From Golf Digest: Sergio Garcia, and the triumph of a growth mindset

I wrote this for Golf Digest after Sergio Garcia won the Masters, but feels worth re-posting here.

The concept of fixed and growth mindsets was introduced by the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck to help explain the various ways people confront challenge. By Dweck’s definition, the fixed mindset sees ability as largely predetermined, or “fixed.” If you win a race, it’s simply because you’re faster. A growth mindset accepts that skills can be learned and refined over time—if you lose a race you resolve to do better next time by working harder.

For years, Sergio Garcia fit the description of a fixed mindset almost perfectly. Garcia was supremely talented, and when he won often as a young golfer, it portended well for his future. He was too good not to win. But when Garcia lost, as one inevitably does in professional golf, frustration mounted. Garcia blamed outside circumstances. He grew increasingly sullen. As famously captured in a rant after the 2012 Masters, he started to wonder if he really was as good as originally thought.

“I'm not good enough ... I don't have the thing I need to have,” Garcia told Spanish reporters. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

In many ways Garcia resembled the tennis player John McEnroe, who Dweck held up as an example of a fixed mindset based on McEnroe’s inability to manage his frustration later in his career. Although he won plenty of major titles when he was young, McEnroe had no mechanism for working through challenge when he began to lose with greater frequency. It was as if he burned through his allotment of talent and was now running on fumes. It explains why McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles in a six-year period, but none after that.

“[McEnroe] did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded,” Dweck wrote in her book Mindset. “As a result by his own admission, he did not fulfill his potential.”

What has spared Garcia from a similar fate is that he has learned to process challenge in a much more constructive way, as my colleague Jaime Diaz captures in his summary of Garcia’s Masters triumph Sunday night. By accepting the occasional bad outcome, by learning to embrace his failures rather than rail against them, Garcia hasn’t just “matured,” as we like to say. He's adopted the principles of a growth mindset. And to be clear, Dweck says a growth mindset is something that can be developed over time. In the same way we can learn to run faster races or hit longer drives, we can also learn to look at challenge as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

“It’s not a fixed mindset to be wildly disappointed by an outcome,” Dweck told me. “But the most important thing is to honor the process and use the process to improve. You like the outcome or you don’t like it, you learn to formulate a plan to go forward.”

The difference in this approach is the difference between the Garcia who missed a putt to win a major at age 27, and lamented all the forces conspiring against him, and the Garcia who missed a similar putt on the 72nd hole Sunday night and resolved to keep going in the playoff. “I think sometimes he wouldn’t react so well when things didn’t go his way,” his friend and countryman Rafael Cabrera Bello said Sunday night. “But now when you look at him, his attitude on the course is impeccable.”

Garcia never used the phrase “growth mindset” in his press conference following his win, but the evidence was all there. For starters, Dweck says a pillar of growth mindset thinking is greater self awareness of one’s shortcomings, and Garcia acknowledged being “hard headed” in the past. He talked about how he’s better at “accepting” bad breaks. He used phrases like “room for improvement” and said when it came to his development, he was only getting started. Most important, when asked what provided him this breakthrough, Garcia didn’t credit talent or ability. “It was just work,” he said. “Simple as that. It's just work at it.”