The Truth (And Limits) of Grit, Growth Mindset, and Gratitude

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A recent study evaluated evidence for growth mindset interventions, wherein students are taught to adopt a growth mindset and then their academic performance is tracked over time. Here is a summary of the results:

This systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that, despite the popularity of growth mindset interventions in schools, positive results are rare and possibly spurious due to inadequately designed interventions, reporting flaws, and bias.

Similar results have been obtained over the past few years for other popular psychological constructs, such as gratitude and grit.

This doesn’t mean these constructs are not useful. But it does mean they have limitations.

Human behavior is complex. It’s contingent on infinite situational factors, from the temperature outside to how well you slept last night to the people you are with (or were with, or are about to be with) to whether or not you are hungry… and on and on and on.  Of course, attempts to reduce human behavior to single concepts are bound to fail. (It’s also why studies conducted in research labs with a bunch of undergraduate students as participants tend not to be representative.)

Further evidence for the complexity of human behavior: the fact that most popular psychological constructs tend to work well until they become the very thing that gets in your way.

Being a gritty person is an advantage until what you really need to do is quit.

Practicing gratitude is wonderful when things are going well, but terrible advice to give to an acutely depressed person.

A growth mindset is helpful as an underlying perspective, but can lead to self-judgement and rumination when things don’t work out for reasons beyond someone’s control.

It brings to mind the saying that all truth is found in paradox.

Should you grit or should you quit? The answer is yes. Or more precisely, it depends.

My bias is as a writer, and I’ll be explicit in disclosing it. With that out of the way, let’s remember that having a language for something, being able to name it, is the most powerful part of any construct. It allows us to take an amorphous reality—something we sense or feel or perhaps already even know; but don’t yet have words for—and make it concrete so that we can wrestle with it. In that light, these popular psychological constructs are extremely useful, but as inroads to wrestling and critical thinking, not as ends in themselves.

One thoughtful approach is to think of these constructs as tools in a toolkit. A good craftsperson has a big toolkit, but they also know what tools to use when, and if they aren’t having luck with a particular tool, they adjust and find another one.

To a hammer—be it grit, gratitude, growth mindset, or countless other examples—everything looks like a nail. But life contains more than just nails that need hammering.

Even better is to embrace non-dual thinking, which recognizes that many things in life are not either-or but both-and. This is a central theme in Master of Change, and why the book centers on concepts like “rugged flexibility,” “tragic optimism,” and “fluid strength.” (If you haven’t yet, check out the great pre-order bonuses and get your copy today.) Practicing gratitude is powerful. But so is giving yourself permission to occasionally let things suck and feel like shit. And forcing gratitude (or grit, or growth mindset, or whatever) almost never, ever works.

In the final analysis, life is too vast and complex for simple reduction. The true growth is recognizing this fact and engaging with so-called “key” constructs in a more nuanced and well-rounded way.

Brad

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