John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


The Power of Belief

Do you believe your abilities can be cultivated over the course of your life, or do you believe everyone gets a fixed endowment of abilities that are essentially carved in stone?

What you believe about yourself with respect to your abilities may have profound implications for your life. According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and researcher, some individuals have a ‘growth’ mindset whereas others have ‘fixed’ mindset. According to her findings, a growth-mindset is more likely to lead to success. A fixed mindset limits achievement.

It works like this. Individuals with a fixed mindsets fall into a trap of needing to prove themselves again and again. After all, if you only get so much ability, who wants to believe they were given a modest amount of it to start with? Better to establish that you’ve got plenty of ability––and then seek situations that support or prove that view, and avoid those that don’t.

This means, however, that you’ll be more likely to avoid situations where you might fail because failure would constitute evidence that maybe you’re abilities were quite as ample as you’d previously believed. It also means that if you did fail at something, you’re less likely to return to it with full effort because, hey, if your abilities are fixed in the first place, why try?

But for persons with growth mindsets, who believe abilities can be cultivated over time, failure is not something to fear. Failure is often how we learn. In other words, if you believe your abilities are elastic, why not stretch yourself? Not surprisingly, people with this mindset place a premium on effort.

Dweck points out in her book, MINDSET, that history is replete with famous persons who were originally thought to have a modest endowment of ability but then went on to become successful in some endeavor. Leo Tolstoy, Charles Darwin, and Ben Hogan are examples from literature, science, and sports of individuals who were, in their youth, viewed as nothing special. And yet each went on extraordinary accomplishments later in life.

The good news is that you can change your mindset. If a fixed mindset is holding you back--and her research suggests that it probably is--you can choose to adopt a growth mindset. Beliefs are not permanent. Beliefs can be changed. The truth about abilities is that they are, indeed, malleable.

Dweck’s research points to the remarkable power of belief, but it also makes a good case for the power of effort. The novelist John Irving has pointed out that his talents for his two passions, creative writing and wrestling, were considered, early in his life, modest at best. But a wrestling coach persuaded him not to give up, but to work hard. As it turns out, he’s written a number of highly successful and entertaining novels, in addition to being inducted into the wrestling hall-of-fame.

Our beliefs about ourselves and others have great power. But some beliefs do not serve us. Some beliefs need to be re-examined and, when possible, tested for validity. If we have restricted notions of who we can become, we will naturally limit our efforts and our persistence. But if we believe we can grow our abilities and talents, we will not be afraid to toil, even when the task is hard.

Your potential is unknown. But don’t let that stop you from reaching for it.