“The only competitive domain that remains is how fast we learn,” according to Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and professor at MIT. Given the importance of learning, how we view our abilities can impact how we approach learning. In her book Mindset, Stanford professor Carol Dweck identified two approaches to learning: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe they have a set of abilities and that is all. They identify areas where they excel and then hone those skills. They rarely venture into new areas fearing they might not be successful or would look foolish.
The benefit of a fixed mindset is the ability to focus and go deeply in areas of interest. This can serve someone well in a technical area where knowing everything about a particular topic is highly valued. And it can be suitable in a field where things change slowly if at all, like palaeontology. I think of a fixed mindset as the force that drives an excellent performer: he knows what he is good at and he performs his tasks well.
But in a changing world, having a fixed mindset can keep you from recognizing the need to enhance your skillset. Performers are great when they are in their zone, but if the situation changes and they have to change what they do and how they do it, problems arise. (Laurence J. Peter, a counselor and university professor, coined this phenomenon “the Peter Principle,” where people rise to their level of incompetence.)
People with a growth mindset are dedicated learners. They’re always curious, enjoying learning for the sake of learning and more interested in the process than outcomes. As a result they are not goal oriented and, taken to extreme, they may neglect deadlines and ignore the mandate to produce. In the information technology world, these are the folks who spend days and days learning new technology but never get around to sitting down and coding.
Underlying both fixed and growth mindsets is the quality—or depth—of learning. Some learners seem to dabble, flitting from topic to topic. Their knowledge is a mile wide but an inch deep. Others strive to fully understand a topic before moving on, as described by George Leonard in his book Mastery. The key is to identify the appropriate depth of learning. Too little learning makes the work product stale. Too much learning and you may never get the product out the door.
It’s possible to be a performer in one area of your life and a learner in another, that is, to access both fixed and growth mindsets, depending on the goal. When I am cooking during the week, I am performing—making meals I know I can prepare quickly that will satisfy my family. When I cook on weekends, the learner comes out: I try new recipes and experiment with ingredients just for the fun of it.
But when your work is more conducive to one mindset, it’s hard to be happy if you’re naturally inclined to the other mindset. For example, if you have a growth mindset and you build tract homes, you probably don’t feel very fulfilled with your work. With each house, you want to do things a little differently, but being a successful tract housing builder means creating a consistent, replicable product that works over and over again—an approach that is perfect for the fixed mindset of a performer, not the growth mindset of a learner.
To avoid the performer/learner hazard, ask yourself: “Am I going too far in one direction or the other? Is it possible to achieve better balance?” A coach can help you answer those questions and better align your career options to your learning mindset. If you are a learner who likes to dabble in many things, you might find fulfillment as a Montessori teacher who helps children explore in the moment. Or you might flourish at a think tank where you can concentrate on analyzing a topic and developing innovative solutions while someone else focuses on implementation and product development.
If you have a fixed mindset and lean heavily towards being a performer, you may no longer feel able perform if your work requirements have changed and you don’t “get it” anymore. If so, consider moving to an organization that has not adopted the changes that disrupted your performance. For example, advanced technology has changed the way many sophisticated organizations do business. But a startup, small association, or mid-sized company in a mature industry might be unwilling or unable to adopt those changes, making your tried-and-true skillset more valuable to them. Instead of moving up to more sophisticated organizations when you hit the wall of your knowledge, move down to less sophisticated organizations where your skills and expertise would be in demand.
The point is you don’t necessarily have to change your mindset; instead, find a place where your mindset is more conducive to the work and your knowledge is valued.