If you’ve never watched The West Wing, then we’re here to tell you that you really should. Not only is it one of the most critically-acclaimed television shows ever, but it’s also an incredible source of career inspiration. But what’s a twenty year old political drama got to do with growth mindset and work in 2020 you might say? Well, it turns out quite a lot. Let us tell you why.
There is a recurring motif in the much celebrated episode Two Cathedrals. In a flashback to the schooldays of President Jed Bartlet, we see him questioned by his longtime assistant and mentor, Mrs Landingham, as to why he hasn’t completed a task. Young Jed simply replies “It’s just that I haven’t got there yet”. Flash forward to the Oval Office and a moment of reckoning that will define his presidency, and another conversation - this time imagined - with Mrs Landingham, where she chides him for not knowing how to use his office intercom. His response? "It's not that I don't know how to use it. It's just that I haven't learned yet."
The most important word in both these exchanges is one of the smallest and most innocuous: ‘yet’. That three letter word sums up one of the most enduring features of Jed Bartlet’s character: his growth mindset.
While he may never master the intercom, over the course of seven seasons, the fictional President approaches almost every one of the challenges he faces as an opportunity to learn and to grow, for the benefit of everyone. We see him seek opinion-changing counsel from his committed band of senior staff; we see his wife and daughters open his eyes to the issues and debates affecting them and millions of others; we see everyone from military generals to small children offer him new perspectives on the country he is presiding over. At no point is his mindset fixed, he is a consistent work in progress, always seeking out what he hasn’t learned, yet.
The West Wing is held up by some as an unrealistic paragon of idealist liberal values - a world that we wished we lived in; where politicians are fair, where opposing factions collaborate, and where you can admit what you don’t know ‘yet’ without fear. It’s obviously not real! But if you look past the fictionalised idyll it presents, Bartlet’s world can teach us a thing or two about how to overcome the challenges we all face in our working lives.
Understanding growth and fixed mindsets
To understand why being a work in progress is so important, it’s worth looking at the work of Dr Carol Dweck, the psychologist who defined growth and fixed mindsets: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed - through hard work, good strategies, and input from others - have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset - those who believe their talents are innate gifts.”
Dweck put this topic under the spotlight in 2014 when she delivered a barnstorming TED talk looking at how children approach education and how those with a ‘growth’ mindset who held the view that their abilities could be developed and increased, and that they could do that by taking on challenges. That by doing new, hard things; by persevering and learning from their mistakes, they could become smarter. In contrast, kids who viewed their talents and abilities as innate and unchangeable, were more risk-averse and scared of failure which prevented them from progressing.
Put simply, Dweck saw a clear contrast between those children who rebounded from setbacks and those that were devastated by them, and realised that the difference came down to who believed they could get smarter by putting in more effort and sticking with something, and those who felt their intelligence level and abilities were fixed, so there was no point in trying. The children that thought they simply couldn’t do something ‘yet’ were more likely to do better than those who gave up and thought they just couldn't do it at all.
Dweck’s findings on education have also been widely embraced in the workplace, and she has often underlined the importance of learning and perseverance in an organisational setting as well as in an educational one.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about saying that it’s important to learn from your mistakes, and to believe that success is the product of increased effort. But having a growth mindset is about more than just putting in the work; it’s not about just praising the ‘effort’. It’s about linking that effort made to a positive outcome or indicator of progress; and it’s about being open to the idea of formulating an alternative strategy to approach a challenge. And it’s about understanding that there’s no limit to what you can learn or what you can change. That there is no limit on ‘yet’.
Open doors or closed?
Having a growth mindset is about being ‘spongey’ in the way you approach work and life; it’s about soaking up experiences, opportunities and challenges, rather than letting them bounce off you. And being fixed in your thinking is all about defence; it’s about putting up a wall and protecting yourself from the things you think you can’t learn or control. A growth mindset is about opening doors in your thinking; and a fixed mindset is about closing them behind you.
In reality, everyone does both. No one - not even President Bartlet - can maintain a growth mindset all of the time. We all have fixed positions and beliefs about ourselves, and these can get more pronounced when we feel stressed or out of our depth. For example, we might feel threatened by others and shut them down, or we might pretend we know what we’re talking about to save face, rather than actually seeking the knowledge we need.
It’s also important to remember that assuming a growth mindset is most powerful when you adopt it in an area that also aligns with your super powers and your authentic self. If you do that you are pushing on an already open door. A growth mindset may still get you a long way if you apply it to an area that doesn’t map to your strengths and values, but the journey will be tougher and you will likely have to work harder to overcome obstacles along the way.
The key to letting the ‘growth-y’ bit of your mindset win out is to remind yourself that, while at times it might hurt, how you think and feel about yourself is a choice - and you’re the only one that can make it.
More on growth mindset
Dr Carol Dweck: Mindset - How you can fulfil your potential
The New Yorker: The Talent Myth - Malcolm Gladwell
Financial Times: Psychologist Carol Dweck: ‘Everyone is a work in progress’
Harvard Business Review: What having a growth mindset actually means
The Atlantic: ‘Find your passion’ is awful advice