Can a growth mindset help you recover from setbacks?

I just finished reading Carol Dweck’s tour de force, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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In a word, her book is mind blowing. How can a little thing like mindset make a difference? Can changes in thinking & attitude really have a profound impact on success?

I think it most definitely can. Here’s my story & more excerpts from the book.

1. My own story with the growth mindset

If your memory stretches back to 2008, you will like recall when the market took a dive. Everybody was nervous about default. Big banks were failing. The hiring climate became like a nuclear winter. For a good six to twelve months, things were frozen.

As an independent consultant, that felt like a real shock. Where once there were a lot of firms hiring me on projects, suddenly everything was quiet.

At first I thought of different options. I could weather the storm from many months, but then what? I decided I was commited to consulting, and didn’t want to take a fulltime role. So what did I do next?

Well I picked up a copy of Alan Weiss’ guide, Million Dollar Consulting. I read it cover to cover in a day, then I took a look at the business.

When the market is climbing, and demand is surging, I experimented with increasing rates. Sometimes they were too high, but often I would read the demand right, and turn a bigger fee. Now it was the reverse. Time to swallow your pride & drop those rates! And so I did. This helped close more deals.

From there I just dig in my heels. I worked my network as best I could. Having worked at hundreds of startups, I’ve met hundreds more colleagues over the years. I started reconnecting with them in emails, at meetups, and over a beer or coffee. I took more calls with recruiters to feel out the market, and keep my ear to the ground.

All of this paid off. Within a year I was rolling again, when for many the market still seemed frigid. A learning experience indeed, about business, but also about the growth mindset. It works!

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Jack Welsh, Michael Jordan & Setya Nadella vs Lee Iococca & John McEnroe

Dweck overs numerous examples of great personalities, who exhibited different mindsets.

For example take a look at a quote from Jack Welsh. He approached things with a growth mindset. Failures are only an opportunity to learn, not a description of your character…

“He [Welsh] learned to select people: for their mindset not their pedigrees. Originally, academic pedigrees impressed him. He hired engineers from MIT, Princeton, and Caltech. But after a while, he realized that wasn’t what counted. ‘Eventually I learned that I was really looking for people who were filled with passion and a desire to get things done. A resume didn’t tell me much about that inner hunger.'”

Or Michael Jordan. You think he never failed until you look at his own words. We forget how much practice day in and day out, it took to create his mastery.

“Michael Jordan embraced his failures. In fact in one of his favorite ads for Nike, he says ‘I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty six time I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot, and missed.’ You can be sure that each time, he went back and practiced the shot a hundred times”.

Lately I’ve been seeing Carol Dweck everywhere. Take a recent Bloomberg Businessweek interview where Satya Nadella credit’s Dweck’s ideas for the culture he’s created at Microsoft.

Culture is something that needs to adapt and change, and you’ve got to be able to have a learning culture. The intuition I got was from observing what happens in schools. I read a book called Mindset. In there there’s this very simple concept that Carol Dweck talks about, which is if you take two people, one of them is a learn-it-all and the other one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run, even if they start with less innate capability.

On the flip side, here are two examples where the fixed mindset takes hold. In Lee Iococca’s case, it drove him to harm others, and the company he was charged with driving…

“He [Iococca] also looked to history, to how he would be judge and remembered. But he did not address this concern by building the company. Quite the contrary. According to one of his biographers, he worried that his underlings might get credit for successful new designs so he balked at approving them. He worried as Chrysler faltered, that his underlings might be seen as the new saviors, so he tried to get rid of them. He worried that he could be written out of Chrysler history, so he desperately hung on as CEO long after he had lost his effectiveness.”

And another example of John McEnroe. A loss for him wasn’t a chance to learn something. He believed he had innate talent. He was special. So for this fixed mindset, a loss damages his character, and makes him feel humiliated.

“Here’s how failure motivated him. In 1979, he played mixed doubles at Wimbledon. He didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years. Why? He and his partner lost in three straight sets. Plus, McEnroe lost his serve twice, while no one else lost theirs even once. ‘That was the ultimate embarrassment, I said. That’s it. I’m never playing again. I can’t handle this.'”

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Learning the growth mindset

Carol’s book provides example after example of the mindsets in action, in real people. Her chapters cover sports, business, and even love & relationships. Towards the final section of the book she talks about how to learn the growth mindset.

Catch yourself and your negative self-talk. Turn things towards a learning opportunity. Don’t allow failures to define you or your character. Always be growing!

Here’s a great page, summarizing the mindsets & how to get there!

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Success Story–Media and Entertainment Conglomerate

The Business

A website aggregating twitter feeds for celebrities, with sophisticated search functionality.

The Problem

Having been recently acquired by a large media and entertainment conglomerate, their traffic had already tripled.  What’s more they expected their unique pageviews to grow by 20 to 30 times in the coming six months.

Our Process

We worked closely with the lead architect and designer of the site to understand some of the technical difficulties they were encountering.  We discussed key areas of the site, and where performance was most lacking.

Next we reviewed the underlying infrastructure with an eye for misconfigurations, misuse of or badly allocated resources, and general configuration best practices.  They used Amazon EC2 cloud hosted servers for the database, webserver, and other components of the application.

The Solution

Our first round of reviews spanned a couple of days.  We found many issues with the configuration which could dramatically affect performance.  We adjusted settings in both the webserver, and the database to optimally maximize the platform upon which they were hosted.  These initial changes reduced the load average on the server from a steady level of 10.0 to an average of 2.0.

Our second round of review involved a serious look at the application.  We worked closely with the developer to understand what the application was doing.  We identified those areas of the application causing the heaviest footprint on the server, and worked with the developer to tune those specific areas.  In addition we examined the underlying database structures, tables and looked for relevant indexes, adding those as necessary to support the specific requirements of the application.

After this second round of changes, tweaks, adjustments, and rearchitecting, the load average on the server was reduced dramatically, to a mere 0.10.  The overall affect was dramatic.  With 100 times reduction in the load on the server, the websites performance was snappy, and very responsive.  The end user experience was noticeably changed.  A smile comes on your face when you visit your favorite site, to find it working fast and furious!


The results to the business were dramatic.  Not only were their short term troubles addressed, as the site was handling the new traffic without a hick up.  What’s more they had the confidence and peace of mind now to go forward with new advertising campaigns, secure in the knowledge that the site really could perform, and handle a 20 to 30 times increase in traffic with ease.

Success Story – Location Based Nightlife Business

The Business

A location based nightlife and entertainment company built on mobile smartphone platforms.

The Problem

The website was sluggish, and performance of the mobile applications were running slowly.


We worked closely with the CTO and development team, discussed sticking points focusing on relevant areas of application and infrastructure.  We drilled down to the different components of the application, such as the network, cloud hosting (amazon EC2), webservers, load balancers, and backend database.

We identified that the heaviest components were the complex mechanisms and code used to calculate location itself.  Since this was an integral part of the service, users’ mobile devices would use GPS, identify their locations, and search the database for relevant venues and information around them.

Solution Options

We identified two possible solutions, one short term and one long term.

  1. Apply an advanced database indexing strategy which specifically addresses location based information.  By utilizing this technology, we would eliminate and vastly simplify the code being used to search for venues and information based on location.  Being the central component to the application, this would provide a dramatic boost in performance.
  2. Build a completely new and streamlined solution to the location searching functionality, by using square location areas, instead of the more intuitive circular location area.  Since users really just want information about venues around them, they likely don’t have a specific, precise, or mathematical idea of what “around” means.  Therefore a more loose definition can lend itself much better to computer database storage, and subsequent indexing of information.


By implementing the short term plan, and performing further benchmarks, the business was able to release it’s new mobile application on the blackberry carousel store.  They were featured in the carousel store, highlighted as a new business bursting with exciting features and technology.  As a featured application, they received huge spike in volume of ten times their previous average.

With the changes put in place, they sailed through this challenging period smoothly, and with confidence that their application was performing beautifully.

Their long term rollout of the more general high speed solution has been an even greater success, ironing out remaining bottlenecks, and allowing the application to scale and grow rapidly as their mobile user and customer base  expands.