Posted by: Liz Massey | June 27, 2008

Clutter-busting by…changing your mindset

A lot of the time, we think about “clearing away the clutter” in our creative lives by acting on something external–asking our spouse for an hour in the morning to write before we go to work, cleaning our hit-by-a-paper-bomb desk so that we can write, sketch or do some beading, or by starting a one-sentence journal to document our creative process and gain some momentum.

But let’s face it–many of the obstacles that we have to dodge on the road to being consistently creative are internally generated. The key to rolling many of these bits of “clutter” out of the way involves assessing how we view ourselves and our abilities–our general mindset.

Several years ago, Carol S. Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, wrote Mindset, a brilliant book on the effect of personal outlook on success, and documented something that successful artists, teachers and entrepreneurs have known for decades: that those people who feel that the hand life has dealt them is just the starting point for their success, tend to be better able to adapt to the challenges thrown their way and come out on top. Those who feel that basic qualities such as intelligence, talent or creative are fixed tend to be less able to thrive on many levels: education, relationships, business. She says that people who fall in the former group have a “growth mindset,” and those in the latter have a “fixed mindset.”

Why should creative people care what their mindset is? Because, as Dweck says,

“[Mindsets] guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging: ‘This means I’m a loser’ ….

“People with a growth mindset are also constantly monitoring what’s going on, but their internal monologue is not about judging themselves and others in this way. Certainly they’re sensitive to positive and negative information, but they’re attuned to its implications for learning and constructive action: What can I learn from this? How can I improve?”

In other words, by cleaning up your mindset, you can focus on what needs attention in order for you to master your craft, instead of cursing your physical or mental shortcomings that render you (in your own mind) permanently unfit to succeed as a painter, musician, writer, etc.

Dweck isn’t the only researcher touting a retro-fit of mind set. Psychologists
Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth at Penn State University report that when they’ve studied the successes of people of a variety of ages and in a variety of settings (work, school, etc.), only about 25 percent of a person’s lifetime success could be attributed to intellectual or physical ability. Persistence (and just plain luck) accounted for the other 75 percent. This ratio of persistence-over-ability is supported by other researchers, too.

In a nutshell, those who realize that raw talent has to be supplemented by continuous learning and daily practice to live up to its promise go much farther than those who regard their inborn abilities as the sole arbiter of their success. Effort matters as much as, if not far more than, ability.

If you want to work on changing your mindset to a more growth-enhancing one, Dweck provides several tips for getting started. The cornerstone of this act consists in coming to see your evolution as an artist as precisely that: a continual process of adaptation and learning.

I would add that, in my opinion, it’s also crucial to this mindset-resetting process to make sure you have sufficient support for your development. Do you need the guidance of a teacher to help you move forward in your technique? A trusted group of peers to bounce ideas off of? Access to library books or other sources of “test driving” books and media that will contribute to your mastery as an artist?

The greatest gift that changing our mindset can give us is simply the power to keep on going. David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book “Art & Fear,” said it best: “Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue—or more precisely, have learned how not to quit.”


  1. […] mentions Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and asserts that, “A growth mindset is the secret to maximizing […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: