Carol Dweck, "Mindsets", Impostor Syndrome, Praise, and Early-Career Blues
The following concept has literally changed my life and rescued my career. I know for a fact that a lot of people starting out in their engineering careers, on their first jobs as engineers, have to deal with these problems and issues. And I deal with them in other areas of my life too, even in areas like cooking and public speaking.
I am writing about it and posting it here in the hopes that people encountering this problem will find this page during their Googling. I realize that this is not much, and that not a whole lot of people will ever see this, realistically. But itís such an important and powerful idea that I feel like I should do what I can to spread it.
The following ideas have been developed by Carol Dweck during her work as a psychology researcher at Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. I am doing my best to summarize what she has published.
The basic idea, in summary:
A lot of folks feel that people's abilities are primarily based on innate talent: some people are "smart", some people are "bad at math", some people are "good with languages", etc.
A lot of other folks feel that people's abilities are primarily based on experience and practice: athletes are obviously good at what they do because they spend a lot of time working out, musicians spend a lot of time practicing... and techie people are good at math because they've spent a lot of time playing with it, people who are good with languages just got a head-start thinking about language when they were little kids, etc, and anyone could become quite good (maybe not world-class, but definitely "not bad") at anything just by putting in a lot of practice.
These are the two "mindsets": The "fixed" mindset feels that talent is innate, while the "growth" mindset feels that the brain is like a muscle and that its capabilities come from practice and experience and perseverence.
Kids who do better-than-average at school are often told they are "smart", "talented", "gifted", etc. They are congratulated not for working hard, not for persevering through problems, but for "being good at" stuff. This makes it easy for them to end up seeing their classmates as intellectually inferior, and to end up seeing this as an inherent characteristic (like height) rather than just due to lack of practice (like weight, or aerobic endurance). Underperforming kids might also fall into this mindset where they see themselves as inherently stupid, less capable, "bad at math", etc. In short, a lot of students fall into this mindset where they see intellectual abiliy as inherent. They internalize this mindset, and it keeps being confirmed through years of schooling.
If you have "caught" this mindset, it will cause some serious problems. When you encounter challenging problems and make mistakes, you will see your mistakes as revealing "I am not as smart as I thought" rather than "I need to put more work into this". So you'll experience discomfort when you try to do work about a topic that you don't quite "get" yet. You may shy away from challenges where failure would "expose" your "inferiority", challenges that require working in an area that you have not yet mastered. You may experience problems like impostor syndrome.
All these things make it much harder to learn, to grow, to expand your capabilities. Not to mention, itís just depressing.
For example, let's say that you feel that people who understand things right away are "smart", and that people who need things explained to them multiple times are "stupid". Or let's say that you donít even feel this way, but you think that most people feel this way (including people you need to impress, like your boss, or some expert in your field). This means that, if someone explains something to you and you miss part of the explanation, then you fill feel that saying "I didn't understand one part of what you said" will make you appear to be stupid in their eyes. You will feel anxious about revealing that you don't know something, if there is any expectation that you should know it (whether or not the expectation is reasonable). This anxiety will make it much harder to learn new things. Picking up a new skill from a more experienced person nearly always involves you saying something like "Apparently you believe that I know what [blah] is, but I don't. I'm afraid you're going to have to explain that to me". If doing so makes you cringe, then youíre going to have a bad time.
On the other hand, those folks who realize they can conquer anything through hard work, those folks for whom "it has never been easy", just plow through as usual and ask what they have to ask, learn what they have to learn, and practice it until they're pretty good at it. They realize that nobody was born knowing all these concepts, that we all learned them at some point. They realize that an expert easily loses sight of the fact that the vast majority of people are not familiar with concepts that he takes for granted. They know that saying "Please explain that concept to me" does not make you look stupid: It makes you look curious, eager to learn. It may be impressive to look like you know something, but it's even more impressive to not know something one day, learn it the next day, and apply it the day after that. So thatís what they try to do, knowing that along the way there will be failures and "stupid" questions... and that those are a small price to pay.
There are also neuroscience studies that have observed the difference as different spikes of activity detected during brain scans; i.e. brains where mistakes feel discouraging versus brains where mistakes are an invitation for harder work. Years after Carol Dweck's work hit the mainstream, you can still see how smart people in prominent places get very excited by her enlightening insight when they discover it, and then work hard to try and spread the word, all over the world.
How peopleís actions & attitudes differ, depending on which mindset they have:
What are the key differences between the "fixed" mindset (Talent is innate) and the "growth" mindset (The brain is like a muscle) when it comes to peopleís behavior? This infographic, from the Stanford Magazine article about Carol Dweck, is a really straightforward way to see how peopleís attitudes and actions differ as a function of whether they think talent is mostly innate or mostly due to effort/experience.
