Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Category

Overall Rating: ★★★ (3/7) (mediocre for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★ (3/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~250 pages ex-notes (320 official)

Blurb/Description: Researcher Carol Dweck discusses an x-factor that dramatically affects our performance (and happiness): whether or not we believe we can improve our abilities through learning and practice, i.e. the “growth mindset.”

Summary: In 10% Happier, Dan Harris repeatedly references how frustrating it is that Eckhart Tolle bounces between profound insight and nonsensical blather, which makes it hard for Harris to know how to feel about Tolle.  That polarized confusion is, directionally, how I feel about Dweck’s Mindset: on the one hand, the “growth mindset” is profoundly important, demonstrated by both my own experience and empirical research.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate of the growth mindset than me; I was raised (to my detriment) in a very fixed-mindset way (“you’re worthless if you fail and I won’t love you,”) and having had to transform that into a growth mindset step-by-step, I can attest to the transformative impact that the growth mindset has had on my happiness as well as my development in many areas.  It’s completely core to what I do as an investor. So you’d think that me loving Mindset would be a layup, right?

Unfortunately, not so much.  As with Danny Kahneman, it’s important to separate Dweck’s research (great and super important!) from the book she wrote to convey it to a lay audience (not very good at all).  Dweck couches this extraordinarily important concept in a lot of popular but misguided notions that detract from the overall effect. This is one of those books that, like Superforecasting and Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), sat on my shelf for quite a while (years!) because I thought I already knew what it said.  Unlike those two, Mindset was not a pleasant surprise, nor really that pleasant at all – while portions of the book likely hold value for readers who are unfamiliar with the concept, I don’t think there’s much new here (other than some really important lessons on the wording of praise and feedback that I knew already, but definitely should do a better job of following).

Highlights: As referenced, the core idea – that our abilities are not entirely fixed, but can be modified, positively, through learning and effort – is absolutely correct and profoundly important.  Dweck does a good job of illustrating (through the lens of both professional and personal examples) how we can inspire others to believe that, and how we can (and should) tailor our language to accomplish that end.

Lowlights: This book falls into two traps.  First, it (directionally) goes down the Nordic-egalitarian-nonsense “talent doesn’t exist/matter” path, which is profoundly wrong/incorrect: just because we can all improve upon where we are doesn’t mean that some people aren’t way better than others, naturally, at certain things, and that realization of such isn’t important.  Trait adaptivity is a real phenomenon, and Dweck’s book sort of wanders (in my opinion) into ‘90s/’00s parenting mantras of “you can be anything if you try hard enough!”  Which is nonsense; despite Dweck’s (not-very-good) discussion of athletic ability, there’s a reason you don’t see many 5’8 Asian-Americans in the NFL (which was my dream career at six years old.)

Second, the book also spends an unreasonable amount of time glorifying effort along the “grit” path.  To be balanced here, in Dweck’s defense, it should be noted that she does provide a brief section about habit-forming strategies at the end of the book and note, contextualizing with the example of a diet, that willpower is not always and everywhere the answer.  However, most of the rest of the book celebrates the idea of seeking out challenges – which, again, runs counter to the trait adaptivity mental model and the Munger dictum of looking for two-foot hurdles.  Giving up at the first sign of struggle is bad, but so too is a life full of struggle because you’re doing things to which your traits aren’t adapted.  It is certainly true that there are some short NBA players, but Dweck is completely overlooking survivorship bias here: even if I’d dedicated my entire life to it, someone with my frame and athleticism almost certainly never would’ve made it to the NBA, the same way that many professional athletes almost certainly wouldn’t make great value investors.  

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: growth mindset, habit, activation energy, trait adaptivity, ideology, dose-dependency, opportunity costs

Instead, you should read:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy by Dr. Judith Beck (review + notes).  Cognitive behavioral therapy is the growth mindset on steroids: it’s a process of identifying maladaptive (i.e. not useful) beliefs that are leading to negative outcomes, and replacing them with more adaptive and useful beliefs via a process of a/b testing and probabilistic thinking.

Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock (review + notes).  Tetlock’s book comes at this idea from a different angle, exploring his extensive research on how and why pretty “ordinary” individuals could make more accurate predictions than tenured experts.  The punchline is, in part, the growth mindset – focusing on failures as an opportunity to learn and improve the process going forward.

10% Happier by Dan Harris (review + notes).  Harris is a bit of a man-with-a-hammer with meditation, whereas I prefer other approaches like CBT, but the book is still an endearingly funny and vulnerable journey through Harris’s path to a better mindset through mindfulness.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Tavris/Aronson (review + notes).  Tavris/Aronson discuss the problem of cognitive dissonance and self-justification – i.e., why we recognize others’ mistakes easily but sugarcoat our own – and come to the conclusion that the growth mindset is one of the paths out of the vicious cycle.

