THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 16

Subject:  Fixed/Growth Mindset – John McEnroe

Event:  Birthday of John McEnroe, 1959

Today is the birthday of tennis great John McEnroe. He was born in 1959 in Germany where his father was serving in the U.S. Army.  McEnroe is remembered not only for his masterful play as a singles champion but also for his many victories in doubles and mixed doubles. His most memorable matches came at Wimbledon in the 1980s where he battled Bjorn Borg.

John McEnroe in 1979 (Wikipedia)

Although he won many major tennis titles and spent several years as the number one ranked tennis player in the world, John McEnroe is best remembered for his words and antics on the tennis court. Smashing tennis rackets and challenging umpire decisions, McEnroe became one of the most volatile and boisterous athletes ever.

Perhaps his best-known line was one shouted in the direction of an umpire at Wimbledon in 1981: “You cannot be serious!” This line became so often associated with McEnroe, that he used it for the title of his 2002 autobiography (1).

Another book that features McEnroe is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by psychologist Carol S. Dweck. In her book, Dweck uses McEnroe as an example of an individual with a fixed mindset.  People with a fixed mindset view character, intelligence, and ability as fixed and unchangeable.  As a result of this mindset, they often value looking smart or talented over actually being smart or talented.  Since they see intelligence and talent as fixed, they don’t see effort and persistence as valuable qualities.  Furthermore, they often fear failure as a judgment upon their person rather than seeing it as a learning opportunity. 

Dweck certainly is not arguing that McEnroe was not a successful, talented athlete; he was, after all, the number one ranked player for four years.  The issue with McEnroe, however, is that he could have been much better. For him, talent was the main thing.  He didn’t embrace opportunities to learn new things.  He hated to lose and always saw it as a negative rather than as a stepping stone to future success.  Instead of looking for lessons from a lost match, he looked for excuses, which is reflected in his constant focus on being a victim of the bad calls made by the umpires of his matches.  McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles, but even he would probably agree that a less fixed mindset would have resulted in many more.

In contrast to those with a fixed mindset, people with a growth mindset view character, intelligence, and ability as qualities that change over time and that improve through conscious effort and persistence.  Instead of fearing failure, people with a growth mindset are able to embrace failure, learning from it and using it as a springboard for future success. 

As an example of an athlete that embodies the growth mindset, Dweck turns to basketball legend Michael Jordan.  Jordan was famously cut from his high school team, but instead of quitting basketball, he dedicated himself to prove himself worthy to play for the varsity.  When he won the NCAA basketball championship as just a freshman at North Carolina, he didn’t rest on his laurels.  He was always the hardest working player in practice, putting in extra effort to improve his weaknesses.  When he began his career in the NBA, he was one of the league’s leading scorers, but his team was not winning championships. Today we see him as a perennial champion, but he didn’t win his first championship until his seventh year in the NBA.  In those seven years, he put in countless hours of work to become more than just a great scorer.  He worked on becoming a better passer, a ball-handler, and a better teammate.  He knew that there was no way he could win a championship by himself, so not only did he need to make himself better through effort, he also needed to help his teammates improve.

To test your own mindset, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are in a class, and you have just taken a quiz with fifty multiple-choice questions.  The quizzes are immediately scored and all posted on the classroom wall.  Obviously, you would probably first look at your own score, but which tests would you look at next.  Would you be drawn to the quizzes of the students who scored higher than you or the quizzes of those who scored lower?  According to Dweck, students with a growth mindset will seek out the quizzes with higher scores, looking for possible ways to learn from those who scored higher and seeking strategies to improve their deficiencies.  In contrast, students with a fixed mindset focus on the quizzes with lower scores than their own; because they don’t see intelligence as something that can be improved with effort, they seek consolation in the fact that others scored lower than they did (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, and how can you assess which you have?

Challenge – Game, Mindset, and Match:  Research some quotations by successful people about the role that hard work, effort, and persistence have in being successful.  Identify the one you like the best, quote it, and explain why you like it.

Sources:

1-Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.