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May 27, 2016

Pareto, Dweck and the Harsh Realities of Life

Charlie Swift

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Guest blogger Bob Little explores the truth of two contrasting mindsets.

You might think that your current level of success is based on your innate abilities. Or that it reflects your determination to work hard and keep learning.

According to Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, you have a "fixed mindset" if you rely on your talent but a "growth mindset" if you favor dogged persistence in pursuit of continued success.

These mindsets also define your response to the failure that we all experience from time to time. Fixed mindset people see failure only as negative, while those with a growth mindset realize that their performance can be improved – and that learning comes from failure.

A philosophy that says, "There are only two types of people in the world," has wider implications for such qualities as self-belief, self-awareness and general self-development. Its logical conclusion is that those with a growth mindset will live a less stressful and, ultimately, more successful life.

Dweck's work encourages us to praise our children with such growth-mindset-creating phrases as "good job, you worked really hard," rather than, "good job, you're smart," which would lead to a fixed mindset. The suggestion is that it's possible to encourage learners to persevere, despite difficulties, through thinking about learning in a less "pass/fail" way.

The idea is to inspire us with a love of learning. It also reinforces what has, for many years, been called the "Protestant work ethic" in Western society. Embracing this approach should motivate us to greater productivity and achievement in our chosen field – be it business, education, the arts, or sport.

Dweck's is a highly attractive – and commendable – philosophy, backed up by some two decades of research. It adds a great deal of legitimacy to the view that intelligence and personality can be developed, rather than being unchanging, ingrained traits. It also appeals intuitively to the majority of us who realize just how much we don't know about our chosen skillset and the challenge we face if we are to become competent.

Yet it still doesn't adequately address the human condition in every society.

Some people are going to be successful whatever mindset they adopt or develop. Similarly, others are going to unsuccessful.

For one thing, no society in the world is truly egalitarian or meritocratic. People still get top jobs because of who they are, who they know, who their parents know, being in the right place at the right time, and so on. Their success doesn't necessarily have anything to do with their attitude toward learning.

Only a tiny number of people can ever be, say, president of the U.S. or a member of the British royal family, whatever their mindset. In the Middle Ages, a mere 250,000 or so people owned at least 80 percent of all Europe's resources – and this proportion hasn't changed markedly in the succeeding centuries.

So, regardless of how open to learning we may be and how hard we work at developing ourselves, the implied "success" of those espousing the growth mindset can only be relative, at best.

It was the economist Vilfredo Pareto who observed, in 1906, that 20 percent of the Italian people owned 80 percent of their country's wealth. Subsequent studies show that this 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle, applies to lots of aspects of life.

This principle suggests that, while 80 percent of those with a growth mindset will get the chance to live a successful, low-stress life, the other 20 percent of people with this mindset won't achieve such a nirvana, for one reason or another. Similarly, maybe 80 percent of those with a fixed mindset will be unsuccessful but 20 percent might still succeed. According to Dweck's model, that 20 percent are very lucky indeed!

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5 comments on “Pareto, Dweck and the Harsh Realities of Life”

  1. Very sobering article. Its a case of there will be rich people, poor people and those in between at all times. However, there is also the fact that movement does happen from one group to another. This is what should motivate one to give their best and not resign to fate as long as they have breath.

  2. Excellent read. If anything it reminds us to be content with what we have. Not to say that we should not aim to improve ourselves in life but there has to be a sense of what is realistic as well.

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