Why The “Growth Mindset” Is Disempowering You

tom bilyeu with the caption "growth mindset epic fail"

After Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” the “growth mindset” concept has become very popular in self-development circles.

And, largely, it’s for good reasons: it’s fundamental to personal growth and, together with the antifragile ego, to mental empowerment.

We generally support and encourage a growth mindset here.

HOWEVER…

It’s important to remember that the law of optimum balance also applies to a growth mindset, and it’s certainly possible to overdo it:

growth mindset power dynamics
At a certain level and in certain situations you may really want to think and act not as a “learner”, but as an expert

Also, the foundational power principles of success and (social) effectiveness also apply to all public expressions of a growth mindset.
That means that when public displays of a growth mindset clash with good power principles, then a growth mindset is disempowering and harming you.

And, generally speaking, the growth-seeking learner is low power and low value, while the self-assured and power-seeking teacher is high power and high value.

Let’s dig deeper:

Growth Mindset Power Dynamics

From a personal success point of view, it’s a good idea to become an expert at something in life.

You’re not expected to be an expert at everything.
It’s not a realistic goal, it’s ineffective, and it’s the hallmark of grandiose narcissism and a fixed mindset to act as if you are, or as if you should be.

However, you do want to get good at something.
Be it your job, something you like, or something that is critical to your mission, becoming an expert at something is great for you.

And, from a power dynamics point of view, to fully reap the rewards of your hard work and the expertise you acquired you need to think, act, and publicly portray yourself as an expert and an authority.
As Machiavelli said, things are what they look like. So no reputation, no authority, no influence, and no rewards. And why “only doing it for yourself”, when you can also enjoy the rewards, and share that expertise and value with the world?

Now the issue is that “learner” sometimes stands in contrast to “expert”, and an eternal and constant learner attitude and public behavior can detract from your reputation as an expert.

Yes, we know that the person who identifies as “learner”, in the long run, is more likely to gain more expertise than the one who possesses a fixed mindset and considers himself an expert.

But that’s very long term. We’re not discussing that here -plus, don’t be naive. Unless you can reap the rewards of your expertise, your expertise won’t even matter. Certainly not to you, and often not even to the world-.
However, that doesn’t apply to the expert who considers himself an expert, acts like an expert, and seeks new growth -plus, remember that in the long term we’re all dead, so a focus on the short-term sometimes makes sense-.

skeleton of eternal learner with "waiting to win in the long run" caption
Nobody treats and rewards the naive “learner” as an expert because… He doesn’t present himself as one! People see what you show. If you show “learner”, don’t be surprised if they never treat you as a high-value expert

What we’re discussing is the power, authority, and personal success related to the sometimes opposite figures of the learner and the authority figures.

And, from that point of view, you lose authority when you adopt an extreme, “always-on” growth mindset and approach every person, situation and criticism as if you need to learn more.

When you acquire a public reputation of a learner without enough reputation for an expert, you personally lose out.
You lose authority, status, money, and networking opportunities. And you also come across as lower value than you truly are because the learner overlaps with “beginner”, and beginners are lower value than experts.

It’s Not Just Cognitive Bias: Experts Have Less To Gain With Extreme Growth Mindset

Many proponents of the growth mindset posit that not having a growth mindset is a self-harming defense mechanism.

As it’s often the case, evolution is not (completely) stupid, and if many people tend to defend their level of expertise, there is often a good reason.
One reason is, of course, public reputation and power, and all the many advantages that come from them.

And the other reason is that, for experts… It does make sense to have and display less of a growth mindset -the same is true for many other cognitive biases: there are some benefits to most of them-.

Just think about it: when you’re new and fresh, everything is an opportunity for learning.
So, as a beginner, an extreme and “always on” growth mindset truly reflects your reality.

But that’s not the case anymore for experts.
Experts can’t always learn nearly as much just going about their lives because they already analyzed and learned from the most common and everyday situations. And experts can’t learn from just about any average Joe because they’re far more advanced than the average Joe.

