Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

Picture this: You are in your last year of high school, you get a C+ on an essay, you get a parking ticket, and your best friend cancels plans for that evening. What’s your response?

a)      My life is terrible.


b)      I’m a failure.

c)      I need to work harder on my next essay, talk to my teacher, pay my parking ticket, and talk to my friend.

d)      I can be more careful and change things for the future.

According to psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, if you answered “a” or “b,” you fall into one category. If you answered “c” or “d,” you fall into another category. For many years, Dweck studied achievements and success. Her research propelled her towards a theory that there are two mindsets when it comes to intelligence, personality, and learning: fixed and growth.

The Two Mindsets

Dweck’s research reveals that people have views about themselves that change the way they interact with others, respond to failure and deal with challenges. These views about themselves are labeled mindsets: the view you adopt for yourself.

  • Fixed. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your qualities are carved in stone. You believe that you have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character. This creates an urge to prove yourself over and over again.
  • Growth. The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. This mindset is founded on the idea that you can change and grow through application and experience. This means that a person’s true potential is unknown and therefore anything can be accomplished through hard work and passion.


If you answered “a” or “b” to the question above, most likely you have a fixed mindset. If you answered “c” or “d,” most likely you have a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset will view themselves as a failure if things go wrong, and those with a growth mindset will look at places where they can improve themselves and change for the future.

These mindsets apply to learning, as well as to relationships. When someone with a fixed mindset has a negative interaction with a friend or loved one, he or she immediately projects that rejection onto him or herself saying: “I’m unlovable.” Rather than evaluating the situation and gaining insight for the future, people with the fixed mindset shut down. On the other hand, to those with the growth mindset, the pain of rejection is just as real. However, instead of labeling themselves as unlovable, those with a growth mindset attempt to learn from the relationship for the future. With this mindset, you believe that every relationship teaches you more about who is right or wrong for you.

Which mindset ends up succeeding in the long run? Dweck argues that if you have a growth mindset, you are more likely to fulfill your potential, maintain fulfilling relationships, and enjoy yourself too!

Mindsets Can Be Changed

Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but it is possible to change them.


Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about a really successful person. Do you think this person achieved his or her success with little or no effort? Chances are this person worked really hard to get to where he or she is. Inevitably, that person encountered a few failures along the way.
  • Reflect on a time you failed and someone else didn’t. Now, consider the idea that perhaps the other person studied harder, prepared more thoroughly, or worked through more obstacles. Those options are available to you too.
  • Don’t refer to yourself as stupid or a failure. If you are in a situation where your intelligence is questioned, get yourself into a growth mindset. Think about learning and improvement – and then work toward it. Don’t focus on the failure.
  • Stay away from labels. Dweck is not the first person to mention this (nor is this the first time that I have mentioned this in my column). However, those with a fixed mindset tend to label themselves as “smart,” “funny,” “stupid,” or any other descriptive adjective. The growth mindset argues that you have to stay away from labels. Instead, your actions can be “smart,” “funny,” or “stupid,” but you yourself are able to change and grow.
  • Banish stereotypes. Stereotypes are the bread and butter of the fixed mindset. If you abide by stereotypes (girls are bad at math, boys are bad at reading), you are not only labeling, but you are also making statements about ability. The growth mindset challenges you to allow everyone to learn and change his or her potential.

The Connection to Pessimism and Optimism

A lot of this mindset research sounds like pessimists (fixed) vs. optimists (growth), but there is a subtle difference in the way these two concepts work. Your mindset is about the way you view yourself and your ability to change. In contrast, optimism and pessimism is the way you view the world around you. The two do overlap. If you believe that your characteristics are fixed and therefore unchangeable, you are more likely to be pessimistic when things go wrong. On the flip side, if you see yourself as improvable, you will look for solutions when presented with failure.

The research points to one clear outcome: Those who believe they can learn and grow even from adversity are more likely to be successful as spouses, parents, and professionals. Check and see your reaction to failure: do you shut down or attempt to learn from it? Do you judge yourself or reevaluate for the future? Dweck, someone who constantly works to cultivate a growth mindset, argues that you can change yours. I’d argue that it’s worth a try!


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at