Meredith Whipple Callahan is a fascinating thinker and a former MBA student at Stanford, where we got to know each other a few years ago. She recently posted the chart above in What's Behind Your Beliefs?, a discussion of "foundational mindsets" that I find quite thought-provoking. While acknowledging the debt we all owe Stanford's Carol Dweck for her work on "fixed vs. growth" mindsets, Meredith argues that "Dweck’s focus on the growth/fixed mindset alone limits what mindsets can help us see. Ultimately, there are a handful of foundational mindsets that drive our orientation to the world."
I agree that "mindset" transcends the "growth/fixed" dichotomy, and we're missing out on a bigger conversation if we stop there. In addition to Dweck's framework, my definitions of mindset include:
- The overarching idea that what we think--and particularly what we think about ourselves--influences how we perceive the world around us and how we experience that world.
- The process of understanding cognitive biases and principles of neuroscience in order to leverage them and turn them to our advantage, rather than be buffeted about by them.
- An awareness of our existing mental models, beliefs and assumptions, many of which are the result of past learning experiences and which may not have been re-examined or updated in the interim.
Meredith describes the 13 "foundational mindsets" above as "fundamental orientations to the world upon which many of our functional, everyday beliefs are built"--seven that describe "how the world works" and six that describe "how we engage with that world." I find this a compelling mental model of existence, although whenever I encounter such a model I'm reminded of Alford Korzybski's warning--"A map is not the territory it represents"--and his encouragement to avoid generalizing and look at the specifics of each situation.
I also feel that some of these dimensions seem more balanced--there are pros and cons to both sides, but each have their merits--while others seem as though there's a moral imperative to be on one side rather than the other. That surely has more to do with my own baggage than with Meredith's intention, but it's worth noting because any discussion of mindset framed by Dweck's work incorporates the idea that a fixed mindset is to be avoided and a growth mindset is to be cultivated. I've seen this dichotomy induce anxiety when people encounter Dweck's concept of mindset and actually inhibit their ability to learn and grow. I think the key is self-compassion and avoiding moral judgments--change is hard, and while a little anxiety can be a useful spur to action, too much gets in the way.
Those concerns notwithstanding, I see Meredith's framework as a very useful tool for analysis and problem-solving, and she maps out the first steps. After outlining the dimensions above in her post, Meredith invites us to review them and then ask these powerful questions:
- For each pair, under which mindset do I most commonly operate?
- Was this a conscious choice, or did I adopt it without consideration?
- Where did this mindset come from? Are there patterns of mindsets that come from my family, my religion, my culture, or my country? What in my experience leads me to operate under this mindset?
- What actions do I take based on these foundational mindsets?
That last question leads us directly to Chris Argyris's concept of the ladder of inference, and a recognition that we take action on the basis of our theories and beliefs--our mindsets--and those theories and beliefs then influence the data we gather in order to interpret and make sense of the world and our experience in it.
So when we find ourselves stuck or facing a challenging situation, these foundational mindsets offer a number of different points of intervention. Just as Dweck's model allows us to learn from failures, overcome setbacks, and take on more risk by recognizing the limits we impose on ourselves through a fixed mindset, Meredith's framework invites us to look at many other ways that our mindsets influence how we see the world, how we see ourselves, the beliefs we adopt as a result, and the actions we take in turn.
Image © Meredith Whipple Callahan. Used by permission.