Most experts’ learning happens when pushing the limits of what’s most readily accessible or “ordinary”. And it happens in more limited circumstances and with fewer people, like at work, in conferences, in research papers, in monographs, etc.

So the higher you go, the more you want to be selective of the people and resources you can learn from.

And, relevant to us, experts rarely learn while going about their life or while being interviewed by non-experts, chatting on a podcast, or on most public appearances.
So, in those circumstances, an extreme growth mindset is counterproductive and disempowering.

Learners Are Victims of Teacher’s Frames & Power Moves

It may be sad, but it’s true:

An extreme growth mindset overlaps with naivete and can easily cost you.

It can cost in poorer learning, rather than better learning.
Similar to open-mindedness, an extreme growth mindset opens you up to all kinds of BS -and to all kinds of bullshitters-.

And, similar to vulnerability, it can cost you in your social and professional life as well.
For example, an extreme growth mindset would never push back against criticism because it sees criticism as the best learning opportunity.

But the criticism sometimes is wrong -and, as a matter of fact, the better you become, the more likely it is to be wrong-.
And sometimes the criticism is a power move.

Growth Mindset Power Moves

The growth mindset has become hyper-popular in the self-help world.

And as the growth mindset spreads, so does its use for Machiavellian, selfish, aggressive, and value-taking purposes.

For example:

  • Employer manipulation, and it works like this: the more they can pay with “learning”, the less they will pay with you, you know, actual money. Plus, they can ask you to do far more than your job description since, after all, you’re learning, you don’t even know what’s best for you, so you better do a bit of everything (big thanks to Bel for this)
  • PR stunt, to look open-minded, “better” and more honest
  • A cover for personal attacks, or to avoid owning up and apologizing –example in the PU-. With the “growth mindset” cover, people are never wrong or mean because it’s you who need to develop a growth mindset. And they can keep taking swipes at you and you can’t defend unless you’ll get labeled a “fixed mindset” (see “covert power moves“)
  • Social exchange manipulation, as in “I’m giving you feedback and criticism that will help you improve, so you owe me”.
    In that regard, I highly recommend you avoid formats such as “learn this and thank me later”
  • A cover to social climb on you (teacher/pupil frame): so they self-frame as “teachers”, and you become the “student” (of theirs).
    The most extreme forms, the “teacher/pupil” frames are both very disempowering, and annoying
  • Trap to lower your defenses. Then you’re complimenting them, maybe take a step back… And then they take your feedback apart to show why you’re wrong -I fell for this myself, example in PU-.
  • An excuse to be mean, as in “we give each other raw feedback here because we all have a growth mindset, and if you can’t take it, it’s your fault for not having growth mindset”

Since “teaching others” or pushing a growth mindset on them can be a disempowering -and annoying- power move, we advise caution in doing so and, unless they made it clear they accept you as a higher authority to learn from, refrain from self-framing yourself as a teacher to others.

Learners Are Lower Value Than Teachers

One simple fact proves that learners are lower power:

Teachers get salaries, learners get nothing -or must pay-.

That already tells you a low about who’s higher value between the two.

Top teachers are experts, and if they’re experts in any in-demand skill or field, they can get a lot of money, plus status, influence, admiration, and even attraction.
Learners and beginners get little of that.

Your Confidence Around “How Much You Know” Determines Your Authority…

… And your attitude around “what you need to learn” as well, of course.

Relevant to us and to your public attitude, experts are associated with high confidence, including high confidence in knowing what they know.
Plus, sometimes, also an air of “been there, done that” and “elementary, my dear Watson”.

Learners are associated with lower confidence, higher curiosity, and with more doubts and tentativeness in their knowledge and expertise.
And we know here that low confidence and tentativeness equal low power and low influence.

That’s why, sometimes, simply acting like a learner frames you as a lower-value beginner.
That’s fine of course if you are a beginner, because you grow quicker acting as a beginner when you’re one.
But it’s a lot less OK if you’re not a beginner.

