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The Queen’s Gambit has been a smash hit for Netflix (and original author, Walter Tevis) with 62 million households streaming the mini series since it aired on the 23rd October 2020. It’s no surprise as the seven episodes follow Beth Harmon’s gripping journey as a child chess prodigy in the man’s world of professional chess. There’s so much to explore in this mini series – Queen’s Gambit reviews are popping up all over the internet, exploring life lessons, trauma, gender, identity, neurodiversity, addiction and more – highlighting what makes it a powerful watch. This article explores how Beth Harmon is an excellent depiction of developing a growth mindset.
Stepping away from the show for a moment, let’s dig into a bit of personal development theory by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. In her book: Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Dweck outlines two distinct attitudes to challenge and learning that have a massive impact on an individual’s development. People may display a range of factors for the list of growth mindset and fixed mindset patterns:
A fixed mindset person:
A growth mindset person:
As she presents these two attitudes, Dweck backs them up with examples from real life sports stars, prodigies, business owners and even examples from family settings. What is made clear is that people with a fixed mindset may be initially successful as they ride the wave of their ‘innate ability’ but will soon reach a peak and crash if they cannot learn to develop a growth mindset.
Another key take away from Dweck’s work is that people’s attitudes may differ depending on the subject area. You may be very open minded and receptive to learning how to get better at your job or a hobby you enjoy (growth mindset) but have an internal voice telling you “I’m just no good at maths”, for example, which is an indicator of fixed mindset. Our mindset can be subject specific and it takes time and practice to learn to develop a growth mindset.
Over the series, we see some classic fixed mindset examples straight out of Dwecks’ book and the impact they have on Beth’s emotional wellbeing, relationships and progression as a player:
1) Reluctance to Learn – It’s true that Beth has some ‘natural talent’ for chess given her mathematical background and her excellent spatial visualisations. However, the idea that a person is either ‘good or bad’ at something can discourage them from putting effort into learning. We see Beth rolling her eyes and avoiding reading recommended books or analysing her games because she believes she is an ‘intuitive’ player with nothing else to learn.
2) Sore Loser – In one of her early games with her mentor, Mr Shaibel, he explains that the loser should lay their king down and Beth calls him… a rather colourful term for her age. Once she hits her stride she is not used to losing and has a quietly smug confidence about her – until her run in with Harry Beltik at the Kentucky State Championship. This is her first big game and when faced with the idea of loss she runs to the bathroom to cry and get angry before turning to tranquilisers to help her visualise her winning moves. We see similar tantrums in later episodes after her draw to Benny Watts and loss to Vasily Borgov. Although holding it together in front of the crowds, she is aggressive, self derogatory and angry after these matches.
3) Bad Winner – After facing the local chess club players in the first episode, Beth relays to Mr Shaibel how poor the other players were at the game. Though she never says it to peoples’ faces, there is often a sense that she believes others are beneath her. This is made clear when she is encouraged to start at beginner level as an unranked player instead of being able to jump straight into playing and beating the ‘best’ player in the room. This is also tied to her attitude of ‘compete to win’ rather than compete to learn and improve.
4) Self Sabotage – Dweck notes that people with a fixed mindset like to blame circumstances for their setbacks, and this can be achieved well through self sabotage. In her Paris match against Borgov, Beth chooses to stay up late and get drunk before the biggest match of her life to date. This may be psychologically comforting because it allows Beth to blame her ‘failure’ on not having a clear head rather than her lack of strategy.
5) Go it Alone – Intrigued and inspired by her ability, we see a range of characters offer help to Beth over the series; Townes, Harry and Benny being key figures. Beth’s initial reaction to help is often resistance and derision. She is actually quite offensive to Harry; noting “what can you possibly teach me when I beat you?” When offered feedback she gets offended easily and pushes people away, preferring to make it entirely in her own right than accept help.
6) Pack it All In – Now this one isn’t entirely due to mindset. After losing a big game and the death of her mother we see Beth emotionally give up and turn to her addictions for comfort. Dweck notes that it’s common for prodigies with a fixed mindset to suddenly retire from the industry after a big setback because they truly believe it’s the end of the road.
What makes The Queen’s Gambit compelling is the classic hero’s journey from arrogant, abrasive loner to a more well rounded, optimistic and connected individual. The final episode shows viewers Beth’s redemption as she develops her growth mindset:
There isn’t one single ‘click’ moment where Beth switches from fixed to growth mindset. Instead, The Queen’s Gambit gives a realistic portrayal of the difficulties in slowly changing one’s attitude and learning to let go of the limiting patterns of the past. It is a welcome invitation for all of us to stop and think about the parts of our lives where we may be fixed, and what benefits we could reap if we too shift ourselves into a growth mindset habit.
If you enjoyed the series then you may want to read the original book by Walter Trevis here.
To learn more about developing a growth mindset you can read books by Carol Dweck here.
Do you want some growth mindset coaching of your own? The Self Leadership Initiative provides bespoke coaching and training to help people from all walks of life take control of their mindsets and get the best out of their work and personal lives. Get in touch here to find out what difference a growth mindset can make to your life.