Having a mindset for growth in the new year

Palestinian artist Aref Sayed, maker of musical instruments, plays an oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, in his studio workshop for participants on a Dec. 4 Art Walk tour in Beit Sahour, West Bank. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

During the new year, many of us adopt new resolutions to improve ourselves. I suggest that we first take a step back to connect with mindsets that drive us to act. Mindsets are basic beliefs we hold about attributes such as our temperaments or capacity for change and learning.

The work of Stanford University psychologist and professor Carol Dweck highlights two types of mindsets: fixed and growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets tend to see their expertise tied to talents and natural endowments, and their temperaments as cast with limited room for modifications.

Implicitly, IQ and college entrance tests lean toward a fixed mindset as these employ a snapshot in time as indicators of future potential. Growth mindsets view skills, mastery and behavior as changeable through efforts and learning. People operate with both mindsets across different domains of activities.

Research has demonstrated the beneficial impact of growth mindsets on children when they do not label themselves as "not smart enough," "not fast enough" or "not worthy."

Approaches based on growth mindsets encourage children to take on new challenges: to try, persist when they encounter difficulty, explore other approaches for learning, collaborate with peers and seek assistance.

Failures are just different steps in the discovery process giving cues for next steps. The focus is not performance, competition or cheap praise, but positive psychology about one's agency.

Beyond personal learning, Carol Dweck's research also shows that growth mindsets can promote positive outcomes in seemingly intractable issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bullying in schools or racial tensions.

When Israelis and Palestinians believed that people in general can change and better outcomes can emerge with new leadership or different contexts, they are likely to have more positive perceptions of the other group and greater willingness to consider compromises and engagement.

In bullying situations, kids who are taught growth mindsets "responded to conflict or victimization with less hatred, less shame and less desire to wreak vengeance on others." They also "increased the proportion of prosocial responses that adolescents endorsed, such as 'forgiving them eventually,' 'helping them see that what they did was wrong' and 'helping them act better in the future.'"

In racial relations, individuals who believe they can change their prejudices through learning are more likely to put aside their discomfort, seek interaction and exhibit greater friendliness with other races.

Growth mindsets are integral to our faith. On a personal level, they help us overcome self-imagined deficits so that we can engage, experience and enjoy ourselves in new endeavors.

They open up our world so that we can access the bounty of God through our abilities, knowledge and appreciation for the created world and the artistry of others. As a community, we are in deep need for a new and more generous approach to understanding those who disagree with us.

We cannot move forward out of our differences unless we believe that we and "the other" can grow and change for the better. Growth mindsets encourage us to imagine the factors that can help all parties progress together so that we can counter enmity with interaction and mutuality.

Growth mindsets remind us that we are not finished products but evolving in God's love to become bigger and better people when we allow ourselves.

Woo is distinguished president's fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.