At one point in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discusses the work of Benjamin Bloom, a leading educational expert. After 40 years of intensive research on learning, Bloom has concluded, "What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning."
Dweck adds that he's not including the 2% to 3% of kids with learning impairments or the 1% to 2% of children who are prodigies, but "he is counting everyone else."
Most of us, of course, are "everyone else," and Bloom's findings are very encouraging. We all have the ability to master a wide variety of different skills and subject areas. We just need to work hard at it, while also having the right mind-set. Dweck's extremely valuable book shows us -- by drawing on numerous examples from the worlds of education, sports, and business -- how having a growth mind-set might make us more successful. I found her ideas potentially quite valuable for investors.
"You can't be serious"
Dweck introduces the notion of mind-sets as follows:
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you can accomplish the things you value.
She's discovered that there are two primary mind-sets. There's the fixed mind-set, where folks believe they "have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character." People with this mind-set are afraid of being found wanting, and feel the need to prove themselves over and over again.
The growth mind-set, on the other hand, is "based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your own efforts." Even though we're all different in a wide variety of ways, people with the growth mind-set believe "everyone can change and grow through application and experience."
We can see, of course, examples of fixed mind-set thinking all around us: "It's too late for me to learn a language" or "I'm a natural at basketball, so I don't need to practice" or "I would have succeeded if I had better coaching." Dweck provides concrete examples of fixed mind-set thinking by profiling John McEnroe, Bobby Knight, and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. She believes that each saw themselves as a finished product, as opposed to a work in progress. That's why they spent so much time protecting themselves, and blaming others.
Be like the Wizard of Westwood
At the other end of the spectrum, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, arguably the finest coach of all time, is a perfect example of a growth mind-set individual, according to Dweck. He taught his players that "You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better."
All he asked of his athletes was that they give their best effort. If they did, then he was satisfied, and he believed they should be, too.
Some of the findings from sports researchers seem especially relevant to investors. Here are three such findings that Dweck discusses in detail:
- Great athletes with the growth mind-set "found success in doing their best, in learning and improving." And Dweck argues that this is precisely "what we find in the champions."
- Sports stars with the growth mind-set actually were motivated by setbacks. She notes as an example that famous Nike ad, where Michael Jordan talks of missing 9,000 shots, losing almost 300 games, and missing the game-winning shot 26 times.
- Professional athletes with the growth mind-set "took charge of the processes that bring success -- and that maintain it." That's why great ones like Michael Jordan or Nolan Ryan could sustain their excellence for so long. They decided to work even harder after reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
Ordinary investors like you and me should try to approach our craft in similar ways. There is so much to learn about investing that it's silly to ever see yourself as a finished product.
And learning from your mistakes is one of the most important attributes of successful investors. Josh Brown, a prominent financial advisor and blogger, has noted that Warren Buffett commemorated his first 25 years at Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.B) (NYSE:BRK.A) by including a long section in his shareholder letter titled, "Mistakes of the First Twenty-Five Years (A Condensed Version)." He concluded that letter in 1989 by saying "We hope in another 25 years to report on the mistakes of the first 50."
Finally, investors should always take ownership for their own performance. Blaming others -- whether it's Ben Bernanke or Jim Cramer or your good-for-nothing brother-in-law -- for your investing mistakes is fixed mind-set thinking.
Buy the book
I highly recommend Dweck's book for anyone who wants to get better at investing or any other activity they are interested in. As a parent of two children, I've already benefited from one of her insights. She notes that after experiments with hundreds of children, she has learned that "praising children's intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance." So instead of saying, "you're so smart you'll do well on the test." Parents should say, "if you study really hard, then you'll put yourself in a position to do well." Just that slight change in mind-set can have a huge impact on how kids approach their schoolwork. There are numerous other research findings like this one in this outstanding book.