No matter what we’ve been taught in the past, it turns out that the first step to being able to change anything we want in our lives is the ability to believe that we can.
Dr. Carol Dweck is the master of mindset. A psychologist and pioneering researcher in the field of motivation and how we can use it to impact our lives, in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success she founded the theory that people’s core belief systems fall into two types of tendencies: fixed mindset and growth mindset.
People living with a fixed mindset are led by a desire to look smart and a tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily on obstacles, see effort as fruitless and ignore useful negative feedback. They see all of their innate qualities — character, intelligence, creativity — as static and unchangeable.
On the flip side, a growth mindset leads to a desire to learn and to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery and learn from criticism. They believe that their natural capacities can improve and, along with them, qualities like confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.
These internal, usually subconscious attitudes have a dramatic impact on how we see ourselves, build purpose in our careers and experience happiness in our lives. By proactively working on our conscious approach to our mindsets we can take greater control over how we’ll react in the future and steer the greater course of our lives.
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” - Carol Dweck
Here are some key first steps to help you fundamentally believe that you have the ability to learn and improve with effort.
Praise the process
For both yourself and others, try switching from praising traditional traits like intelligence and talent to praising the process or journey someone’s engaged in.
“Process praise” builds resilience by focusing on how you approached a situation instead of just its result. Effort, strategic thinking, perseverance, focus — these are all vital, worthwhile skills that deserve to be acknowledged regardless of the final outcome.
Setbacks are more valuable than success
Growth mindset research reveals that how we react to inevitable setbacks is actually more important than how we react to easy successes. Our natural abilities — like how “smart” we are — give us some confidence when things are going well. But these instances are often impacted by factors outside of our control or that we didn’t have to work to gain, such as privilege or other inequities in our favour that we might not even be aware of.
How we respond to hardship when things get rough and the attitude we use to overcome setbacks is a much stronger determiner for long-term success and overall life satisfaction than how we react when success is easy or handed to us.
While it’s one thing to have a positive attitude when things are going your way, research shows that our overall abilities to continually develop new skills over our lifetime is determined more by our attitudes when things go wrong. The way you prepare yourself to handle setbacks and challenges is where the real superpower of growth mindset kicks in.
You can (literally) change your brain
Growth mindset research is way more than the cliché of “positive thinking.” Research at Stanford University measured and mapped the electrical activity in the brains of people with both fixed and growth mindsets as well as how they changed over time.
“Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in your brain form new, strong connections. Over time you can get smarter.”- Carol Dweck
Like learning any new skill, it becomes easier and more efficient for your brain to think this way in the future. As our growth mindset becomes more automatic we can put more energy into taking actions to move forward instead of focusing on our initial reactions.
Action follows attitude
At its core, a growth mindset makes you feel empowered. A key part of that feeling is knowing that the way you think needs to ultimately be a foundation for taking action.
We’ve all felt action paralysis take us over after experiencing fear, anxiety or a lack of self confidence. People who live with a growth mindset aren’t necessarily braver than anyone else, but they do know that the best way to get moving is to just begin. There will never be a perfect time to start or an ideal way to rebound from a setback… so why wait for one? Release the fixed-mindset thinking that might have crept up and focus your energy on just beginning again.
Think of failure as an opportunity to grow
Everybody fails. It’s happened to us and it will happen to you. More than once.
Instead of avoiding new challenges when they pop up, growth mindset helps us realize that there’s incredible potential in embracing failure. When we fail we have a chance to truly learn and take a bigger leap forward than if we’d never experienced a setback in the first place. We can be prepared by proactively fostering inside ourselves an approach for how we’ll encounter our failures when they inevitably happen.
Take it one step further by expecting results from your failures. Use them as a chance to add up new learnings the same way you would if you’d initially succeeded. Focus on how you will eventually achieve greater success because of, not in spite of, this temporary setback. This way, whether you find success now or success later after even more failures, you’re keeping your eye on the prize and the long game of making success happen no matter which path you take to get there.
There’s no perfect growth mindset
Like a lot of things in life, there’s not one ideal way to build your own growth mindset. In fact, the struggle to be perfect is actually more of a fixed mindset trait that can end up hurting your efforts to create a growth mindset in the long run.
There’s a lot of nuance in what fostering a growth mindset actually means. In recent years, as the concept took off in the business media, inaccurate interpretations led a lot of well-intentioned people to embrace the buzz worthiness of growth mindset while conflating its core concepts with positive thinking and open-mindedness.
Dr. Dweck herself wrote in the Harvard Business Review to tackle these growing misconceptions and further clarify what growth mindset really means:
“People often confuse a growth mindset with being flexible or open-minded or with having a positive outlook — qualities they believe they’ve simply always had. My colleagues and I call this a false growth mindset,” Dr. Dweck wrote.“Everyone is actually a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience. A ‘pure’ growth mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek.”
One of the most beautiful aspects of growth mindset is how naturally forward-looking it teaches us to be. Just like mindfulness and other attitudes we can adopt to be more resilient, calm and engaged in our lives, by priming our minds to accept growth we’re also learning that we do next is just as important — maybe even more important — than what’s happened in the past.
Want to get your mindset growing? We’ve got a Pep-Talk for that.