Friday, May 23, 2014

"Be Like Mike": Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, and the Growth Mindset

In our math session yesterday at #7to10PDSBnet, we talked a lot about how having a growth mindset impacts on education.

As we were watching Eduardo Briceno's TED talk, I got to thinking about the premier athlete of my childhood, Michael Jordan.  I think Michael's early "failure" is well-documented (getting cut from his grade 9 team), but we probably don't often think about the growth, reinvention, and improvement that happened over  the course of his career.

My thinking is that it's every so easy to look at the Michael Jordans around us as freaks of nature, the lucky few who are so prodigiously talented and gifted that they make things look easy.  The truth is, Michael was probably the hardest worker around, and he never settled into a fixed mindset about himself as a basketball player.

Two examples to prove this point:
-mid career he became an average 3 point shooter. Not great, like Reggie Miller, or Ray Allen, but average.  But this did not happen without taking many many thousands of 3 pointers.  It comes out of a dedication and belief in improvement, and persistent work.
-at some point he added the ridiculous iconic turnaround jumpshot that became his main weapon.  Again, this doesn't happen without a belief in your own ability to improve, to get better, to grow.

You could probably argue that it's easier to have a growth mindset as an athlete-you are always working on and developing skills that will help you play the game better.  You could also argue that Michael had the benefit of height, agility, spatial awareness, and leaping ability.  There may be some truth to that- but his success was all in how he leveraged his gifts and grew over time.

We all have our gifts.  We just need to nurture them and develop them.  But what difference is there between saying "I can't shoot a 3 pointer", "I can't do Math", or "I can't cook"?  If we believe that we, and our students have brains that are constantly growing and developing, then the sky is the limit, (nearly) anything is possible. Such is the wonder of the human brain.

Another "anything is possible" kind of guy was Albert Einstein.  One should be careful about adding to all the maybe true/maybe false Einsteinisms on the Internet, but I came across a statistic about how many times Albert was wrong in his equations.  Simply put, he couldn't do the math.  He couldn't make things work out, over and over again.  What he considered his most important work, proving the existence of a force or energy that is pushing spacetime to expand, was a total failure.  It was proven much later, and the Nobel Prize went to someone else for that.  I have heard it called his greatest disappointment.  There is another statistic floating around, where a physicist claims around 20% of Einstein's work had mistakes of various degrees.

So perhaps if we truly believe in having a growth mindset, we can stop saying, "he's so smart", or "she's just not good at math".  Perhaps then "Be like Mike" wouldn't mean becoming a super athlete, but rather being the best you can be, and growing, learning, and changing over time, with persistent work.  Perhaps then being an "Einstein" might mean being someone who perseveres in the face of great difficulty, rather than "being a genius."


  1. Great post. Like the idea of adding "yet" to some of out students' comments. "I can't do math...yet" I also have a picture of MJ in my classroom for these reasons!!

  2. Another example...before the Bulls won three in a row (91-93), they lost to the Pistons in 90 Conference finals. MJ was tossed around by the Bad Boys. Any time he went near the net, he was knocked down by at least two Pistons. In the off-season, he committed to adding more bulk and muscle. The Bulls knocked off the Pistons in the conference final in 4 straight (Scottie Pippen had a big part in it too).