When dealing with others, that means that when you take a learner’s role to let someone else be a teacher you lose power to that other person.
That teacher isn’t also just getting power, but he’s getting power over you.
You disempower yourself, to empower that teacher -it’s a lose-win, a sucker’s trade-.
That’s particularly bad when you’re in the same industry, domain or field of work with that person, because it means you’re also indirectly competing with him.

Unluckily, people often know little about your level or expertise.
And even if they know of the benefits and importance of a growth mindset, as we know here, they will still judge you by your level of confidence and authority around what you know and what you need to learn.
And if you act like a learner, they will think you’re a learner. If that other person acts like a teacher, he becomes the teacher.

Result: they become the high-power expert, the one worth being listened to -and the one worth buying from-.
And you become the low-power, not-worth being listened-to guy (the true extent of your knowledge be damned).

All “Gurus”, Marketers and Charlatans Succeed As “Experts”

Finally, consider this:

Many of the most successful “gurus”, including many charlatans, self-frame themselves as experts.

Some of them may profess a growth mindset or say that they started as clueless.
For example, Tai Lopez rode the “growth mindset hype” and say he was a learner who started clueless.
But that’s more marketing to become more relatable and sell you their product. When they teach, explain and market, gurus always self-frame as experts that you better listen to.
And they wouldn’t even dream to learn from their audience -or any other expert, for that matter- while they’re building their own reputation as someone you better listen.

Indeed, most of the gurus’ success and charisma is because they portray an expert image, never because they self-frame as learners.

Experts Advance In Academia, Learners Do Grunt Work

Academia, the place that should all be about learning also follows the same rules.

Emily in our forum experienced the same during her PhD.

And if you look at some academics’ facial expressions, read their books, or look at how they talk -or defend- their studies and theories with just a minimum of power awareness, you’ll often realize that, especially at a certain level, it’s more about power than “learning more”.

Example 1: Tom Bilyeu Looks Clueless, Submissive & “Not Worth Being Listened To”

Tom is a fantastic example because he, more than anyone I know, embodies and promotes an extreme approach to growth mindset.

The “growth mindset guy” expression, supposedly

And I almost feel bad using this example because Tom is such a great guy.

But power dynamics still apply, no matter how “a great guy” you are.

And while I really like him, to spill my heart in total honesty, there’s also a part of me who thinks that in the interview he was a dumbass who deserves his bullying.
And that’s actually one of the main drivers of bullying that people miss on: the bullied inadvertently attracts the bullying.
There’s a dark force that almost calls for bullying to naive and submissive people.

Now, back to our example.

Sadhguru and Tom Bilyeu are both active in the self-development space.
So, no matter what the do-goody may say, in a way, they’re competitors.

Tom interviews Sadhguru, so it’s expected and understandable he asks more questions, listens more, and generally learns more than teaching.

However, again… Balance.

When in the following video example Sadhguru contradicts Tom about his own mission, Tom should refuse an extreme learner’s role.
Because if you look like you’re getting schooled about what should be your home turf, and what you’ve supposedly spent a lot of time thinking about… Then you lose a lot of authority.
And you also lose credibility and respect.

Unluckily, Tom takes on that pupil’s role:

Tom: (talks about his mission, what he wants to achieve, and why he wants his viewers to grow)
Sadhguru: nono, there is substantial medical and scientific evidence to show that… (…) there is no argument about that
Tom: (looks at him dumbouded: he’s just been contradicted on a cardinal belief of his mission and business and all he can do is to look like a knowledge-thirsty pupil looks at his genius master)

The early pick-up artists had a concept called “showing value in her world”.
Which meant learning about her, and then showing your value in what she does and cares about.
The concept was that if you can display higher value in her world, then she’s bound to be attracted to you.

Albeit things aren’t that mathematical, n a way, it’s correct.
But unless you’re a girl who wants to be seduced, you shouldn’t let just about anyone display higher power and authority in your world -and field of expertise-.

And here, Sadhguru enters Tom’s field of expertise and not only displays value and authority, but devalues and demeans Tom.

