Do you often say to yourself things like, “This experience means that I’m not a good person”, “I’m not good at math”, or “I’m not worthy of my husband [or wife]”. If so, this is a clue that you may have a fixed mindset, in which you see things fatalistically, as if certain qualities of yours are set in stone, incapable of being changed.
On the other hand, if your thoughts usually express curiosity about how you might grow from an experience, such as, “”I wonder how I could improve on my work next time”, “I wonder what lesson I can learn from this”, or “How can I be more helpful to my spouse?”, you’re demonstrating a growth mindset.
Stanford professor and researcher Carol Dweck, who focuses on motivation, learning, and development, states that people can be placed on a continuum when it comes to beliefs regarding the nature of abilities such as intelligence and talent. People who believe that these traits are innate, and who tie subsequent achievements to these traits, are said to have a fixed mindset. People who feel that intelligence and talent can be nurtured and developed through hard work and determination, and that accomplishments are largely a result of effort and perseverance, possess a growth mindset.
In other words, if you believe that your characteristics and abilities can change, and if you focus primarily on constant improvement, you have a growth mindset. If you believe that your characteristics and abilities are set in stone, you have a fixed mindset. Guess which mindset is more enjoyable and productive?
Dweck observed thousands of children during the course of her research and noted that those children with a growth mindset were more resilient after experiencing an academic setback than children with a fixed mindset. The growth mindset allowed the children to see obstacles as opportunities to grow smarter as a result of continued effort, rather than becoming despondent and giving up, as was the tendency among children with a fixed mindset. As a result, those with a growth mindset put in more time and work, and this led to greater achievements.
Of course, we cannot all expect to be Einsteins if we just try hard enough. Intelligence is to an extent innate — but only to an extent. As we use our brains and creativity, they become sharper. As we approach projects that scare us a little, we grow in courage and self-confidence. As we view ourselves as glorious works in progress, we accept both our successes and failures as experiences, rather than definitive of our core value. We wear our achievements and mistakes loosely, which makes life an adventure rather than an endless series of threats to our self-worth.
The truth is that our brains contain numerous neural networks, and whatever we think, concentrate on, or do strengthens specific networks. We cannot help but strengthen our wiring or begin to rewire these networks with everything we do. So, we are literally always under construction, rather than a finished product from the get-go. This should be encouraging.
If we have a fixed mindset, our achievements (or lack thereof) seem like a reflection of our inherent abilities, which can put a lot of pressure on us to do well — otherwise, so the logic goes, we’ve shown ourselves up to be “less than”.
As Dweck says, “[In] the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it. When people are in the growth mindset, the stereotype doesn’t disrupt their performance. The growth mindset takes the teeth out of the stereotype and makes people better able to fight back.” With a fixed mindset, you’re more likely to be thin-skinned, because you view every comment about you and every action of yours as a measure of your self-worth. With a growth mindset, you see statements and events as just a blip on the radar screen, rather than a cataclysmic event or a permanent quality.
Some other problems associated with a fixed mindset include:
- putting oneself down when faced with seeming failure
- being critical of others who struggle and seeing such other people as inferior
- fostering a hostile, stressful, and competitive environment, within one’s self, at work, among friends, or within one’s family
- expecting romantic relationships to be effortless, free of disagreements, and one’s partner to be omniscient and able to read one’s mind
- fearing and sometimes avoiding difficult tasks
- need to prove one’s self to others (and associated stress)
- lower level of performance
However, if we have a growth mindset, any experience can be an opportunity to educate ourselves and to see how we can improve, so there’s really no way to lose. To quote Dweck, “This is a wonderful feature of the growth mindset. You don’t have to think you’re already great at something to want to do it and to enjoy doing it.” How many times have you held yourself back from trying out a new activity that looks like a lot of fun, like bodysurfing, zip-lining, singing karaoke, or Toastmasters? With a growth mindset, you can dive right into the experience and enjoy learning and even the inevitable mistakes as you go.
Additional benefits associated with a growth mindset include:
- willingness to take on challenging projects
- greater motivation to excel
- lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress
- cooperative and candid relationships at work
- romantic relationships characterized by honesty, showing one’s flaws, and mutual support in personal growth
- focus on improving and learning, which can always be done, under any circumstances (thus, no way to lose)
- higher level of performance
How can we develop more of a growth mindset?
- Focus on learning. Define success as learning something new, rather than instantly getting something that you want.
- View challenges as opportunities. Instead of saying to yourself, “Oh, no – I can’t do this. This isn’t my strong suit”, take the attitude that this new experience will be a chance to broaden your knowledge base. Who knows – you might even have fun.
- Forgive yourself. If you make an error, simply consider it a part of the learning process.
- Substitute the word “learning” for “failing”. Every step of a task, even the “wrong” steps, can teach us something.
- Notice when you’re being critical. Whether your harsh words (or thoughts) center on yourself or someone else, ask yourself what your motive is. Are you feeling insecure about something? How can you treat yourself and others with more kindness and understanding?
- Reward actions rather than traits. Give yourself or someone else a pat on the back for attempts and effort, instead of saying, “You’re so smart” or “You have a natural gift for math.”
- Prioritize hard work over innate skill. The former you can do a lot about, so this is where you can productively concentrate your efforts.
- Cultivate determination and perseverance. These are attributes that will benefit you in many areas in your life.
- Reveal your failures. Talking about when and where you’ve made blunders can help form connections with other people and allow them to feel more comfortable about doing the same. You can also say a few words about what you’ve learned and how you might want to implement this new knowledge in the future.
- Learn from other people’s mistakes. This is another benefit of sharing “failures” with one another.
- When struggling with a task, use the word “yet”. As in “I haven’t figured out how to do this – yet”. Your next attempt may unlock the pertinent key.
- Remember that the brain grows stronger, more flexible, and more creative with use. Just as exercising a physical muscle is necessary to build bulk and strength over time, we need to use and challenge our minds to expand our mental and emotional capacities. So, when you’re given a task that seems monumental, just imagine the many ways that working on this project will help to enhance your positive character traits.
Cultivating a growth mindset puts us in the driver’s seat when it comes to the optimization of our intelligence, talents, and creativity. It is an exciting way to live!