To reject the growth mindset, we must divorce ourselves from careerism.
BY S.E. SMITH
What if our jobs weren’t who we are, but something we did because our lives were enriched by something more than money? The longing to “get rich quick” has survived thousands of iterations, all of which position wealth as integral to happiness. “Think and grow rich” is one of those concepts, and like all the others, it robs people of the opportunity to build community and drive social progress, two things that can’t be measured by the amount of money in your bank account.
The phrase “think and grow rich” originated in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 book of the same name. Hill’s book outlined 13 principles—based on, he claimed, the lives of more than 500 men of great means—to create a “philosophy of achievement” that allows people to accrue wealth. Some of those principles include having a defined goal and pouring everything you have into achieving it, while others have a decidedly mystical bent, such as developing “the sixth sense” or “vibrating on a high frequency” in order to tap into an “infinite intelligence” that guarantees
success. These principles follow a familiar pattern, one that suggests if people just try hard enough, they’ll acquire the life of their dreams.
If we heed Hill’s philosophy, success is a matter of effort and unwavering self-belief rather than a game of luck. However, his “philosophy of achievement” ethos doesn’t account for systemic issues occurring outside an individual’s control. And yet, that hasn’t stopped Hill’s idea from fueling a slew of advice books and concepts, including The Human Side of Enterprise (1960), The Effective Executive (1967), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), and Secrets of the Millionaire Mind (2005), all of which build on his work.
One such concept is “growth mindset,” a term developed by psychologist Carol Dweck in the 1970s to be applied to educational contexts. While the concept isn’t derived from “think and grow rich,” it is still part of Hill’s legacy, joining a conveyor belt of fads that blame those who fail under capitalism for their lack of success. “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” wrote Dweck in a 1975 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).”
On the surface, this premise is not outlandish: Humans learn and grow throughout their lives, and that may require working through discomfort or failures. In the classroom, teachers are advised to help students cultivate a growth mindset by pushing them to take risks and strive for what proponents describe as “reach goals,” aspirations that may be beyond their present abilities, but could be achievable by taking chances. But as J. Luke Wood, the dean’s distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University, notes, before they can hit “reach goals,” students need affirmation, validation, and support. However Wood says many students of color never receive encouragement in the classroom: “It’s a common microaggression in education with students of color: educators assume that based upon their race, they are academically inferior or incapable.” When educators don’t recognize this fundamental barrier for students of color, assuming their capacity is both fixed and below that of white students, it’s hard to make “reach goals.”
“Growth mindset … creates a myth of meritocracy, that students who work the hardest, put in more hours, are the ones who do the best,” says Wood, putting the burden on students, rather than educators. This individualist approach also leaves out the role of larger community circles, including not just educators, but also family and mentors; these supports are more readily available to white, wealthy students who are more successful under the growth mindset model.
In a study that compared school districts applying the growth mindset approach, “the Native kids [from a low-performing district] outdid the Microsoft kids,” Dweck said in 2014, suggesting the concept could help struggling students achieve at a higher level. But the study relied on test scores as a metric for results, hardly the only or best way to find out how children are learning and developing, particularly when it comes to outcomes for Black, Indigenous, Southeast Asian, and Latinx students, who have a fundamentally different classroom experience.
From Classroom to Boardroom
The modern application of the growth mindset to workplaces echoes the same philosophy: If you aren’t achieving the career success you desire, you simply aren’t stretching yourself enough. In the best-selling 2017 book Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and several co-authors argue that people with a growth mindset make for better leaders, and that Microsoft’s success under Nadella can be partially attributed to his embrace of the growth mindset theory. Similarly, technologist and business analyst Vinita Bansal draws on the idea in Upgrade Your Mindset: How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs and Tap Your Potential (2021), which puts responsibility on workers to change their thinking in order to change the material conditions of their lives.
Considering that careers have become the singular, all-important American obsession, this army of self-help books aims to help workers and middle management chase their “think and grow rich” dreams, without acknowledging that some people are born on third base, much closer to success than those who have to start at the beginning. These books also betray a fundamentally narrow and ultimately very dull version of the world, one in which success follows specific tracks, and failure nips at the heels of those who can’t stay on them. Hyperfocusing on high-status jobs, as these books do, posits white-collar work in
fields such as tech, business, and medicine as the ultimate accomplishment; the guy who flips burgers should have worked harder on his growth mindset.
Many factors that shape the trajectory of a career are beyond a worker’s control. Misogyny, racism, disablism, and transphobia may determine whether someone is provided with the tools and support to grow. External, systemic factors, from high student loan debt for Black workers to the lack of child care for parents, impede many workers’ ascent up the corporate ladder. Society celebrates people who develop skills and work through adversity—the perceived “growth mindset”—and punishes those who seem trapped—the perceived “fixed mindset.” But it’s not possible to “growth mindset” out of racism.