That’s bad for business, too.
This is HIS mission, it’s what his business is founded on, and it’s what he is selling.
And who wants to buy from a guy whose business is built on a proven mistake?

Tom should still let Sadhguru disagree and speak his mind, of course.
But he can disagree and politely push back.
And he shouldn’t be so submissive about it, he shouldn’t look so clueless, and he shouldn’t allow Sadhguru to be such a dic*head teacher while he takes on such a low-power pupil role.

Result: Tom has 3.1 million subscribers and despite trying his best to be a self-help guru, he is most famous and popular for interviews of other people who, guess what, are all “gurus” and teachers who speak with self-confidence and engage others to teach, never to learn:

growth mindset poor results from Tom Bilyeu
The growth mindset learner who seeks popularity is less successful than the fixed mindset gurus he interviews

Sadhguru instead enjoys a full guru status and reputation. He has 10.6 million subscribers on his channel (sheep need a shepherd, you know).

growth mindset loses to a fixed mindset
Looks like a self-confident fixed mindset ain’t too bad for business…

Please note that this example is very telling because Tom Bilyeu’s openly stated mission is to affect people at scale.
That means that all his efforts go into being as popular as possible. He prides himself on going all-in, working non-stop.
And still… He can’t match the “guru”.

The same goes for Lewis Howes’ “School of Greatness”, BTW.

Tom’s Growth Mindset Is A Disservice to His Audience

By uncritically thinking of anything and anyone as “someone to learn from”, Tom is taking in a lot of crap.

And by sharing anything without challenging anything, Tom is doing a disservice to himself, and to his audience.

He’s giving away his mental real estate giving a platform to all the worst charlatans the world has to offer -including following dietary fads that are costing him effort and life pleasure, without probably adding any real value, and possibly making him worse off instead-.
And he’s giving charlatans a platform to spread their BS.

So much for “impact theory”.
It should be called “charlatans’ paradise”.

Example 2: Jeff Loses Authority For Validating Invalid Criticism With A Growth Mindset

Jeff Nippard is a fitness influencer.

He popularized research, creates evidence-based content, and sells fitness coaching and products.

In this video, he addresses the criticism he received on his own training regimen and approach:

Jeff: Since I posted my original video responding to Jeff Cavaliere I’ve gotten a decent amount of pushback (…) one thing that I’ve been hearing quite a bit is that my personal training style is not intense enough, I’m personally not training hard enough

That’s the criticism.
And he approaches with a growth mindset:

Jeff: and maybe that’s something that I need to hear I think we all need that slap on the back occasionally in that reminder that hey maybe you’re not training as hard as you used to and if that’s the case then I can only thank you guys for that

That validates the criticism to the level of “probably true”.
It’s already not a good idea.
And then he digs even deeper into that self-defeating growth mindset approach:

Jeff: I want to do a complete honest audit of my own training and if it happens to be the case that I’m not being fully honest with my own intensity in the gym then it’s only gonna stand to benefit me by cranking that intensity up

Yes, it’s gonna benefit him to improve IF he’s not maximizing his work.
But it’s not benefiting his public image and his business.

Remember: he sells training programs, he’s supposed to be an expert and authority.
How are people going to feel when they hear he may not even have his own training on point?

Well, many people are going to respect his honesty.
Some may even buy from him because they understand that a guy with this honesty and mindset is more likely to have great products.

But most people, deep down, even if unconsciously, are going to see him as less of an authority.
I’m one of those guys, too, and I know all too well about the benefits of a growth mindset: I respected him, but I also saw him as less of an authority.
And people start wondering if he did the same mistake(s) in the programs he sells.
Among the consequences, they’ll be less likely to buy from him.
Many people who’d have bought with a more confident rebuttal to his critics will now think “maybe I should wait until he makes up his mind or fixes his own training program (and when he’ll hopefully update his products, too)”.

Notice that Jeff may even have publicly acknowledged the validity of the criticism, but much better if he had done later, and after he re-stated the validity and scientific grounding of his approach and method.

