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How Mindsets Lead to Success: (Part 2 of the 4 Part Mindset Series)

How Mindsets Lead to Success: (Part 2 of the 4 Part Mindset Series)

How do mindsets lead to success? The image above explains it all. But, what does it mean? First, implicit theories are beliefs about the malleability of personal characteristics, which is the same thing intended by the term "mindsets" used more commonly today. An “entity implicit theory” is a fixed mindset (belief that characteristics are fixed), and an “incremental implicit theory” is a growth mindset (belief that characteristics can change). The type of implicit theory a person holds (i.e. fixed or growth mindset) influences the type of goal they pursue, which leads to either an adaptive or maladaptive behavior pattern that can determine whether you reach your goals.

Implicit Theories & Behavior

Before the concept of mindsets gained popularity with the publication of Carol Dweck’s book (1) in 2006, fixed and growth mindsets were researched as part of a broader model for explaining patterns of behaviors. This model posits that different implicit theories (a.k.a. mindsets) lead individuals to pursue different types of goals, which encourage different types of behavior patterns.(2)


Types of Goals

Performance goals are focused on demonstrating competency, whereas learning goals are focused on improving skills. Both the tasks you choose to complete (when given a choice) and how you react to a situation vary depending on which type of goal you choose. People who have a learning goal tend to exhibit mastery-oriented patterns, which include a preference for choosing challenging situations (with an inherently higher risk of failure) and persistence in the face of obstacles. This fits the learning goal because challenge affords the chance to learn greater skill mastery. People who have a performance goal tend to avoid situations where they could fail. This doesn’t always mean they avoid challenge though. If people have a performance goal but believe they have a high level of ability, then they may act in the same way as someone with a learning goal - with a mastery-oriented pattern. This offers the chance to prove their high level of ability. However, people who have a performance goal and don’t believe they are particularly capable will choose to avoid challenges, and they tend to be less persistent when forced into a challenging situation. These behaviors are characteristic of a helpless pattern.

Types of Patterns

Mastery-oriented and helpless patterns are more complex than just a tendency toward persistence or challenge seeking. They are consistent constellations of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that emerge in the face of failure. People with a helpless pattern have negative thoughts about themselves (e.g. “I’m not smart enough”), feel negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, boredom, hating the task), and end up performing worse on the task, even when they have previously completed the task successfully! (2,3,4) People with a mastery-oriented pattern think about the failures differently; some don’t even interpret them as failures at all, but rather challenges. They are also more optimistic and end up performing better than people with a helpless pattern. (3,4) It is easy to see that, in general, the mastery-oriented pattern is more adaptive. The caveat is that a mastery-oriented pattern is only more adaptive when pursuing goals you value. You can’t perfect every skill, and you don’t need to. People should be able to see what tasks should be avoided or dropped, but for those that matter, a mastery-oriented pattern will lead to greater success.


Model Summary

Let’s review the model with the end goal (feeling and performing better) in mind. The pattern most likely to lead to success is mastery-oriented. You can have this pattern with a learning goal or a performance goal, but the performance goal will only lead to mastery orientation if the person believes they have a high level of ability. If you have a performance goal and think you have low ability, you may adopt a helpless pattern, which is maladaptive. Finally, your beliefs are what determine what kind of goal you have. If you have a fixed mindset, then you will likely have a performance goal. A growth mindset typically leads to a learning goal. So, believing that you can improve (growth mindset) will lead to learning goals, mastery-oriented pattern, and the best outcome, but a fixed mindset could lead to the same success if you believe you have the necessary ability. This means that a growth mindset is generally beneficial, and especially so when you are learning something new and don’t have a high level of ability.


An Update to the Model

The model described above was published in 1988, and the book (1) that popularized mindsets was published in 2006, but there has been ongoing research on how mindsets influence success. A more recent synthesis of research showed that (among other things) an important missing factor in the model described above was whether the goal was approach-oriented or avoidant-oriented. (5) An approach-oriented goal is focused on what will be gained, whereas avoidant-oriented goals focus on avoiding a possible loss. Incorporating this into the types of goals described above reveals 4 types of goals: performance-approach, performance-avoid, learning-approach, learning-avoid. Within learning goals, this is the difference between enrolling in an optional training course because you want to learn versus what is essentially the fear of missing out - enrolling because you don’t want to know less than others. For performance goals approach versus avoidance is the difference between proving you are good at your job versus proving that you aren’t bad at your job. People with a growth mindset are much more likely to choose a learning-approach goal and much less likely to choose a performance-avoid goal.


Goal Type Really Matters

So why the nuance about approach/avoidance orientation? It turns out that when you look at whether people reach their goals, the approach/avoid distinction matters more than whether you have a performance or learning goal! (5) Approach goals (learning or performance) are positively related to goal achievement, and avoidance goals are negatively related to achievement. Although growth mindsets are related to learning goals, not everyone with a growth mindset will always choose a learning-approach goal, so a growth mindset alone will not always show increased performance. This means mindset isn’t enough. You also need to focus on approaching something you want instead of avoiding a loss.


Using Mindsets to Improve Performance

This model of implicit theories and goals helps you be successful across all the different domains of your life. Here are some simple steps you can take with an example of my own goal to develop my character strength of empathy.

1.     Start by developing a growth mindset. Really convince yourself that you are able to change because you won’t improve if you don’t believe you can. (Ex: “I can build my character” instead of “I can’t change who I am.”)


2.     A growth mindset is a good beginning, but in order to see improvement in performance you have to also consider the type of goal you are pursuing. This is something we do without really thinking about it. So, stop, take a minute and see how you are really thinking about your goal. Are you approaching a gain or avoiding a loss? (Ex: “I will learn to notice situations where I could show empathy” instead of “Don’t act so tactless”)


3.     Pursue your goal. (Ex: Put yourself in situations you would normally avoid. Take time to ask your coworkers how they are and notice if you genuinely care what the answer is. Get past the automated “I’m fine. You?” and have a real conversation.)


4.     Collect some feedback periodically. It can be helpful to know if (and how much) you are progressing in order to grow and change. (Ex: Ask your friends and colleagues if they have noticed a change in your behavior. Do they like the change? If you want detailed feedback about your character strengths, you can use the Tilt 365 Positive Influence Predictor to collect data about your development)


5.     Repeat steps 2-4. Your feedback will tell you how close you are to your goal, which tells you whether you need to modify it or keep going. Then pursue this new goal and collect more feedback.




(1) Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

(2) Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256-273. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.95.2.256

(3) Diener, C. L, & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.

(4) Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.

(5) Burnette, J. L., O'Boyle, E. H., VanEpps, E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701. doi:10.1037/a0029531

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