Redefining Success: CEOs + NASA Know It’s Not What You Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How do you define success? Could redefining success help you become more successful?

In general, in the fixed mindset world, success is about proving to yourself and others that you’re smart and talented. It’s about validation. If you fail, it means you’re not smart or talented, therefore failure is intolerable. Failure is any type of setback: a  bad grade, losing a competition, not getting the job or promotion you want, being rejected. Effort is a negative — if you need it, that means you’re not smart. It’s this definition of success that you need to combat.

We’ll cover why commonly-held definitions of success are harmful and how you can redefine success to take more risks and win big.

Redefining Success

In the growth mindset world where you can change, success is about stretching yourself, learning, and improving. Failure is not seizing an opportunity to learn, not striving for what’s important to you, not reaching for your potential. Effort is a positive — it helps you get smarter and increase your abilities. If you don’t view effort as a positive, you need to redefine success.

Remember, mindsets are beliefs — although they’re powerful, you can change them.

Defining Success

When you start out in life, success is about learning. You’re born with a drive to learn. Babies learn and stretch themselves every day. They don’t worry about failing or quit. For instance, they don’t decide walking is too hard and give up or fear falling. They just keep trying.

As early as preschool age, however, children develop mindsets or beliefs about their ability. Fixed mindsets slow or shut down the intense drive to learn. Some children become fearful of not being seen as smart; they begin rejecting challenges. Others, with a growth mindset, embrace challenges and relish becoming smarter. Fixed mindset children become non-learners. People with a fixed mindset need to redefine success.

For instance, the author and her research team offered four-year-olds a choice of redoing an easy puzzle or trying a new, harder one. Children who believed in fixed traits wanted to redo the easy puzzle (the safe choice), while children with growth mindsets wondered why anyone would want to keep redoing the same thing when they could try something else. In other words, children with a fixed mindset wanted to make sure they succeeded, as they believed smart people always do, while those with a growth mindset wanted to get smarter.

Over time, people with fixed mindsets and growth mindsets come to view the nature of success differently.

  • Fixed-minded people avoid challenges because they want to feel smart and in control. In contrast, growth-minded people thrive on challenge and stretch themselves past their comfort zone.
  • Fixed-minded people care about perfection. To feel smart, they not only have to “get it” right away, they have to be perfect at it. In contrast, growth-minded people said they felt smart when they tried hard and made progress or were able to do something they couldn’t do before. Feeling smart was about learning.
  • Fixed-minded people expect to immediately perform at high levels, without the need to learn. They don’t allow themselves time to develop or become. As a result, they get frustrated by failure and give up early. In contrast, growth-minded people expect to need to put in lots of time and effort to get better at things, and are thus more resistant to failure.
  • Fixed-minded people prefer to be validated by others as capable, to be seen as geniuses. In contrast, growth-minded people aren’t afraid to acknowledge a need to learn through questioning and receiving critical feedback.

Here’s a range of examples about how fixed- and growth-minded people behave differently. They’re key to understanding the process of redefining success.

Redefining Success: College Classes

At the University of Hong Kong, everything is taught and learned in English, which means strong English skills are essential to a student’s academic success. Students have varying English skills when they arrive. Researchers measured incoming students’ mindsets, then asked those with poor English skills whether they would take a course to improve their English if it were offered. Fixed-mindset students weren’t interested, while growth-mindset students said “yes” enthusiastically. The fixed-mindset students were willing to risk their academic careers for the short-term value of seeming smart.

Another study measured the brainwaves of students of each mindset as they answered hard questions and got feedback. Their brainwaves showed their level of attention to and interest in the feedback. Fixed-mindset people paid attention to feedback on whether their answers were right or wrong (reflecting their ability), but weren’t interested in information that could help them learn — they weren’t even interested in learning the right answer when they got something wrong. In contrast, growth-minded people wanted to learn and paid attention to information that would help.

A last study observed pre-med students facing a difficult chemistry course. Researchers found that fixed-mindset students only stayed interested in the course if they did well immediately. Those who struggled with it at the outset lost interest — it didn’t validate their intelligence. In contrast, for growth-minded students, the challenging nature of the course drove their interest and motivated them.

Redefining Success: Fixed-Minded vs. Growth-Minded CEOs

Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca was successful at first in introducing new initiatives in the struggling company. But after his initial success, he lapsed into a fixed mindset of seeking validation rather than improvement. He kept bringing back the same models of cars each year, although consumers were rejecting them for more innovative Japanese models. He got rid of his critics and elevated people who fed his ego, which was a road to failure (more on his experience follows in Chapter 5).

Growth-minded CEOs aren’t afraid to acknowledge a need to learn through questioning and receiving critical feedback — as a result, they grow and their companies do too. For example, when Lou Gerstner was hired to turn IBM around, he ignored Wall Street and focused on the long term, although he was criticized for not immediately boosting stock prices.

Redefining Success: Sports

Sports offers numerous examples of growth-minded athletes who constantly stretched themselves. In fact, stretching, rather than winning, is what motivated them. This is redefining success.

For example, as a child, soccer player Mia Hamm pitted herself against older, more experienced players to improve her skills. At age ten, she joined the eleven-year-old boys’ team. She continued this approach in her college career, joining the top college team in the U.S. She tried to “play up” to the level of better players and as a result, she improved faster than she had thought possible.

Redefining Success: Relationships

Whether you choose validation or improvement can shape your relationships as well as your performance at work.

For instance, when asked to describe their ideal mate, fixed-mindset people wanted someone who would validate them — put them on a pedestal and make them feel perfect. Growth-minded people wanted a mate who could see their flaws and help them improve, and encourage them to try new things. 

Redefining Success and Your Potential to Grow

One reason people with a fixed mindset feel they have to be perfect is that they see every test or evaluation as a permanent measure of their ability. Redefining success is crucial for overcoming this mental roadblock.

For example, in a study of fifth graders, researchers told them that a certain test could measure their ability. Although the researchers provided no other information about the test, the fixed-mindset students concluded that it could not only measure how smart they were, but it could also measure how smart they’d be as adults, essentially defining them forever. Growth-minded students didn’t believe a test could measure how smart they were, nor did they believe it could predict how smart they’d be in the future because their intelligence was always growing.

Fixed-mindset educators do in fact believe you can measure someone’s ability and determine their potential. But those who’ve tried to do that have been wrong repeatedly. Examples of people who were told they lacked potential include Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, and Jackson Pollock.

By definition, you can’t predict potential, if it’s understood as the capacity to develop over time with effort and training. It’s impossible to be certain of how far anyone can go with effort and training. For example, many of artist Paul Cezanne’s early paintings were terrible. He needed time and effort to develop.

Ability to grow may be a more important indicator for future achievement than current success. This is why you need to redefine success:

  • When NASA solicited applications for astronauts, it looked for people who came back and learned from failures, rather than those with a string of successes. 
  • As CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch chose executives based on their capacity to develop.
  • Famed ballet teacher Marina Semyonova chose to work with students who took criticism as motivation to improve.

Redefining success takes work, but over time, the benefits of defining success as a learning rather than mastery will outweigh the initial struggle.

Redefining Success: CEOs + NASA Know It’s Not What You Think

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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