Having a Growth Mindset Makes It Easier to Develop New Interests

By Matt Dallisson, 25/09/2018


Steve Jobs’s vision for Apple was rooted in the belief that the arts and sciences do not live in isolation. They complement and enhance each other. John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar, echoed this sentiment stating, “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.” But even though integrating these areas can be necessary for innovation, too many people confine themselves to only one.

We wanted to understand why some people are more likely to reach across disciplines than others. So we investigated people’s “mindsets” about interest and their impact.

In our research, published in Psychological Science, we found that people vary in these mindsets. Some people lean more toward the view that interests are inherent in a person, simply waiting to be awakened or found — this is what we call a fixed mindset of interest. Others lean more toward the view that interests can be developed and that, with commitment and investment, they can grow over time — we call this a growth mindset of interest.

We reasoned that these mindsets might affect how open people are to new or different interests, whether they be in arts, science, business, athletics, or other areas. If interests are viewed as inherent and fixed — and an interest has already been found — then exploring elsewhere might not seem fruitful. But if interests can be developed, then having strong interests in one area would not preclude the development of interest in other areas.

To test these ideas, we surveyed and recruited 126 university students who reported that their interests fell primarily in the arts and humanities or in science and technology. We also assessed the extent to which they held more of a fixed or growth mindset about interest. For example, we asked students to rate their level of agreement with the statement “You can be exposed to new things, but your core interests won’t really change.”

Later on, we gave all of them two academic articles to read, one squarely in the humanities and the other squarely in science and technology. After reading each, they rated their interest in the topics. Not surprisingly, all of the students expressed interest in the topic that aligned with their existing area of interest. But when we looked at the topic outside of that area, those with a stronger growth mindset reported more interest than did those with a stronger fixed mindset. Those with a stronger fixed mindset were less open to a different topic.

It is important to highlight that students holding more of a growth mindset were not less interested than those with a fixed mindset in the article relating to their preexisting interest. They were just more open to another field. A growth mindset does not appear to create dilettantes. Instead, it may expand people’s interest repertoire, which perhaps can be helpful for making connections across areas and generating novel ideas.

Some companies have seen the value of cross-disciplinary problem-solving and have implicitly adopted a growth mindset of interest. For example, Tim Brown, CEO and president of the design consulting firm IDEO, has emphasized the value of the “T-shaped person.” The vertical line of the T represents one’s depth of expertise in a field, whereas the horizontal line represents one’s diverse interests, and ability to work and collaborate across areas. Like those with a stronger growth mindset, T-shaped people are experts but do not necessarily have a singular focus, and look for inspiration from multiple areas.

The value of a growth mindset is not limited to IDEO. Engineers with interests in climate change design solutions that make potable water accessible in rural areas; architects with interests in social welfare design attractive, affordable housing for low-income families; city planners with interests in psychology design green spaces to improve well-being. A growth mindset of interest may be relevant to innovation in virtually any field.

In another study, we examined how mindsets relate to people’s expectations around motivation once they discover a passion. We asked 47 undergraduates to write about their expectations for a new-found passion and coded their responses. Those with more of a fixed mindset were more likely to say that once you find your “passion,” it should come with boundless motivation, making its pursuit relatively easy. By contrast, people with more of a growth mindset were more likely to believe that pursuing that passion would involve some setbacks and difficulties.

Can these expectations play a role in whether people maintain a new-found passion? Often people experience a spark of interest, like when someone sees the latest Star Wars film and becomes curious about outer space. But what happens when pursuing that interest becomes difficult and demanding, like taking a course in astrophysics?

To investigate this question, we first had 70 college students read either an article that represented interests as fixed or one that represented them as developed, to shift their mindset one way or the other. Then students watched a short, animated video made for a general audience about the science of black holes. It was fun, engaging, and accessible, and almost everyone found it fascinating.

Students then read part of a challenging academic article on black holes from the journal Science, which was considerably more difficult to understand than the video. Afterward, students reported on their interest in the topic. Although most people showed some decline in interest after reading the difficult article, this drop was pronounced for students exposed to the fixed mindset. In fact, on average, they reported that they had become uninterested in black holes, unlike those exposed to a growth mindset.

Innovation requires both reaching across fields and, often, acquiring more than a surface-level understanding of those fields. This means that when people reach across fields they must maintain that interest even when the material becomes complex and challenging. A growth mindset of interest may help promote this kind of resilience.

Can a growth mindset of interest be cultivated? Our research suggests it can. Like every belief system, mindsets can arise from messages we get from others including managers, parents, and teachers. In real-world settings, encouraging people to stick with a new interest even as it becomes challenging subtly suggests that encountering difficulty is normal in the development of a new interest; it is not a sign that one should move on. Furthermore, ubiquitous mantras like “Find your passion” could be replaced with “Develop your passion.” The latter phrase suggests that interests and passions are not simply lingering within, waiting to be revealed. They can be developed with involvement and persistence.

There is still much to learn about the benefits of cultivating a growth mindset in organizational settings. Our ongoing research examines how it can enhance task performance in budding areas of interest, and how it can boost interdisciplinary problem-solving. We are also interested in identifying the situations where a growth mindset might be most important. In medicine, for example, doctors might choose to treat patients more holistically by combining traditional pharmacological methods with efforts to address their social and psychological needs.

Managers and organizational cultures often signal to employees what types of mindsets are valued on the job — such as whether employees should be singular in focus or open to new areas. As the world continues to globalize, we need novel solutions to new and old problems, and these solutions will be driven, in large part, by people with deep interests who also draw connections across disciplines. Encouraging employees to adopt a growth mindset of interest may help spark that process.