Reading Tips: If you do for some reason read this book, 1-3 and 7-8 are the “core” chapters.  4-6 should be viewed as optional depending on your interests, with 6 better than 5 better than 4 in my opinion… I would completely skip 4 because it advances a worldview that doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t seem very useful or adaptive.  

Reread Value: 1/5 (None)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

Please remember: these notes were created primarily for my own personal reference and are not intended to be an abstract or summary of the book; in other words, they don’t substitute for reading the book, and most of their content will not make sense without the broader context of the book.  These simply represent some of the points that I found interesting / thought-provoking / related to other material that I’ve learned from.

I share them for a few reasons: first, and primarily for those who’ve read the book, hopefully these will serve as some thought-provoking marginalia as well as a “refresher course” on some of the concepts if it’s been a while since you’ve read the book.  Second, in more limited circumstances, if you haven’t read the book but have seen it referenced in one of the mental models or other pages in Poor Ash’s Almanack, you may find the notes to be a useful “information bridge” (albeit a very temporary/rickety one) until you’re able to read the book yourself.

Page 5: Dweck here cites the little-known fact that the inventor of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, actually created it as a way to figure out which kids needed extra instruction.  Unfortunately, Dweck doesn’t present a credible view on intelligence through most of the book, or at least, she doesn’t present it in a nuanced enough fashion. Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence (review + notes) does a much better job here.

Dweck does, in her defense, note here that “each person has a unique genetic endowment,” but proceeds throughout the rest of the book to give very short shrift to the important idea of trait adaptivity, going with more or less a Millennial parenting-esque, wishful thinking, “you can be anything you want to be” discussion.

Page 7: Dweck defines the growth mindset as “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.  Although people may differ […] in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”  She cites well known examples of “unpromising” students like Darwin and Einstein who went on to become special; I’d throw in our house favorite Richard Thaler.

Pages 8 – 10: One key difference between those with a “growth mindset” (who think they can grow) and those with a “fixed mindset” (who think who they are is who they are, full stop) is how each group responds to adversity.  Those with a fixed mindset avoid the problem and use coping mechanisms… those with a growth mindset cope directly by attacking the problem head-on. She notes that people with the fixed mindset view effort as a bad thing rather than a good thing.

I have mixed feelings on this last bit; I think she overpraises effort.  We’ll get there soon.

Page 11: Dweck notes that those with a growth mindset are more accurate at assessing their abilities, because they have nothing to prove, since their abilities aren’t their identity/ego.  Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting (review + notes) hits this in some detail; most of the “superforecasters” he studied viewed good thinking as a learnable skill.

Dweck also cites Howard Gardner, who many (Ritchie included) have criticized for being unscientific.

Page 12: Dweck provides a fixed-mindset vs. growth-mindset questionnaire here; I think a couple of the items are either wishful thinking or equivocation: a large body of evidence (see Intelligence) suggests that “intelligence” in the generally-accepted sense of IQ / “g” is indeed a relatively fixed trait.

In Dweck’s defense, most people who’ve studied it also believe that IQ is not the only thing that matters, and one of the few things that actually can lead to higher IQ is education/learning.  But a person of average intelligence could no more become Richard Feynman than I could become Lebron James – that’s just not how it works.

Page 13: Here is a very good point from Dweck: she notes that people who are “steeped in the fixed mindset” are “supersensitive about being wrong or making mistakes.”  This is absolutely true; I was absolutely in this mindset for much of my life and it’s taken a lot of work to get to a point where I’m not sensitive to criticism.  In fact, one of my mentors (a tenured hedge fund manager) recently called me “very coachable,” which is one of the things I’m proudest of in terms of my development (because I certainly didn’t used to be).

See also Brene Brown on making mistakes vs. being a mistake.

Pages 18 – 19: Some interesting research here suggesting that people with a fixed mindset literally turn off their brains when provided information on how to get better.  Those with a growth mindset didn’t.

Dweck discusses fixed/growth mindset in the context of relationships: as pointed out in, for example, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) (review + notes), couples that succeed tend to not just use the excuse of “that’s just who I am,” but rather find ways to meet each other halfway.

For all my criticism of various parts of the book, I hope you don’t take away any criticism of the idea of growth vs. fixed mindsets – they’re terribly important.  One of the most promising young investors I ever mentored torpedoed his own chances at professional success and happiness – not to mention intentionally blew up his friendship with me – because he had a brutally awful combination of a heavy fixed mindset and adherence to ideology.  He thought he was perfect as-is and couldn’t comprehend the idea that he would be happier and more successful if he would go about his life in a slightly more thoughtful, considerate, and empathetic way.  Instead, he chose to cling to a profoundly maladaptive and narcissistic view, and you know how that story ends. I do, because I used to be there.

