Whenever I speak about Impostor Syndrome, I’m always amazed by how many people stop to tell me that they have experienced it themselves or have seen it in their children.
Many people have pointed me towards Carol Dweck‘s work with fixed and growth mindsets, noting a strong connection to impostor syndrome. I purchased and read her book, Mindset, and highly recommended it — it’s an easy read.
In fact, I strongly believe you should read her work before even continuing this article. You can’t beat hearing from the original researcher.
Fixed vs Growth
In short, depending on the type of praise we receive, we develop either the growth or the fixed mindset.
Those with the growth mindset believe that their abilities are flexible and can improve through work and persistence. They see challenges as opportunities to overcome.
Those with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are set and cannot be improved. When they encounter difficult problems, they think that they’ve overstepped their abilities and should retreat. Challenges are obstacles to avoid.
Just like impostor syndrome, the fixed mindset leads people to avoid challenging situations out of a belief that if something can’t be aced, then it shouldn’t be attempted
What’s most amazing to me is that Dr. Dweck found, with carefully worded praise, that we can change peoples’ mindsets.
Praise that emphasizes work and improvement leads to a growth mindset. An example might be: “I saw how you struggled through that last part but still managed to complete it. Great work.”
Praise that is worded to emphasize innate skill or ability reinforces a fixed mindset. If we say, “You’re so smart. Another amazing project” we’re contributing to the fixed mindset.
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Preschoolers and Puzzles
Dweck shares a fascinating anecdote about preschoolers and jigsaw puzzles. Students who were given “fixed” praise for solving a simple puzzle would then choose to re-solve the same puzzle rather than trying a new, more challenging puzzle.
Students who were given “growth” praise reached for the new challenges and had little interest in the old puzzles. These new puzzles were opportunities to receive more praise for struggling and improving.
Obviously, we want our students to reach for the new challenges.
Gifted Kids at Risk
Our gifted kids receive lots of well-intentioned “you’re so smart” praise. But, this leads directly to a fear of straying beyond their safety zone. In college or the workplace, where they face challenges for the first time, the impostor syndrome rears its terrifying head.
“Why is this so difficult? Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”
We can accidentally condition our brightest students to see challenges as risks that threaten their perfect streaks and “smart” status.
- Know that praise has unexpected effects: reinforce the importance of work, not just the end result.
- Challenge students early: don’t let them keep solving the same easy puzzle. Identify mastery, and then move them along to something slightly difficult.
- Address it directly: especially with older students, I think it’s important to tell them that just because they stumble doesn’t mean that they’re in the wrong race.
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