Self-theories by Carol Dweck: Book Review

As with my previous review, you wont find Carol S. Dweck’s book, Self-theories, in the health and fitness section of the book store. Nevertheless, there are parallels which can be drawn to optimising performance.

The text is a culmination of Dweck’s many years of research on topics of motivation, personality and development. The evidence-based approach looks into how people view themselves and others through their personal belief systems. Dweck proposes that people develop beliefs that organise their world which in turn gives meaning to their experiences.

I collected the following lessons from Self-theories…

What makes a successful individual?

Dweck suggests there are certain qualities which are inherent in people who find success, whether it be academically or otherwise. The attributes include:

  • A love for learning
  • A willingness to seek challenges
  • Finding value in effort
  • Persistence in the face of obstacles

On the contrary, it’s important we’re wary of certain beliefs which are likely a hindrance, such as…

  • Over concern of how others perceive you
  • A distaste for challenge
  • Poor ability to cope with setbacks

The differential between effort is a concept stressed by Dweck. Individuals who often found success viewed effort as a ‘successful ally’, believing when effort was required it meant they were on the right path. On the other hand, less successful people identified negatively with effort and in fact thought it showed weakness.

As a consequence, individuals who look upon effort cynically, tend to avoid tasks that they feel they would struggle with, preferring to stay in their comfort zone. In the performance setting, an unwillingness to work on things that don’t come naturally will lead to weak spots, hampering progress.

Growth versus perception

Another key lesson drawn from Self-theories was the importance of what we value. Many of the examples used by Dweck demonstrate how a subgroup of the populace place most value on how others view them. At all costs, these individuals want to be perceived as clever and intelligent. Consequently, they select tasks they’re already good at, as their fear of looking silly outweighs the potential to learn and grow.

The other group, Dweck points out, approach situations by prioritising learning. They don’t mind if they make errors, understanding that its part and parcel of the mastery process.

Let’s consider this from point of view of building a resilient body. Individuals who value public perception may only incorporate exercises which they are unlikely to fail at and are already well-versed. While they may continue to get stronger, it is likely being achieved through strengthening their strengths and neglecting their weaknesses. This is a recipe for stagnation long-term.

The person who values learning above all else may outsource their programming, knowing full well they are likely to skimp on things they struggle with. As a result, they put in the hard yards with movements that feel about as natural as Usain Bolt does in the swimming pool.

Another comparison which can be drawn pertains to the impact of social media. The popularity nowadays of posting one’s progress online is overwhelming. It’s fair to say that most people publicise their best, most impressive attempts online. Is it not too farfetched to speculate that these same individuals are driven by public perception rather than growth?

Feedback and persistence

Dweck’s research on feedback demonstrates that people respond to feedback differently, and this in turn affects their persistence with a task. What she and her colleagues found was a certain subset of the population looked upon feedback with a glass half-full perspective. That is, they were still likely to be happy with their efforts for a given task and the criticism would fortify their efforts.

Another portion of the population, however, respond to feedback negatively. When criticised, these individuals curl up into their shell and shy away from the task completely.

Dweck can only speculate as to why these systems develop, whether inherent or through different modes of nurture, but it’s implications are profound. When training and someone offers you advice, how do you respond?

Malleability is the key

Self-theories taught me the importance of flexibility. Although you and I may be more predisposed to a certain belief system, with introspection to our thoughts and actions, we can change our beliefs to make stronger versions of ourselves.

Dweck’s book is not the most fluent read given the fact that its research-laden. Though, for those soon-to-be or new parents, it’s certainly worth a read. The text provides a guide of how interactions with young children foster and mould their development.

Have you read Self-theories by Carol Dweck? What did you gather?



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