Mindsets—Do They Matter?


Mindsets are all the rage. How you see the world around you influences your success. Believe that your abilities and talents are static? Well, you’ve got a fixed mindset and might be in trouble. Believe that you have the ability to learn and develop through hard work, you’ve got a growth mindset and are going to be all right.

Combine some psychological science and a story that has incredible intuitive appeal, and it’s no wonder mindsets has taken off in just about every field. From teaching to athletics, head over to a conference or listen to enough interviews, and mindsets will undoubtedly come up.

But, like most ideas, when we venture from narrow to broad application, we lose the nuance that underlies performance, learning, and growth. We all too quickly devolve into black and white thinking (e.g., one mindset is better than the rest, at all times).

Take, for example, the stress mindset concept. A research-backed idea that asks how you appraise stress. Do you see stress as a challenge? Something that can potentially enhance performance. Or do you see it as a threat? A debilitative scenario to avoid.

The obvious performance-enhancer is holding a challenge mindset. And that may largely be right, but in collecting data on over 100 athletes ranging from college walk-ons to Olympians, the better athletes don’t necessarily possess better mindsets. From walk-on collegiate athletes to pro’s, on average there was no difference between whether they saw stress as enhancing or debilitative. There was no link to performance level. Some of the best performers, who are among the best in the world, scored pitifully low on the stress mindset questionnaire, indicating they saw stress as almost entirely a threat.

Is that to say that on the whole, having a stress is enhancing mindset isn’t better? Of course not. There’s good research that ties it to better physical health and performance. Seeing stress as a challenge may even lead to a better anabolic (build up) instead of catabolic (break down) hormone release. But we’ve got to embrace the nuance, that some individuals will perform just fine, even if they have the “wrong” mindset. Would they perform better if they altered their mindset? Possibly. But it gets back to the Michael Jordan debate. Most research shows that we perform best when fueled by the positive, of wanting to get better. Yet Jordan utilized fear and a chip on his shoulder to drive unbelievable success.

What is the takeaway?

Know the person sitting right in front of you.

Let’s take this a step further, where a ‘good’ mindset actually might hamper performance.

In a recent study, researchers followed 174 candidates for the Navy SEAL’s as they made their way through the extremes of BUD/S and “hell week” to see who would survive. Before they began the journey, candidates were measured for three types of mindsets, plus an evaluation from their peers and instructors. The three mindsets they looked at were the aforementioned stress mindset, having a failure is enhancing or debilitative mindset, and a mindset on whether willpower is a limited resource or not.

The stress mindset was tied to performance. Candidates who saw stress as enhancing displayed better persistence throughout the ordeal, faster obstacle course times, and fewer negative evaluations from peers and instructors. Hooray for mindsets, they must matter!

But what about the other two? The seeing failure as enhancing mindset was linked to worse performance. Candidates with this mindset had lower levels of persistence, slower obstacle course times, and a lower chance of making it through phase one of training.

The final mindset evaluated was a belief that willpower isn’t limited, an idea that’s tied to seeing willpower as either something that is drained away as you use it or an unlimited supply you can call upon whenever needed. Well, this mindset didn’t predict better or worse performance, but it was tied to much worse evaluations from both peers and instructors. Basically, if you had a “willpower is not limited” mindset, you were going to get a whole lot of negative comments.

Far too often we get caught up in seeing items as “good” or “bad.” We see “negative” mindsets as warning signs that someone is never going to make it. In reality, however, mindsets are just one very small piece of the puzzle. Occasionally, the “bad” mindset could even be good for performance, as seems to be the case with the appraisal of failure and success in overcoming hell week.

Anytime we dive into the psychology of human beings, we working with complexity. It’s a nice reminder to hold even research-backed concepts as heuristics, not as be-all, end-all. We need to understand the demands of the task, and more importantly, the individuality of the person doing it.


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