Yeager on Growth Mindset: Overcoming Failure & Stress

Looking Up vs. Looking Down After Failure

Yeager defines growth mindset as the belief that abilities or potential in a domain can change under the right conditions and support. He highlights a 2019 study where a short growth mindset intervention for 9th graders led to better grades and enrolling in harder math classes 8-9 months later, with effects even four years later on graduating high school with college-ready courses.

Yeager’s favorite study by Nussbaum and Dweck demonstrates how fixed versus growth mindsets affect coping with failure. Participants who performed poorly on a task either looked downward at those who did worse to boost their self-esteem (fixed mindset) or looked upward at high performers to learn strategies for improvement (growth mindset). This openness to self-improvement is a key mechanism of the growth mindset.

Reframing Stress as Readiness for Performance

Huberman and Yeager discuss the need for better language to describe stress and arousal. They point out that people often conflate stressors with stress responses, leading to the belief that all stress is bad.

Yeager explains that stressors are demands placed on the body and mind, while the stress response is determined by how a person appraises and interprets the stressor. A threat-type stress response occurs when a person believes they cannot handle the stressor, leading to physiological changes designed to protect the body from harm.

However, many modern stressors are social rather than physical, and the appraisal of these stressors can significantly influence the stress response. Yeager emphasizes that stressors are not inherently good or bad, and reframing one’s perspective on a stressor can lead to better outcomes.

The researchers suggest that developing a better language to describe stress and arousal could help people better understand and manage their stress responses. However, finding the right terminology can be challenging, as evidenced by Yeager’s experience using the word “arousal” in a presentation to middle school students.

Optimal Arousal for Peak Performance

Huberman discusses the autonomic nervous system and its continuum from coma to panic attack. He believes that understanding this continuum can help people determine if they are in the optimal state for dealing with challenges.

Yeager expands on this idea, explaining that there are two different tracks of high arousal: threat type stress, where one is terrified of failure, and challenge type stress, where one is confident and excited. He uses the example of a skier at the top of a double black diamond – a good skier would be in a challenge state, while a terrible skier would be in a threat state.

Yeager emphasizes the importance of pairing demand with the perception of resources to meet that demand. These resources can be internal, such as confidence or the ability to reappraise, or external, such as having a friend to turn to or being trained to overcome the challenge.

Huberman agrees that if one believes the stress and effort will lead to success, they will be more willing to invest the effort, especially if they are motivated to reach the goal at the finish line. Yeager adds that by turning the demand into a resource in one’s mind, it can help people cope at a physiological level.

The Power of Comeback Stories

Yeager suggests that when someone has a fixed mindset, it may be comforting to them in some way, and it’s not always wise to challenge that directly. However, if someone is open to change, it’s best to focus on the specific domain where growth is needed, as analogic reasoning can be challenging.

Huberman notes that people love comeback stories, where individuals rise from difficult circumstances to thrive once again. This classic narrative is common in America and around the world, though not everyone experiences such a turnaround.

Huberman sees the application of growth mindset throughout life, from learning to walk as a child to facing challenges in areas where we believe we excel. Life is a series of efforts to apply a growth mindset, even when we find ourselves struggling.

The inherent human drive to learn and grow

Yeager suggests that growth mindset becomes most relevant when individuals face significant challenges. Psychological treatments like growth mindset tend to work better for those who could plausibly benefit from them and are in supportive environments that allow them to apply the mindset over time.

In a 2019 study, Yeager and his colleagues found that growth mindset interventions had the most significant long-term effects on low-achieving students in high schools with a supportive classroom culture and more advanced courses. The message is that growth mindset should be considered one tool in a toolkit to help people achieve their goals, alongside addressing the allocation of resources that enable individuals to pursue those goals.

Yeager emphasizes that growth mindset is not about fixing a deficit but rather an asset-based perspective that presumes people already have the desire to do well. The aim is to remove cultural and social barriers that prevent people from pursuing their natural goals when they inevitably struggle while pushing themselves beyond their abilities.

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