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Advice & News

April 24, 2019

How a Fixed Mindset Can Hurt Your Career


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You've probably heard this career advice: Follow your passion and be an expert in your field. Acting on this over-simplistic directive is not entirely wrong. However, thinking that you need to chase a passion into academia and prove your genius to enter the ivory tower will not help you advance your career, nor will it give you a lasting sense of fulfillment.

"The problem is, the advice to follow your passion reflects a fixed mindset," said Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, on a recent episode of his WorkLife podcast. "It assumes your interests are stable, so if you don't immediately enjoy a field or a task, the writing is on the wall: This must not be your passion."

Acknowledging how fluid career paths have become, Grant recommends a test-and-learn approach where professionals think of themselves as scientists running experiments on their careers. Higher education careers may seem more linear than others, with investments in terminal degrees and faculty committing to the tenure flow, but a fixed mindset and thinking of academia as having a culture of genius will set many aspiring professionals up for failure. Instead, higher education professionals need a growth mindset and institutions a culture of development.

The growth/fixed mindset continuum was popularized by Carol Dweck, the renowned Stanford University psychology professor, in her 2006 book, "Mindset." Essentially, the fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are "carved in stone, creating urgency to prove yourself over and over," and the growth mindset is based on the belief that your qualities are "things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others."

To paraphrase Dweck's graduate-school professor at Yale University, the late Seymour Sarason, universities are just as much for professors' learning as they are for students' learning, an evaluation that Dweck said makes her a fresh and eager teacher.

This growth mindset benefits faculty, staff, and administrators alike, whereas a fixed mindset, Dweck wrote, can mess with your mind: "When you're given a positive label, you're afraid of losing it, and when you're hit with a negative label, you're afraid of deserving it."

Still, it can be easy to resist thinking that you are always a work in progress. We want to prove our competency to our managers and hiring committee. No one wants an on-the-job learner, do they?

"(Job candidates) get hung up on what they did; they'll rattle off, 'Oh, I did this and I did that,'" said Aaron Martin, vice president for marketing and communications at Susquehanna University. "What they have a hard time saying is, 'I learned this from here and that from there,' in a storytelling way."

Martin cited his own learning experiences and career experiments, working as dean of enrollment management at California Maritime Academy earlier in his career before transitioning to communication and marketing.

Learning experiences, embraced by the growth mindset and often borne of failures, expose the fallacy of readymade genius or innate talent. The latter are part of a judge-and-be-judged framework that is coveted by fixed-mindsetters who concentrate only on the defined -- and minimal -- job requirements.

Growth stories are more convincing and institutions that don't value learning and perseverance will only hire fixed talent and likewise not grow.

According to Dweck, the fixed mindset is all about the outcome. If success (and a "Silver Spoon" resume/CV) makes you an expert, then failure (with job rejections or career misadventures) means you are incompetent.

"The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming," Dweck wrote, "they have to already be."

The same goes for passion, which comes from the Latin root word, "patior," which means to suffer. Not everyone has to know what they want to do with their career, and even if they do, passion should not be chased.

"I like the passion part ... but I don't love the follow part," said Angela Duckworth, a guest on WorkLife who is one of Grant's colleagues at Penn and the author of "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." "It sounds like it's out there and you have to discover it. And if you don't have passion for your work, you missed it somehow and you have to keep looking for it, as if it were a whole thing and not something that gradually develops over time. That's actually a better verb, that you should develop your passion and not follow it."

Duckworth and her colleagues have evidence to support that young adults who follow a passion, with a fixed mindset, are less likely to consider other areas where passion can be developed and they are more likely to give up when faced with difficulties.

Though it might seem like lexical semantics, "developing" your passion and "learning" your expertise, with a nod to suffering and perseverance, do make a difference for having the right mindset for career success.