Dan Pink is also a big fan of this model. He made a handy comparison between the two mindsets in terms of the attitudes of people who have one mindset versus the other. Hereís what he said:
Fixed mindset: Look clever at all costs. ("The main thing I want when I do my school work is to show how good I am at it.")
Growth mindset: Learn, learn, learn. ("It is much more important for me to learn things in my classes than it is to get the best grades.")
Fixed mindset: It should come naturally. ("To tell you the truth, when I work hard at my school work it makes me fee like Iím not very smart.")
Growth mindset: Work hard, effort is key. ("The harder you work at something, the better youíll be at it.")
Fixed mindset: Hide your mistakes and conceal your deficiencies. (After a disappointing exam score, "Iíd spend less time on this subject from now on. Iíd try not to take this subject ever again, and I would try to cheat on the next test.")
Growth mindset: Capitalize on your mistakes and confront your deficiencies. (After a disappointing exam score, "Iíd work harder in this class and spend more time studying for the tests.")
I thought that was a really good way to capture it.
The lessons that can be taken away from this:
- Failure is useful data. There is no "good" or "bad", there is just what happened, and whether expectations were realistic. Ask any scientist, engineer, or programmer. When youíre doing something new (i.e. when youíre learning, growing, challenging yourself), itís very rare that something will work the first time. Failure teaches what you need to succeed (or to fail less) next time. Good decisions come from good judgment, good judgment comes from bad decisions. Successful people benefit from long lists of screw-ups.
- Don't be embarrassed to ask questions, to "reveal" that you don't know something, to "look stupid", to take on projects with a high risk of failure. That's how people learn, and everyone had to learn at some point. You donít have to get things right the first time (or the second time).
- If someone is explaining something to you, and it sounds like they expect that you are familiar with a certain concept, but youíre not... Thatís not your fault, and not something to hide. An expert often forgets that most people are unfamiliar with concepts that he takes for granted, he just assumes that people know it (and among his colleagues, he is often right). Itís no failure on your part if it just so happens that the expertís assumption was incorrect. [Note: I use "he" for linguistic convenience, and realize that experts are just as often female].
- Experts love to explain things they know a lot about. They find those things interesting. Ask them a question about their field of interest and they will probably love to sit you down and share their insights and lessons-learned and perspectives. When you ask, youíre not revealing that youíre "less" than them. Youíre revealing that you are on the path to being an expert.
- You can learn anything if you set your mind to it. But yes, given your past experience and the things you already know about, some things will be easier to learn than others. In any case: Say what you will (1, 2, 3) about Malcolm Gladwell's oversimplifications, but the idea of "10,000 hours" has at least a little bit of truth to it. Do anything enough times (in a way where you have some feedback) and you will become good at it.
- Teachers, parents, bosses, and coaches: Do not praise "talent", do not say "You're smart!" or "You're so good at this". Praise effort, persistence, learning from failure, and asking the right questions. Donít talk harshly about people who exhibit less ability; Remember that the brain is a muscle, that its capabilities grow with exercise. (If you tell kids that capability comes from perseverence, this has been shown to help kids become less frustrated at challenges and even do better in tests). Itís hard to not praise success, because success is exciting. But success is far from the only valuable part of the journey. Every step is a good one, and any long-term challenge becomes easier when the hard work along the way is valued, not just the ultimate goal. Playing a concert or running a marathon or flying an airplane is exciting and praiseworthy... but even more worthy of pride (and praise) are the months of perseverance that got you there.
How did I come to care so much about this?
Well, had I not learned all this stuff for another couple years, I probably would have quit my first job as an engineer and never tried engineering again. (I would be much less happy if I had quit engineering in frustrated resignation).
And in school, a lot of very difficult times - and bad grades - would have been avoided if I had realized all this stuff a few years earlier.
So, the earlier, the better.
Ok. Where do I start?
I always had a pretty easy time at school. Especially in math and science classes. As soon as the teacher explained something, I pretty much understood it. If it wasnít 100% clear, then a quick look at the book or walking through one example would be enough to make me feel good about the material, and to allow me to start asking the questions that would be addressed in the next chapter. Subjects like English and History required a little more effort (because in the humanities I had to memorize arbitrary and isolated facts, rather than just integrate logical and evidently-optimal models into my growing networked model of how the universe works), but even in the humanities I still ended up getting better grades than most of the other kids.
