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Do you want to be good at everything?

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When I was little, even before I realized what the phrase “growth mindset” meant, I followed its basic ideals. I remember getting a C on a math test in sixth grade. My teacher, Mrs. Darcy, was very concerned and attentive — she wanted to talk to me after class. She sat me down and asked if I was okay, how I was feeling, etc. I remember being embarrassed that I hadn’t done well, but also confused. “I’ll just do better on the next one!” I told her. Her scrunched up face then transformed into a beaming smile. “That’s a wonderful attitude!”

The growth mindset is lauded by many psychologists, including Stanford’s own Carol Dweck as being a crucial tool for academic and personal success. Dweck actually coined the term decades ago after studying how children respond differently to failure. The growth mindset allows an optimistic perspective that encourages hope for improvement and determination to seek future success despite temporary and inevitable setbacks. It sees intelligence and talent as only a starting point, not a limit on future achievement. The fixed mindset is the exact opposite. It’s the belief that failure is permanent and an indication of a lack of skill or intelligence. The advice to “change your mindset” has become popular in recent years as people attempt to transition their own way of thinking from fixed to growth-focused.

The growth mindset is entirely necessary for success. Particularly at highly competitive schools, like Stanford, it’s easy to think that if you’re not already ahead of the curve, there’s no point in trying. However, only studying what you’re already comfortable with leaves room for lots of missed opportunities. Trying something new, not doing as well as you hoped and then abandoning that new concept, because of the fear of not excelling prevents potential improvement and discovery. The growth mindset acknowledges that yes, failure is daunting, but it doesn’t mean we should give up. In high-achieving environments, failure will find everyone. Failure can just be a push to work a little harder towards your goals.

However, the fixed mindset also shouldn’t be completely disregarded. Cautious use of the fixed mindset allows us to realize our strengths and find a focus eventually. Through enough hours of study or practice, it’s possible to excel at most things. However, exploring further within disciplines that intuitively make more sense to you is also a valid decision.

Contact Elizabeth Dunn at eldunn14 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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