“Black people—and Black women especially—are shut out of traditional employment, but our culture applauds the hustler who responds to exclusion by striking out on her own,” Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in a 2020 piece for Dissent. “Black women platform entrepreneurs have more education than their white male and female counterparts,” McMillan Cottom continued. “Despite having more formal education, they face more job insecurity than similarly educated peers.” Between 2009 and 2018, Black women founders in tech raised $289 million in capital, with just 34 Black women raising more than $1 million, while the industry as a whole raised $424.7 billion. Though the number of Black female entrepreneurs is rising, a stubborn pay gap still holds them back, and 2020 highlighted that funder pledges don’t equate to increased racial equity.
Growth mindset could be interpreted differently, as a genuinely collaborative process that creates interdependent communities and reshapes how people view life goals. Instead of being defined by career, growth could be viewed through the webs of connections built via mutualism. “Are you a good steward for the space that you’re in?” founder of disability rights organization Ramp Your Voice!, speaker, and disability rights consultant Vilissa Thompson asks, a reminder that success may be viewed in ways that are unquantifiable.
Breaking free of capitalist pressures to separate work from life includes embracing the four-day workweek, fostering union growth, and building worker power. All of these mutual projects are an important starting point for shifting culture away from a personal-focused model to something larger—true growth requires community support, not just work and individual effort. For example, growth mindset could include raising children, volunteering, and seeking out new skills for pleasure or to support the community as a whole. It could also include setting boundaries around work that allow people to lead fuller lives, and finding validation in activities that aren’t necessarily sanctioned under capitalism: Spending a day at the beach fosters growth, as does attending a protest.
Careerism is not the only or most important goal in life; people should not be defined by the wage labor they perform, and the things they do shouldn’t need to have monetary value. Sometimes a painting is just a painting. Even as the pandemic sparked complex conversations about work, it also opened up the possibility for a better understanding of community. Neighbors became allies, and as the world slowly opened up, some formed “bubbles” who socialized together, managed children learning remotely together, and sourced toilet paper together. For some, these bubbles went deeper than getting to know the neighbors and reflected interdependent networks that already existed.
Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist and culture critic, moved to Lummi Island, Washington, during the pandemic to find community. “What brought me here was my best friends were living here,” says Petersen, who decided to put her writing about how you’d be happier living near your friends into practice. The island is small, with a full-time population of nearly 900 residents, but has a lively social world. Part of that world includes her friends’ two young children, whom Petersen or her partner pick up every day after school and care for over the course of a few hours.
This “kid-swapping,” as she calls it, is an important part of her social life, and is part of the web of connections she’s formed. Some kid-swapping days are easier than others. “I’m [sometimes] like ‘I can’t do it, there’s too much going on…’ and every single time I’m like ‘that was amazing.’” Growth through challenge is possible by means other than career striving: The relationship she has with her young charges cultivates a different kind of personal development. “What fills your life? There are so many answers when we’re not as yoked to making money all the time,” says Petersen.
Choosing intentional community doesn’t mean rejecting work or career-building. As memoirist Nicole Chung explains, work and community can integrate: “I actually had a debut writers email group. We kept in touch, cheering each other on. It was small, but really vital. I tried to have that same generally open positive
spirit in other interactions and relationships with fellow writers, regardless of career stage.” For Chung, a writing community was characterized by mutualism and support. That’s formalized not just through groups, but also her work at Periplus, a mentoring organization for writers of color, as well as holding office hours for writers during her time at Catapult, a now-shuttered online magazine. Chung is not focused solely on personal growth and her career, but uplifting others as well.
Rejecting individualism can reframe the idea of a growth mindset as a cultural shift toward a more interdependent and mutually supportive society. That’s a sentiment Dweck seems to agree with, as she explained in a 2020 interview with tes magazine: “It is not about teaching the concept alone, it is much more about implementing practices that focus on growth and learning.” As Wood has found in his own research, putting up a sign out front or including language about a “growth mindset school” in advertising materials for a private or charter school doesn’t speak to the culture change that needs to happen in each classroom, customized to the students in that classroom. In affirming students who are willing to challenge themselves with difficult tasks such as reaching for advanced math skills, it’s important to consider who is encouraged to do so, the risks of failing, and what it takes to build a classroom environment where it is safe to take risks and success is defined by more than test scores.
“That’s basically capitalism in a nutshell, making you feel responsible for the things that you struggle with, all the bad things that happen to you,” Chung says. Rejecting the notion of a simplistic growth mindset and instead embracing and reckoning with the complexity of living in a society provides a much clearer path to building a culture that prizes working together through rich and lean, pandemic and wildfire, protest and celebration. Walking away from dreams of wealth may be the ultimate growth mindset, leaving wildflowers to bloom in the ashes of careerism.
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