I was told that I was "smart", meaning I had an innate talent for learning. While this model seemed true, it would later turn out to be less-than-optimally useful.
In college, things got a little harder. Some stuff made sense right away, but some of it didn’t. Sometimes even the book didn’t make it clear, and sometimes even walking through an example did not reveal what the variables meant or what relationship was captured/modeled by an equation. Structures and thermodynamics continued to make sense, programming and electronics and heat transfer made sense if I worked enough examples, but dynamics and vibration were always just beyond my full grasp. Most of the time I could solve the problems by looking at them as purely math: if I know these variables and I want to find these other variables, and I know these equations, then just do some algebra and a pinch of calculus and that should do it. Of course, this doesn’t work all the time, since things like boundary conditions can sometimes only be obtained if you have a common-sense understanding of the physical problem (“this is attached to that in such-and-such a way, so the gradient at this spot has to be zero”). Besides which, learning a system in engineering means understanding what the parameters mean, not just being able to solve equations. So to be honest I never really learned dynamics (other than the two-dimensional steady-acceleration Mechanics stuff you learn in high school about projectiles, satellite orbits, pulleys and gears and levers, conservation of momentum during collisions and explosions, things sliding/rolling downhill... all problems that can be solved by τ=Iα=rF and Fi=mai and x=x0+vΔt+½at² and mgh=½mv²) or vibrations; I just passed the tests by juggling the math until things started cancelling themselves out and something with the right units popped out.
And this is a real shame. I went to a terrific university, I was surrounded by some of the smartest people on the planet, and they would have been more than happy to explain this stuff to me – to help me build an intuitive understanding of these systems – if I had just asked.
But that’s the problem. I almost never asked. During one class, they would say something and I would not be 100% clear on what it means. I would think “Well, it will probably make sense after an example, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll read the book chapter tonight”, but even after that it still didn’t really make sense… and by then the class was moving on to the next topic, and this thing that I did not understand was now a building block of the next thing, so it was assumed that everyone understood it. I didn’t want to halt the progress of the course by raising my hand and saying “Hang on, I still don’t understand what that means”. I’d be lying if I said that this was purely out of consideration for my professor/TA and fellow students; It was mainly out of embarrassment, out of the butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling I got when I contemplated being “that kid” who asks a question that everyone knows the answer to already, a question that reveals that my understanding of this system is very far from where it should be, very far from the level of understanding that everyone else has by now. So I kept my mouth shut. And I didn’t go to office hours, and somehow managed to justify this to myself; I could solve most of the problems just by doing math, after all, and the things I didn’t understand would probably become clearer later. But the opposite happened: The more things were built on the concepts I didn’t understand, the less I understood those things, and the more emotionally painful it was to contemplate revealing that I am waaay behind.
It’s a really terrible feeling, to have someone saying things to you in a way that clearly assumes that you know certain things, speaking in a way that assumes that you can use that knowledge to reach new insights, while in reality you don’t know the meaning of the most crucial words they’re using, so when they derive a really interesting insight, you share none of that excitement… but you can’t reveal any of this, you have to nod or risk looking like a total idiot, and know that you ARE an idiot whether or not you say anything, because evidently everyone else is understanding the material just fine.
I started associating dynamics and vibrations with that awful feeling: Feeling stupid and embarrassed and unable to do anything about it, resigned to not understanding the material nearly as well as most people, certain to look disappointingly stupid whenever I was asked to discuss anything about it, barely passing the classes by sheer mathematical brute-force guessing. By my senior year, I was so uncomfortable and frustrated with this material that I needed to re-take the last vibrations class. I didn’t fail it only because I “came out” to the professor about how behind I was, and he was kind enough to let me take an incomplete and then take the class again the next time it was offered.
(I had never understood why some people feel “math phobia” / “math anxiety”. Even today I don’t really appreciate what it means for so many people to feel uncomfortable with, say, algebra. But I think I’m now at least vaguely acquainted with this kind of experience).
A couple years later, I was hired into Boeing at El Segundo. Two things about my new-hire experience, which are very typical of new hires all over Boeing, caused me the same kinds of problems that I had with my dynamics and vibrations classes.
