I am a bit of a geek. I’m also a mum and a psychologist. So, it would stand to reason, that a lot of the time, my mind is on some pretty random stuff. The other day driving to day-care drop-off, it was on Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader), and the growth mindset.
A “growth mindset” – what is it?
Well, for starters, it’s the opposite of having a “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset is when someone believes that their intelligence, talents, and abilities are “just who they are.” Inherent, fixed, immovable. They spend their time stuck there. They don’t grow or change, because they don’t think they can.
A growth mindset holds that anything is possible with effort. It believes that there is always room for improvement. Challenges are good, because they are learning experiences. It embraces criticism because feedback is an excellent way to grow. It admires others, and seeks to emulate their good qualities, without becoming jealous of them. It is always learning, always growing and evolving.
Recent research in neuropsychology supports the validity of this mindset – the brain is always changing and evolving. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is indeed “plastic” in this way. We can train it and change it with effort.
A fixed mindset has an external “locus of control” – the control of your life is something external to you. A lack of opportunity perhaps, or genetics. A growth mindset believes that YOU control your destiny, and what you do, or don’t learn.
So, back to the other day. On the way to day-care, I started having a light bulb moment. Could learning about the growth mindset have saved Anakin Skywalker from turning to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader?! I think it could have!
His son Luke Skywalker developed a growth mindset throughout the Star Wars series. While he started out a little fixed, stubborn, and (let’s just go there) whiny, he developed into someone with the ability to change, to be taught, to develop, to grow. For a while, people were getting concerned about Luke’s mindset. Was he going to go the way of his Dad? It took a badass mentor (Yoda) to help him develop his growth mindset throughout the series. But he got there. There was an underlying flexibility there.
Luke grew up on a farm with his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. He came from nothing special, was nothing special really (that he knew of – turns out he was actually a Jedi). He had no specific talents or huge intellect. As a farmer, he would have been praised and thanked for hard-work, but not coddled. But he grew up to be one of the most amazing Jedis of all time! He did this through (eventually, once he got over himself a bit) training hard, listening to others, being teachable, and bouncing back after set-backs, again and again.
Anakin didn’t develop a growth mindset (well maybe at the end, when it was too late). Anakin (though he was a slave) was always “special.” He was “the one to bring balance to the force.” He built a flipping robot (C3PO) before age nine! He was a Pod Racer, and a prodigy. When the Jedi arrived on his planet, they recognized it immediately, and whisked him away on their spaceship. He was always on a whole other level, and he knew it.
Growing up, Anakin developed a fixed mindset. He believed he was special – unparalleled in his level of awesome (and Midichlorians, apparently). When he was denied the rank of Master by the Jedi Council, because the Council didn’t trust him, he said this: “What!? How can you do this? This is outrageous, it’s unfair…” and later “I’ve become more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed.” He had developed the mindset that he was naturally entitled to power, and he did not deal with the rejection well. Rather than ask questions like “what could I do to improve their trust in me?” or “what qualities in my Master Obi Wan can I emulate to one day become a Master?” or even “is there something in me that I could improve?” he remained stuck in his beliefs, and began to spiral downward, eventually turning to the one person who continued to flatter and fawn over him, and who promised him power: the evil Emperor Palpatine. He turned to the Dark Side, and became (spoiler alert) Darth Vader.
Luke, however, learned to deal with setbacks differently through the series. He learned that he could do anything he wanted to, even though he had little evidence to base his confidence on. He just needed the right attitude, effort, and a growth mindset. Yoda mentored him in this mindset. Luke ended up persisting when people laughed at him for trying to be a Jedi. He became teachable. He learned from criticism. A lot. He found inspiration in others. He did not become jealous or get angry when things weren’t handed to him on a silver platter. He developed an internal locus of control: "This is only going to happen for me if I make it happen." As Yoda instructed him: “Try not. Do, or do not do … There is no try.”
Isn’t this similar to our kids? They can get so fixed on whether they are “smart or dumb,” “sporty or nerdy,” “popular or a loner,” and it can become “just who they are.” We see so many kids who are really “smart” in primary school, who fail once in high school, and then continue to fail, because it is no longer “easy,” and they haven’t developed the tools for when things aren’t easy! Like Anakin, they have always thought they were smart, and been told they were special, so what does it mean for them if they fail? Who are they now?
How do we encourage and develop a growth mindset in our kids? So that they know that if they get one failing grade, or someone rejects them, it is not the end of the world? That they can grow from the experience and still become whoever they want to be?
Here are three ideas.
1 | Praise the process
As we learned from Anakin’s upbringing, let’s try praising kids differently. Let’s praise the process, not the person. Instead of “you’re so smart at Maths” we could say “you studied really hard for that test, and your results prove it.” Instead of “you’re so strong” we might say “you’ve been working really hard in training and I noticed you threw the ball even further than last time!”
2 | Give opportunities to grow
Let’s look for opportunities to stretch our children. Rather than always doing activities that they are good at, or excel at, let’s let them try things they have never done before, or things that may be an area of development for them. Let’s give them opportunities wherever possible to learn and grow.
3 | Give honest feedback
We don’t always have to tell our kids they’re perfect. We can refrain from the “oh that’s so beautiful, you’re so talented” associated with every smear of paint they bring home from school. This is an uncomfortable one, because we don’t want to trample our kids “self-esteem,” but what if the old school methods of bolstering self-esteem got it wrong? What if it is not helpful to praise everything our kids do? Is it perhaps more helpful to help them develop a growth mindset by showing them that they don’t have to be great at everything straight away? Or even at all? It’s okay to do some things just for fun? We might even give some constructive feedback of where they could improve (sensitively of course)!
While these ideas can take time we sometimes don’t have, and extra thought, and can even be a bit uncomfortable, their purpose is to help our kids develop a growth mindset. Their brains are plastic, and we want to help them take advantage of that over the span of their lives, instead of being limited by their own self-beliefs.
I want my kids to be like Luke Skywalker, who, even with no particular advantages (okay, he was a Jedi, but he didn’t know it growing up) became a powerful Jedi and saved the world. He do so through effort, hard-work, resilience, and being teachable. I don’t want them to “turn to the Dark Side” like Anakin did. I don’t want them to lose out on opportunities because they are stuck on the idea of being something or other, whether that is “special” or “nerdy” or “dumb” or “popular.” I don’t want them to be unequipped when the world doesn’t meet their expectations. I want them to know the truth: That anything is possible with the right mindset.