Carol Dweck is a researcher particularly into the areas of motivation, personality, and development. She’s done numerous studies and wrote a book, but her ideas about fixed mindset versus growth mindset really, really caught on since her TED talk last year.
So (and I am taking great liberties in paraphrasing), one’s mindset dictates how they think, feel, and act in every aspect of their lives. One might have a fixed mindset and believe their traits and talents are permanently set. Or, one might have a growth mindset and believe traits and talents can change with effort.
And naturally that makes me think of My Little Pony.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the current iteration of a popular toy and cartoon franchise that I think motivated me to get potty-trained back in the eighties, so maybe that’s why research on motivation brings it to mind. Just kidding. Actually, I think it’s the cutie marks. Cutie marks (a play on the phrase “beauty marks”) are images that appear on a My Little Pony’s flank. These are often pictorial representations of the pony’s name. My favorite one as a kid was Moondancer; I remember she had a crescent moon and three stars as her cutie mark.
I spotted this pony cosplaying as Moondancer at the county fair a couple years ago.
But cutie marks can also indicate something that the pony is particularly good at, or associated with. Applejack, who works on an apple farm, has apples for her mark. Fluttershy, who works with animals, has three butterflies. There are even characters called the Cutie Mark Crusaders who do not yet have cutie marks (I guess it’s a coming of age thing), but continuously try new hobbies and explore new interests in case that is where there cutie marks will come from.
So what does this have to do with a fixed or growth mindset?
Well, first there’s the idea that a pony’s cutie mark is somehow pre-destined. This would fit into the fixed mindset mentality, that talents are something you’re born with, something innate, and something that cannot be changed.
However, once you actually watch the show (because you have an eight-year-old niece), this is not an entirely comprehensive understanding of it. Yes, many of the ponies have cutie marks that relate to their talents and interests. But for even many of the ponies there for set dressing, the cutie mark is not the be-all and end-all to who that pony really is.
There is more to a fixed mindset than believing in natural abilities. Someone with a fixed mindset might give up quickly on something they’re not good at when they first try. They stick with what they know because they believe their potential is static.
Main character Twilight Sparkle seems to have that mindset in the beginning of the show. The first episode shows that she’s very bright and academically inclined. She is referred to as a gifted student who is very talented at using magic. She is even mentored by Princess Celestia, the ruler of the land — who tells her that “there is more to life… than studying” and assigns her some homework most unusual: to make friends. The point of the show is that Twilight Sparkle learns how to make friends and then nurture and maintain those relationships, while her friends also learn valuable life lessons. So while Twilight Sparkle does have a natural inclination towards book learning rather than social interaction, she does learn to be a good friend (and learn to love it, too). This is an example of a growth mindset — recognizing that some people are born with talents, but that you can sculpt your talent through experience and effort. Attitude affects aptitude.
I also appreciate the fact that ponies who have special talents and interests do not necessarily make their living off these special talents and interests. Rarity the unicorn is a fashion designer and seamstress who runs her own business. Her special talent is finding gemstones. She uses this talent in service of her passion, rather than building her business on this ability. Pinkie Pie is another example — her ability to throw awesome parties can come in handy, but she still has a day job at the bakery.
Supposedly it is preferable for people to have a growth mindset — it helps us be persistent, to be open to new experiences, to learn better from failure, and have better self-esteem. Knowing that, though, it is difficult to nurture a growth mindset in young learners, often because adults model a fixed mindset themselves. In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the pony peers do a good job of praising one another’s efforts while also acknowledging their innate strengths. Ponies often struggle with a concept before they master it, and these concepts frequently have to do with social and emotional learning. They cooperate more often than they compete; they make room for making mistakes in their relationships, because they know perfection is an untenable expectation to have of themselves and of each other.
So, overall, I feel like this is a good cartoon to watch with your kids (and nieces, they also matter!). The characters do a good job of challenging our expectations of them, and modeling different ways to learn positive character traits. Two hooves up!