|Image credit: here|
The key feature of a fixed mindset is that intelligence is a fixed, inborn property that does not change in time for a given individual. Those with fixed mindsets tend to see outcomes such as success and failure as a result of these fixed, personal traits. "He didn't get the job because he's not smart" or "I didn't pass the test because I'm not smart" or "she's not a good scientist because she's not smart." I'm sure there are other personal qualities that people could focus on other than smartness, but in the realm of science for many people with fixed mindsets it comes down to who is and is not "smart."
I like to refer to this fixation on smartness as the Cult of Smart. Somewhat pejorative? Yes, indeed. Apropos? Big-time. Primarily because this stance is based more on faith than scientific evidence.
Members of the Cult of Smart can be found in all astronomy departments and, sadly, their voices are
|"Nope! Not good enough." |
says Prof. Cowell thoughtfully
"How about candidate A? He had a really interesting recent result that I---"
"NOPE! Not good. Doesn't even know GR. No way, not good enough."
"But, he gave a great talk at a recent conference I was at, and he really showed a deep understanding during the Q&A. What I particularly liked was---"
"Oh, come on! Seriously? Are you crazy? Where's the fundamental physics? This guy doesn't know anything."
(Note that this is not an actual conversation, but it is based on many real conversations I've been involved in over the years. It's similarity to the opinions of specific individuals is purely coincidental, but not unlikely.)
Why do people act this way? Well, think about their fixed mindset. To their minds intelligence is a fixed trait, and guess who has it? They do! It's their birthright and what sets them apart from everyone else. They're special, and there are only a chosen few who are like them. Unless the person they are evaluating exhibits the signs of the excellence they see in themselves, then those people aren't useful for much. They're not good now and they're not gonna be any better in the future.
Keep in mind that this is just one, particularly pathological manifestation of a fixed mindset. Even if you aren't a pompous blow-hard, as I'm sure you, dear reader, are not, you can still suffer from other side effects of a fixed outlook. If you believe that intelligence is innate and immutable, then what does facing an intellectual challenge tell you? If you're stuck working a tough problem, then what's the message? The message is fairly clear and not very positive: This is as far as you can go. You're not that smart after all.
After hitting this point and having those types of thoughts, students often drop out of contact with their advisors. "Oh no! I can't let the Prof. know that I'm stuck. She'll think I'm an idiot. Maybe I am an idiot! No! I can't let her know. Maybe if I sit here for a month or two the answer will drop from the sky. Maybe my intelligence is just temporarily suspended somehow." Weeks go by and the professor starts wondering where that bright-eyed, young student research went. Did they run off and join the Peace Corps? Did they get hit by a train?
This phenomenon of the disappearing student occurs regularly even at the most elite universities and research institutions. It happens with students who are smart by traditional definitions, and those who are not. It happens for students with good grades and bad, both high and low GRE scores.
Another manifestation of fixedness is a difficulty in taking criticism, whether constructive or not. This is how my fixed attitudes are manifested. When someone gives me specific yet critical feedback, rather than taking it for what it is---advice on how I can improve one specific aspect of my research or personal behavior---I sometimes take it as a global assessment of my self-worth.
Person: "You know, it would help to include a few more references on your slides."
Me thinking to myself: "What?! Doesn't this person realize how much work I put into this talk. Just who do they think they are, telling me that I don't give good talks. I cite so many people in my talks. Are they saying I'm a self-centered, selfish, ungrateful person? How dare they! Screw them and their crappy advice!"
|A Smart crashing. Credit here|
But what about those judgmental people? Are they judging you as being smart or not smart right now? Yup, they sure are and they're not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. This is something that we all have to deal with, just like we have to deal with rainy days, bad drivers, rude people at the grocery store, crying babies on airplanes, etc. It's a part of life in general, and academic life in particular, that we'll be judged rather frequently, often by people with fixed mindsets.
The only question is: How will you deal with it. Is your identity and worth tied up in others reaffirming your inborn talent and intelligence? If so, it'll be rough for you in the coming years as those fixed-minded individuals in higher positions pass judgement on you. You'll waste precious brain-CPU cycles ruminating on what others think about you and your smartness. Every comment sent your way will run through a filter that transforms off-handed remarks into judgements of your personal worth. You'll have a tough time.
Or will you overcome your fixed-mindset tendencies and start marginalizing out the pompous blow-hards and start working with me to form a vocal contingent to push back on the old ways of thinking?