Because later on in that video he does make great points on why his approach based on efficiency rather than extremes makes more sense.
But by that time, it may be too late to win people back.
By that time, his reputation as “the soft guy who doesn’t train hard enough and is unsure about his own training regimen” may be solidified in many viewers’ minds” -plus, he’ll lose the many who won’t even make it till the end of the video-.

That public “mea culpa” was also unnecessarily self-harming because this guy is an expert and on top of his game.
He follows s solid approach, he has science and knowledge on his side, he most likely does train hard, and he has the results and physique to back it up (more than the people who criticize him).

He went too far, too extreme, and did a disservice to himself, and also to the truth.

I rate this guy both more knowledgeable, and a far better teacher, than Jeff Cavalier he mentions in the beginning.
Plus, he’s even physically buffer.

But with this behavior, he disempowered himself and lost authority.

Compare that approach to Jeff Cavaliere instead. Cavaliere, who has also been rumored of using fake weights in his videos, speaks with unwavering confidence, as the ultimate authority dispensing truths and certitudes.

Jeff Cavaliere has 13 million subscribers, to Jeff Nippard’s 3.4.

Now compare instead with how Alan Greenspan handles mistakes:

Example 3: Greenspan Maintains Authority -And Income- For Handling Mistakes With A High-Power Teacher Frame

Learner’s expression or “I know better than you” expression?

Alan Greenspan is (was?) considered one of the smartest men alive, one of the top economists in the world, and one of the best -if not the best- central bankers ever.

Now look at most of his facial expressions: does he look like a learner, or a teacher?

And did he take responsibility for the financial meltdown under his watch, as any learner who “doesn’t care about power” should?

Nope.

Not only he defended himself saying it was impossible to do anything about it -something that many disagree with-, but he doubled down to go on the attack and display his superiority with a teacher’s frame:

Greenspan: What went wrong? Why was virtually every economist and policymaker of note (<— power move: not only everyone didn’t see it, but those who did, aren’t “of note” -and not nearly as good as him- ) so blind to the coming calamity?
(…)
I have come to see (<— that’s the “smart teacher” approach. He hasn’t “learned”, but he has “analyzed” the situation and concluded that… ) that an important part of the answers to those questions is a very old idea: ‘animal spirits,’ 
(goes on to explain and enlighten others)
(…)

And could he have done anything to prevent the crisis?
Nope. No sensible policy, Greenspan also maintains, could have prevented the housing bubble -something that, again, many disagree with-.

See?
There’s no hint of “learning” -and of course no hint of sharing any of the blame for failing to foresee the dangers-.
Instead, there’s more explaining -and some verbal power moves to come across as smart and knowledgeable-.

Greenspan doesn’t earn my respect.
And I don’t like him.
I think of him as a smart alec as*hole.

So, yes, he could have done better -and maintained power while also earning the eagles’ respect-.

But an “extreme growth mindset” would have been even more harmful.
He’d have lost a lot more reputation, status, and power, if he made mea culpa, and admit that he has learned a lot, with a lot more he also needs to learn.

With the teacher’s approach, Greenspan may have not (publicly) learned much, but he earned big.
Even after the financial meltdown, he was being booked as a consultant and speaker to the tune of tens -or hundreds- of thousands of dollars.

Rules to Maximize Growth Mindset

General Rules:

  • Adopt a growth mindset for yourself
  • If a feedback, attack, or criticism is disrespectful, address the tone first, and only later consider addressing the value and golden nugget in the feedback/criticism
  • If the feedback is invalid say so, don’t try to play the open-minded nice guy who wants to “learn from anything and anybody”. That makes you look stupid, not “open”.
  • If the criticism is central to your domain of expertise, focus on defending and re-empower yourself first, and only later address the value in the content -or don’t address it at all publicly, but learn privately-

Generally speaking, a growth mindset is also better among high-quality people since they know its benefits and they’re more likely to appreciate it while also less likely to fall for the allure of the “self-assured guru” -high-quality people are less likely to be sheep looking for a shepherd-.

