The Growth Mindset
Half full or half empty
If there was one word I could use to describe sophomore fall, it would be disappointing. There were some good things that happened: I ran my first half marathon, went to many memorable BSO (Boston Symphony Orchestra) concerts, and taught various classes for Splash.
Despite these events, I felt like I was constantly on the verge of drowning in a sea of work. I performed below average on my midterms, wrote my lab reports last minute, and didn’t feel like doing my assignments until it was too late. I was simply burnt out. After many years of pushing myself to succeed, something inside of me snapped, like a rope that was stretched far too long.
During winter break, part of my mind kept cycling back to how my fall semester spiraled out of control. I was frustrated that I couldn’t identify an exact reason why my academic performance was worse than my freshman year, even though my freshman spring was difficult. There were too many variables and factors to consider to account for this behavior change.
Maybe it was the constant anxiety from being uncertain about my future career and whether I would pursue higher education that made me hit a slump. Perhaps I didn’t detect the early signs of burnout and let this drag on until the end of the semester. There’s just no good answer to my burning question of “Why, why, why?”
I had doubts about my ability to rebound from the disastrous semester. I wondered if the traits that I had been proud of growing up (persistence, hard work, etc.) were a thing of the past. But I couldn’t go on like this. There had to be light at the end of the tunnel.
Right after finals ended, I decided to read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In Mindset, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discusses the benefits of the growth mindset in various settings, from parenting to education. Unlike the fixed mindset which believes that abilities are innate, the growth mindset believes that abilities can be cultivated over time.
Part of the motivation to read Mindset came from wanting to start the new year smoothly, but the major factor was the need for a concrete solution to propel me forward. As cliché as it may sound, I found reassurance and encouragement in self-help books because of the detailed suggestions and recommendations they provided, unlike the self-affirmations that I had difficulty embracing.
While the act of reading a self-help book in one sitting may not seem like the first thing someone does at the start of their break, it was relieving and therapeutic for me. After I finished reading the book and processed what I had just read, I still did not have a definitive answer to the underlying reasons behind my feelings of burnout. However, I came to a conclusion that was more satisfying than previous ones — I had a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset.
The truth is that my mindset wasn’t that fixed before I came to MIT. I genuinely believed that as long as I constantly refined my study strategies and worked hard in school, I’d get good results. The problem was that high school was much easier, and I didn’t take into account how hard college would be. I knew that I was going to be a small fish in a big pond at MIT, but imagining a situation isn’t quite the same as experiencing it.
It wasn’t until last year that imposter syndrome started to take over me. Gone were the days of PNR when I didn’t worry too much about my grades. Instead, I wondered what was wrong with me when my peers turned in the 6.0001 problem set early, while I struggled and went to office hours all the time to complete the assignment. I was exasperated that I spent so much time studying for a 5.13 midterm, only to score below average, whereas others barely studied and performed above average.
Over time, I started questioning whether the habits I cultivated in high school were sufficient for me to do well in college. It seemed like intelligence was just as important, if not more, than effort. I wasn’t sure where to find my confidence in a place where many people were already more knowledgeable and experienced than me in various fields. In other words, being in an environment that consists of top students in the world made me go from having a growth mindset to a fixed mindset over time.
This slow, gradual change happened subconsciously, which is what makes it disturbing. I let imposter syndrome take over and control me. The recurring thoughts I had about my inadequacy affected my mindset, which ultimately took a toll on my mental health and hurt my academic life. I always knew that your mindset can have a big impact on various aspects of your life, whether it be leadership philosophy or views on relationships.
The issue at hand is that I never thought of myself as someone who would undergo a significant shift in mindset. It wasn’t until things became too late that I realized the damage that I did to myself. And that is what I find to be the most tragic thing that happened to me in 2022.
Mindset provided me with bursts of optimism, but also made me want to cry internally. I couldn’t believe that my mindset devolved into something that my high school self wouldn’t recognize. Reading about a boy who was excited rather than scared of solving a challenging puzzle pained me. I used to embody that attitude, but I became the opposite by avoiding challenges so I could feel a little better about myself. My fixed mindset was holding me back, not moving me forward.
The passage about the boy also reminded me of what I had said to my classmate last year about having reservations about taking 6.009: I felt the class would be too difficult for me. While it is undeniable that 6.009 is not easy for someone with little coding experience (like me), what was I thinking at that time? Wasn’t life supposed to be about getting out of your comfort zone to learn new skills? The book was like a mirror, revealing uncomfortable truths about myself that I had never quite noticed.
I wished I had read Mindset the summer before entering college, though at that time I was optimistic and never saw myself as someone who would have a fixed mindset. Reading the book made me feel exposed at times, but I treated the main points as constructive feedback rather than a criticism of who I am, which helped me have a mental outline of steps to take in the future. The book may not address all the complex reasons behind my sophomore slump, but at least it has provided some sort of resolution and closure.
Now that it is the spring semester, I am trying to view academic challenges with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. I have to admit that having a growth mindset requires a lot of mental energy to constantly battle the fixed mindset, but is necessary for my well-being.
Something that is forcing me to have a growth mindset is 6.009, a class that I initially didn’t see myself in but ended up taking. The labs have not led to nightmarish queues yet, but they already feel difficult. I spend hours trying to index my nested for loop or represent indices of my list correctly, yet I can’t figure out the pattern. It’s frustrating to spend so much time on something that seems so intuitive.
However, after a lab assistant goes over the concepts with me and things start to click, I feel good that I am stretching my limits by learning new skills that I never imagined accomplishing before. My slow progress isn’t necessarily because I am dumb, but rather because I am still in the early stages of learning how to code.
Instead of comparing myself to others around me, I remind myself that some people did a lot of programming in the past, whereas I barely touched it. This will require me to spend more time in the class than the average student. I shouldn’t view this as a shortcoming, but as a sign that I want to devote more time to understanding the material.
On a more general note, I realized there’s no point in fixating so much on intelligence and grades because obsessing over these things only distracted me from learning at my best. I am better off focusing on the learning process and growing from these experiences because by doing so, other things will naturally come along. What’s more important is developing key character traits crucial to thriving in a difficult environment like MIT, such as perseverance and resilience, instead of worrying about how dumb I am compared to others. Even if I get a B in a class, that B is not a reflection of what I gained from the class, whether it is learning to recover after a bad midterm or trying my best despite how difficult the class is for me.
If I ever notice my mind shifting from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset when I experience failure, one question that can redirect me back to the right place is, “What’s the fundamental goal of coming to MIT?”
It is true that college is meant to prepare students for careers and professional goals. At the end of the day, however, the purpose of college is to foster our curiosity and love for learning. Achieving this goal is done best when one adopts a growth mindset over a fixed one. Having a growth mindset isn’t easy, but in the long run, doing so will make our lives better and happier. It all comes down to how we choose to perceive a situation, good or bad.