Can People Grow and Change? A Dialectical Analysis

by | Jun 11, 2019


I’ve previously written on dialectical thinking: the notion that opposing thoughts or ideas can both be true at the same time.

Dialectical thinking is considered a higher level thinking skill but is difficult because it can create cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we try to hold two competing thoughts in our mind at the same time. We tend to avoid thoughts that create cognitive dissonance because of the mental pain it generates.

One example of two opposing thoughts concerns whether people can grow and change or whether they are who they are.

The Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, in her fantastic book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, discusses research linking success to having a growth mindset which “is the belief that abilities can be cultivated.” The research indicates that having a growth mindset is a key component to success and effectively leading others.

One of the main teachings of Mindset and the research on this subject is that:

Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training. This is so important, because many, many people with the fixed mindset think that someone’s early performance tells you all you need to know about their talent and their future.

Having a growth mindset is important to our own success and it is also important to adopt a growth mindset to realize that other people can change and grow. This is key because valuable skills are largely developed through training and practice. People aren’t born talented surgeons – they are trained to be surgeons. Top hockey players (Let’s Go Blues!) practice tens of thousands of hours to develop their skills. We shouldn’t view people as set in their current state; with effort they can develop additional skills and talents.

This has a direct application to businesses and other organizations. “Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior.” According to Dweck, this is not an accurate view of the world; effective leaders have predominately growth mindsets and believe their people can grow and change for the better. They can develop new skills. Lesson: don’t “put people in boxes” – instead see what they can become.

Those With Small Paper Cannot Wrap up Large Objects

While I strongly believe in the Growth Mindset, it is also obvious that people “are who they are” to some extent. People vary in intelligence, creativity, attention span, etc. and these characteristics have a role in defining who they are. Here is one of my favorite quotes summing up this view:

Chan Master Xiatang Yuan said to Huoan:

People’s talent and capacity are naturally great or small, for these things cannot be taught.  Those whose paper is small cannot wrap up large objects; those whose rope is short cannot draw from a deep well.  An owl can catch a louse and see a hare by night, but when the sun comes out in the daytime, it irritates the owl’s eyes so much that it cannot even see a hill.  It seems that the distribution is set.

Source: Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, translated by Thomas Cleary

Similarly, the fable of the Frog and the Scorpion makes a similar point:

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”

This view of people expressed by these two quotes is more pessimistic than the Growth Mindset: we all have limits based on our innate (genetic) predispositions as well as our upbringing. However, there is truth to this mindset as well.

For example, physically no matter how hard I might have worked through my life I could not have been a world class swimmer, cyclist or runner. Its just not how I’m built. Likewise, while at some point in my life I might have been able to put in the effort to be a decent musician, but my lack of innate musical talent would have made it difficult or impossible to be a great musician. Similarly, someone with an IQ of 85 surely lacks the intellectual horsepower to be a chess grand champion or a particle physicist. Not everyone has the ability to do anything and everything.

Additionally, there is the question of reality. I don’t play chess at all. Even if I could learn to be a chess grand champion with great practice and dedication over the ensuing decade, I just don’t want to do that. In order to grow, we must put in the work. Here’s a related and fantastic article by Mark Manson on this point: The Most Important Question of Your Life. We each have to decide how we’re going to spend our limited resources in search of growth.

Both Worldviews are True

So, which worldview is true?

They both are true: People can grow and change, yet, each person has inherent limitations and is somewhat bound by their own nature.

A few years ago when I was cleaning out files at work I re-read all my performance evaluations going back nearly 20 years. I noticed something fascinating: I haven’t really improved very much at my development areas! I have really tried over the years, but I have never really succeeded at any of them! However, I’ve been on a really great career path in spite of not improving my development areas. I think my success has been due to growing in those areas where I have talent and ability and by my job responsibilities changing so I have fewer and fewer things to do that require those things that are development areas for me. Thus, both mindsets are true for me: I can grow but also I am who I am.

Reading my performance reviews was an epiphany for me. I want this same experience for all my co-workers. I want them to be able to focus on areas they enjoy and where they can grow and to minimize their exposure to things where they are less likely to improve and grow or don’t enjoy.

Thus, in some situations it makes sense to have a growth mindset and believe that you (or others) can grow and improve in a particular area. In other situations, it is incredibly valuable to recognize that “the distribution is set” and there are physical, mental or psychological limitations to growth that make it unlikely to will occur. The key is to know which mindset to apply to which situation.


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