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Mindset is the title of a book by Carol S. Dweck, PhD. It describes ways to go about being smart, as well as learning, failure and praise. Not surprising, since “mindset” is about learning, and the concept itself has found its main application in education. However, the framework is also very relevant for innovation.

Two types of Mindset

The framework contrasts two mindsets, which I will briefly explain below.

Mindset & Professional Innovation
Two types of Mindsets. Which one leads to innovation?

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset is built on ability and talent. You either have it, such as a high IQ, or you don’t. On the one hand, this is an ideal framework for smart people. You excel because you are smart and talented. Even with little effort you are the best. You are clearly superior!

On the other hand, it is a major trap for smart people. The fixed mindset rewards who you are—smart and talented—for which you had to do little work. But what if things don’t go as planned? That is, you fail (which, by the way, often happens while innovating)? With a fixed mindset you will perceive failure as a signal that you are not as smart, intelligent and talented as you thought you were. Since nobody likes to hear that, when you have a fixed mindset the response to failure is denial and blaming others.

Denial can very easily lead to a negative cycle of avoiding challenges because they could lead to failure. This cycle ends with under-performance in the most favorable of circumstances. I am sure we all know that very talented kid, who somehow never made it…

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is built on learning and mastering new skills. You may not have been born smart and talented, but through hard work and learning you become smarter and more skilled. Effort is what makes you successful. Failures happen, and are not enjoyable, but since you don’t want to make the same mistake twice, you try to learn from your failures so they do not happen again.

This practice leads to a positive spiral of wanting to take on hard challenges, as those teach you your boundaries and give you the opportunity to learn to move beyond them, that is, to reach out to the next challenges. The growth mindset is that of the kid in your class who never was that special, but somehow turned out to be an absolute genius in business, sports or …, that is, in whatever he or she set her mind to do.

Preferred Mindset

The growth mindset leads to sustainable success and is most inclusive, as in, “we can all succeed when trying hard and focus on learning.” However, society seems to favor the image of the fixed mindset. We are inclined to praise employees by commenting on how smart they are, not on how hard and diligently they worked on the successful innovation. The less effort it (seemingly) took, the more we praise employees for their talent. We certainly have empathy for the untalented person who put in a lot of effort to make it work, but often little admiration.

Yet innovation is unlikely to happen when you behave using a fixed mindset. It is not talent or smarts that makes you a successful innovator, unless you are lucky. Most often, it is a lot of hard work, trial and error, facing daunting challenges, and learning from mistakes.

We often depict innovation as turning on a light bulb, but that image could not be further from the truth. Not even for Edison himself. It took him and his lab many years to invent the light bulb. The same is true for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They may have been born at the right time, at the right places, and be talented, but without hard work, failure and learning from mistakes, neither Microsoft nor Apple would be thriving companies today.

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