Microsoft Learned from MINDSET — So Can We

In Rich Karlgaard’s recent Forbes column, he recommends three books for vacation reading. While vacation is over for most of us, I was struck by the longevity of one of his recommendations. Karlgaard referenced the success of Microsoft since Satya Nadella has taken over as CEO and noted the recent conversation he and other colleagues had with him. He learned that Nadella has been heavily influenced by Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Dweck believes the success of individuals is largely explained by whether we have a fixed or growth mindset and cites decades of research in support of her theory. She describes a fixed mindset as a belief system that one’s qualities, abilities, and indeed intelligence, are “carved in stone.” Thus, they cannot be significantly altered by experience, environment, hard work, etc. Conversely, Dweck describes the growth mindset as a belief system that one is able to improve basic qualities and abilities through personal effort and perspective.

There are three fundamental principles we can use from Mindset on our own journeys to sustainable excellence that explain why it continues to influence so many successful people far beyond its 2006 publication.


Excellence is Simple

What? I thought being excellent involved hard work, dedication, years of practice and all that other stuff I read. That’s true, but the fundamentals of being excellent are simple. I didn’t say easy, I said simple. When I consult with a business that has a twenty page strategic plan I know they don’t get it. They are more fascinated with the prestige of the consulting firm they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to than whether the plan is concise, motivational, easily explainable to employees and executable. When I am meeting with an athletic team and I see the players’ eyes glaze over as the coach attempts to explain a play, I know the coach doesn’t get it. More personally, and hopefully more humorous, when a mechanic shows me the part that he/she replaced on my car and expects me to understand how that works, they don’t get it. I’m a customer, not a mechanic. If I understood the anatomy of the part, I could fix my car myself!

Excellence Requires Adjustment

A fundamental concept of the growth mindset is adjustment to circumstances. Dweck describes many examples of failure in various arenas throughout her book. The growth mindset views failure and challenge as opportunities for learning and improvement. On the contrary, the fixed mindset views failure as damning evidence that one is not good enough, worthy enough or possesses the necessary skills for success. As a result, fixed mindset individuals often blame circumstances or others for their failure and deprive themselves of the rich opportunities for learning which come from adjusting one’s techniques, approach or perspective. If you are challenging yourself at the highest level possible, failure in some form is inevitable. The only way you avoid falling short at times is to perform or compete at a level below your ultimate capability. Who wants to live that way?

Excellence Demands Objectivity

In order to be capable of Dr. Dweck’s growth mindset, you must be able to separate your performance on any given day from your self-esteem and/or identity. I have worked with many athletes, executives and other performers over the years who are not able to do this. As a result, their mood, emotional health and relationships nosedive following a bad performance. The key to avoiding this free fall is “thinking like a scientist.” You must look at any performance as nothing more than data. You must not let a poor performance affect the way you fundamentally view yourself, your capability and your potential. The caveat being you must be able to put in the continued work to improve on negative performances. If your performance is nothing more than data, you use it to evaluate and improve. If you remove this objective view, your performance will dictate how you ultimately feel about yourself as a person.

I believe the fundamental reason Mindset continues to influence great performers is the focus on simplicity, objectivity and continual adjustment. These principles will guide your path to sustainable excellence.

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