If you’re still learning the ropes of power dynamics and aren’t sure about what’s OK and what’s disempowering, err on the side of caution and avoid going overboard with public displays of a growth mindset.

Solution: Dual Approaches For Best of Both Worlds

The approaches we propose are:

  • Expert AND learner
  • Private learner mode always on, public approach more strategic

We’ve just seen some examples of self-defeating growth mindsets.

However, that is not to say that one cannot still fully embrace a growth mindset, even while publicly rejecting or disagreeing with certain criticism.

Indeed, whenever needed, we like and propose this approach:

Reject or ignore the criticism if it’s an attack and if it’s damaging to you and your goal, while also privately acknowledging and reflecting on that feedback.
Potentially, you can also ask for more honest feedback later on, or to people that you respect and trust.

That way, you get the best of both worlds: the improvements and mental resilience of a growth mindset, with the social power, status, and respect that come from a more assertive approach.

Don’t Take People’s Word On Their Growth Mindset

This may sound cynical, but there’s just little room to go around human nature.

So, taking human nature into account, we advise not to take any display and profession of growth mindset too literally.

On paper, a display of a growth mindset may seem an invite for straight and honest talk, and for open feedback and criticism.
“Wow”, you may think, what a great person I’ve just met.

And yes, maybe you have met a great person.

And still, there is little room to go around ingrained and inborn laws of human nature.
So, more times than not, you pay for your criticism with a loss of goodwill and social capital.
People may still say they’re grateful for the feedback, and they may even be… But chances are that you’ll still be passed up for a more loyal squire when it comes to opportunities and promotions -and for a more “easygoing friend” and “supportive partner” in personal relationships. You know, someone who makes others feel good, instead of highlighting their faults-.

People profess what they want and what they strive towards… But it’s in human nature to then prefer those who are encouraging, supportive, and complimentary, rather than those who are critical.

And it’s also human nature to secretly resent those who are critical and don’t respect the pecking order.
So, generally speaking, leave radical candor for the radicals, and you be a realist instead and don’t be too frank and open with feedback and criticism to your boss.

Evolution Ain’t Stupid

Evolution isn’t stupid.

If most people have a fixed mindset or, at least, not an extreme growth mindset, it probably means that the benefits of a growth mindset haven’t been evolutionarily overwhelming -or, at least, not yet. But I’m not aware of any major trends of growth mindset people taking over the world-.

And a fixed mindset probably did provide some benefits as well.

Namely, from a power perspective, fixed-mindset folks tend to pay more attention to their status and image as “good”, “knowledgeable” and “expert”.
That often makes for higher authority and social power, and there are many benefits to that.

Born “Good” + Fixed Mindset = Unbreakable Self-Esteem

And from a mental aspect, consider this:

Dweck’s examples of failing fixed mindset tend to be of people who fail to grow in endeavors where training matters.

However, consider that for some traits training matters less and one may start at a rather high level from birth.

So people who have a fixed mindset coupled with high regard for their above-average ability may end up with very high and resilient self-esteem and self-confidence.

That’s because they think of themselves as “good” and, because of their fixed mindset, as “better than others by birthright”.

That’s an almost unshakable belief in their own greatness, and albeit it may be fragile when faced with evidence of the contrary, that evidence of the contrary may never materialize -or the person may be able to discount it with mental chicanery-.
And it’s super empowering to think of oneself as “better by birth”.

For example, yours truly grew up with a mother who ingrained in him that he was smart, and that’s how he was born.
And albeit when reading Mindset I originally thought that was bad mothering, I now see that it also served me incredibly well in some aspects of life. And it helped to make me very self-confident, with an incredibly high self-esteem -even as a fixed mindset person-.

SUMMARY

A growth mindset is generally good.

But as for everything: balance and context matter. And your goals must always come first.
And sometimes you better serve your goals by ditching the growth mindset.

In many contexts, and especially so in public, you may want to quit that “I’m the learner” stance and think instead more about power, power dynamics, power moves, and personal status.

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