Unlimited Potential

The new semester began last week; and as is usually the case, I began with material about mindset based on research by Carol Dweck.

Dweck’s research shows that an individual holds one of two basic paradigms about intelligence. One paradigm about intelligence is what Dweck calls a fixed mindset and the other she calls a growth mindset. If your views about intelligence are of the fixed mindset, you believe that your abilities are set in stone. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that abilities can be developed and are built over time. 

The two beliefs have dramatically different implications. Challenges become frightening to a person with a fixed mindset. Dweck writes that every situation is evaluated: “Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” 

Dweck observes that capable people with a fixed mindset make little effort in what they do; they believe their work should be effortless. When things do not go right, they quickly lose interest. When things go wrong, they tend to blame others or bad luck. 

Individuals with a growth mindset have a completely different attitude about abilities and effort. It is not that they believe anybody can do anything. However, they do understand that by devoting continuous effort they develop their abilities. Practice is relished and embraced. 

Yet, someone with a fixed mindset might reason “what’s the point of practice?” Why would they have such a thought? They may reason that practicing hard might signal to others (and to themselves) that they are not so great. 

In class this past week, a student related a story of how his own fixed mindset began to change to a growth mindset as he began to teach swimming. He observed how some of his students made extraordinary progress in a short period of time. They were not afraid of practicing something that they were not already good at; they clearly had a growth mindset. 

This student began to see in himself and others the unlimited potential that we all have. Our potential lies just beneath the thoughts that arise to limit us: “I can’t.” “This is too hard.” “What will others think if I fail?” “What will I think of myself if I don’t succeed?” 

By unlimited potential I mean the capacity to achieve more than we can imagine in our chosen field of endeavor. But, first, we have to remember to get out of our own way. 

As parents, my wife and I have tried to remember Dweck’s advice to praise effort and not outcomes. Praising outcomes promotes a fixed mindset, because the locus of attention is centered on the outcome rather than on the effort and practice that leads to success. 

Recently my children, twins who are high school seniors, were part of their four-person high school team that competed in a statewide Jeopardy-type competition (If you are old enough to remember, think GE College Bowl) to be televised on public broadcasting. Their team won the single elimination tournament. A gag rule prevents me from giving more details on the teams involved until the fifteen week season is broadcast; but in their run to victory, I learned many lessons. 

First, my children never looked past the current challenge. Forty-eight high schools entered; through testing, the field was reduced to sixteen. To become the champion, the winning team was going to have to beat four straight strong teams. Each week, my children took nothing for granted except that they were privileged to compete again. 

Progressing in each round did not diminish their modesty. They sincerely believed that their job was to simply practice and prepare and then play their best game. 

The game is played at a lightning-fast pace. Sitting in the studio audience, my wife and I were wrecks; my children sat on stage with poker faces as their focus was completely on the game. To lose focus was to lose the match. 

My children’s team was never behind in a match—until the final game. In that final game, their opponent was favored to win and did jump out to take a 80-10 lead. It would have been easy to lose focus then and have the game slip completely out of reach. But here’s the interesting point—my children seemed to be less nervous in their dire circumstances on stage in the match, then they were in the days leading up to the match. 

I asked them afterwards if this was indeed the case; they confirmed my observations. The point is that their mental well-being was not dependent upon circumstances. If their mental well-being—and thus their potential to succeed—were dependent on circumstances, their well-being could have been shattered once the match started and they fell behind against the favored team. 

What I observed in the experience of my children is that a pre-condition of accessing the excellence within ourselves is first to be in a state of high mental well-being. Yes, practice is essential. But practice will be less effective if your mind is somewhere other than in the moment at hand. 

We can never control outcomes and we can’t even control what thoughts arise. But we can choose which thoughts we value. If we don’t grab hold of our negative thinking, insecure thoughts will come and go. Our mental well-being depends on our choices and not on the circumstances we face in the world.   

It may sound counter-intuitive, but being heavily invested in an outcome often leads to less than a peak performance. Why? Too much bandwidth is taken up worrying about the outcome and “flow” becomes nearly impossible. The alternative to being heavily invested is not to give up caring, however. That would be impossible and dishonest. The alternative is to be completely immersed and involved in whatever you do. That will help set the table for our unlimited potential to achieve more than we can imagine.

5 Responses to Unlimited Potential

  1. Susan Kelly says:

    I am glad I am beginning to get this. It’s taken a long, long time. But that doesn’t matter in the least!

  2. HeatherB says:

    Barry, I find it so interesting that you chose to start your course sharing the ideas of fixed and growth mindset. To experience that reminder, or perhaps even that paradigm shift, could very well do the job of preparing the soil for earnest planting. If, as a student, I acknowledge and believe – even hope to believe – that I pre-conditioned to grow in this coming learning experience, I may be much more likely to plant and tend and invest. If I’m thinking either myself or the whole learning experience a rocky patch unfit for cultivation – even if that looks like enduring someone else trying to cultivate me – there isn’t much likelihood of fruit and veggies at the end.

    I’m waxing long and allegorical, but I guess I’m just marveling at the simplicity and profundity of what you have done with your students, of what your children demonstrated.

    Again, thank you for really tasty food for thought…and practice. :)

    • HeatherB says:

      That would be “I *am* pre-conditioned to grow.”

      • Barry Brownstein says:


        I like the way you put it: “that I am pre-conditioned to grow.” Yes, that is the default setting in human beings. “If I am thinking…” Yes, it takes thinking to override what is innate.

        Thank you for your astute comments. They have added to my understanding.

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