glass-ceilingPeople differ in the degree to which they believe that abilities can be developed. Thinking that abilities can hardly be developed is called a fixed mindset; thinking that they can be developed through effort is called a growth mindset. Although there are many indications for the validity ad the advantages of a growth mindset it is also the case that people with a fixed mindset see many indications that their way of thinking is valid. If you do not believe that abilities can be developed you will not put in much effort to develop them. If you do’t put in much effort, they won’t develop much. Ergo: your mindset is confirmed.


What can we learn from the research into mindsets? Do we have to shift our focus from intelligence to potential? While the word potential does justice to the malleability of abilities it still has some disadvantages. The word potential refers to the degree to which someone can develop or to the level to which someone can develop. The use of this word suggests that there are people with much potential and people with little potential.


But I’d like to suggest the following:  we can never know what someone’s potential is. What someone achieves and to which level someone will grow, depends on a huge amount of factors. All kinds of events in someone’s life affect his or her further development. In this process, genetic factors, environmental factors, behaviors, and consequences of behaviors continuously interact with one another. This is why we have to let go of the static notion of potential. Through new experiences our potential will keep on changing.


In extremo, we could say that there are limitation to our how we can develop. No one can learn things that are impossible for anyone (flying to the sun to name an absurd example).  Of course there are individual physical differences that also pose certain individual limitations to what we can learn. A full grown person who is 5 feet tall will most likely not be able to become a professional basketball player. Finally, it seems fair to say that our potential gets more limited when we get older. Someone who starts to study physics will at age 70 will probably not be able anymore to win a Nobel price.


But even when we acknowledge that we all have our limitations en when we acknowledge that we don’t all have the same limitations, we can still not know what our limitations actually are. I think we must stop thinking that we can assess the amount of potential of any individual. It is not possible and not necessary to make any statements about this and doing this can discourage people from doing their best.

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