Mastery is a mindset

by Max Galkin

Mastery is a mindset. According to Dweck, people can hold two different views of their own intelligence. Those who have an “entity theory” believe that intelligence is just that — an entity. It exists within us, in a finite supply that we cannot increase. Those who subscribe to an “incremental theory” take a different view. They believe that while intelligence may vary slightly from person to person, it is ultimately something that, with effort, we can increase. To analogize to physical qualities, incremental theorists consider intelligence as something like strength. (Want to get stronger and more muscular? Start pumping iron.) Entity theorists view it as something more like height. (Want to get taller? You’re out of luck.)

If you believe intelligence is a fixed quantity, then every educational and professional encounter becomes a measure of how much you have. If you believe intelligence is something you can increase, then the same encounters become opportunities for growth. In one view, intelligence is something you demonstrate; in the other, it’s something you develop. The two self-theories lead down two very different paths — one that heads toward mastery and one that doesn’t.

For instance, consider goals. Dweck says they come in two varieties—performance goals and learning goals. Getting an A in French class is a performance goal. Being able to speak French is a learning goal. “Both goals are entirely normal and pretty much universal,” Dweck says, “and both can fuel achievement.” But only one leads to mastery. In several studies, Dweck found that giving children a performance goal (say, getting a high mark on a test) was effective for relatively straightforward problems but often inhibited children’s ability to apply the concepts to new situations. For example, in one study, Dweck and a colleague asked junior high students to learn a set of scientific principles, giving half of the students a performance goal and half a learning goal. After both groups demonstrated they had grasped the material, researchers asked the students to apply their knowledge to a new set of problems, related but not identical to what they’d just studied. Students with learning goals scored significantly higher on these novel challenges. They also worked longer and tried more solutions. As Dweck writes, “With a learning goal, students don’t have to feel that they’re already good at something in order to hang in and keep trying. After all, their goal is to learn, not to prove they’re smart.

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink