Examples of growth mindset or practice in fiction

post by Swimmer963 · 2015-09-28T21:47:29.000Z · score: 13 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 33 comments

As people who care about rationality and winning, it's pretty important to care about training. Repeated practice is how humans acquire skills, and skills are what we use for winning.

Unfortunately, it's sometimes hard to get System 1 fully on board with the fact that repeated, difficult, sometimes tedious practice is how we become awesome. I find fiction to be one of the most useful ways of communicating things like this to my S1. It would be great to have a repository of fiction that shows characters practicing skills, mastering them, and becoming awesome, to help this really sink in.

However, in fiction the following tropes are a lot more common:

  1. hero is born to greatness and only needs to discover that greatness to win [I don't think I actually need to give examples of this?]
  2. like (1), only the author talks about the skill development or the work in passing… but in a way that leaves the reader's attention (and system 1 reinforcement?) on the "already be awesome" part, rather that the "practice to become awesome" part [HPMOR; the Dresden Files, where most of the implied practice takes place between books.]
  3. training montage, where again the reader's attention isn't on the training long enough to reinforce the "practice to become awesome" part, but skips to the "wouldn't it be great to already be awesome" part [TVtropes examples].
  4. The hero starts out ineffectual and becomes great over the course of the book, but this comes from personal revelations and insights, rather than sitting down and practicing [Nice Dragons Finish Last is an example of this].

Example of exactly the wrong thing:
The Hunger Games - Katniss is explicitly up against the Pledges who have trained their whole lives for this one thing, but she has … something special that causes her to win. Also archery is her greatest skill, and she's already awesome at it from the beginning of the story and never spends time practicing.

Close-but-not-perfect examples of the right thing:
The Pillars of the Earth - Jack pretty explicitly has to travel around Europe to acquire the skills he needs to become great. Much of the practice is off-screen, but it's at least a pretty significant part of the journey.
The Honor Harrington series: the books depict Honor, as well as the people around her, rising through the ranks of the military and gradually levelling up, with emphasis on dedication to training, and that training is often depicted onscreen – but the skills she's training in herself and her subordinates aren't nearly as relevant as the "tactical genius" that she seems to have been born with.

I'd like to put out a request for fiction that has this quality. I'll also take examples of fiction that fails badly at this quality, to add to the list of examples, or of TVTropes keywords that would be useful to mine. Internet hivemind, help?

33 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-29T05:54:44.837Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I think groundhog day and similar stories ( Mother of Learning, Time Braid) give great examples of this- if you really want to drive this home to your system 1, I recommend the "split selves" and "second chances" techniques in this post to drive it home by imagining that YOU'RE actually in a looping fic.

Note that I don't think that it's necessarily bad to drive home an "Honor Harrington" type message where the hero is practicing a lot at skills they're already naturally gifted at - I think this is the most effective path to success, and you definitely don't want ot hammer in the meme of "even if I'm naturally really really bad at something, I can be the best through practice."

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-09-29T15:46:49.787Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Lots of examples and extended discussion.

comment by Unnamed · 2015-09-29T06:24:50.635Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Naruto. Lots of wanting to be stronger, and training hard in order to become stronger, often as a response to frustration about not being strong enough yet. Tree climbing example.

There are probably many other examples of Japanese fiction with similar themes (Eliezer basically said as much), but Naruto is the one that I'm familiar with.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-09-29T20:43:06.443Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Predictably, Naruto turns out to have inherited all his abilities from his parents, and then improved on them only because he was possessed by the ancient spirit of one of the most powerful beings in existence. And even before that, when the story required him to be the underdog hero, he tended to overcome obstacles using the Kyuubi.

All of the Narutoverse in general is about magic powers (chakra, whatever) passing on from parents to children without much of a change. There's exactly one character in all of Narutoverse who's called out for being powerful due to training, and it isn't Naruto. (A few others are powerful due to research, which is of course always evil.)

Naruto is the opposite of Tsuioku Naritai. It's the story of "everyone had something to protect and practiced like mad, but none of it made a huge difference and most everyone would have been about as powerful anyway." Naruto climbs trees (metaphorically speaking) for many chapters, but keeps being the underdog. Then he starts manifesting powers that make him the most powerful individual in the universe - because he's a shonen hero - and which are entirely due to his parents and outside intervention.

comment by Bobertron · 2015-10-01T21:00:23.321Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Naruto is the opposite of Tsuioku Naritai. It's the story of "everyone had something to protect and practiced like mad, but none of it made a huge difference and most everyone would have been about as powerful anyway

But the series clearly wants to be "Tsuioku Naritai". The good guys all value hard work. Maybe the show is hypocritical, then.

I'm not sure if the message that sticks with the people who watch Naruto is what the characters say (work hard) or how the show actually develops (be born special).

comment by Unnamed · 2015-09-30T08:21:03.344Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm only partway through (the show progresses slowly, even though I'm watching an abridged version that cuts out a bunch of flashbacks and such), but so far the growth mindset & desire to be stronger have been hitting my S1 much more than the "person of destiny" stuff. Basically the reverse of trope #2 in Swimmer963's list - lots of attention on the "practice to become awesome" part while the "inherently awesome" part comes up in passing or off-screen.

It's possible that the story as a whole suffers from the problem that you're pointing out, but that's not the message that my system 1 gets as I watch it.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-09-30T08:26:40.987Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're probably just early in the story line.

comment by Jiro · 2015-09-30T06:26:51.670Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Naruto is about using the potential you have.

If Naruto didn't have these inherited advantages, but still wanted a rare position such as famous hero or Hokage, he would have no better chance at it than any of the thousands or millions of people who were also striving for such a position and also trained. Given that the number of such positions is much smaller than the number of candidates, it is a statistical likelihood that he would fail. It's the same reason why most kids who want to grow up to be president will not become president no matter how hard they try--the number of job openings for the presidency is really low compared to the number of kids.

It just isn't realistic that Naruto could achieve what he wants to achieve unless he has some unearned advantage, whether superpowers or just plot armor or dumb luck. The best the story can do and still make sense is having his goal require both unearned advantages and training; the unearned advantages reduce the improbability by enough that he can train hard to get the rest of the way.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-09-30T08:33:59.346Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The best the story can do and still make sense is having his goal require both unearned advantages and training

But what the story actually does is having all of his greatest powers granted by others, completely unrelated to any of his training. In the early to mid story, he only survives due to fast healing and occasional berserk-god mode granted by Kurama. In the late story, he gets powers from all nine tailed beasts and the ghost of his ancestor. None of these require or rely on any training; they would work the same on anyone.

What tricks are there that he learns for himself? Shadow clones, which he miraculously learns in a few hours where others struggle for years and almost always fail - because it's suddenly really emotionally important to him, not because he trained really hard at anything. Rasengan, which he improves beyond the original, uses a clever hack and not training, and is the only thing that's really his own.

comment by Jiro · 2015-09-30T14:57:36.467Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In the early to mid story, he only survives due to fast healing and occasional berserk-god mode granted by Kurama.

"If it wasn't for X he would have died" is not the same thing as "only survives due to X". X could be one of a set of things, all of which are necessary to his survival. Both these unearned powers, and training, let him survive; without either one he would have been in trouble.

What tricks are there that he learns for himself?

"Learns a trick" is not the same thing as "training". He can learn to do something from someone else, yet still have to train the skill that he just learned.

Furthermore, by your standards I'm not even sure it's possible to learn a trick by oneself. Every improvement is either gradual or not. If the improvement is not gradual, you count it as a clever hack. But if the improvement is gradual, it isn't a new trick, it's just getting better at an existing trick.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-09-30T18:51:19.506Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

'Trick' was bad wording. Let's call it a skill. What skills does he learn through hard training and couldn't acquire otherwise?

There are some: the original Rasengan, the various phases of chakra control and shaping, nature chakra control. And these are important, yes. I was wrong when I said there was only one.

However, he also has a much bigger amount of un-earned skills or powers, granted throughout the series (starting at birth!), which completely overshadows the former because they are essentially superpowers that consistently make him far stronger than expected and, by the end, a godlike being who can literally reshape the planet. And these require no training.

Naruto's lesson isn't "train hard to realize the potential or the talent you have". It's "get multiple superpowers from various sources which make your training and your own talents completely irrelevant by comparison". The only really good thing to be said for the training is that it was part of him not giving up, and of others not giving up on him.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T03:59:01.693Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Trick' was bad wording. Let's call it a skill. What skills does he learn through hard training and couldn't acquire otherwise?

Same objection if you call it a skill--if he gains it suddenly, it doesn't count as gained through training, but if he gradually gets better at it, it doesn't count as a new skill.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-01T09:08:16.979Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If he gradually gets better at it, then it does count as a new skill. Regardless, my point was that Naruto's story is that the skills he gained or developed through training were both practically and story-wise much less relevant than the ones he got as gifts.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T14:27:44.119Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What? He's gradually gotten better at virtually everything he does. (Of course, it's harder to point and say "he's gotten gradually better", bu the nature of being gradual.)

comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-01T19:47:39.946Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I really, truly never thought I'd be arguing about Naruto of all things on LW :-)

Let's enumerate Naruto's ninja skills (that not all ninjas have), the important ones that let him progress in the plot and make him stand out among other ninjas, in approximate order of acquisition:

  1. Fast healing. Due to being the host of the Kyubi. Does not involve training.

  2. Shadow clones. Gained miraculously in a few hours, where few others ever master it even after long study, because he was under emotional stress and Had To Win. Technique does not improve with practice, it's merely proportional to the amount of chakra he has or expends (which grows during the series). Over time he finds new ways of using it tactically, but he doesn't get better at using it.

  3. Kyubi involuntary take-over rage mode (e.g. to defeat Orochimaru, and Pain). Obviously does not require training.

  4. Rasengan. He trained for some time, but couldn't master it. Then he thought of a clever trick that let him master it and would have worked with no training at all. This is the only skill he improves over time, presumably through training and experience, creating bigger and fancier versions. Score one for Naruto. Various combinations with other techniques (shadow clones, nature chakra) also imply training offscreen.

  5. Nature chakra (senjutsu). Only 4 ninjas other than him are named as ever mastering it, over the past 4 generations. He trained for a few months and became much better than at least one of them who practiced it all his life (Jiraya), if not the other three (Orochimaru, Minato and Hashirama), despite a handicap none of the others had (the Kyuubi).

  6. Control of Kyubi's chakra. He trained for several weeks to accomplish it. We don't know if this unusual, because the only other to do so is Bee, who taught him, and no-one else ever got the chance to try that we know of.

  7. Voluntary submission and aid of the Kyubi and his chakra, distributing it to others, assuming the Giant Kyubi Narutoform in battle, etc. Achieved making friends and influencing people - "just" being nice. To be fair, he does train a lot at being nice - at least he practices it all the time.

  8. Various world-breaking powers granted by whatshisname, the spirit of his ancestor possessing Naruto.

I think the only thing that actually improved with use and training is the Rasengan, and even that didn't require any training to gain initially.

Now of course he also knows the basic techniques that all ninjas know, and he does train the acquire and to improve them. Water-walking, chakra nature shaping, even simple things like knife throwing. But he trains at them precisely because everyone does. All the things that make him powerful, important, interesting, and not-dead-long-ago are plot armor and unearned gifts. Take all of them away and he literally wouldn't have made it out of the Ninja Academy.

Compare that with the way e.g. Lee trains to get skills and to improve them.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-01T20:49:52.144Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think the only thing that actually improved with use and training is the Rasengan, and even that didn't require any training to gain initially.

But

He trained for a few months and became much better than at least one of them who practiced it all his life (Jiraya)

He trained for several weeks to accomplish it. We don't know if this unusual,

To be fair, he does train a lot at being nice - at least he practices it all the time.

Now of course he also knows the basic techniques that all ninjas know, and he does train the acquire and to improve them.

You're not really arguing that he doesn't train except for the Rasengan. You're arguing that he does train, but that training works better for him than for other people because of his unearned advantages, so his training doesn't really count

But everything you train in works that way. I know how to program a computer. I had to train to do so, but there are other people who would have to train much longer to do the same thing and still other people who could not do it no matter how much training they did. That doesn't mean I didn't train, or that my ability to do it is entirely due to luck, even though it's certainly partly due to luck.

All the things that make him powerful, important, interesting, and not-dead-long-ago are plot armor and unearned gifts. Take all of them away and he literally wouldn't have made it out of the Ninja Academy.

And if you take away my computer programming potential--a potential which not every person has--I literally wouldn't have made it out of a real-life academy. I still trained in it.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-02T11:33:50.577Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're not really arguing that he doesn't train except for the Rasengan. You're arguing that he does train, but that training works better for him than for other people because of his unearned advantages, so his training doesn't really count

No. I'm arguing that the things he trains at are not the things that make him successful. Even if he trained much less, he would still achieve all the same outcomes due to his unique unearned untrained powers. He succeeds because he's a privileged magical shonen protagonist, not because he's training rigorously.

comment by Jiro · 2015-10-02T15:31:51.654Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Even if he trained much less, he would still achieve all the same outcomes due to his unique unearned untrained powers.

I don't believe this. Using your own example, he got senjutsu, and trained for a few months to get good at it. Without that training, would he have had the same outcome? (Remember that shadow clone acts as a training multiplier, but the multiplier doesn't do any good if there is zero training to multiply.) Without training to use the kyuubi's chakra (another example of yours), would he have achieved the same outcome?

(Edit: I'm not sure he was able to use shadow clone with senjutsu, so ignore that if it doesn't apply.)

comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-02T19:54:45.556Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I said "if he trained much less", not "if he didn't train at all". For senjutsu and the Kyuubi's chakra he had to train less than others who did it before him, and achieved better results than some of them did. For the other things on my list, he didn't need to train at all.

My list was supposed to show that his skills tend to follow my analysis, not that all them do so perfectly. I still think it's a good generalization.

comment by SilentCal · 2015-10-01T17:26:34.489Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

+1 for various anime, to be sure. I'm not the top expert, but I've seen a lot that, while having significant natural gifts, also place as much weight on training as performance--and if you count mid-contest growth as well as explicit training, then growth is the primary focus.

I'm talking about things like Dragonball (Z), and also sports anime like Hajime no Ippo and Eyeshield 21. I might even describe them as level-up porn.

comment by shminux · 2015-09-28T23:27:03.101Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A few notes.

  • Writing leveling up in an engaging way is hard. Groundhog Day is one classic example where it's done well, and is pure growing mindset and determination, no extra talent.

  • I think in the Hunger Games it is implicitly assumed that she both has a gift for archery and had worked hard to develop it. I agree that her wins look mostly like luck or some behind-the-screen force.

  • Indeed in the Honor Harrington series the brutal training schedule, while not often explicitly shown, is alluded to multiple times, and the explanation for the original villain remaining largely technically incompetent is rather contrived and hand-waved. I chalk that one to David Weber being completely incapable of writing non-cartoonish villains, ever.

  • A big offender in the "all talent, little work" department is Ender's Game: Ender manages to beat a more experienced player 2 out of 3 without ever touching the game controls prior to the contest. Later on, he trains his troops, but he is already magically there himself. Though there is the bit where he levels up properly under Mazer Rackham.

  • Brandon Sanderson's writings tend to be quite decent. The characters tend to put a lot of work into achieving their potential, but there is never a "growing mindset is all you need" premise, one always needs a healthy measure of talent to excel. Even geniuses with an obvious talent at least have to work hard at learning how to control it.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2015-09-29T00:26:05.817Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Brandon Sanderson's writings tend to be quite decent.

I'd thought about putting the Mistborn series in the "things that are close to what I'm talking about", but I've only read 2/3 of the first book.

the explanation for the original villain remaining largely technically incompetent is rather contrived and hand-waved.

I'd forgotten about that. I think maybe I assumed the incompetent-villain characters were finding ways to skimp on the training that was supposed to be required?

comment by shminux · 2015-09-29T05:47:38.923Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think nepotism was mentioned as the reason, but it is hard to see how it would help to wiggle out of training.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-10-02T22:43:39.417Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I also considered Enders Game and didn't arrive at the same conclusion. After all we follow him though all of the hard work. Yes he does win most of the challenges but then a) he has been bred for that and b) all the situations are set up and monitored - presumably to keep him in his zone of proximal development. And most of this is made transparent. And as you say he meets his equal and even fails. So I think this rather falls into the category of making the best of ones talent by hard work.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-10-01T12:32:19.564Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Good American Witch by Peggy Bacon. The witch grants wishes, but always with an odd price-- for example, a girl who wants curly blonde hair has to give up her eyebrows. As a result, she gets eyebrows which match her hair. Towards the end of the book, a boy wants to become an artist. He's told the price is that his wish won't be fulfilled until after some large number of days. At the end of the book, he's become an artist, and only then realized that while he's been studying art, the requisite number of days have passed.

The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh-- as I recall, it has quite a lot about martial arts training.

Would the Harry Potter books count as an approximate match? Talent is important, but the characters also spend a lot of time on study and practice.

comment by Nornagest · 2015-10-01T18:26:36.492Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I haven't read the Potter books for a long while, but from what I recall they're pretty good at avoiding instant-gratification solutions when there's some specific plot coupon that the protagonists need to master. The Patronus charm, the Polyjuice potion, etc. Harry even tries hard and fails to learn an essential skill once, with Occulemency, which is practically unheard of in fiction.

It doesn't seem to generalize very well, though. The protagonists are mediocre students aside from Hermione, and after the first couple of books her studiousness seems to be treated more as a character quirk than a serious advantage. And it's rarely more than a plot coupon that they need: most of their final successes come from dumb luck or outside intervention.

comment by bageldaughter · 2015-09-29T17:55:17.724Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found this quality in The Wind Rises - protagonist achieves greatness through single-minded dedication to his craft (airplane engineering), and sacrifice.

This was the first film I saw that seemed to glorify hard work and focus, rather than an inherent "quality of greatness". Greatness itself is explicitly divorced from the protagonist, who perceives his ultimate goal through a series of dreams. It never belongs to him, it is something he is always working towards.

It doesn't do exactly what you're looking for though, because it also casts doubt on the ultimate achievement, asking, "Was it really worth it?".

comment by Remlin · 2016-03-18T07:13:47.233Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that great example of growth mindset is "Baby steps" anime and manga (http://mangafox.me/manga/baby_steps/). Boy become proffesional tennis player from scratch using deliberate practice and hard work.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-10-02T23:03:14.196Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I seem to remember that Karate Kid (at least the original one) matches fairly well.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-09-30T10:10:12.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Aubrey and Maturin series. Both are quite awesome from the start, yes, and suffer setbacks which wipe out the gains from hard work, and some things (naval for Maturin, 'landwards' for Aubrey) remain unlearnable; but their abilities to react to life's demands efficiently seems (to me) to grow over time.

Also, Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann. A kind of - antihero? - great from the start, trying desperately to fulfill his worth before his time runs out.

comment by polarix · 2015-09-29T14:25:28.482Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Avatar: The Last Airbender -- the TV series, not the movie. Arguably this is based on a series of revelations and unlocking latent powers, but the series is thick with depictions of practice throughout.

comment by raydora · 2015-09-29T14:05:33.275Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The scifi action flick Edge of Tomorrow might be a close-but-not-perfect example. Most of the movie is an extended training montage, with one (more or less the same as Groundhog Day) unique conceit.

The coming of age movie I Not Stupid is essentially about the distinction between a growth and fixed mindset, as played out against a backdrop of the highly competitive Singaporean education system.

Arguably Batman, when taken at face value. Due in part to sheer volume, there are probably a few story arcs from both Batman and Spider-Man comics that have elements of this. Not even mentioning the countless lesser known entities of super-hero comics that embody it, especially those with Charles Atlas superpowers.

A lot of fight sport fiction might get close, too.

I have an inkling that fiction in the near future featuring The Unchosen One will at least attempt more of this, or at least a Hollywood/Anime version of it.

comment by MrMind · 2015-09-29T07:18:03.678Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's beautifully lampshaded how bad training montages are in Team America.