I am terrible at hand sports: badminton, baseball, tennis, squash, you name it. At least that’s according to the voice inside my head. She says, “This isn’t for you. Stick to sports that rely on your legs. That’s what you’re good at.”
I can pinpoint the precise moment I realized hand sports were not for me. It was in first grade. We were playing baseball and when my turn came up I could not hit the ball. Not even once. I struck out and immediately resolved (at age six) that baseball was not for me. I had no idea at the time, but I had fallen victim to a fixed mindset: a perspective that assumes natural talent is more or less static. Don’t get me wrong, I was an ambitious kid. But if I didn’t shine at something at the outset, I had little interest in it.
Looking back I wonder how this limited perspective influenced the trajectory of my life. I know, I know – it’s not like I was destined for the Big Leagues. But I wonder if hobbies, interests and passions could have been more fulfilling over the last 30 years had I been more open to failure.
The founder of GoZen!, a resilience program for children, has asked herself the same kinds of questions. Renee Jain is a passionate advocate of the Growth Mindset: the perspective that talent is a starting point and abilities can improve dramatically with hard work, persistence and determination. I interviewed Jain to find out how she develops this mindset in her young children. After all, I don’t want my sons to repeat my folly. I want their lives to be full of all sorts of victories, failures and – of course – hand sports!
Laurel Gregory: What got you interested in the Growth Mindset?
Renee Jain: I am interested in this topic of Growth Mindset because I am a former fixed mind-setter. So if there was a ‘Fixed Mindset Anonymous,’ I would be standing up and saying “Hello, my name is Renee. I formerly had a fixed mindset.” I really, truly believed that when you start doing something – playing basketball, learning math – that you need to start good. That’s what I did believe. So when I was young, I was a quitter, frankly. I remember vividly going to play miniature golf for the first time with my family and my brother was beating me and I didn’t realize that he had practiced a lot more than I had and I threw the golf club and I was like, “I quit!” That was my signature move. I would throw the board. I would throw the golf club. And so, you know, it’s funny because a lot of times researchers will do tons of research, produce all of these studies, to tell you something that is pretty intuitive. That things take practice and they take effort. But sometimes you don’t realize it until you come to a point in your life and go: ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ I don’t want to live not mastering things. And so that’s how I got interested in the work. And then I had kids, and that really got me deeply interested in it.
LG: What changes have you made in your life and as a parent to incorporate this perspective?
RJ: I think one of the most interesting things about the Growth Mindset research is that if you have a fixed mindset, that’s actually not fixed. That in and of itself is malleable and so what I’ve done for myself is I’ve really created guidelines to live by. So I know that when I start doing something that is new to me, that that is going to be hard and I’m probably going to start out pretty bad. So none of us start out really great. There are very, very few exceptions.
Hard work and effort and dedication might not make me number one in that area, but it will definitely allow my brain to grow.
So that’s how I’ve changed. It literally has changed the way I approach learning new things, the way I approach everything in my life. I look at it very differently.
I adopted the Growth Mindset way before I had kids. But it’s interesting that kids come into the world with a natural disposition. I have two kids and one is like, “I don’t want to do this unless it comes out perfect.” They discovered a pencil and an eraser and there are no erasers left in our house because they keep erasing and erasing every time they write their letters. So you learn some basic things from Growth Mindset research which is teach your kids the words, “Not yet.” Which mean, I don’t know how to do this math problem — yet. I don’t know how to do it yet. So that yet word is very important. But I think what happens with kids is that’s kind of the first level.
So they’ll adopt the word yet but they still get frustrated. I think that that’s what really got me into the research.
So in our house and in the work we do at GoZen! we’ve been teaching some practical methods to deepen Growth Mindset. One of the things we teach kids to do is to keep an “I Don’t Know” calendar. So every day you have your calendar, the regular days of the week. And every day you’re trying to rack up as many “I Don’t Knows” as you can because that means those are the areas that you are growing. Those are the areas your brain is growing. So in our family we do hashtags: “I said ‘I don’t know’ six times today.” Oh my goodness, I got so curious about this thing!
Because imagine going through the day knowing everything?
So that’s one of the exercises we do. Another thing we look at is: “How many mistakes did I make today? Did my brain grow making those mistakes?” And another thing that we really love to do is to talk about the struggle when we are in the midst of the struggle. So my kids are five and six. They are learning to read right now. And when they get stuck on a word, for example, they are sounding it out. I’m like, “Oh I can hear the struggle! That’s so exciting! You’re struggling! Wow, your brain is really growing.”
LG: So, you’re basically flipping it where making a mistake is a positive thing.
RJ: Yes, yes absolutely. It is a positive – from everything that we know about failing. It is one of the cornerstones of resilience. You need to go through that fail and that struggle and rise up again. And absolutely. If we don’t flip that language for our kids, it’s hard for them to see that. It’s hard for them to see beyond “I’m just a number.” Even from a young age, I end up going through all this school and I get a G.P.A and that’s part of who I am. So unless we start this work early, that identification becomes very sticky for them.
This goes hand in hand with whatever metric of success you have in your head for your child. All we are saying is we are leaning on the science, on the neuroscience of brain plasticity. We know that your brain can grow and you can learn and that it lights up when you make mistakes.
We know that people learn from failures and you don’t just experience post traumatic stress, that you can experience post traumatic growth.
LG: So with your kids do they actually write their mistakes or “I don’t knows” on a calendar?
RJ: We either do pictures of the mistakes we made or we do hashtags. We have just a specific “I don’t know” calendar. So I said “I don’t know” this many times today. Sometimes we say so which one did you dig into to learn more about? So one of the things it can do is even if your kids are using screens – I know there’s a lot of talk about screen time and how much screen time our kids should use – but maybe they are using that screen time to dig into their curiosity. And it’s one way we can use screen time and allow them to build on that curiosity. “I don’t know how far the moon is from the Earth so I did a search on that today and I really looked into it.”
LG: How can we encourage kids to focus on effort over outcomes in a practical way?
RJ: I think we all have the two words “Good job” ingrained in us. You tied your shoes: “Good job!” You finished that: “Good job!” And I think that’s OK but that’s a very result-oriented praise statement.
The research shows that praising the process as opposed to the end result or praising the process as opposed to the person can really help cultivate a Growth Mindset.
So those are statements like: “I really love the way you tied your shoes” as opposed to “Good job, you tied your shoes.” “I really love the way you chose the colours in your painting. Can you tell me about that?”So it’s process-oriented statements or questions. It’s hard to do all the time. We are going to say, “good job.” We are going to say, “we are proud of you,” “that was really smart.” But I think we can make an effort to show life isn’t a destination. The journey can be just as joyful and meaningful and important and that’s what we are trying to convey to them.
LG: So what happens when you have a whole generation grow up with a Growth Mindset?
RJ: They are going to be unstoppable. They are not going to be that kid that dropped math when they were five years old because they decided they weren’t a math person. Maybe they will be an engineer that sends people to Mars. They are going to be able to tap into the resources they came into the world with because frankly they came in with probably a very strong Growth Mindset.
I have yet to meet a kid who fell down walking and decided they were going to quit. We don’t come into the world that way.
So they are just tapping into the natural resources they have and we are not taking it away from them. So they are going to be unstoppable. They are going to innovate. They have so much ingenuity and so we are just taking the shackles off of them, quite frankly.