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Why having a growth mindset is the basis for learning and development

One of the hardest things to fill out whenever people are asked to do a questionnaire about themselves is the hobbies and passions section. Some just go cliché with “reading, watching films and taking long walks on the beach” while others try to impress with “martial arts, extreme sports and oriental meditation”. Regardless of what they choose, there is a good chance that those who listed reading had finished their last book while still in college and those who said they enjoy martial arts are just really big fans of Karate Kid.

It seems odd that we find it hard to talk about what we like but the fault for this lies in the common misconception that somehow our true meaning, calling and passion will be revealed to us in some sort of magical stance. Since this is not really as common an occurrence as we would like, most of us are left struggling, either searching for that moment of divine inspiration (and in the process taking up everything from ballet to pottery classes and online marketing courses) or simply waiting for it to happen and telling ourselves we are just filling our time with something we don’t particularly care for in the meantime (it’s how people get stuck with jobs they hate for years on end).

The hope that we will one day discover our passion and we will turn out to be inexplicably and flawlessly good at something can turn out to be more of a setback than a positive view on life.

A look into the theories of interest

In a recent study by researchers from Yale NUS University of Singapore set out to examine “implicit theories of interest.” Their method was to administer five different tests in order to measure the effects of fixed versus growth mindsets. They weighed how belief in inherent passions as opposed to developed interests influence out approach to learning and resilience.

What they are ultimately trying to figure out (and put into numbers) is if interests are there all along waiting to be revealed or it takes an initial spark that has to be cultivated with effort, ambition and conscious persistence. The findings are severely significant for parents, educators and learning professionals as they show the proper way to promote self-development and personal growth.

Already the research of Angela Lee Duckworth has revealed that when it comes to being successful (whether it’s at seventh grade math, West Point Academy or sales) the determining factor is not IQ, nor emotional intelligence but grit.

As she describes it, grit is “passion and perseverance for very long intervals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out and working really hard at making that future a reality.” When being asked what can be done to build grit or a good work ethics in people, she says the best option is encouraging a growth mindset.

A growth mindset – the key to success

To no surprise at all, Paul O’Keefe, the main researcher of the theories of interest also supports the idea that a growth mindset, rather than a fixed idea that there’s one interest one should feel the compulsion to pursue, improves the chances of finding real passion and also having the will and determination to become very good at it.

The Yale NUS psychologist says:

We need to carefully consider what we communicate to people about interests and passions. Parents, teachers, and employers might get the most out of people if they suggest that interests are developed, not simply found. Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it’s within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests that the passion will do the lion’s share of the work for you.

The new research set out to examine the effects of both fixed and growth mindsets on interest, learning and motivation. In three different tests with different subjects, college students who regarded themselves either as technology and science types or as art and literature types were asked to read articles that were clearly not in their areas of interest. Questions about their own theories of interests had already been about a month before, so they wouldn’t be tempted to make the connection and adjust their mindset for the experiment.

The studies showed that those with a growth mindset were more inclined to find the articles interesting. A fourth test focused on the effects of passions and interests and its conclusions were that those who have a fixed theory will renounce what they initially thought to be their true passion as soon as they come across any adversity.

Flexibility supports self-development

The fifth experiment was probably the most conclusive one. All subjects, tech and science types and the artistically inclined all watched a video on the subject of black holes. The material was short and engaging, especially designed for a lay audience. The majority of the subjects said they found it “fascinating.”

In the next step they were asked to read a difficult scientific article on the theories behind black holes and that’s when mindset became apparent. Even the artistically inclined subjects who had exhibited a growth mindset on a previously administered questionnaire were more inclined to make the effort of actually going through the tough text than the science knowledgeable subjects with a fixed perspective.

“A growth theory…leads people to express greater interest in new areas, to anticipate that pursuing interests will sometimes be challenging, and to maintain greater interest when challenges arise,” the psychologists write in their conclusions.


Growth mindset is all about openness and flexibility. It does not go against the concept of each individual having a particular area of interest nor does it promote the idea of dilettantism in numerous fields. It is the psychologically realistic approach to learning, the one in which obstacles are not omens foretelling that the passion is not real but necessary milestones on the road to achieving mastery.

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