Page 23: Here is another example of Dweck presenting a worldview that I find highly suspect/questionable, to say the least: she consistently glorifies the idea of effort to the point of mindless “grit.”  Here, for example, is her idea of an ideal student:

“It’s a lot more difficult for me than I thought it would be, but it’s what I want to do, so that only makes me more determined.  When they tell me I can’t, it really gets me going.”

Well, again, no.  There is a big issue of dose-dependency here that Dweck is completely missing.  No effort to improve traits (i.e. a “fixed mindset”) is bad for obvious reasons.  Too much (“I can be anything I want to be if I try hard enough!”) is also bad, for what I view as equally obvious reasons but some people actually don’t.  

Again, Dweck’s chapter about athletics is profoundly unconvincing… the more realistic viewpoint is that my parents were pretty smart to suggest that I should shoot for a professional career requiring brains rather than brawn.  Even if I’d devoted my whole life to becoming a better athlete, I probably just don’t have what it takes to make it to the NBA or NFL – the ex ante probability, which is already very small for most people, would be even tinier for me – whereas the ex ante probability of me making a good doctor/scientist/investor/etc (careers that take advantage of my natural ability to process abstract information) is much, much higher.

What Dweck (and others who glorify “grit”) miss is an understanding of opportunity costs: yes, effort makes us better, but some effort makes us more better than other effort (if you’ll excuse my near-butchering of the English language there).  We’ll return to this later with Dweck’s discussion of shyness.

Page 25: Continuing the trend of bouncing between vacuousness and brilliance, Dweck here notes a really important point about impostor syndrome: when feeling cowed by the gap between you and people who are really good at what you want to do, she reminds readers to use the word “yet” – they don’t know how to do XYZ, yet.  But they can learn!

Page 27: Again, Dweck’s use of the word “smart” is a bit vague… if we’re talking about g/IQ, then yes, a test when you’re young has pretty good correlation with a test when you’re old, and that is reasonably well-replicated.  But in the practical sense of being able to make good decisions or achieve success, no, that’s where agency and rationality come into play.

Page 30: Back to a good point: Dweck notes the psychological consequences of having a fixed mindset – you constantly require validation of how special you are.

I do think, though, that even people with a growth mindset need/want validation.  It’s just part of the human condition..

Page 35: A nice note here on gender dynamics and zero-sum games… cross-reference Stephen Covey’s mindset of abundance vs. scarcity.  You winning doesn’t have to mean me losing.

Page 38: A nice bit on feedback loops as it relates to depression and failure.

Page 41: Dweck cites Gladwell, who argues that we as a society value “natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort.”  I think that’s a broad, sweeping generalization: certainly, the popularity of the “grit” pablum and the big subculture of crossfit/ultramarathons/etc and Americans’ well-documented workaholism (we don’t take vacations and we’re sleep deprived) suggests that we do, in fact, value effort.  Indeed, Cal Newport’s screed against open offices in Deep Work (review + notes) as well as Till Roenneberg’s discussion of chronotypes in Internal Time (review + notes) both highlight this well: bosses tend to equate butt-in-chair presence as productivity, and view people who want to sleep in (or work from home) as lazy, even if they achieve great results.

Page 42: Back to brilliance: Dweck discusses how, paradoxically, a fixed mindset can lead people to failure because they’re afraid of trying: they can always blame their lack of effort rather than their lack of ability (whereas if they give it their all, and fail, that says something about them.)

Page 48: Oh, Dweck… you come so close to reality.  Dweck notes that “effort isn’t quite everything and that all effort is not created equal,” but she only really uses this line of thinking to account for people’s different circumstances or misfortunes in life, rather than people’s differing intrinsic abilities.

Egalitarianism ruins everything, man.  This could have been such a good book if it had focused on the mindset and left behind the egalitarianism.

Page 53: Dweck notes a similar sort of schema bottleneck here as, for example, Tetlock’s cited poker players: once they’re edited and published, books seem like they were effortless to write, but anyone who’s ever written anything long knows that they are anything but!  

Page 57: Research suggest that kids with growth mindsets increase their grades, while kids with fixed mindsets don’t.

Pages 62 – 64: Dweck acknowledges here that “there are children who seem to be born with heightened abilities and obsessive interests,” but it’s a very tepid endorsement, somewhat similar to Mukherjee’s in The Gene.

Dweck does, sensibly, cite some research on how poor educational environments can stunt students’ natural ability – fair enough.  But this is a straw man argument that doesn’t invalidate the idea that natural ability is real and meaningful.

Page 68: Dweck discusses how artistic ability can be dramatically improved through training.  This is certainly true, and the same goes for musical ability.

But again, it doesn’t extend infinitely.  Sam Kean discusses quite convincingly in The Violinist’s Thumb (review + notes), for example, how the eponymous violinist – Paganini – became pretty much the greatest of all time because of a genetic mutation that gave him profound flexibility (but also caused a lot of health problems).  

