During the 80s Bill Murray made a film which I am sure a lot of you will have seen called Ground Hog Day in which his character, a cynical weatherman is made to live the same day over and over again until he finally wins the love of his assistant, played by the actress Andie McDowell. It’s a great film, if you’ve watched it you’ll certainly never think of “I’ve got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher in quite the same way ever again but also because of the different ways in which Bill Murray explores the different aspects of his predicament. He goes through confusion, periods of mad violence and licentious behaviour and even attempts suicide…..it is funny I promise you, before finally carrying of Andie McDowell in the closing stages of the film having mastered not only the ability to play Jazz piano but also Ice Sculpture!
It’s a seductive idea, that if you did ever find yourself trapped in a situation but with bags of time then at least you can finally fulfil your ambition to learn all the new skills that you’d been putting off for years. I myself believe that it is possible to develop new abilities and that if you have the time, confidence and motivation as well as the benefit of the right advice it is indeed possible to learn all sorts of things to a reasonable level of competance, even Ice Sculpture! But am I right, or is it as the comedian W.C. Fields once put it “If at first you don’t suceed, give up! Only a damn fool keeps trying”
During the 70’s Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford university conducted an experiment to test just this. She began by taking a group of 150 students and after giving them a questionaire divided them into two groups according to their beliefs on ability, whether it is something that’s innate or something that can be aquired through practise. She then set them a series of puzzles, eight relatively simple ones followed by 4 that were much harder. This is what she found, as described in Matthew Syed’s book “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practise”
Dweck described the students in the fixed mindset group when they came up against the tough puzzles: “Maybe the most striking thing about this group was how quickly they began to denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for the failures, saying things like ‘I guess I am not very smart’, ‘I never did have a good memory’ and ‘I’m no good at things like this’.
“Two-thirds of them showed a clear deterioration in their strategies, and more than half lapsed into completely ineffective strategies. In short, the majority of students in this group abandoned, or became incapable of deploying the effective strategies they actually had in their repertoire.” And the kids with the growth mindset? Dweck said: “We saw that the students in the fixed mindset group blamed their intelligence when they hit failure. What did the students in the growth mindset group blame when they hit failure? The answer, which surprised us, was that they did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for the failures. In fact, they didn’t even consider themselves to be failing.
“How did they perform? In line with their optimism, more than 80% maintained or improved the quality of their strategies during the difficult problems. A full quarter of the group actually improved. They taught themselves new and more sophisticated strategies for addressing the new and more difficult problems. A few of them even solved the problems that were supposedly beyond them.”
“These results are not limited to youngsters; they have been replicated with university students, sportsmen, business leaders, and even systems engineers at Nasa. The growth mindset not only predicts motivation and performance highlights but other key indicators, too.”
Matthew Syed is the author of Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (Fourth Estate, rrp £8.99).