Beyond intellect: why we must cultivate a growth mindset, or lose out

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In Singapore, we care about talent and intellect – we reward our most academically successful students with opportunities and prime them for future leadership positions in the government through our system of scholarships.

The fundamental assumption behind all this is as follows: talent is everything; we need to find the most intelligent people and invest in them, because talent equals to intelligence, and intelligence equals to success.

I want to challenge this.

I argue that mindsets and attitudes are equally, or even more important than talent and intellect, and we have paid insufficient attention to this. I will use the example of the aviation and healthcare industry to show this.

Aviation vs. Healthcare

What are the similarities between the aviation industry and the healthcare industry?  First, the key operators in both industries come from a pool of well-educated and heavily trained people (i.e. doctors and pilots). Second, in both industries, the worst possible outcome from any mistake is the same: death. In the case of aviation, the death of passengers, and in the case of healthcare, the deaths of patients.

However, despite these similarities, these two industries have one key difference.

Last year was the safest year in airline history for passengers around the world. No jets crashed in passenger service anywhere in the world. This has been the trend for a long time. It is literally safer to fly on a commercial jet plane than to drive on our roads.

On the other hand, in just the UK alone, a study found that there 750 – 1000 avoidable deaths each month due to poor care such as inattentive monitoring of the patient’s condition, doctors making the wrong diagnosis or patients being prescribed the wrong medicine. That equals to around 12,000 people in the UK alone needlessly dying each year.

Why have both industries performed so differently? Is it because doctors and nurses are less qualified and less intelligent than pilots and ground crew? That cannot be, since it is arguably more difficult to be a doctor than a pilot, and doctors tend to have better academic grades than pilots as a whole.

One might argue that medicine is more complex, and that may be a valid reason for a higher death toll in medicine as a whole. However, we are talking about avoidable deaths here – deaths that are not caused by complex diseases or rare complications, but by neglect, inattentiveness, and poor standard operating procedures.

The key reason why both industries have fared differently is due to attitudes and mindsets. Let me explain.

Attitudes and Mindsets

The aviation industry has a culture of making failure data rich. In every commercial aircraft, there is a ‘black box’, installed for the purpose of facilitating the investigation of accidents by preserving the recent history of the flight through the recording of dozens of parameters collected several times per second. Hence, every time an accident happens, the industry has both the opportunity and the willingness to learn from the incident, and improve the way it operates in order to make future accidents less likely.

The medical industry, however, can be quite different. It is argued that high-achieving students, who then go on to be doctors, may harbour a sense of self-exceptionalism that hinders their ability to see a death as avoidable due to bad practices, and instead choose to blame a death on unavoidable aspects of the patient’s condition. This is because, to many high-achievers, failure is unacceptable; it is a sign of weakness, and so when failure happens, the first instinct may be to deny it, or worse, conceal it.

Another pertinent aspect of the medical industry might its high ‘blame culture’. Doctors who make mistakes are dealt with harshly by hospital management – their careers might be irreparably damaged by a single mistake. Hence, there is a huge incentive for doctors to classify deaths as unavoidable, or use other means to conceal their errors. On the other hand, pilots who crash planes usually end up dead – they cannot cover things up, nor will they have any reason to. Plane accidents also attract plenty of public attention. Hence, airlines find it difficult to cover things up, and find it better for business to take responsibility and carry out a thorough investigation in order to demonstrate to their customers that they are trying to improve, in order to convince them to continue flying with them.

By comparing these two industries, I hope that I have demonstrated the importance of the right mindset in ensuring the success of an industry that goes beyond mere talent, or intellect. This mindset has been called by some writers as the ‘growth’ mindset –  a forward-thinking attitude that is prepared to approach mistakes and failure in a positive fashion, by continuously learning from them, and which prizes transparency and self-reflection.

Education: we can do better

When it comes to developing this attitude, I argue that our society can do better. We should not be merely developing our students’ intellectual abilities, but cultivating a growth attitude that will serve them well no matter what they end up doing in the future.

Our society’s current attitude towards ‘low’ performing students does exactly the opposite of this. We demoralize them, and think of themselves as lesser than others. We make failure the end, when really it is only a part of the journey. In doing so, we crush their potential.

The civil service

Similarly, we need to cultivate a growth attitude in our civil service. There is little point in putting the best and brightest minds of Singapore in positions of power, only to see them become yes-men who are too afraid to make a change out of a fear of offending their superiors, or know-it-alls who are too afraid to accept and confront failure.

Louis Ng’s recent comments in Parliament only serve to indicate that the present state of affairs is unsatisfactory – in his words, the fear of speaking up will result in the “loss of good ideas, of better ways of doing things and the loss of good public servants”.

Society and the future

Why did Western scientific advancement stagnate so much in-between the great innovations of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the scientific and industrial revolutions of the late 17th century? It was not because the people in both periods were more intelligent than the people in-between, since education was equally accessible (or inaccessible, by modern standards) throughout all three periods.

The reason for this stagnation was the mindsets and attitudes of the time: when Galileo told the Church to look into his telescope in order to see that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around, the Church refused. It refused to do so not because its members were unintelligent, but because they feared that doing so would prove them wrong, and in their ecclesiastical mindset, infallibility is a virtue and being wrong, an irrecoverable failure. It was only when these attitudes change, did the West make the great scientific and industrial progress, which we continue to benefit from today.

Singapore is going to face plenty of challenges in the future. Unless we begin to develop a mindset advantage in both our young, and our civil service, we will be unable to compete effectively in a rapidly changing, and highly competitive world.


Written by Rio Hoe

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