The Growth Mindset

Posted in NEWS on July 29, 2008

By Wizards of the Coast

Adam Cetnerowski recently wrote an article recommending three self-help books that can be applied to becoming a better judge. I'd like to add another book to that list: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck. Dr. Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford who has spent a good deal of her professional career studying peoples' attitudes toward intelligence and aptitude, and how the differences in those attitudes predict overall success.

She defines two mindsets: the "growth mindset" and the "fixed mindset." A person with the fixed mindset believes that characteristics like intelligence, talent, and aptitude at a particular activity are essentially fixed qualities. A person with the growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that aptitude, talent, and even basic intelligence can be improved with effort and practice. As the book puts it, the "growth mindset is based on your belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts."

Dweck cites numerous studies which show that having the growth mindset is a very good indicator of success, and she convincingly argues that this correlation is not a coincidence. She applies her theory to individuals such as sports stars and CEOs, but also shows that the same concepts can be applied to parenting, marriages, and so forth.

So how does this apply to judging? Well, as I read the book, I couldn't help but notice that Dweck's advocacy of the growth mindset was essentially a crystallized version of what my various mentors have been telling me since I first became a judge. The DCI encapsulates the growth mindset on a fundamental, organizational level. The key is this: your goal should not be to get to some concrete finish line, but rather to always strive for improvement.

There are many ways in which the growth mindset will help you become a better judge. This article will touch on three: confidence, dealing with mistakes, and mentoring.

Confidence (Over- and Under-)

A couple of recent judge articles have dealt with the related topics of underconfidence and overconfidence. As it turns out, the growth mindset is a tool that can be used to combat both of these problems:

Underconfident judge: "I'm terrible at this, and I'll never get any better."
Overconfident judge: "I'm an amazing judge, I can't possibly get any better."

See the similarity?

As it turns out, both of the proto-judges I just quoted suffer from the fixed mindset. The underconfident one believes his effort isn't helping, and the overconfident one believes that attempts to grow are silly.

One of the hallmarks of an underconfident judge is that much of his judging effort is focused on not screwing up—or, to put it more precisely, not screwing up in a way that draws attention. Here's a great quote from the book:

"Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over."

I really saw myself in this quote, and maybe you do, too. There have been times in my judging career (and my life in general) where I've been more concerned with proving myself than with actual improvement and achievement. After reading the book, I have become more mindful of this tendency and have been working to fix it.

Similarly, an overconfident judge frequently goes out of his way to prove to others that he "knows stuff." To him, as with an underconfident judge, appearances matter more than substance. For example, in discussions with other judges, it is more important to him to have the last word than to increase everyone's understanding of the issue at hand (including his own, potentially).

I can hear some astute readers out there asking, "but how will people know I'm improving as a judge if I don't prove myself once in a while?" Believe me, they'll know. You don't need to get a complicated layers question right or recite the entire Penalty Guide from memory to show players and other judges that you work hard and improve. Instead, your general attitude and demeanor will show that you're actively embracing new situations in order to become a better judge.


The fine husband-wife judge duo of Peter Jahn and Ingrid Lind-Jahn recently wrote an article about embracing mistakes and learning from them. I highly recommend that article, and I further recommend that you keep a growth mindset while reading it. With a fixed mindset, you're likely to forget their advice as soon as the going gets rough.

In Mindset, Dr. Dweck talks about a study in which the subjects were a bunch of pre-med students taking first semester chemistry. They asked the students some questions to get a feel for whether each was more of a fixed mindset person or a growth mindset person. They then asked the students questions about their progress throughout the semester. They found that the fixed mindset folks essentially lost interest when things got tough, despite the fact that they all wanted to be doctors, and that first semester chemistry was something of a make-or-break class toward that goal. The growth mindset folks, by contrast, enjoyed the challenge and maintained their interest level even when the course got difficult.

At a couple of points in my own judging career, I've found myself slipping into the fixed mindset in a similar way. There have been a few particularly rough incidents that have made me wonder whether I'm really cut out for judging (see underconfidence, above). For example, at a recent high-level tournament, I was a floor judge faced with a number of tough calls. Even though nearly all of my rulings were correct, I ended up in a downward confidence spiral as ruling after ruling drew appeal after appeal. For a time, I was more concerned about the fact that I looked like an idiot than I was about doing my job.

Fortunately, I've now managed to kick myself into a growth mindset enough to understand that these rough incidents, along with the occasional accompanying mistakes, are exactly what I've needed to become the judge I am today. Here's a quote from the book:

"In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you're not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn't need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented."

As Pete and Ingrid put it, "there are plenty of new mistakes to experience." Use them to become a smart, talented judge.


One very helpful aspect of the mindset book is that in addition to encouraging the growth mindset in the reader, it also gives tips for how to encourage the growth mindset in others as a manager/parent/teacher/mentor/etc. The basic idea here is to make it clear to the people you manage that you value improvement and that you don't expect them to be highly skilled right away.

At a recent Grand Prix, I was the team lead for a number of strong judges. In order to emphasize growth, I reviewed team members based not only on their existing skills, but also on their potential and willingness to embrace learning and improvement. In addition to fostering a helpful mindset, I believe that my actions provided useful encouragement for one or two judges who were self-conscious and nervous about participating in their first high-level event.

Dweck's book talks at length about former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. He used to rank potential executives based not on existing skills, but on what he called "runway"—i.e., potential for growth. I have begun thinking about other judges in much the same way.

As you already know, the judge feedback page in the Judge Center has fields for both positive comments and constructive criticisms. This is crucial toward encouraging the growth mindset in the judges you review. Other judge articles have addressed the issue of how to give a good review (both in-person and written), but a few tips are worth repeating here. First, try to avoid the generic, all-positive review. "You are a fine judge, keep up the good work" is a nice ego boost, but it's not a very helpful review. Instead, try for a "criticism sandwich"—a point or two for improvement sandwiched in between two or more positive comments. Second, when giving criticism, it should be specific, and it must include recommendations for improvement. A judge cannot improve if criticisms given to him are vague and unhelpful. Finally, don't downplay problems in the interest of ego protection. Of course, there's no need to be harsh or personal, but there's also no need to gloss over improvement areas as though they aren't really there.

If your review is helpful, and if the recipient of the review has the growth mindset (even just a little bit), then your constructive criticisms will be taken as exactly that—constructive criticisms, not personal attacks. In addition, useful reviews demonstrate to the review subject that improvement and growth are the important metrics by which judges are measured.


I strongly encourage all judges to read Dweck's book. It's a quick read, and a very useful one. I hope this article has made you think a bit about the growth mindset. By reading this far, you've already proven that you're a judge who's interested in growth. Keep going with that mindset, and please encourage other judges you work with to do the same!

Many thanks to Riki Hayashi and Toby Elliott for their help with proofreading and editing.

Jeff Morrow L3