How Mindset Shapes You

This is an introduction to mindsets.
Understanding this can transform your approach to art and learning.

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. In her research, she speaks about two mindsets: the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. If you have not consciously chosen your mindset, you have inherited it from your parents and teachers. If they haven’t made conscious choices either, chances are that what you’ve been given is hurting you. The good news: you can change this. Let’s take a closer look!

The Fixed Mindset

When you have a fixed mindset, you see your ability as unchangable. You might say “I’m good at math and bad at sports. That’s all there is to it.” If you don’t see any talent, then trying to improve appears pointless because in that rationale you’ll always be a mediocre athlete at best.

A fixed mindset can also affect you if you think you are pretty good at something. If winning makes you a winner, your identity can easily get tied to your performance. This turns failure into the single most terrifying thing, to be avoided at any cost. A person in a fixed mindset will do anything to look smart, and actually forego becoming smarter. This has profound implications. The immense pressure to maintain a perfectionist image can kill any passion.

The Growth Mindset

In the growth mindset, you understand that you can develop skill in virtually any area through consistent practice. Just like you learned to walk, you can learn to sing, dance, speak french, become entertaining, or paint a portrait.

Then, being smart is not an attribute – it’s an activity.

Carol Dweck quotes a seven year old girl who shares her approach:
“I think intelligence is something you have to work for … it isn’t just given to you.… Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.”

M.C. Escher, Two Birds, 1938

Failure = Growth

Enter Josh Waitzkin. Josh is a chess master, Tai Chi Chuan World Champion and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. He shares the following in his transformative book The Art of Learning:

We must take responsibility for ourselves, and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best that we can become. Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.

As artists, it hurts when we lose a beautiful passage in a work because we took a risk. These are our “burns”.

When you catch yourself drawing back from something you are curious to explore, stop. Consider the implications. I believe that it is these moments of choice that shape our character. I urge you to ask questions, try things, and practice “looking stupid”!

Failure is not when you mess up a drawing. Failure is when you don’t try something because you are afraid that it might mess up your drawing. The richest insights come when you are willing to risk getting burned.

The atelier environment breeds artists that are risk-averse. We spend all day working slowly and carefully. We get lots of complements from friends and family that reinforce the idea of being a “talented artist”. (Red flag: fixed mindset!)

Adopt the stance of “in one ear, out the other”. Thank them for their complement (they mean well), but hold firmly to your growth mindset.

Walking my Talk

You might get a kick out of this. The day before publishing this article I received an invitation for a “bad taste” party. I’m already uncomfortable at most social gatherings. So when I picture myself dressing up in ridiculous clothing and facing a room full of strangers, I feel one thing: massive resistance. I immediately decided to skip the party and use my Friday night as planned: to get the email about the article out, and finish all the necessary back-end work on my website.

Then it hit me…
I was about to turn down one of life’s invitations to take a risk – in order to publish an article about… taking risks!

My entire body tensed up. I knew deep down that the only way out is through. I’m not sure how I went from “I can’t.” to “Shit. I have to do this…” This is important: I still didn’t want to do it. But I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. And I took the leap.

I have chosen to ignore this “knowing what I should do” so many times in the past. Usually this leads to more pain and discomfort. I think this is why I decided to go this time. I guess this means I’m learning.

The moment I put on my wife’s striped yellow pants, all the fear dissolved and I laughed out loud. For the rest of the night I was able to just enjoy being silly and meeting new people!

Here is a photo of me pre-party. Feeling nervous but alive! 🙂

Post-party, I am grateful for the opportunity to apply what I write about and actually walk the talk.
Thank you for reading, you help me stay honest!

To you and me taking rewarding risks,
– Dorian

Action Step

Where can you take a rewarding risk right now?

  1. Find a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Write down a list of at least five things you know you should do but have been afraid of.
    Is it making that phone call? Erasing and redrawing that head that is almost right?
  3. Close your eyes and remember a time when you were courageous.
    See what you saw, hear what you heard. Really get into that memory.
  4. Choose one item from the list that you feel ready for, and just do it.

Then let me know how it went.
I’m enabling comments for this post only, because I would love to hear what you have done. Please share!

Book Recommendations

If you want to dig deeper, these books are excellent:

Mindset by Carol Dweck
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

6 thoughts on “How Mindset Shapes You”

  1. Lammers Abby

    Thanks Dorian. A great reminder to be brave in all aspects of life. Good for you. I am really enjoying your blog and classes! The depth of information is amazing.

    • admin

      Thank you for the kind words Abby!

    • caroline riedel

      Dear Dorian! Please don’t ever think of ending your blogging! Your insights, information and eloquence in English are a reason to look forward to Fridays! The reading recommendations, wonderful (have purchased several). Greetings, Caroline

      • Dorian

        That’s very sweet of you Caroline 🙂 Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. Dominique

    I’m afraid of painting, period. Afraid I’ll mess it, it’ll turn out bad, wrong values, mistakes in the drawing, you name it. This fear paralizes me into not touching canvas, not putting paint on panel. Because wherever I go people look and judge what you do, citicize without even realizing that they make lots of errors themselves, without ever thinking that their works could do with revision and improvement. In other words, they’re perfect, and people like me who try a technnique and apply themselves to learning just have no talent.

    I’ve been really intrigued by people who think they got it, what they do is always great, people who think that they can’t make a mistake. I guess they’re in a fixed sort of mindset. Their idea is that if you have to LEARN something you simply have NO TALENT.

    So I keep making mistakes in public, my sketchbooks are filled with failures. Once in a while a good one comes out. Then more. Then less. Still I hear the criticism, put-downs in the background. Only this time it’s spite, jealousy, you name it.

    After getting through ”The Art of learning” I’m tackling ”The Nibble Theory” by Kaleel Jamison in order to learn to grow on my own and put away the condescending voices of those who just want power over you.

    Hope you will all read it too
    More power to you.

    • Dorian

      Thank you for sharing Dominique!