Have you ever procrastinated doing research about that new security feature in Kubernetes, beating yourself up for being lazy the entire time?
Have you ever delayed opening a PR, fearing that your code wasn’t good enough to pass the code review?
Have you ever said “I’m just not good at… math / coding / public speaking / networking…” and given up on a goal?
If so, this talk is for you. We will discuss what a “growth mindset” is and how it could turn around a huge 45-year-old enterprise like Microsoft.
We will walk through the steps and pitfalls of the journey from a lifetime of “fixed mindset” to “growth mindset” based on my personal experience, and the experience of the entire organization, and what steps you could take to get there.
Hi, everyone. It’s a pleasure to meet you today. I’m here to talk about mindset. And I know the name is a little bit ambiguous, we are going to define exactly what this conversation is about. But first, let me introduce myself. So I’m Sasha Rosenbaum, I’ve been in the tech industry coming up on 16 years, and I’ve had various jobs in development and operations, product management, technical sales and all sorts of things. And I generally can be found on Twitter @DivineOps I post a lot of tech hot takes, and I post a lot of cat GIFs.
But what I want to talk about today is not a technical topic, it’s actually something that is very near and dear to my heart and I just want us to be able to discuss it more often because I think folks don’t know about this topic, and it could be really helpful to them.
So before I jump into presentation, I actually want to ask you a question. And I know I can’t see you right now but just think about this question for a second. So, you can learn new things but you can’t really change how intelligent you are. From 0 to 100%, how much do you agree with this statement? Just think about it for one second. All right. So now I have a second question for you and it is who said this quote?
It’s a long quote so I’m going to read it to you. A few modern philosophers assert that an individual’s intelligent is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism…
With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before. So if you had to guess who actually said these words, who would it be? Alright, let’s move on and talk about definitions. So what is this talk about?
This talk is actually kind of a play on this book by Carol Dweck, which I think changed my life, and I think it changed a lot of lives too. And the book is really about the fact that there are two different kinds of mindsets, two different kinds of approaches that we take to generally all the things in life. So, there’s fixed mindset, which means that you believe the statement “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.” And then there’s a growth mindset and that says, “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.” Okay? So one believes that all of your ability is inborn and the other one believes that you can always develop the ability. And there is a scale, right?
You’re not 100% in a fixed mindset or growth mindset, you’re usually somewhere in between, and some people lean towards one or the other, but no one is 100% on one side or the other. And then there’s also different mindsets pertaining to different areas of life. So intelligence, physical ability, creative ability, and personality can all have different mindsets. So for instance, you could believe that you can change your intelligence or learning, but for instance, that you couldn’t increase your creative ability because that is inborn talent, right? So you could have different mindsets in regards to different things.
Now, I want to come back to the quote and say who actually said that, and that was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test. And the reason I bring this up is because the IQ test has been kind of a tool to measure and classify people and actually label them with how intelligent they are and not just that, but also how intelligent are they expected to be for the rest of their lives, right?
We kind of test people for IQ when they’re like, I don’t know, 5 or 15 years old and then we tell them, this is where they’re going to be for the rest of their life. And that is just not the intention of the test inventor he actually wanted to see, to measure progress, really, in the ability of people to actually learn and do better at these tasks. So why is mindset important? Why is it important to me to talk to you at a tech conference about mindsets?
Well, if you take nothing else away from this talk, I want to take away this. Adopting a growth mindset will make you a happier human. Okay? It is largely about learning, and it’s largely about performance and the ability to accomplish things, but also, it will simply make you happier. So let’s talk about why. So I’ll start with chapter one, school. And now, there’s lots of stories and studies in a book but I’ll tell you a personal story, because I can relate to it so much. And so this is a real picture of me as a kid, I really liked books, I lived in books, I liked studying, I studied all the possible subjects that were offered to me, and I just kind of generally enjoyed it.
Then, at some point, I enrolled in university that was in Israel, and that was an Israeli institute of technology called Technion, it’s a really good school. Now I originally enrolled in biology, and then I discovered that I did not like dissecting frogs, and grow yeast. And so I transferred to computer science.
Now, transferring to computer science was actually a really great idea because I really, really enjoyed writing code, and doing the projects and learning the things. But there was another thing that happened, and that was that my grade average went from 94, and we measure it out of a 100, right?
