Societal Growth Requires Rehabilitation

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Disclaimer: My intent is not to criticize growth mindset as initially intended, but to criticize the version of straw growth mindset that has become a rationalist meme, particularly by pointing out its relation to some of the problems we have on the community level.

”Growth mindset” ranges from a sort of rallying cry to a “that’s what she said” sort of joke, depending on what crowd you run with, but underneath all of this is an attitude that we can get better. We use the phrase to lift ourselves up, to tell ourselves that no matter what our current problems, we can grow and become stronger. We treat technology similarly; someday, our cars will drive us and death will be cured. In the future, things will be better—assuming X-risk doesn’t take us all out first.

Sadly, this mindset seems to leave little room for the struggling. “Growth mindset” gets used to mean “everything is good and getting better” rather than “bad things are getting less bad”, which erases those for whom “everything is good” seems like a false statement. Cryonics and self-driving cars only exist for those who can afford it. On a social level, only those with the resources for personal growth can realistically work on themselves to the extent where “growth mindset” is actually a realistic phrase. Ideally, we’d work on this by making things like therapy and education more accessible. Ultra-ideally, we’d also start teaching things like EQ and metacognition in public schools, and work toward decreasing stigma around mental illness, therapy, and self help.

The pervasiveness of growth mindset does not seem unusual from the average person’s perspective. Personally, the moment that made me question it is when I was working with a special needs class whose teacher was assigned to do a lecture on it. This was a class that was considered “moderate to severe”; most of the students were nonverbal and struggled to read or grasp abstract concepts at all. The thought that these kids gained anything from a lecture titled “Are you a tree or a brick?” is absurd.

Growth mindset, when taught poorly, will imply that anything can be achieved through effort. This kind of attitude can be harmful because for some, it is simply not true. Just as most of my students couldn’t comprehend growth mindset, there are many others who will never be able to do things that the average person considers necessary for modern life. While growth mindset may work well to combat the attitude that success is purely inherent, the way it is often presented swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. In a sense, we have yet another version of the nature vs nurture debate, with a similar answer: success consists of both effort and circumstance.

If we want to be the kind of community that applauds social growth, we also need to be the kind of community that assists the struggling before things get dire. High status people touting “growth mindset” while many others only one or two degrees away struggle with suicidality creates a “rich get richer” kind of social landscape. We can’t get better as a society without helping those who are worse off, and that starts with our own community. There is no true growth mindset without rehabilitation.