in one of our studies, a teenage boy in one of our workshops. He was the bane of our existence. He was always cutting up with his friends, being disruptive. He seemed uninterested in our pearls of wisdom. But, when we started teaching the growth mindset, and how you can grow your brain like a muscle, he sat down, shooed his friends away and said “you mean I don’t have to be dumb?” And he caught fire as have many students learning the growth mindset. But the amazing thing is that learning this growth mindset in this way, completely transforms the meaning of effort and difficulty. In a fixed mindset, effort and difficulty people say make you feel dumb, incompetent, inadequate. But in a growth mindset, we learn that when we’re struggling with effort and difficulty, that’s when we’re getting smarter. That’s when the brain is forming new connections and making us more competent. Can you feel that difference? I’m on a worldwide crusade now to change our value system. Away from effortless success as the ultimate and toward effortful success as the ultimate. Not long ago someone from another country said to me “in your culture, struggle is a bad word.” I said “you know, you’re right.” Rarely do you come home at the end of the day and say “honey, I’ve had a fabulous struggle.” [Laughter] No, usually you’re crawling in the door, dragging yourself over the threshold. Maybe in need of some form of libation. But, why shouldn’t we revere struggle, it means we’ve worked hard towards something we value. Why shouldn’t we sit around the dinner table and say “who had a fabulous struggle today?” And each person goes around and shares what they’ve struggled with. What are you gonna struggle with tomorrow? That is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves and others. That value system that says struggle, that’s when you grow the neurons. Struggle, that’s when you’re doing something important. So instead of praising each other, when you do something easily, quickly, without mistakes, no, because that means hey, if you didn’t do it quickly, easily, without mistakes, you wouldn’t be praise worthy. We should say “oh easy, that’s a waste of time.” Something hard, now that’s juicy, that’s something you can sink your teeth into. Something you can learn from, something worthwhile. I fear that in our eagerness to instil confidence in the younger generations and in each other, we’re praising the wrong things. Our work shows that praising easy, praising brilliance, no. Let’s get that value system where difficult things, where you struggle, you make mistakes. Flounder, that’s when it happens. That’s the zone of getting smarter. So what about me? Am I still perfect? No, not by a long shot. I pursue high standards, but shouldn’t we get rid of that word perfect? It has tormented so many talented people and doomed them to oblivion. Being a work in progress, isn’t that better than perfect? Setting high standards, striving to learn, working, struggling toward hard things we value. Failing and bounding back, isn’t that better than perfect? Can we find another word that’s better than perfect? Growth, growthism, growthiness. What if the highest complement were “boy, you have such wonderful growthiness.” [Laughter] Well okay, so that’s a work in progress too. But if you can think of a good word, all suggestions are welcome. I want to return one final time to Pam Scott’s survey of people where she asked them “am I a perfectionist?” One of them said “the thing that is really hard and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming myself.” I agree. By giving up the idea of perfection, we can start a life long wondrous, ever rewarding journey to becoming ourselves. Thank you. [Applause]

Leave a Reply