Recently, while conducting an interview with a professional athlete for my master thesis research I heard something very interesting. Specifically, when reflecting on the development from amateur into elite levels of sports, my interviewee said the following:
‘From an early age, some players get to hear that they are talented, and some players get told that they are fighters…I was always a fighter!’
‘So why is it better to be a fighter than a talent?’ – was my following question.
‘Because after the first setback there is already no use from being a talent’
In other words, what the athlete said was that every great achievement in sports (and generally in life) is not easy, and sooner or later every talent will face challenges and difficulties, which one needs to be a fighter in order to overcome. As simple as that!
I liked the expression a lot, because such ‘talent vs. fighter’ differentiation resonated strongly with Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking idea of ‘fixed vs. growth’ mindsets, which I have recently read about.
The theory of mindsets
The decades of research on achievement and success lead Dr. Dweck (2007) to conclude that based on their beliefs about such basic qualities as talent or intelligence, people posses either a fixed or a growth mindset. As the terms imply, people with fixed mindset see their qualities as fixed traits, which are just givens and cannot be changed. As such, each of us has a certain amount of “brainpower” and talent, and some of us are just luckier to have greater quantities of each. Contrary, the growth mindset people believe that qualities and abilities can be developed through effort, dedication, and will. So, all our congenital ‘givens’ become just the starting points for further development.
As Dweck argues, people with the closed (fixed) mindset are wrong. Naturally, each person possesses unique genetic endowment: however scientists do also recognize that people have a great capacity for life-long learning and brain development. Therefore, even with a constant value of given talent, the higher the value for training and personal effort is, the higher the resulting success from such a summation will be. The idea of mindsets implies that learning and resilience are essential for great accomplishment, and that ‘it is impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training’ (Dweck, 2006; p. 64).
Does the mindset make such a big difference?
Sure it does! The graphics of the theory is a great illustration of the differences.
In short, believing in fixed qualities creates a need for a constant confirmation of one’s talents, intelligence and skills. It becomes ‘either you have it, or not’ testing, and fearing the negative answer, people with fixed mindset may avoid challenges, give up in face of obstacles, and neglect the power of effort. Hasn’t that happened to many of us in math or chemistry classes? In the beginning, I was great in chemistry, I ‘had it’, and my success with it was quite effortless. However, as soon as it got difficult, my ‘talent’ in chemistry got questioned, and it was easier for me to accept the failure and get my low grades there, than to put in some effort for better achievements. If I would work hard on my chemistry, it would already mean that I lack the natural giftedness for the subject, as well as I would need to continue being tested to confirm my ability. So, I gave up on it. That is how a fixed mindset operates.
On the other hand, if I would have believed that my chemistry skills could be developed, I would dedicate more time and effort to them, I would persist in the face of setbacks, and most of all, I would not fear being perceived as weak in the subject. I would know that the initial talent was just a beginning, and that sustaining my high achievements needed some extra work. ‘After all, all geniuses had to work hard’, I would think…
So how do ‘talents’ and ‘fighters’ fit into this theory?
The athlete from my interview argued that kids, who are perceived as ‘talents’, are disadvantaged, because they are not taught any tools for managing challenges and overcoming difficulties. Seeing the initial effortless achievements of the child, coaches and parents start praising the natural giftedness, thus planting the first seeds of fixed mindset. Thus, kids then believe that they have what it takes to get to the top but dislike the idea of effort and persistence along the way. If one can advance due to natural talent with not much hard work, then it is really not about the effort, is it?! Well, things change as soon as it gets tough and others become better. Coaches and parents get frustrated with the failures of the gifted kid, while the athlete gets disillusioned of their personal abilities, and is demotivated to work for the result…‘The talent alone should create success’, argues their closed mindset, ‘so, if there is no longer success, there is no more talent’. Now, from being permanently talented, they switch to a fixed state of being low performers.
The fighters, on the contrary, are taught to work hard from the very beginning. As my interviewee said, not being judged based on some initial gift, but being praised for personal dedication and effort, is what makes the difference. Facing bigger challenges on the way, the fighters are already aware of what to do, they do not get discouraged by setbacks, quite the contrary in fact; they get motivated by every learning experience. Why? Because for them, following the growth mindset, each learning experience fosters their development and they become better as a result.
Let’s develop fighters!
As mentioned, the development of a mindset can be strongly influenced by parents, teachers and coaches. Foremost, these people should emphasize the importance of effort, the power of learning and the endless possibilities of human potential. However, even an already established fixed mindset can be changed into a growth mindset! In fact, Carol Dweck (2006) found that just by creating awareness of the two mindsets can cause one to start thinking and acting differently. Moreover, theory states that a person can have a closed mindset in regard to some traits and an open mindset in regard to others, so there is always an area to learn from.
All in all, our development and striving to reach our unique potential is up to us! Are you a talent or a fighter? Take your pick!
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.