Read this book. It might change your life.

7 mins

There are a handful of books that I’ve found positively earth-shattering. One of them is Mindset, by Professor Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.

You might have noticed a bit of a book theme going on at Legal Brew. I’ve found life richer and more exciting with books. But it wasn’t always this way.

In my first iteration as a “busy lawyer”, books weren’t something that I naturally reached for. My reasoning⁠—“I already read all day, why would I want to do exactly the SAME THING?!”.

Truth be told, I’ve missed out on a great deal. I call this my “black hole period”⁠—circa when I started at law school to when I ceased being a “busy lawyer” to a more mindful one.

The elusive black hole in 2019. We finally have an image capture! (Source)

This more mindful period coincided with reading Mindset. It was an “aha!” moment which fundamentally changed my understanding about how my brain worked but also why different people might react differently to the same situation.

You might already know about Mindset from Dweck’s TED Talk:

If you haven’t already read it, I suggest that you run out onto the street like a half-crazed person and grab a copy from your nearest bookstore (ok, maybe not). As a friend of mine would say, you can try diving headlong into the interwebs to order a copy. It’s the 21st century after all.

Here’s a rollick through my favourite sections.

Fixed vs. Growth mindset

The premise of Mindset is simple.

“A growth mindset is about believing that you (and other people) can develop abilities.”

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset.

Simple premise, but with huge implications in the way we operate as humans (or lawyers) in different orbits of work, parenting, relationships and everywhere in between⁠—also known as life:

“… 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 accomplish the things you value…

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone⁠—the fixed mindset⁠—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character⁠—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

So, what’s a theory without some examples? Let’s start with a straightforward one that I made up.

You failed an exam despite working your bum off, skipping weekend outings and Friday night drinks. (I can almost hear an audible gasp from the lawyers in the virtual room. Failure, oh no can’t do that!)

Fixed mindset human beans say: “This whole exam is rigged. They put us on a bell-curve so only certain students can pass. This would have never happened if I had better teachers. I can’t be bothered re-sitting this exam now.

Growth mindset human beans say: “Gee, I might have overlooked a bunch of topics while preparing for the exam. I’ll ask to review my exam paper to work out what areas I can improve on. My understanding isn’t up to scratch now, but with some hard work I will be able to sort it out.”

(I couldn’t resist the urge to draw on Roald Dahl’s BFG human beans here.)

Lawyer Land, watch out!

Wait, does the sun shine here?

So what does this have to do with Lawyer Land? A great deal, in fact.

Meditating on my experiences, one of the most enlightening moments was sitting down with a lawyer who was considered “the best in the field”. At the time, I was naively unaware of this fact. He said, “I’m not sure what the answer is, but how about we sit down and work through this”. I thought, “ok, maybe he doesn’t know much about this stuff.” I later found out from another senior lawyer that he wrote a textbook on the topic. Wow (cue: falls off chair).

I am not longer on this chair.

Few people in this field have the humility to admit that they don’t know something. Fewer people who WRITE A TEXTBOOK on a topic admit that there are aspects they don’t understand⁠—or approach it with the kind of gusto and energy that he did (almost like he was seeing it for the first time).

It made me realise that we can all be students of something. We might have operated in an area for a million and one years⁠—but this experience taught me that we can always aim to revisit things with fresh eyes and renewed interest. (I add one qualifier here. First, don’t sap the life out of what you do. Balance it out with real life: exercise, sleep, meaningful relationships).

This is the growth mindset in action.

On the other end of this enlightening experience, we have plenty of fixed mindset vibes floating around. For example, the temptation for senior lawyers to complain about young lawyers who provide “substandard” (or insert any other adjective here) work.

Look⁠—we were all baby lawyers once. Even if we perceive someone as outright lazy or disengaged, let’s look to ourselves first to work out whether the problem lies with us, not others.

  • Did you provide proper instructions or training?
  • Did you give them stimulating work that they engaged with?
  • Did you talk to them about the problem and help them to solve it?
  • Or was it easier to complain about them?

Ok, I get it⁠—lawyers feel a great deal of pressure to “get it right”. But this is where the fixed mindset can start to creep in. Knowing the difference between fixed and growth mindsets is a very, very good start!

Love those permutations…

Dweck provides examples of fixed and growth mindsets in different areas⁠⁠—sport,  business, relationships and parenting. Let’s check out some of these examples. You might recognise yourself (or others) in these examples. I do.

The world of work

A fixed mindset is damaging in the long-run for people and the organisations they work for. One example was Enron, which collapsed in scandal.

“Enron recruited big talent, mostly people with fancy degrees, which is not in itself so bad. It paid them big money, which is not that terrible. But by putting compete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing: It created a culture that worshipped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset…. We know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies.”

We know that no one person or organisation is perfect⁠—but a fixed mindset culture pushes people to aggrandise their achievements (i.e. believe that they are #amazing), ignore weaknesses, refuse to learn from “failure”, and throw other people under the bus to get ahead.

Another permutation of the fixed mindset is when bosses mete out humiliation, which can arise from a desire to “enhance their own feelings of power, competence and value at the subordinate’s expense”. Dweck notes that in such cases, a change comes over the place where “everything starts revolving around pleasing the boss”. The fear of being judged puts everyone into a fixed mindset, where it is hard for courage and innovation to survive.

On the flipside, growth mindset cultures and their leaders:

“… start with a belief in human potential and development⁠—both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth⁠—for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.”

Dweck refers to Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the great Scottish-American industrialist, business magnate, and philanthropist, who once said: “I wish to have as my epitaph: ‘Here lies a man who was wise enough to bring into his service men who knew more than he.’”

On learning

The examples above put a spanner in the works (no pun intended, really!) for organisations who internalise the belief that if they hire from the best – they will automatically be the best. Dweck’s findings tell us that there is so much more to actually performing well. It doesn’t depend purely on high grades and having a blue ribbon list of achievements. It’s about how open we are to learning, rather than resting on our dried-out laurels.

Here’s a drink to the Roman Empire!

I can recall a few occasions where I was impressed with an individual’s “on paper achievements”, but later found a serious mismatch with their qualities in real life. We need to be conscious of this pressure⁠—not just in organisations but also on students coming straight out of university⁠—to create an image of perfection. (Sorry, we won’t bother with your application if you haven’t volunteered for 20 aid organisations, climbed Mount Everest and sat on the UN Security Council.)

One recent post on LinkedIn hit the nail on the head:

Why bother to learn anything when you’re already perfect? If we only demand perfection, then we will create people who buy into this belief. We also shut the “unorthodox” out. This is a fixed mindset. It’s unhealthy, drives the wrong motivations and is damaging to people (and their organisations) in the long run.

Dweck cleverly points out that:

“… nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they are because they can’t talk. They just haven’t learned yet.”

Reflecting on this, it is not clear at what point we needed to prove that we knew about everything under the sun or was embarrassed if we didn’t. Was it the moment when that lecturer gave you a death stare for “not knowing the right answer” during an exam prep session? Or does our passion to learn and be challenged get beaten out of us over time?

Let’s take a leaf out of the textbook of that lawyer who was an eternal student, not our dried-out laurel wreaths. If the fixed mindset is the norm, let’s counter it by challenging ourselves to learn something new each day⁠—however small⁠—and get excited about it!