To 68 on my first semester of computer science, and I was not not happy about that. So like this was approximately my face when I got my first grades. And the truth was that I didn’t study all that much, right? And I just, you know, kind of showed up to exams and expected to excel. And that just wasn’t what happened, right?
Now, you could expect it to be hard. So like to place it because people in America don’t know this school, computer science in the years that I went to school there or around it, was in the top 20 in the world, right?
That school was in the top 20 in the world, so you could expect that you would compete with the best of the best and you could, you know, expect to work hard for your grades, right? So what I decided was that, like, obviously, I needed to study harder, right? So I could get better grades. Problem is now studying actually wasn’t fun. So I went from really enjoying, you know, my time with the books to actually feeling like the books hate me. And that like really, really sucked. So I just kind of, you know, gave up on it and then I went partying instead. And the thing is, like, this picture is here, actually, not just because I partied but also because at one point, I watched on all of the seasons of Sex in the City instead of studying for an exam and I promise you, I didn’t like that show that much.
I just needed, you know, some excuse to not be studying. So this is actually a classic fixed mindset, right? That’s exactly how it plays out. But the problem is that people don’t know what fixed mindset is so people don’t tell you that you have fixed mindset, what people actually tell you is that you’re lazy. And interestingly enough, not just other people tell you that you’re lazy, but also you tell yourself that you’re lazy. So I like cats. Like I mentioned, I have lots of cat videos and Twitter.
Cats can sleep, like anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day. Like generally what they do in life is lounge, right? And especially if you feed them and they don’t have to hunt for themselves. But I have a surprising truth. You’re actually not a cat. Right? Just… you’re not.
The thing is, if I left you alone for 20 minutes and told you to do nothing, not look at your phone, not look at the TV, you know, you actually would get immediately bored, and then you would want to do something. And that something many times would be creating new things, right? Because humans are just inherently creative, inherently interested in learning, right? We just actually natively gravitate towards that. So are you lazy? I don’t think so. There’s another book, it’s really old, but it’s really good if you struggle with procrastination. So the choice is not working or not working, but which type of work; even feeling guilty because of procrastinating takes some effort. Right? Or as Dinoman says it: You’re lazy. No, constantly stressing about all the things that I’m putting off actually takes quite a bit of work. So if humans are not lazy, then what is happening?
Why are you actually procrastinating, avoiding work and doing something else instead of doing the work that you want to do or are supposed to do? So in some cases, maybe you’re just not interested in the work. Sometimes. It just happens. You have to do something and it’s extremely boring to you, right?
But in other cases, in many cases, what happens is that you’re probably scared. Right? But what is it that you’re actually scared of? Are you scared of the exam? Or of the project? Or of the delivery? Or of that presentation that you had to give to your VP? Actually, the answer is no. You’re not scared of the results of the outcome, you’re scared of the effort.
Now, that makes no sense. Why would you be scared of the effort? Because in fixed mindset, effort is a bad thing. Effort, like failure means that you’re not smart, or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. And this is exactly how my mind worked back then.
I looked at the book for 10 minutes and if I didn’t understand that calculus theorem that I was looking at, then I gave up because I just couldn’t process it, because I expected myself to excel, not just to excel, but to excel immediately, right? If I were good at it, I would succeed immediately. Other people who are succeeding must be good immediately. So this kind of left me no choice, right?
I could only either succeed immediately, or I would feel like a failure. And that’s like a really bad place to be, right? So I’ll bring the Dinoman back. This comic says: I failed. It doesn’t matter as long as you tried your best. Oh, I didn’t do that either. Now, this comic is funny, because it’s a legitimate coping strategy. Not doing your best gives you an excuse for failing. And lots of people do that all the time. Right? Instead of having to say, I did my best, I invested all of me I tried really, really hard and then I didn’t do well. You say, oh, if only I studied, if only I worked for this project, if only I invested in this work effort, I would have succeeded. But I didn’t. And that’s why I failed. Right? So that’s an excuse. And again, a coping strategy. So I wish someone told me this 10-15 years ago, right? But no one did. So I’m telling this to you right now. So hopefully, this will help you. So the point I want to make is, are people with fixed mindset doomed?
The thing is, they’re not, you can still succeed in really hard things, right? You can still accomplish really, really difficult things.
