The Superiority of Growth Versus Fixed Mindset


Bakri Musa
11th May 2016

The corollary to my earlier discussion is that it is far better to have a mindset with the capacity to grow and adapt than one that is fixated on its existing worldview. Harping on “changing mindset,” as our leaders are wont to do, is misplaced.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two mindsets: the growth versus the fixed. They differ not only in their hypothesis of the outside world but also how they view their inner being.

Those with a fixed mindset view their talent and ability as fixed and tied to their innate ability. They view themselves as being governed by whatever abilities that they have been endowed with by nature. They are trapped by their biologic pre-determinism, which can be just as crippling as the more familiar religious variety afflicting simple villagers – “My fate is written in the book of life!”

The “book of life” of those with fixed mindset and are science-literate is the sequence of amino acids encoded in their DNA strands. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that their fate depends on their ability to adapt and learn from new challenges and experiences, not on whatever nature has bestowed upon them through their chromosomes. To these individuals, opportunities are the flipside of crises, as the ancient Chinese wisdom would have it. Success depends on their ability to convert the latter to the former.

Those with a growth mindset are not trapped or limited by whatever nature had endowed upon them. Nor do they believe that their fate is dependent upon the benevolence of a remote emperor or what had been written in the book of life, either the theological or biological edition.

In medieval times those with fixed mindset believed that their fate was set at birth. Born a peasant and you would always remain one, and so would your children and their children. This was the belief of Ina and Sabu, the characters in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s short story Djangus dan Babu. That mindset is continually being reinforced by cultural beliefs and religious convictions.

Leaders with a fixed mindset are the likes of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, firm believers in their innate abilities. Presidents Nixon and Reagan best exemplified leaders with a growth mindset. Nixon was a staunch conservative and firm supporter of Taiwan, but that did not stop him from opening up to China. Reagan, like Nixon, was also staunchly conservative and anti-communist, but he had no difficulty working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The signal difference between those with fixed versus growth mindset is their attitude towards failure. The former would treat failure as reflecting their inner being, an affirmation of their inadequacies and lack of natural ability. Worse, their failure also reflects that of their race or culture, or both. They would then retreat, never to challenge the situation again.

Those with a growth mindset on the other hand consider failures as part and parcel of learning and adapting. They bounce right back. In Silicon Valley, California, a failed entrepreneur wears his failure as a warrior would his battle scars, and then moves on. Nixon and Reagan were both defeated on their first try at the presidency, but both went on to win substantial majorities on subsequent attempt.

Mistakes and failures are part of life. Physicians have a pragmatic approach to mistakes. In making clinical decisions, all things being equal, we would pursue a path where should we make a mistake it would be more readily corrected, over one where it would be more difficult to remedy. For example in a clinically ambiguous situation, surgeons will opt to operate on a case of suspected acute appendicitis only to find out that it is normal rather than wait to be certain and risk the inflamed appendix rupturing and jeopardizing the patient’s life. The consequences of the first mistake (operating too soon) are less severe and more remediable than with the second (operating too late).

Hamka’s words best encapsulate the attitude of those with a fixed mindset, Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati. The fear of failure is the real failure, the hallmark of those with a fixed mindset.

We can develop or train ourselves to have a growth mindset. This is best tackled simultaneously at two levels: individual and societal. For individuals, we should expose ourselves to as many new experiences as possible thus enabling our brain to forge those new neural pathways. At the societal and cultural levels, it would be anything that would encourage and facilitate our people in having those new experiences.

Geography plays a major role in shaping our mindset. Inhabitants of coastal areas and others exposed to large bodies of water (traditional means of transportation in ancient times) are more cosmopolitan than those inland. In China, it is Shanghai; Malaysia, Malacca; and India, Goa. Their residents are exposed to many visitors (mainly traders in the old days) from different lands bringing with them new cultures and ideas. Today, technology, specifically modern means of communications, has overcome this limitations imposed by geography.

With frequent exposures to new people and experiences, as with traveling, we increase our comfort level with the unfamiliar and different. With that comes tolerance and appreciation.

This only works if we have a growth mindset. If we have a fixed one, then all those new experiences would only reinforce our existing prejudices. Psychologists refer to this as “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions and avoid those that do not. To return to my earlier metaphor, we would be concerned only with “re-editing” the facts to fit our pre-existing narrative instead of creating a new one.

If you believe that the West is inherently decadent, then when visiting Washington, D.C, all you would see are the porn shops, street potholes, and the homeless pandering. You would miss Georgetown University, Library of Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.

The writer Anis Sabirin, a former Fulbright scholar who spent decades living in Los Angeles, related in her memoir Dua Dunia (Two Worlds) her experience visiting the Library of Congress. There she was treated with the utmost courtesy and given all the help she needed, a vast contrast to her miserable experience when she visited the University of Malaya library. To make it even more unbearable and unbelievable, she was a former faculty member at that institution!

Anis Sabirin is a Claremont PhD in economics; she is the beneficiary of America’s tradition of liberal education. Even though she is passionate about Malaysia as reflected in her stirring syairs (poetry), nonetheless she has an open mind to discern the differences between her native land and America. She is also confident of her patriotism such that she is not afraid to criticize her homeland and praise America. That also personifies a growth mindset and a free mind.

The two activities – traveling and reading (as reflected by visiting libraries) – are the best ways to enhance a growth mindset, as long as you keep an open mind and be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. Restrictions on travel, standard issue in China, Russia and other repressive societies, together with book banning and burning, are the crudest expression of this fixed mindset. Unfortunately that is the path Malaysian leaders have chosen, with their penchant on banning and/or licensing speakers.

With a free mind and a growth mindset we can explore the many transformational events in our history and view them from a perspective different from what we have been used to. Only then could we learn and benefit from the exercise, and making our learning curve steeper. With a closed mind, our review of history and past experiences would result only in syok sendiri (self-gratification or glorification), with our learning curve remaining flat and our narrative unchanged.

Next: Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

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