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Thomas Edison erred 1,500 times before he found the filament that became the first light bulb. Imagine if he'd given up early — a dark thought, indeed.

November 20, 2010

Decades of research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, has shed light on why some people persist in the face of apparent failure while others throw in the towel (or filament, as the case may be).

In her landmark studies of school-age children, Dr. Dweck demonstrated that youth's mindsets about their abilities profoundly shape their motivation (and behavior). Kids with a fixed mindset believe that they have an innate, fixed amount of talent or intelligence, and that effort doesn't much matter; success just comes naturally. They tend to avoid challenges and fear making mistakes because they don't want to jeopardize their "fixed" status in people's eyes.

In contrast, children with a growth mindset view ability — talents and intelligence — as something they can develop and enhance through effort. They tend to enjoy learning, aren't afraid of making mistakes, and are willing to work hard to reach their goals. Moreover, they feel satisfied by their accomplishments and cope better with setbacks.

You can foster a growth mindset in your children. Here's how:

  • Praise effort a lot more than you praise the fact of talent or intelligence. ("I'm impressed with how hard you're working on that science project," rather than "You're so smart!" Or "After all that practice, your guitar piece sounds beautiful" rather than "You're so talented!")
  • Welcome your kids' mistakes. Retool you own thinking so that you come to appreciate that messing up leads to growing up. Point out to your children the mistakes you make, and tell stories of how you goofed up as a child — and how it made you smarter and more capable.
  • When possible, find the humor in errors, and encourage good-natured laughter when you, and others in the family, make the sort of mistakes that can be chuckled about.