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How the mindsets interact with success and failure

For people who have a fixed mindset, success is exceptionally important as it is a way to validate yourself and show how clever and talented you are. It is also a way to prove you are better than others who lack these fixed qualities. Conversely, failure is toxic for those with fixed mindsets as it proves that you aren't talented or clever. This means that failure, and mistakes, have to be avoided at all costs.

Indeed Dweck argues that for people with fixed mindsets, 'the loss of oneself to failure can be a permanent and haunting trauma.' By extension, it also means that fixed mindset people feel they must be careful with anything that might be challenging and risky as it may increase the risk of failure and thus show their lack of ability. It is best, according to this view, to harbour thoughts about 'what you could have been' rather than risk failure.

This viewpoint also leads people to be very touchy about any critical feedback as it suggests an innate lack of ability. It also leads to tests being seen as a valuation, not of a specific set of skills, but of how clever or capable you are.

From an educational point of view what is particularly worrying about the fixed mindset is how it sees effort as reprehensible in some way. According to this perspective, people who are naturally clever and gifted don't have to practice and try too hard. So people who need to put effort into something are showing their deficiencies.

People with a growth mindset have a completely different view of success and failure. Of course, they are motivated by success and want to achieve it, but for them success shows that you have mastered something, been stretched and learned new skills: it isn't seen as a demonstration of intelligence or talent. This then frees up growth mindset people to see failure, not as a negative, undermining judgement on them as people, but as something they need to learn from so they can succeed in the future. A natural extension of this mindset is to relish, and seek out challenges, rather than avoid them as it is through being challenged that people grow and develop. Failure can often be a painful challenge to growth mindset people but it is still seen as something to learn from rather than something which defines you as an individual.

In the eyes of those with a growth mindset, tests are not measuring your basic intelligence or potential (no test can do that); tests can only give a snapshot of how capable you are at something now. What's more criticism, particularly from someone you respect and you can learn from, is a gift ' a way to accelerate learning' and not something to be feared. Dweck reports that the great Russian ballet dancer and teacher, Marina Semyonova, devised an unusual way of selecting students. During a trial period she watched how they responded to critical feedback. The more responsive they were to 'correction' the more she deemed them worthy of her tutoring. In other words, she was selecting for a growth mindset.

Finally, for people with a growth mindset, learning and development is all about one thing - effort. The more you put in the more you will accelerate your learning. What's more, growth mindset people value learning for its own sake, irrespective of the outcome.

These differences between people have been demonstrated by Dweck's research. She describes, for example, how students with the two different mindsets responded to the offer of feedback after completing a challenging task. The fixed mindset students were more likely to refuse the offer of information on how they could improve their performance and chose instead information on how they compared with their peers. The growth mindset students were much more interested in knowing how they could have done better than in finding out how they ranked.

More research findings

Throughout Mindset, Dweck quotes findings from extensive research projects on young people (usually about the age of ten) which she has carried out with colleagues. One set of research studies asked the young people to carry out puzzles. They were then divided into three groups. The first group were given fixed mindset feedback. In other words, they were told that they had done well because they were very clever people. The second group were given growth mindset feedback. So these young people were also praised but this time not for anything innate about their abilities - they were only praised for their effort and concentration. The third group, a control group, were only given bland feedback on having done a good job. 

Dweck and colleagues found that when these young people were then asked if they wanted to undertake harder, more challenging puzzles, virtually all the people in the fixed mindset group refused while most of the people in the growth mindset group accepted the offer. The control group split almost evenly between the two options. Dweck speculates that this no doubt reflected their own tendency to growth or fixed theories of intelligence.

Some of her other research projects also show that young people given fixed mindset feedback are less keen to keep trying to improve their learning or their abilities and, if asked to repeat the original task, will often not do it as well. In other words, their performance can often erode rather than improve as a result of being told they are talented or clever. This finding has huge implications for parents, teachers and anyone working with young people.

More useful resources for parents and teachers on changing mindsets with children can be found here.


Dweck and colleagues found a particular aspect of their research worrying. Following on from fixed mindset feedback, young people were asked to tell others of how well they had done. A staggering 38 per cent lied about their score by saying it was better than it actually was. The equivalent figure for the control group was 14 per cent and the growth mindset group 13 per cent. Dweck writes 'What's so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.'


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