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Monday, October 26, 2015

The Fixed Mindset and the “Praise Bell”

You’ve got to know that when you come across an article entitled “Why Do Women Fail?” in a forum that specifically exists to promote women, somebody is likely to be unhappy with whatever conclusions may be drawn.

Unless the answer is “men”, I suspect.

The fact that the piece is credited to two credentialed women (one a Stanford University professor of psychology, the other the co-founder of the Girl’s Leadership Institute) and flagged with an uncharacteristic editorial disclaimer declaring, “The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors” just serves to make it more interesting.

I’m hooked.

Women and Success

The article responds to Harvard University professor Claudia Goldin’s revelation earlier this year that women are dropping out of undergraduate economics courses because they fail to consistently score As, while men with average or poor marks tend to persist in anticipation of a payoff down the road. When immediate success is not forthcoming, it seems women are inclined to give up more quickly and in higher numbers than men.

Here is the controversial part: rather than simply hollering “Sexism!” and writing an exposé of the abuses inherent in the system, Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons choose to observe an essential difference between men and women: comparing the “fixed mindset” of many women to the  “growth mindset” of many men.

Okay, I admit they do kinda holler “Sexism!” a bit later on, but prior to doing so they make some useful observations:
“Mindset can be traced to the types of praise we receive from parents and teachers. Celebrating a child’s intelligence can instill a fixed mindset: the child becomes determined to prove how smart she is rather than learn from a task that might initially involve failure.

Children praised for their effort or strategies — what’s called ‘process praise’ — develop a growth mindset and become more motivated to tinker with a problem than solve it right off the bat.

Starting in infancy, parents tend to give boys more process praise, an advantage that results in a greater desire for challenge, and a growth mindset, later on. In the classroom, teachers give boys more process feedback, inviting them to try new strategies or work harder after a mistake. As a result, boys learn to see challenges and setbacks as things they can tackle with the right plan.

Girls, perhaps seen as well-motivated already, are given fewer messages to try harder or again. They are left to wonder whether their challenges reflect something deeper about their ability.

Boys also learn to cope with criticism through sheer volume. Teachers call out boys eight times more often than girls.”
Dweck and Simmons go on to recommend ways that teachers and parents can change this ingrained mindset in coming generations of young women, but I think we can leave them there.

I’m more interested in whether there is a takeaway for believers here, and I think there is.

Something More Significant Than Human Praise

Even if it turns out to be true that the kinds of praise bestowed upon children by modern educators have the effect of better preparing men to handle criticism and adversity, all those who claim to be followers of Christ need to learn to motivate ourselves for the various things we undertake — caring for our families, discharging job responsibilities or serving other members of the Body of Christ — with something more significant than the approval of those around us.

Put simply, those who live their lives as conformist praise-jockeys, male or female, will always find reasons to give up the things they have undertaken because, in and of themselves, those pursuits fail utterly to satisfy either ego or expectations.

Life is rarely an endless litany of compliments and appreciation, even for those who are very skilled at what we do. Many “uncontrollables” factor into whether our contributions get noticed, how they are perceived and whether appreciation is felt or expressed. Jealousies, rivalries, incompetence, inattention … so many things can rob us of what we think are well-deserved accolades. If what matters to us is primarily how we are perceived and how often and how effusively we are praised, we are going to find the working world, family life, and our experience of the church far from satisfying.

The Cult of Self-Esteem

Though they don’t stop to reflect on it, I suspect what Dweck and Simmons are really observing is the Pavlovian effect of 25 years of prioritizing the self-esteem of children rather than cultivating in them a disposition toward service and performance regardless of outcome. Ring the “praise bell” and doggie salivates. Remove the obvious incentive and … no such luck.

Where opting out is possible, the average person no longer performs tasks out of mere duty. If there is not a regular ego stroke involved, the conventional wisdom is Why continue?

So if we want to raise children in this culture capable of persisting even when there is no chance of applause, and if we want to accomplish anything really important, we need to point both them and ourselves to motivations more significant than mere ego validation.

Praise from Men

The Lord Jesus said that a desire for glory from our fellow men is an impediment to faith. John pointed out that concern for the approval of others frequently led to an unwillingness to identify publicly with the Lord Jesus among even those who believed on him. This very natural tendency to look around to see whether people are cheering us on not only disposes us to quit the things we undertake early and often, but more importantly it is antithetical to an effective Christian walk.

Paul talks about a number of things to which Christians ought to be committed: the commitment of the wife to submit to her husband; the commitment of the husband to love his wife; the commitment of children to obey their parents; the commitment of a father to manage his children without unduly provoking them; the commitment of servants to obey their earthly masters. (I recognize this last has no precise analogue in the modern workforce for hire, but to the extent that we contract to provide our services to another, our word is our bond and we ought to be at least as committed to what we have undertaken as a slave in the first century, whose daily situation may often have been far worse than anything we would encounter today.)

None of these undertakings are contingent on receiving sufficient timely, positive feedback to keep us happy in our various roles.

Working for the Lord

Summing up these various responsibilities, and expanding their range considerably by beginning with the word “whatever”, the apostle then says this:
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
Note what Paul says here about how we should do these things: “Not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” 

For the Christian, people-pleasing is not part of the package. It is not where we get our satisfaction. It is not how we measure our worth. The reaction of others is not a factor in whether or not we wholeheartedly embrace the tasks in front of us, whatever they may be.

Not Waiting for the “Praise Bell”

This is something that needs to be drilled into every Christian husband, father, wife, mother, child, student, citizen, employee and particularly every believer who undertakes a responsibility in a local church for which he or she may never be recognized by fellow Christians or adequately compensated in this life. I need to drill it into myself, frankly.

When I learn to think of everything I undertake as service to Christ — not just my husband, my wife, my parents, my employer, my teachers, my professors or any of the various authorities who may demand something of me — and to think of it as my expression of love to him, it cannot help but transform the way I discharge these responsibilities on a daily basis.

It will make me observably different from all those around me waiting for the “praise bell” to ring.

And if pleasing Christ, who gave himself for me, is insufficient motivation to work with all my heart at everything I undertake, I have bigger problems than poor self-esteem or a “fixed mindset”.

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