The Mindset Culture Origin Story

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In 2004, Carol Dweck moved from Columbia University to Stanford. I hadn’t learned much about the fixed and growth mindset before then, but now that she and her students were here, I was quickly becoming familiar with her research and the insights of mindset.

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One day, I’m in a graduate seminar supporting a friend of mine who is giving his 4th year PhD talk, describing all the research he’d conducted in the last year. It’s all going well and he’s just getting to some of his core findings when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a faculty member interrupts and blurts out, “Well, it’s clear the fatal flaw in this work is XYZ.”

Shocked, all heads turn to stare at this professor. We fall silent—you could hear a pin drop. What is going on?

My friend starts to address this comment, but just a few words in, another professor on the other side of the room shouts out, “No, you’re wrong! The fatal flaw isn’t XYZ, it’s ABC…and here’s why…”.

The professors then start talking at each other (sadly, I think “talking at” is the best way to describe it), not really listening or engaging with each other’s arguments, it’s clear they’re just trying to one-up the other to show how clever they are—to prove that they’re the smartest in the room.

As I’m watching and listening to this surreal exchange, I look at my friend.

He’s dejected.

He can’t get a word in edgewise, though he’s trying valiantly.

Eventually, he finishes his talk, and he sits down.

But that part isn’t what has stuck with me most all these years later.

As bad as that moment felt for all of us—and for my friend in particular—what struck me even more was what it did to my friend’s motivation and engagement over time. He simply didn’t want to touch that project again because the experience was just too painful.

Months later, that promising work languished and instead of finding ways of moving it forward, my friend switched focus all together.

This was my first glimpse of what I came to term a Culture of Genius. Where everyone is trying to prove and perform how smart and capable they are. In a world where some have it and some don’t—that is, in Cultures of Genius—it’s essential to prove that you are among the “haves”. And that often means competing internally with others, finding the flaws in their work—knowing that you’re only as good as your last performance.

A couple of weeks later, I’m in a different graduate seminar. And though the faculty are equally—if not more—esteemed and decorated as those in the first, these professors are approaching the PhD student talks in a totally different way.

Yes, they are still raising the problems in the work, but instead of competing against each other to show who’s the smartest in the room and who can take down the student and their ideas the fastest with the most devastating remarks, they are competing differently.

They are competing to see who can come up with the best ideas to improve the projects: “Sally, you should include this other measure in your follow-up.” And “Maybe working with this other population would provide the insights you need.”

And I saw what it did to the students in that seminar room: they were able to fully participate in the discussion—answering questions and brainstorming together with the faculty to improve their work. And they left motivated and engaged. Why? 

Because as a result of those discussions, they had tangible strategies and ideas they could apply right away. And they did—producing higher quality work more rapidly than students in the first seminar.

What did these two environments have in common?

It seemed to me that each group had a theory at their core about how best to motivate people—and those theories seemed to align pretty well with the fixed and growth mindset.

The first group had adopted a high stakes, fixed-minded, prove-and-perform model where you either sank or swam and those who can cut it belong (for now), while the others simply do not.

The other group embodied a much more learning-and-development focused model. The goal was to help people see the strengths and weaknesses of their work and to brainstorm together strategies to help improve the projects even further. This, to me, felt like the growth mindset in action.

I took these observations down the hall and nervously knocked on Carol Dweck’s office door.

I didn’t know her well. How would she respond to my observations? What would she think of a lowly graduate student coming to suggest that her theory of mindset (that she and her students had been developing for decades, focused primarily on individuals’ personal beliefs) might be incomplete?

She warmly invited me in and looked at me expectantly. “Hi, Mayr, what’s going on?”

“Carol,” I began, “I know that for decades we’ve thought of the fixed and growth mindset as a quality of individuals: what’s your mindset and how does it affect you; what’s my mindset and how does it affect me…But what if mindset doesn’t just exist at the individual level? What if it can be embedded in groups, teams, schools, and organizations? As a cultural feature of these groups? Shaping the norms and interactions of people in these settings. How would it impact people there? Has anyone ever thought of mindset in this way?”

I shared my observations of the two seminars and how I was seeing Mindset Culture within them.

And then I waited…holding my breath to see how she’d react.

She looked at me for a while, not saying a word. And then she smiled.

She said, “No, Mayr, no one’s ever thought of mindset that way, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Let’s study it together!”

And just like that, we kicked off 15 years of collaborative work examining how Mindset Cultures are created and sustained, how they shape people and groups, and how we can shift from fixed-minded Cultures of Genius to learning-oriented Cultures of Growth.

Why do I think it’s useful to share the Mindset Culture Origin Story?

Well, I think we’ve all been in some form of that Culture of Genius seminar.

Whether in formal learning or working environments, or just in interaction with someone else who always seems focused on proving how smart, capable, and worthy they are every time you talk with them—we’ve all been there.

We know how exhausting those contexts and interactions are—and by the way, they’re not great for the “geniuses” either. While these folks might feel good in the moment expounding on their expertise, our research finds that it doesn’t give them much room to make mistakes, learn, grow or develop. It raises the stakes for them too and puts them on a pedestal from which the fall is steep. Not to mention what it does to their interpersonal relationships, friendships, and trust.

What’s become clear, after 15 years of research, is that it’s in Cultures of Growth where the real genius lies. These are the environments that actually attract and retain high performers—because they know the environment is going to keep investing in them and will support them to make the most of their ideas and potential.

In Cultures of Growth, people stay engaged in the work—and with each other. And they aren’t afraid to take measured risks or try something new, because there are systems set up to learn from whatever the outcome may be. And that learning is harnessed and shared to drive rapid innovation and success.

Over and over, we see that teams, classrooms, and organizations with strong Cultures of Growth outperform Cultures of Genius on almost every dimension we’ve studied.

But it all could have gone another way.

What if Carol had responded from her fixed mindset? What if she’d dismissed the idea all together or said she’d already thought of it, and it wasn’t worth pursuing?

What if she’d created a Culture of Genius around what mindset is and what it’s not?

But that’s not Carol.

I’ll be eternally grateful to her, that when this young PhD student knocked on her door and told her essentially that the way she (the indisputable expert) had been thinking about mindset for years was incomplete, that she responded from her growth mindset and invited the collaboration to see what we’d discover.

Carol and I believe that Mindset Culture is the next frontier of mindset work—both on the research side and practically, when we think about how to structure schools, workplaces, teams, and family dynamics.

Next time, we’ll talk about what we’ve learned about why individual mindset is not enough. And, I’ll share the study that convinced me that a single-minded focus on individual mindset would never produce the equitable and inclusive world we all want to live in.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: what’s your experience with the Culture of Genius and Culture of Growth? I’d love to hear about a time you were in one of these cultures—and how it affected you and those around you.

Simply reply to this note—I’ve enjoyed reading all your thoughts!

Until soon, my friends,

Mary

P.S. If you’d like to read the origin story from Carol’s perspective, you can download the Foreword to Cultures of Growth, by clicking “Get the Excerpt” here.

P.P.S., And if you want to hear a very short take on the differences between Cultures of Genius and Cultures of Growth, watch this PBS NewsHour’s Brief but Spectacular segment that aired nationally a couple of weeks ago.

Thanks for reading Culture Catalyst with Mary C. Murphy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

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