Kel Piffner

I recently taught a class at a bootcamp where a large part of their program was developed around the concept of a "Growth Mindset". If you haven't heard of this before, here's a video on the concept presented by Carol Dweck.

And for those of you who don't like watching videos (like me), here's an excerpt from a different interview:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

A "Fixed Mindset" is worried about grades, about looking "dumb", while a "Growth Mindset" believes that learning is possible, that it's only a matter of time. "I don't know that yet". Carol shows the Growth Mindset as the default: It's how we are as children, when we believe anything is possible.

This is a big deal! A lot of folks struggle to believe they're capable of learning when it really is just a matter of time and effort. So, why do people struggle so much with this? And how did we end up like this if growth was the default?


I talk a lot about fear in this blog and on the Getting Apps Done podcast. Fear is a learned response. An action happens, something goes wrong, and you remember the consequences. The next time that action is available, you hesitate because you're afraid that the same thing could happen.

Fear of consequences keeps us from taking the risks that lead to growth. A common quote you hear is "failure is necessary for success". Successful people fail over and over again before achieving their goals. Those same people will tell you that you just have to ignore your fear and do the thing. To keep trying and apply more grit. This sentiment is bullshit.

Consequences are not equal. For some folks, making a mistake could lead to losing a job they need to survive. My life has been relatively privileged: I could take chances in my career that many others could not. I talked back to my bosses, I worked on projects without permission, I did a lot of things that could have led to me being fired because I knew I could find another job or someone would have helped me out with shelter and food. Not everyone has that safety net.


I didn't like Carol Dweck's Mindset book. I think it did a good job of explaining the concept of a growth mindset to individuals and showing them possible paths to success, but when viewed as a group, the examples were all very biased towards people coming from privilege.

Privilege is an odd concept. Most people think of it as an additive thing: "This person was given millions of dollars. They're obviously privileged". To a large extent this is true, but money like that is the method, not the result. That money removed sources of stress and obstacles from their life and it added a safety net allowing them to take larger risks.

This is an important distinction, because when you're privileged, you don't necessarily notice. How could you? How could you know about all these obstacles in a life you haven't experienced? This not knowing leads to a bias. Your estimations of risk and reward and consequence are based on your experiences and won't be the same for those who don't have the same safety nets.

Some people will take the chance anyway even without the net. They'll bet their life on a long shot, choosing a "Growth Mindset", and some will succeed! This can lead to a different type of bias: Survivorship bias. They survived, so why can't you? Their experience showed that the chance was worth it for them, but their results don't guarantee yours.


I believe pretty strongly that we should all be privileged and that learning and growing should always be a safe thing to do. Most of the writing on these subjects focus on the individual, but what can we do as teachers or as employers?

You don't want to remove the possibility of failure (remember, it's part of learning), but you do want to add a safety net, to lessen the consequences of those failures.

This can take practice! And what works for one group and situation might not work for another. The important part is to keep the goals of safety and growth in mind. You focus on creating environments where a growth mindset is a safe thing for everyone.

Some examples!

In educational environments: Let people retake tests! Let them try again and again. Practice is how you learn and grades are just there for some sort of metric, to give you an idea of where you are. They are not in themselves, the goal.

In business environments: Don't put monetary costs on failure. People need that money to eat and for shelter. Make sure you have plans for when things go wrong (disaster recovery, back-out plans).


By adding safety, you remove fear as a motivator. Fear is a terrible motivator, and yet it's often the default used in both education and business: Fear of losing your job, fear of not being able to graduate and move on.

Fear as a motivator will only work for the minimum effort required to be 'safe' from that consequence. So not only does it suppress a growth mindset, but it also is limited in effectiveness!

Intrinsic motivation, or self motivation, is always better, but requires trusting and letting go of control of those you're trying to guide.

This is a good spot to wrap up. If you want to hear more about fear, safety, and motivation, check out the Getting Apps Done podcast. Joshua and I talk quite a bit on strategies for motivating folks that don't involve threatening their safety.

I'm also sure I'll be posting more about these subjects here!