I don’t even bother dissecting Dweck’s profoundly unconvincing chapter about athletes, other to point out that she completely ignores survivorship bias and sample sizes and probabilism: yes, some short players make it to the NBA… but as coaches say, “you can’t coach size.”  Yes, all successful athletes practice a ton; that doesn’t mean that they don’t have adaptive traits to begin with.

Page 72: The most important (/redeeming) part of the book is the feedback-oriented part that discusses how to help others develop a growth mindset.  Dweck notes, here and elsewhere, that praising people for results rather than process, for traits rather than mindset, can have a counterproductive local vs. global optimization problem: it makes them feel good in the short term, but traps them in a fixed mindset over the long term.

Page 84: It’s ridiculous to point to examples of short athletes and come to the conclusion that “naturals” don’t exist.  That’s storytelling at its worst.

Here is data on average height of NBA players; here is an analysis of whether or not height is overvalued in the NBA.  It is certainly plausible to tell a story in which coaches somewhat overvalue height.  It is certainly difficult to tell a story in which people who are 5’6 have a great shot at making the NBA if they just try hard enough and adopt a growth mindset.

Page 99: Dweck returns to the idea of setbacks being “motivating” as opposed to discouraging for those with a growth mindset.

Page 101: Dweck here notes a focus on process.

Pages 109 – 110: Dweck dismisses the focus on talent and cites Jim Collins’ Good to Great here… I would point, with no commentary, to Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect (review + notes).

Pages 134 – 135: Dweck discusses groupthink (an example of social proof) here.  She cites, for example, the Bay of Pigs disaster.  I think Tetlock provides a much better dissection of this example and topic in Superforecasting.

Page 137: Continued discussion of praise here…

Page 138: … and some good empirical research on framing: tell people a skill is fixed, and they show less interest in (and capability of) learning about it.

Page 145: I think this is a reach: I seriously doubt that only fixed-mindset people have a desire for retribution.  It’s pretty basic human reciprocity bias.

Pages 146 – 148: The “good” point here is that if we have a growth mindset, we’re always treating failure as a lesson and looking for ways to improve.

Pages 155 – 156: Dweck here cites Aaron Beck and cognitive behavioral therapy.  Aaron’s daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, wrote an excellent (text)book called Cognitive Behavior Therapy that I think is far superior to Mindset.

Pages 163 – 165: here’s another bit that’s questionable.  It is absolutely true that a growth mindset can help people deal with shyness and social anxiety… but Dweck doesn’t really go into the counterfactual here: that introversion is a real thing and some people are probably better off not being salespeople.

One of the first investing friends I ever made, for example, is a wonderful guy who happens to be on the autism spectrum (he describes himself as having high-functioning Asperger’s).  He has worked really hard on the social angle and is enjoyable to be around – you would never know he had Asperger’s if he didn’t mention it – but at the same time, his career (being a value investor who sits and quietly reads) definitely is much more trait-adaptive than if, say, he’d decided to become a salesman.

Page 173: This is the part of the book that’s really worthwhile, in my opinion: Dweck notes that when we give feedback, we can often unintentionally drive home the idea of “you have permanent traits and I’m judging them” rather than “you are a developing person and I am interested in your development.”

Page 175, 177: Dweck’s research finds that praising intelligence can backfire… instead, we should praise process.

Pages 181 – 183: Further, shielding children from failure by assigning the blame elsewhere – or, conversely, making the mistake of communicating “you are a mistake” rather than “you made a mistake” – can be damaging.

Page 189: Here, Dweck describes a talented student who was optimizing for grades, not learning… I was one of those students.  The fixed mindset, Dweck claims, is the cause.

Page 191: At least Dweck gets one thing right: tiger parenting (“parents who cared more about talent, image, and labels than about the child’s long-term learning”) is destructive.  See also Kim Wong Keltner’s Tiger Babies Strike Back.

Pages 213 – 216: Dweck overviews some of the concepts from cognitive behavioral therapy, but not nearly as well as Dr. Judith Beck in Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Page 223: Training students in the growth mindset can result in development.  Dweck also briefly references memory here.

Page 228: As discussed in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as on page 72 of Nudge by Sunstein/Thaler (review + notes), having a specific, concrete plan reduces the activation energy of completing some desired behavior.

Pages 239 – 241: Dweck does, to her credit, note here in the context of her friend “Nathan” who takes the grit/dumb-macho-willpower approach to dieting (and predictably fails), that she “isn’t sure how [relying on willpower and failing] was being strong, and how using some simple strategies was being weak […] willpower needs help.”  She discusses habits vanishingly briefly on page 241.

She is right, but this is far too short a section for such an important concept, and most readers are likely to be left with a rah-rah grit mentality.

Pages 244 – 245: A nice summary of the mindsets and how they play out.


First Read: 2018

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no way


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018