Also, people sometimes just give up because it’s really hard, right? But the truth is that in your head, there is a voice that is constantly beating you up, you have that negative self talk, and it’s constantly just telling you, you’re not good enough, you’re stupid, you’re not talented, if you were good, you would be so much better at it, you wouldn’t need to invest so much effort, right? And you have to fight it every day. So instead of focusing on a project that you’re working on, you’re actually focusing on combating that internal person that is putting you down. And so adopting you growth mindset will make you a happier human.
Now, I want to go through something else really quickly and that’s a side note, because probably by now, you have a question. And it’s like, isn’t there talent? And the truth is like, yes, there’s talent, of course, right? I probably wouldn’t make a good basketball player. Like, that’s just the way the world works, right? But talent only carries you so far.
You have some inborn abilities, you’re predisposed to excel at some things and suck at others? Yes. But on the large scale, there’s a lot of things which you can excel at with practice. And then there’s also a lot of things. Basically, you will always step out of talent, right? The best performance in the world are performers who actually practice a whole lot, right?
If you think of Michael Jordan, we tell stories about how Michael Jordan was so excellent and talented from the get go, but he actually didn’t make it to the basketball varsity team in his high school. But when he realized that he worked really hard, and that’s what happened. But that’s the story we tell right? And that’s kind of a problem. So there is a 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers. And it actually comes from research from a Professor called Anders Ericsson. And he actually wrote a book later, that’s called Peak that actually goes into details, but the most important part of this, so yes, there’s such a thing as excelling with practice, but it is deliberate practice. So you can do something for many, many hours and not get any better.
But as long as you get feedback, quality feedback, and as close to your performance as possible, you actually get better over time. And then there’s also a concept of kind versus wicked learning domains. So in kind domains, it’s easy to learn because you get accurate feedback. And in wicked domains, it is hard to learn. So an example I would give you is in music, if you screw up, you can immediately hear your mistake, right? And so you immediately learn from the feedback, right?
But if you’re a doctor, and you gave someone a prescription for a pill and they didn’t come back in a year, that doesn’t mean that the pill worked, right? Maybe the pill worked, maybe they didn’t like you, maybe they didn’t even take a pill, maybe they’re dead, maybe they found another doctor, right? So in that sense, it’s a wicked domain, you have no feedback. And that means you will keep prescribing the same pill, even if it didn’t work, because you just don’t know that it didn’t. So on a personal note, I actually just think that believing that you’re forever defined by your inborn abilities is just really sad because you can go nowhere from there, right?
I’m fully defined by by everything I was born with, and I can’t improve. That’s a very, very sad statement. So adopting a growth mindset will make you a happier human. So let’s go to work now, chapter two, right? So there’s such a thing as CEO disease, right? And it’s creating a negative feedback vacuum. So CEOs are notorious for doing this, they just only want to hear good news and then they will basically surround themselves with people who bring them only good news. And they basically just, you know, get rid of the people who tell them the truth.
Now, that’s not only CEOs, it’s just the CEOs have the power to basically, you know, get rid of anybody who doesn’t play the game. But it can happen even to individual contributors. And that’s also very fixed mindset, you must continuously get confirmation that you’re great. And if anybody tells you otherwise, you have to dismiss the feedback, you have to walk away, you have to label them as wrong, and so on and so forth. So one example of this would be Enron, right? So Enron ran on fumes and convincing everybody about how smart they were for a large number of years.
But eventually, reality catches up with you. Right? You cannot just ignore bad news for the rest of eternity, because eventually, your performance is just going to suffer because you’re not ready for feedback. So, I really find Satya Nadella very inspiring. So he was the person who actually brought the concept of growth mindset to Microsoft.
Before I met Satya Nadella, I actually thought CEOs were overrated, but I now think that they can make a huge difference and so basically, he says here that, you know, you should be passionate and bold, and always keep learning. You stop doing useful things if you don’t learn. And there is another quote on from a book called The Inevitable. In this era of becoming, everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will all be newbies forever. And that is so true, especially in the technology industry, everything moves so fast, right? You just learn mezzos. And now mezzos is completely gone, right?
You just learned a new language or concept and now everything is new. So you know… So instead, everything in tech is either in beta or retired. It’s very true. So we must learn every day. Right? That’s a reality, we can no longer be cushy in the same job for many years and just, you know, perform on what we know. And our businesses must learn every day.
Every day we’re in danger of being disrupted. And the problem with that is that smart people don’t learn because they have too much invested in proving what they know and avoiding being seen as not knowing. This is another great guy, Chris Argyris. And his writing is really, really nice. Because learning requires vulnerability, right?
