Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

By Eileen Williams

Unificationists all desire to live for the sake of others, become tribal messiahs to our loved ones near and far, and reach out to our families with the message of love and hope that inspired us decades ago.

After going through so many crises and phases as a movement, many of us feel an urgent need to reflect on what works and doesn’t work in terms of nourishing and growing our roots — whether that involves community activism, event planning, or reaching out to our second generation.

To move forward, the first gen, in particular, need to develop what is popularly known today in education pedagogy as a “growth mindset.” This is in contrast to a “fixed mindset,” but more about that later.  Let me explain what the two are and how a growth mindset might be applied to our unique faith community.

“Growth mindset” is a term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck to explain how children learn.  The latest research shows that the brain is far more malleable than previously believed. Research on brain plasticity reveals how connectivity between neurons can change given new input and experiences. Medical cases of stroke and brain damage have demonstrated in surprising ways how neural networks can grow new connections while at the same time strengthen existing ones.

What this proves is we can increase our neural growth by the actions, choices and decisions we make. Asking questions, using problem-solving strategies, even experiencing failure and trying again all serve to help a child learn.  Studies have shown that when educators can change student mindsets from fixed (“I can’t do this, I fail at this”) to growth (“I can keep trying, step-by-step”), then motivation and achievement is increased.  But why stop with children; aren’t adults strengthening their brain connections as well?

In her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessDweck describes a growth mindset as one that “thrives on change and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a springboard for growth.”

On the other hand, “a fixed mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.”  With a fixed mindset, one is never good enough. Sound familiar?  Perfection becomes the proverbial carrot on the stick that can never be reached no matter how many goals one fulfills externally.

“Do you become defensive, angry, or crushed instead of interested in learning from the feedback? Do you feel envious and threatened, or do you feel eager to learn? Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them,” Dweck adds.

She fears educators will use the term “growth mindset” as just another buzzword. “But the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation. If we watch carefully for our fixed-mindset triggers, we can begin the true journey to a growth mindset.” At times, all of us get “stuck.”  This state of mind applies not only to Unificationists.  Far from it. We are often the most diverse, creative, wide, and far thinking people I know.

I felt inspired that True Father was always “mixing things” up — he himself was a good example of a growth mindset.  Although he was certainly influenced by his cultural Korean background — one that is very homogenous — he was constantly traveling the globe, learning from other religious perspectives, and adapting to changing times.

Look at True Mother: she is doing the same. She has incorporated many changes into our movement’s practices while holding true to her core values and beliefs.  But on both scores she has garnered criticism.  Some members have balked at all the innovations while others want to see more.  As a wise leader said to me recently, it’s up to us, finally, to create the movement we want, but to do that we need to be able to grow, that is go, forward.

Most of us were evolving and following in True Father’s wake, but what about now?  The thought patterns and coping skills we employed in the past have, in some cases, fossilized our thinking.  We keep trying the same old strategies, applying worn out phrases to new circumstances, and not growing either as a movement, in some cases in our marriages, or even as individuals.

Perhaps a fixed mindset is our comfort zone; stepping out from that can be unsettling, frightening even. Whether exercising our physical muscles, sparking our synapses, or confronting long-entrenched views, this requires the pain of growth.  Facing our problems, discussing them honestly, and moving forward can be tremendously difficult. The key word here is honesty.

I interpret a growth mindset to mean giving ourselves permission to be open to various perspectives, listening to others’ viewpoints whether those views be related to religious dogma or politics, and finding new ways to reach out to others in meaningful communication without affixing judgment or labels. The fixed mindset in an organization (and it’s true for many groups where people tend to think along similar lines) oftentimes is exemplified by characteristics that are more cult-like in dynamic.  An example would be overzealous proselytizing that is not unconditional because there is a numbers quota to fulfill. Another is repeating hackneyed phrases ascribing little thought to the meaning behind them.  Ironically, these self-defeating behaviors produce the opposite result to what we are trying to achieve: unconditionally loving hearts and the resultant blossom of relationships.

The consequences of a fixed mindset?  Guilt and negative self-talk. These emotional patterns are unhealthy baggage carried over from a former church era — a time when we were “heavenly soldiers” who slept in sleeping bags, ate McDonald’s, and possibly alienated some of our families after leaving “our old lives” behind.

Unfortunately, we are at risk of passing on this negative self-talk and its accompanying pressure cooker thought process to the very ones who have the ability to bring us to a new level of growth — our adult children.  Far too many of our second generation are alienated from our core beliefs, without really understanding what those are due to an inability to express them in a natural, loving and embracing way. My personal goal with everyone I encounter at this point in my life is to move away from labels and into the realm of love. Personal confession here: this has been lacking for way too long.

