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Mindsets – Do You Have a Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset?


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I’ve just completed “Mindset – the New Psychology of Success” by Carol S. Dweck and think it can be a great resource for coaching and for our own self-growth. Dweck talks about two different mindsets that people fall into:

  • A fixed mindset, where we are either smart or not, talented or not, and setbacks are “proof” that we aren’t as smart or talented as we and/or others thought we were
  • A growth mindset, where effort is more important than raw talent or intelligence (without effort) and where setbacks are opportunities to analyze and try something new

How many of our more challenging clients are operating from a fixed mindset? How much could we help them by opening up the possibility of a new worldview based on a growth, learning-oriented mindset?

Dweck gives many examples related to business, sports, and relationships in her book, but here are two examples that come to mind:

  • After John McEnroe lost in mixed doubles in Wimbledon, Dweck states that McEnroe didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years. After losing his serve twice, while no one else lost a single serve, McEnroe stated, “That’s it. I’m never playing again. I can’t handle this.”
  • Michael Jordan had this to say in an ad for Nike, “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed.”

One of the most interesting findings mentioned in the book is that a comment as simple as “You did well, you must be very talented (or smart)” can lead someone towards a fixed mindset, while restating this as “You did well, you must have put in a lot of effort,” can lead someone towards a growth mindset, and toward improved performance.

This is clearly related to concepts such as self-determination and focus of control, but I think it’s packaged in a way that could be very helpful when working with clients and in everyday life. I’m also thinking that these concepts could be very helpful for those struggling with poor self-esteem due to ADHD and/or learning difficulties.

So, what do you think?

About the Author

Jonathan Sibley, LCSW, MBA is a practicing coach and psychotherapist and is chief pot-stirrer for dialog about the relationship between coaching and psychotherapy. After receiving his MBA at INSEAD and a successful career at a Fortune 100 corporation, Jonathan went on to receive his MSW from Columbia University School of Social Work and to study coaching at Executive Coach Academy. Jonathan brings an integrative and multi-cultural perspective to both coaching and psychotherapy and works in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Jonathan has presented on the relationship between coaching and psychotherapy at annual conferences of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration (SEPI) and the North American Society of Psychotherapy Research (NASPR). Jonathan also leads the Coaching and Psychotherapy Special Interest Group of the International Coach Federation. For more information about me, please click here

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There are 3 Responses so far...

Suzanne Carter, Ph.D. on August 19, 2008

Dweck’s stuff is really high caliber. It’s a pleasure to discuss her work. Many thanks for offering your learnings!

My favorite parts of her research, I think, dovetail with what you saw … in the late 90s, she noted that, in the face of challenge or setback, some people (children) worked harder while some gave up.

Those that believe their talent is fixed might limit their choices to what maximizes the chance they’ll do well.

Those with a growth (“incremental”) orientation toward their talent may actually seek out challenge that will help them to grow their talent (Dweck, 1999).

Isn’t a lot of coaching about the choices people make – “on the ground” or on a day-to-day basis?

I’m resonating also with the last couple paragraphs (“…a comment as simple as “you did well, you must be very talented …”).

It brought to mind a couple of truths (truths as I see them anyway):
1. Praise is an influencer of self-beliefs about achievement and ability.
2. Life includes setbacks.
Why not stack the deck in your client’s favor by couching praise for reaching a goal in a way that enhances the client’s sense of agency – in terms of effort or persistence or some aspect of making a healthy choice in the face of prior setback.(Dweck, 1999a; 1999b).

Thank you again, chief pot stirrer!

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Ellen Neiley Ritter, Ph.D. on September 22, 2008

Jonathan and Suzanne, I absolutely agree that this awareness of challenging fixed mindsets is one core power of coaching and can make a phenomenal difference empowering our clients to think outside the box, to redefine themselves and reach their potential. As I read your posts, Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy is the important role this strength plays in resiliency.

At the same time, I also wonder about the current societal trend to label everyone — you’re gifted, you’re learning disabled, you’re mentally ill, and on and on. When we assign a label, theoretically so convenient for diagnosis and treatment, are we also limiting their potential, fixing their mindset? These labels came from “experts” so it must be true and in that moment of acceptance, do these individuals redfine themselves, change their mindsets about their life and potential?

Thanks for recommending this work.

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Suzanne Carter, Ph.D. on September 23, 2008

Hi! Thank you for commenting! – i think you’re so right on.

When you mentioned labeling, the first thing i thought about was the “bloomer” study (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968 – the self-fulfilling prophecy one) –

20 kids were randomly assigned the label of “late bloomers” supposedly based on their performance on an IQ test.

The teachers treated the bloomers differently, they rated the bloomers higher in curiosity, interest, and happiness (!!! – all based on a label generated by a bogus IQ test!!!), and the bloomers themselves did better in class.

There’s probably another study out there focusing on the “stuff” going on inside a person who’s been labeled too… how they think about themselves before and after labeling, how that impacts their choices, how they react to environmental cues like setbacks or positive feedback.

Back to the point, though, to be honest, in coaching, I shy away from labeling (“you are this”), in that it conveys an authority on the person that I’m not sure it’s my place to claim. I think I’ve let out with a couple “you are so cool!” or “you are terrific,” though… :0

… But me, I’ll label myself to heck and gone … e.g., i’m an INTJ, at least this week. Or I’m a gemini sun, aries moon, and aquarius rising.


Thank you for inspiring much fun thought for the morning! Better than coffee!

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