If you are starting a new thing, you by definition, aren’t graded. That’s how it works. Every now and again, you’ll happen upon something that you just kind of can learn immediately in a few hours but most of the time, you have to suck at it before you get better. And that’s an uncomfortable feeling. And we all have to get better with this uncomfortable feeling. So, the problem with fixed mindset is it gives you no tools to cope with failure. Right? The moment you don’t succeed, you have nowhere to go from there because you were defined by your inborn abilities, which means that you cannot modify that, which means all you can do is feel bad about yourself. Right? So in the worst case, you just give up and in the best case you’ll struggle.
In growth mindset, failure doesn’t define you.
In growth mindset failure is an opportunity to improve. So there’s lots of studies in the book which I would love to go into, but I don’t have time for that. But the big idea is that people with growth mindset actually enjoy learning and even learning through failure.
Coping with our challenges is actually enjoyable if you have growth mindset. So, like I said, there’s a lot of other things I would love to tell you, but I don’t have all the time in the world. So let’s get to chapter three, which is how do we get there? So first of all, cognitive learning is important.
I just told you potentially for the first time in your life about growth mindset, right? And that is already going to make a difference. Just having that reference in your head is extremely important, because you can then navigate and notice it, right?
But cognitive learning is only the first step here, right?
It’s an IQ skill that requires practice, or in other words, if knowledge was all it took, we’d all have six pack abs. So let’s talk a little bit about steps that you can take to get there. So first of all, I really highly recommend to read the book, because there’s so much that I cannot go into in this short talk. And the book is really, really amazing, and I get no royalties for it whatsoever. So seriously, it’s worth it.
You will not regret the few hours that you spend reading it. Now, there’s also studies in the book that go into this, I will just briefly mention it. One of the ways we develop on fixed mindset is we praise ability, we tell people, oh, you did so well, you must be smart. Right? We do it all the time, we do it to kids, we do it to ourselves, we do it to our coworkers. And the good way to do this is to praise effort, not ability. And again, there’s studies in the book about how that praise immediately influences you. Right? just telling people that they’re smart, sets them off for failure in the future because once they run across a hard task, they actually start self labeling as not smart enough, right?
But if you tell them, you did so well, you must have worked really hard at it, then they’re set up for success. And then next time they approach the task with a growth mindset. And again, this is important to do to yourself as well. Right? Notice your self talk. So generally notice your fixed mindset triggers, right? Whatever sets you off and think about it, right? Maybe you feel like an imposter when you face new challenges. Or maybe the moment you are not the best you give up, that happened to me a lot. Or maybe you see someone more accomplished and you immediately go to like, oh, I wish I was as good as them. It’s just the triggers. And then you can also kind of educate your fixed mindset persona and there’s legit advice in psychology of creating a separate persona for negative self talk.
But in any case, just kind of talk yourself through combating that fixed mindset and talk yourself through being like, no, it’s not that I’m not smart enough. It’s just that I only spent two hours trying to learn this and I need a lot more time. And then practice, I mean, practice the growth mindset, like it is a skill that needs to be practiced. So like, as long as you continue doing it, you will get better and better at it. And in general, what I want to say is just like, why waste your energy constantly trying to prove yourself, right? Constantly taking every situation as a test and worrying about what people think about you, and so on and so forth, when instead you could be improving yourself, and also having fun while doing it, right? Because it’s actually amazing, you could enjoy your experience of learning new things, which is something you get paid to do every single day.
Imagine that, wouldn’t that be awesome? So I just want to reiterate this for the last time because I really want you take this with you. Adopting a growth mindset will make you a happier human being. And it’s definitely going to be worth the effort to just explore this idea a little bit further. And it’s going to help I’ll help you cope potentially with imposter syndrome.
It can potentially help and again, I… There’s studies in the book about… so if we talk about negative stereotyping against, say, women or racial minorities and stuff like that, there’s studies in the book showing that people with growth mindset actually are not impacted by stereotyping as much because they don’t buy into the labels.
They don’t believe that who they are, right? Like being born a woman or something like that, basically defines what kind of performance you can have, right?
And that protects you in this environment from the negative impact of stereotypes. So anyway, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you listening to me. You can find me on Twitter @DivineOps.
I’m happy to talk about this.
This topic is near and dear to my heart.
So I hope that you learned something new today and I hope it’s going to be helpful to you in the future.
Thank you so very much.