Moreover, a top-down fixed mentality in an organization manifests as a dearth of voices, whether in the form of suggestions on how to improve our practices or in the form of feedback concerning our family’s realistic and oft-painful situations. A growth mentality in an organization — or a classroom — means students, or followers as the case may be, are engaged in the process, learn from doing, address mistakes, and adjust accordingly. There is ongoing fluidity and a dynamic flow. There is give and take (sound familiar?).

Finally, a growth mentality helps us understand and relate to our ever-changing society and all of its challenging dynamics. To name just a few: relating to gay youth struggling in our communities, helping to understand and embrace those with mental health or addiction issues, and addressing the lonely situations of widowhood and divorce. We are long past the point in our church development where we can just dismiss these challenges as “spiritual problems.”  Where once such emotional, mental and family problems were held at bay, they are now in our very midst.

As I envision it, a growth mentality would mean having a two-way communication between “leaders” and “followers,” and engaging in honest reflection about what works and what does not. We are all trying to move towards an ideal that we still miraculously — and with God’s grace — believe in.  Now it’s time to get real as well.

Eileen Williams is a retired English teacher who taught at the Bridgeport International Academy.  She is currently an SAT/ACT tutor in Stamford, Connecticut.

23 thoughts on “Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

  1. Thanks, Eileen. I’m inspired to understand the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. I would venture we all have a little of both. We have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure: becoming more open to other points of view, and all the differences we face daily, whether it’s cultural, gender, racial, religious, or political. For me, it often comes down to learning to embrace and love the various parts of myself that I have not been able or willing to in the past. “International and interreligious” is not quite enough anymore. It’s a whole new world, both within and without, that we must learn to navigate with unconditional love. Thanks for the roadmap.

  2. Eileen,

    Thank you for investing your heart and time to convey concepts of growth that are needed on many levels. I think the topics of communication, give and take, and leadership methods are very important. I would recommend directly conveying them to those whom you relate with in leadership and in any other areas you are thinking of.

    • Yes, Donna I have/am. I’m in communication with my local pastor about holding a blessing ceremony for my daughter and her fiance, who is not a church member. We’ve had some deep discussions about what this would look like for them, and perhaps for others going that path.

  3. Eileen wrote:

    “Moreover, a top-down fixed mentality in an organization manifests as a dearth of voices, whether in the form of suggestions on how to improve our practices or in the form of feedback concerning our family’s realistic and oft-painful situations.”

    This scenario reflects the cultural DNA of Oriental culture. For centuries the Emperor/King/Potentate was to be obeyed at all costs. Not being completely obsequious to one’s liege could result in dire consequences. Because Divine Principle emphasizes humankind’s portion of responsibility as co-creators with our Heavenly Parent, individuals are expected to use their God-given talent to achieve growth –individually and collectively.

    In the West, we value individual creativity and celebrate those who are inventive, original, daring, and think “outside-the-box.” We don’t fear failure, so taking risks is part of the Western cultural DNA. Bill Gates once remarked that “success is a terrible teacher.” It’s though our failures and difficulties that we can grow and achieve better results. Too much control results in the diminishing of creativity. Recently, I was in a meeting in Korea where True Mother said, “Don’t wait to be told what to do.” She seems to be encouraging more personal responsibility in our efforts to advance the providence.

    • David, the gap between East and West in our movement is something that we need to address, or at least lessen the divide on. Hopefully, this will happen with our 2nd and 3rd gen. This balance and blending of two cultures has, mostly, eluded us all these years. Thanks for putting it into perspective and describing it so well, and for adding True Mother’s encouragement. She is doing her best, given her background and training. But Westerners have a different cultural mindset as you pointed out — one that should not be trampled on, but should be allowed to flower as well. I was disappointed that the Cheongpyeong event I attended in Las Vegas (which has a new name now that I forget) was primarily Asian in “flavor,” focus and participation. I brought my daughter with me and she appreciated the wish papers and prayers, but the rest was difficult to relate with. I would love it if, when we open these places in America, the experience is broader and more far-reaching. Heartistically, we have so much to offer, but not everyone, particularly Americans, are going to relate to kyungbae’s and mansei’s.

      • This passage from CSG resonates with me, especially being involved in the arts in Korea over the past three years:

        “Accordingly, in the world of art there are no national boundaries. The purpose of art is not to serve as a tool of an ideology or an agenda. Its fundamental principles are harmony and unity. Divisiveness and conflict are fruits of fallen nature. Therefore the world of art demonstrates universal characteristics in all directions, bringing the East to understand the West and the West to accept the East.”

        Finding or identifying “universal characteristics” is a key issue. Art can facilitate the process of attaining greater unity, acceptance and harmonization.

