Legions of writers – from Dale Carnegie to Napoleon Hill to Norman Vincent Peale to Anthony Robbins – have touted the value of positive mental attitude. Scores of rah-rah speakers evangelize on the doctrine of believing in ourselves.
All of that is important, but sound thinking requires more than a rosy outlook and a dose of self esteem. Sound thinking requires a mindset – or orientation – that’s both receptive to fresh (even contrary) ideas and accepting of the notion that most of us can be more creative than we’ve ever dreamed.
When Carol Dweck was a sixth-grader at P.S. 153 in Brooklyn, New York, she experienced something that motivated her to explore why some people view intelligence as a fixed trait while others embrace it as a quality that can be developed and expanded.
Young Carol’s teacher seated the students around the classroom according to their IQ scores. The boys and girls who didn’t have the highest IQs were not trusted to carry the flag during school assemblies. They weren’t even allowed to clap erasers or wash the chalkboard or take a note to the principal.
“Our teacher let it be known that IQ for her was the ultimate measure of your intelligence and your character,” Carol says. “So the students who had the best seats were always scared of taking another test and not being at the top anymore. It was an uncomfortable thing because you were only as good as your last test score. I think it had just as negative an effect on the kids at the top [as those at the bottom] who were defining themselves in those terms.”
Today Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University, having previously taught at Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Her special interest is in people’s self-theories about intelligence and the profound influence such theories have on the motivation to learn. She says people who hold a “fixed” theory are mainly concerned with how smart they are (or are perceived to be). They prefer tasks they can already do well and they tend to avoid tasks on which they may make mistakes and jeopardize their “smart” image. By contrast, Dr. Dweck says, people who believe in an “expandable” or “growth” theory of intelligence thrive on challenging themselves to increase their abilities, even if they fail at first.
Half a century ago Maxwell Maltz aroused the minds of millions with his book Psycho-Cybernetics. His primary premise was that many people are trapped in self images that limit them, while others have self images that open the door to a cornucopia of possibilities.
Dr. Maltz said that in the human brain there’s a sort of motion picture projector, and the “self movie” is played over and over and over again. If a child is told (especially by a parent, teacher, or other trusted authority figure) that she’s clumsy and awkward, there’s a good chance she’ll regard herself as clumsy and awkward the rest of her life. In fact, she’ll likely go out of her way to prove it. If we learn to believe that we’re not good at math, that we can’t speak with confidence in public, or that we’re not comfortable making new friends, all of that will likely be true. In short, the view we adopt for ourselves profoundly affects the way we lead our lives.
But the good news is that we can deliberately choose to project a different “self movie” on the motion picture screen in our brains.
Just like the heroine in the classic children’s book The Little Engine That Could, we can tell ourselves “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And then there’s a good chance that, indeed, we can.