Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

Talent vs Work-The Fixed and Growth Mindsets

By Elvin Boone

Talent vs Work-The Fixed and Growth Mindsets

When you only compliment talent and intelligence, you may end up undermining motivation, and eventually performance. In musical achievement there’s a profound difference in whether you skate by on your ‘talent’ or excel to heights you never imagined through grit and hard work. This is a short post about two of the most common mindsets: fixed and growth mindset. After this short discussion you might consider changing from a limiting fixed mindset to one of continual growth and learning.

The Fixed Mindset – Like a Stone

Basically, a fixed mindset is when you believe that you are born with a certain amount of talent in any field and that it never changes. No matter how hard you work you’ll never be good enough because you weren’t already talented enough from the start. This mindset focusses on being smart or talented not cultivating learning and skill.

Doesn’t everyone seem to enjoy being called talented and smart? Yes, absolutely. If you play poorly, or can’t learn a phrase quickly after being told you’re talented you may believe you aren’t really that talented after all. Your confidence might deflate because of one small failure. Success means that you are always the smartest or best but messing up means, well, maybe you’re not really talented—maybe you’ll never be good enough. You always want your students, family and friends to know how much you appreciate and celebrate their successes. It’s when the praise is only for the successful result and the effort to reach it is forgotten, that there is a risk of creating a fixed mindset. One thing is certain with fixed and growth mindsets—you use both on a daily basis for all types of decisions. It’s rare that someone uses only one of the mindsets.

The Growth Mindset – Continual Expansion

If you have a Growth Mindset, you believe that you can succeed through personal effort, dedication, and motivation. You believe that your potential is yet to be charted, and that no one can know how much you might accomplish. People with a Growth mindset do not blindly believe they are the next Bach or Tesla, but to them there’s also no denying any possibility. You believe in a continual expansion and refinement of your skills and abilities.

Changing the meaning of failure is one of the main differences between fixed and growth mindsets. If you use a growth mindset you see a failure as a set back and not the crippling feeling that you’ll never be good enough. Instead of caving in, you step back and assess what went wrong and strive to succeed again. That old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has the growth mindset at its core. Also, sayings like, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” a Chinese proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, mean that all great work is completed with one step at a time. It’s one thing to give you a catchy saying and call it a day, but these words of wisdom are not going to help anyone truly reach their potential. It takes an active participation in changing your own mindset towards growth, despite having some limiting beliefs.

Both mindsets operate within you and influence every decision and reaction you make. While you may be stronger with growth mindsets internally, you might not actually engender the same in others. Complimenting success and talent versus hard work can lead to creating the framework for a fixed mindset in someone. Imagine yourself in front of your instructor. You played the first part of the song you’re learning perfectly last week. This week you’re learning a technique you’ve never tried before. You can’t do it. You freeze. You hear the instructor try to explain the technique, and although they are being patient, you are having a very different experience of the situation. With the fixed mindset you might be thinking, “I thought I was talented so this should be simple”, your muscles rebel, you start to sweat, your confidence wavers.

Now picture the above scenario again. This time imagine that you find the new technique or music difficult. But this time you pause, realize that you’re here to learn, and that it’s okay being a novice. Your instructor’s patience isn’t because they don’t believe in your ability, but helpful and exactly what you need to progress—one slow and sure step at a time to reach your goals.

Reclaiming Possibility

A striking example of a musician with a growth mindset is Django Reinhardt. After a tragic accident, the ring and little finger on his left hand were burned so badly that he was unable to use them to fret the guitar anymore. This was before much of his success and innovation playing jazz. The doctors told him that he’d never play guitar again. Consider this situation for someone who was not in Django’s situation. What if your doctor told you that you would never be good enough because you weren’t good enough right now? Having, in my opinion, a strong growth mindset, Django re-learned guitar using only his first and index fingers to fret. If he’d given up because of a fixed mindset, and thought “I can’t play guitar with only two fingers” then we’d never hear tunes like “Nuages” or “Minor Swing” or his vibrant jazz style. There are countless stories of individuals who have triumphed over what seem like impossible situations, and most of them appear to succeed because of embodying a growth mindset. You’ve heard the phrase, “where there’s a Will there’s a way”, I believe that it’s more than just a strong Will that enables great achievement—the right mindset is essential.

Some of the most gratifying moments for music instructors, students or parents is in witnessing positive change and the accomplishment of musical goals. You probably live for that moment when, after months of working on a piece of music, you finally play it with such precision and skill that you know your hard work has paid off. You may also dread those times when after you feel so accomplished a challenge presents itself and you question your own ability. These are the times when the difference between the growth and fixed mindset will make or break your progress. Changing from a fixed mindset to one of growth may not be easy, but as with a lot of things, easy doesn’t always equal worthwhile.

Your mindset will frame your interpretation of events in your life. With a growth mindset, your setbacks will become temporary challenges that you intend to overcome. With a fixed mindset, any setback becomes the final judgment of your ability or talent, and may convince you to give up. Some ways to start changing to a growth mindset are as simple as asking different questions: Can I learn something from this? What can I do to improve my technique? Is there a way to slow this fast part down so I can play each note perfectly? How can I improve? The process may take some time, and you may notice that you start treating any “mistake” as an opportunity instead of a final judgement on your intelligence, ability, or talent. Remember this, criticism and praise do not represent who you are and what you’re actually capable of doing, and being. Compliments and judgements are observations of your current work or performance, not of the possible accomplishments you can achieve with a growth mindset.

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