  4. Dear Mrs. Williams,

    You write: “The latest research shows that the brain is far more malleable than previously believed.”

    This is not really new. The key is joy, in my opinion. Does a new perspective satisfy me? E.g., I was just average in math, until I learned chess. I loved it and it helped in math at school a great deal.

    And: “But why stop with children; aren’t adults strengthening their brain connections as well?”

    There is a saying “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.”

    It is more complicated. Again it is joy that is an indicator, but for somebody to change lifelong habits is very difficult.

    The joy of aging when you realize your God-given nature and compare it to your decades before, developing intuition and the relationship to heaven on a much more profound level. While it was theory with some Holy Spirit encounter in the outset as a young believer in the teens, religion manifests as an authentic entity today, very different from dogmatism of the early days. If not then this is a real problem.

    You write:

    “An example would be overzealous proselytizing that is not unconditional because there is a numbers quota to fulfill.”

    I would say the crux of the matter is here. We are a goal-oriented movement, always have been and will continue to be until the task is accomplished. From my experience, you need a certain stubbornness to go for it. On the other side, we need to be open to guidance on how to fulfill as you indicate.

    The give-up mentality and negative attitude comes from pledging to realize on one side and not delivering the promise on the other.

    “Where there is a will, there is a way, just look for it;” such and other phrases can be attributed to True Parents who had to struggle with impossible goals given to them by Heavenly Parent.

    From my experience Cheonseong is underrated in our movement. In business terms, this is called investment. By praying, fasting, etc., we set a condition for what you call a “growth mindset.” I call it inspiration and intuition.

    E.g., I promised as many others did to fulfill 430 couples Blessing, even in a letter to True Mother. At the same time, to make sustainable progress in my immediate surroundings was slow. Then True Mother opened the doors to Africa for us Europeans and suddenly there was a way. I just came back from Nigeria and learned that all is happening there, the 40 days, indemnity stick, three days, etc. Christian ministers who participate in the education because they like DP… If I would not have gone there I would not have known. But True Mother said that Africa is emerging like mushrooms after the rain. I found it to be true to the core. The openness Africans display and the natural acceptance of God are refreshing as a cold water shower after month in the desert.

    A growth mindset requires courage to fight with fixed goals to make them come true. You rightfully say we need to listen and understand different viewpoints. The inner voice (one of them) is a strong talker if we calm down and let our heart beat in the same rhythm as heaven. Simple things like HDH with my spouse offers me specific solutions to real problems sometimes on the very same day, many times experienced. It is a matter of tuning and next fine tuning our daily life with the current of heaven.

    We are in possession of precious instruments to solve problems of our life of faith as well as our physical life, but we need to use them. This is our freedom and our responsibility.

  5. Rohan,

    Every organization will have its generals and foot soldiers spearheading the path as you have stated in a most commendable and amazing way (hat off to you!), but let’s not forget the fallen soldiers, the ones working in the background, or those charting a different path — as we have done in the past.

  6. I experienced a good example of a growth mindset and practice recently and of a fixed one as well. The first was an awards ceremony sponsored by the ACLC recognizing people who used their talents to further True Family Values, specifically their families and contributions to their communities. My older daughter was one for using her music and Robert Beebe another for his work in education. The others were involved in many different fields of endeavor. These metrics brought people together and many, but not all, were involved in the blessing ministries. This was not an East-West thing simply recognizing the unique contributions of a broad variety of people. This seems like a good example of the growth mindset and practices Eileen is talking about.

    The example of a fixed mindset came at one of our recent small group meetings we attend. One sister shared her perspective that the only activity people should be doing is blessing 430 couples and liberating our ancestors. Now this is a family that has no money saved for when they cannot work, none of their adult children want any involvement with the movement and little with them. She quoted scripture and verse to make her points. I have no doubt she will fulfill her goals, but the end result may be different than what she expects.

    Now I know that this is unique to her and many people are having amazing experiences pursuing these goals and metrics. My experience with metrics — in business, in working with my extended family, in developing a ministry that is now 25 years old and still going, and in more central providential affairs — is that singular metrics tend to not create long-term, sustainable success. I think the metric the ACLC has developed is one that can continue to grow and succeed. Successful organizations create a culture that allows people to contribute to the collective goal. The saying, “when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail,” seems relevant here.

  7. Rob, Congrats to your daughter! The interfaith work is so hopeful! I sometimes wonder how we retain our core values when blending with various groups. Our movement has a tricky balancing act in that regard, as we do as individuals as well, of course.