First thing: While learning about the systems I’d be testing, I was told to read some manuals that explain each detail of how those systems work. The problem is that the manuals are designed for someone who already has a pretty good idea of how those systems work, a big-picture understanding of what each part is generally for, and who just needs to look up a little detail. For someone who doesn’t know what each part of the system aims to accomplish, who doesn’t know WHY this processor talks with that actuator, the manuals are an endless maze. Trying to learn those systems by reading the manuals, with zero experience, would be like trying to learn photography by reading the manual to an SLR when you don’t have the faintest idea of how a camera works. “Ok, apparently there is something called ‘ISO’, and I can make it go up or down by pressing this button, but what does it MEAN, and why should I care?”. I came in expecting some materials designed for the convenience of a new learner – like textbooks or Wikipedia pages – but found no such materials. Everything was explained in a way that assumed you already knew everything else except the thing being explained. There was no “Ok, let’s take a few steps back. What are trying to accomplish here? How have we broken that objective down into parts? How do we know it’s working?”.
And that segways nicely into the second thing: When people talked to me, they used words I was unfamiliar with, but their tone implied (to my ears) that I should be familiar with them. They assumed that I knew things that I didn’t know. It wasn’t clear to me what questions I should even be asking. Where do I even start, when each sentence contains five nouns that are mysterious acronyms? For all intents and purposes, I had to learn a new language, but with no phrasebook, just a dictionary that defines each word in that language in terms of other words in that language.
That, by itself would not be such a huge deal. Every new hire at every company must go through this process. (Well, some companies do actually spend time just training new-hires, and some companies probably have Wikipedia-like resources that make that learning process much faster. But, it seems to me, most people learn through On-The-Job training, since documenting these things takes time and money that could go towards more immediately-productive ends).
The real problem, for me, was that I felt embarrassed at the thought of looking like I knew less than what people apparently expected me to know. If someone answers my question by describing the function of a component using three acronyms, then evidently this person expects me to know what those three acronyms mean. (I guess I expect this because, in my previous experiences of learning things, people only explained things in terms of previously-explained things). So if I asked what those acronyms meant, I felt like I would look like an idiot, and disappoint the person who was talking to me, since the fact that they used the acronyms implied to me “You should know this by now”. I remember growing up and being frustrated at people who had something explained to them in class (or in whatever setting) and later asked about it as though it had never been mentioned. I hated the thought of being that person. So when my managers or technical experts explained something to me, I just nodded. They thought that their explanation was enough for me to understand how something works. The fact that it wasn’t enough must be my fault, not theirs. Or so I thought. I mean, they must know enough about the system and about my job so that when they give me information, it is sufficient for my needs, right? Well, actually, as it turns out, the information that I should be given for my needs is a function of how much I knew coming in, and the experts were only making a rough guess about how much I knew coming in, and they had no way of refining their guess if I just kept nodding instead of letting them know that my experience with control systems was slim-to-none.
Bottom line: I thought that failing to meet their expectations of my level of knowledge was the worst I could do. Even worse than performing poorly at my job due to my ignorance. I thought that it was not ok to correct people's guesses/expectations about how much/how little I knew when I came in (but in retrospect, that is what I should have done).
All my life, I had been told that I was smart, that I learn fast, that I pick things up really quick. Now it was looking like this wasn’t true, and I didn’t want people to find out! And all my life, I had been told that I would make a great engineer, that I am good at learning and doing the kinds of things that engineers learn and do. A continuous series of people and educational assessments had been telling me to become an engineer, and apparently they were all wrong. I had no idea what to do. I started getting seriously depressed. If I quit, I would disappoint my family and friends and teachers. But apparently I was a crappy aerospace engineer (since I had such a hard time learning how the control systems worked), so either I should quit, or I should see for how long I can continue to fool everyone.
I other words, I had "impostor syndrome" BIG TIME, which in turn made me even more hesitant to ask questions, because questions would reveal how little I knew and how slowly I was learning. Clearly, I sucked at my job, and I needed to make this less apparent even at the cost of slowing down the rate at which I got better (because, honestly, I felt like I wasn’t going to get a whole lot better one way or another).
This kept snowballing (the more I felt like I was learning too slowly, the less I wanted to ask questions, and the more people would assume I knew stuff and make me feel like I was learning too slowly) and I was coming pretty close to quitting.
Then I got a Stanford Magazine in the mail, and it included this article about Carol Dweck.
I was AMAZED at how well they described my experiences, not just at college and at work, but while growing up and going to school.
As soon as I read it, I tried to find more about her work, and some quick Googling brought up this other article, also excellent.
Both articles did an excellent job at explaining the insights at the top of this page, using lots of personal stories.
I decided to implement these insights into my life as quickly as possible.
Whenever someone at work mentioned an acronym that I was unfamiliar with, I (after bracing myself and saying to myself "Itís ok, this is the right thing to do") said "What does that stand for?" and "Ok, what does that do?" and "Is that like [some similar-sounding thing that I had heard about]?" and "How is it different?". Then Iíd try and summarize: "So in short, what youíre telling me is [this system is there for this purpose, and it works via these mechanisms, and these are the parameters that its control system monitors and regulates], right?", and the expert would say "Yeah, thatís pretty much it" or "There is one other important component", etc.