    • Eileen,

      I see the 430 couple goal and activity as missionary work, brining people into our theology and organization. Another way to think about this is recognizing people who share our values, like the true family values and equipping them and others to further these values such as fidelity within marriage and abstinence prior to marriage. I see these kinds of awards and activity as Tribal Messiah activity as well, just different than missionary work. The Tonys and Emmys and other awards include more than just the lead people and overall performances, but many areas of work and expertise. As it is, only missionary work is recognized as Tribal Messiah work, which is much smaller than all the other things people are doing. A growth mindset, as you described would include more categories and people. Does this make sense to you?

  8. I think I can relate/apply “growth mindset” as a kind of resolution of the headwing struggle, especially in South Korea. From my latest conversations with many beloved scholars of our movement, it was just unearthed to me as like a long-time unseen jewel by which we can be engaged in a gray zone or, rather, a developed or advanced place, which could be identified as the final complete stage of Origin-Division-Union Action. I think we need to grow out of all the legacies or memories of the past into a new frontier so as to tell the truth or divine resolution to society or the generations 100 years later. Then I think we, the 1st gen and 2nd gen, can meet together in one place as a union, where the messiah, or heavenly fortune, as DP says, will be present upon us. I think we could overcome the divide we used to face every day here.

    • Incheol,

      Very applicable, the reference to the ‘gray’ zone. How to move forward is the biggest question some of us face. Maybe we begin, as you suggest, by leaving behind some of the painful memories, unhealthy habits, and limiting thoughts of the past.

  9. Thanks, Eileen, for writing and sharing this essay. I realize that I often struggle to have a growth mindset when I face setbacks and frustrations. I’ve been trying to write an article for the Applied Unificationism blog and decided recently that I didn’t really have anything unique to contribute and I can’t seem to express what I want to share so I should just forget it. Maybe your article will spur me to try again.

    • Everyone has something beautiful to offer is my current philosophy! Try your idea out on a friend, colleague, spouse, or editor. I bet most essays have more than one person contributing behind the scenes. There is a lack of feminine voices in our movement. There are so many issues that need to be addressed in order to move forward, don’t you think?

  10. Thank you for sharing these thoughts on the growth mindset!

    I think it is very important to emphasize the process and effort of things like learning instead of treating them as if they are fixed traits in children. I had not previously considered how this topic applies to Unificationism either, which offers a unique and interesting perspective. As you eloquently explain, Carol Dweck provides great support for this notion of the power behind having a growth mindset. I recently wrote my own post on this topic because I believe it ties in really well to the field of positive psychology, which asks what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Feel free to check out the post and I welcome any contributions you may have to the content. Great post, keep up the good work.

    • Tristan,

      I read your blog article and loved the way you expanded on the idea of growth mindset.

      Some readers have misinterpreted growth mindset to mean that we change from our core values. This is not what a growth mindset is referring to. Rather, it explains how our thought processes can find new and better ways of applying our beliefs to reality, how expanded perspectives can be gained by listening to others, and, most importantly, how we can be liberated by valuing ourselves as people who are continually “in process!” Thank you for your contribution and feedback and good luck with your studies and career.

      • Thanks, Eileen, for reading my blog post on this topic! I think you bring up a very important point that it doesn’t change who we are at the core. We are all capable of approaching events in life with a growth mindset and grow as people in the process. Thank you so much for your response.

  11. Emmanuel Kant famously opined: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

    I wonder if Kant alluding to his original mind; the part of our mind that seeks goodness when he spoke of “the moral law within me.” Obviously, as we grow to maturity our relationships change accordingly. In a recent AU Blog post by Rev. Drissa Kone, he speaks about the importance of listening as part of the relational process — no small issue!

    But as we grow older and acquire more knowledge — knowledge that we test for veracity in our growth process on a daily basis — we can become rather “fixed” and somewhat “rigid” in our perspectives. We might be willing to listen, but sincerely hearing out “the other” requires more maturity so as not to become too “reactionary.” That said, if there is an immutable “moral law within me (or a moral law that originates from the Creator beyond “the starry heavens above me”), then adhering to those laws in the spirit of achieving betterment should not be compromised.

    The “growth” aspect of the formation/growth/completion paradigm is challenging but necessary. If we believe that love is “unlimited,” then growing in our attempts to harmonize our intellect and our emotions according to the tenets of Godism is a never-ending process.

    Religious teachings often instruct that we are on a spiritual path and how we behave on that path determines our karma, our identities and our destiny. However, philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered a countervailing perspective suggesting that we are not human beings on a spiritual path, but rather spiritual beings on a human path. As such, recognizing and manifesting our divine attributes is an important aspect of our growth and maturity — individually and collectively. That may sound “reactionary” to some, but I believe Teilhard de Chardin’s view has real credibility.

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