This was much more positive than I expected. The way they answered my questions did not imply "You should know this by now", they were totally nice and literally happy to help. "Oh, you donít know about this? Excellent, I get to explain it to you". These people have dedicated their whole careers to this system, and they genuinely enjoy it when a curious young person says "Please tell me about how this works and about how we make sure that it works properly". What is more fun than introducing a new person to your life-long interest?
Additionally, it turns out that experts will trust you more, not less, when your understanding of something comes from them. They can be sure that you know the important issues that they are concerned about when it comes to this or that system. Maybe they have a biased view, such as a preference for mechanical controls instead of electrical ones, or a preference for hydrazine thrusters over ion thrusters... and if they explain their thinking to you, then they will know that youíre "on their side" on these issues (or at least that you appreciate the importance of their concerns).
If an hour of reading the manual was not enough to give me an overall idea of how this system worked, Iíd go up to an expert and ask "So whatís the role of this system? Why does it talk to this thing and this thing? What does this table of information tell me? Whatís the difference between this component and that component?". Again, they were more than happy to answer my questions, and did not judge me for not knowing how a satelliteís computers work.
Quickly, I learned enough to start being productive. And that was a great feeling. I was finally being an engineer. And I was as good at it as any other new engineer. Sure, I was ignorant of some systems and engineering practices when I started, but thatís not a sign of incompetence: They donít teach that in school. Once it became a habit to ask people "What does this mean? What does that do? How does it work?", I stopped worrying about asking. And I learned a lot. And I could see that people did not think I was incompetent (especially since they kept giving me more work). If anything, I could see that people appreciated how I was learning, and how my attitude had improved severely since my early days when I had so much trouble getting anything done (because I would just beat my head against the wall in frustration for hours instead of asking for help).
Once I felt that I was being productive, asking questions became a LOT easier... for less-than-legitimate reasons, too. (I considered leaving this paragraph out, since it's a little embarrassing, but I'll include it for the sake of completeness and honesty). Thatís because I could know for a fact that no, not every productive engineer knows what this means or what that does. I could actually know that some of the acronyms that people used were truly obscure, if I had not heard of them yet after several months. I almost took a little pride in asking, almost out of spite, what this component is or what that acronym stands for. I felt like I was almost saying "Yeah, you think that your little system is so important that everyone here knows about it? Well, youíre wrong. Your thing is apparently not so important, since I hadnít heard about it yet". I realize that this is very immature, and I did not actually allow any of this judgy resentment to make it into my voice. I mainly just said this in my head as a defense mechanism against the insecurity of asking questions in the first place.
I think that insecurity only went away after a year or so. At that point, I knew that I knew everything I needed to know in order to be productive: plan and perform tests, interpret data, write reports, etc. Only once I was really confident in my capability to do at least some kinds of work without asking "What does this do? What does that mean?" could I ask those questions and know that they did not "reveal" my "incompetence".
I wonder if thereís a way to give that confidence to a new-hire. The only answer that comes to mind (and maybe Iím missing something) is to point out to them; Last month you didnít know what a star tracker was, and this month you revised a test report about one! Last month you had no idea where these material-properties numbers came from, this month you crunched a bunch of lab data and came up with the numbers yourself! Last month you had never done finite element analysis, this month you re-derived a solution that would have earned you a PhD just 25 years ago. The learning curve is steep when youíre new, and that can be hard to climb - but itís not as hard if you pause your climb for just a few seconds once in a while and appreciate the view from the modest heights youíre attaining.
Most importantly, you have to realize that itís not about how high you are up that learning curve, itís about whether you continue to climb. You canít know everything, but thereís always one more analysis method or one more type of component that you could benefit from learning about. Especially in a company of 150,000 people who build products with millions of parts and who deal with a long list of suppliers. The face of almost everyone I know at Boeing lights up whenever someone tells them "I would like to have a better appreciation for the issues you deal with".
So, bottom line: Ask questions. It does not make you "that person" in class who asks questions about something that has already been explained, something that "should" be understood by now. In class, a concept will only be mentioned if you're really supposed to know it. At work, people will mention all kinds of stuff that you may or may not have ever heard of. It's totally ok (In fact, it's basically part of your job) for you to ask them to explain this stuff to you. They asked at some point in the past. So now it's your turn. Don't worry, it's the right thing to do, it will make you a better employee... and you'll get used to it.
I hope that helps :]