Updated: Feb 26, 2021
At varying points in my life, whether it was in school or at work, I have been loathe to try new things. The thought would cross my mind, “What if I don’t do well in that? What would that say about me?” Thoughts such as these often left me on the proverbial sidelines, frozen with fear, and envying others’ admirable qualities, qualities THEY seemed to possess, but not me.
In hindsight, how wrong I was! Years later, I learned the culprit of such thinking from my fourth grade students. It was the fixed mindset. Indeed, it was the fixed mindset that had me so afraid of failure I couldn’t venture out to learn new things. This mindset kept me thinking small. It was this same fixed mindset that needed me to be right, and well, if I wasn’t right, I wouldn’t be wrong. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t ask a question. If I didn’t know, no one would be wiser. Unfortunately, NOT asking questions left me none the wiser too!
A fixed mindset, you see, as I learned from the fourth graders at my international school in Singapore, is the mind that believes our talents, skills, and intelligence are set in stone, with little room for improvement. Therefore, with a fixed mindset, whatever it is that we demonstrate, be it on a math test or in a meeting at work, is our true nature. We may not rationalize it in so many words, but this unspoken thought can guide our action, or inaction. When we have a fixed mindset, we’re hooked on results. And those results better be good. Otherwise, we’re left thinking, “I can’t do this. I’m dumb. I’m no good.”
This contrasts with the growth mindset, which believes that our talents, skills, and intelligence can be improved through effort and a willingness to seek out other sources for help. The growth mindset is focused on learning. When the growth mindset fails at a task, it says, “I can’t do this yet.” (This thought is known as the “power of yet”, and is a great way to start training ourselves to see things with a growth mindset.) According to the growth mindset, we can do incredible things. Maybe not today, but with time, resources, effort, and grit, we can get there.
These two mindsets, fixed and growth, are explained clearly in Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset”. In it, she extolls the virtues of promoting a growth mindset. With this mindset, people focus on the process of learning, and they ENJOY it. Dweck studied school children, and when educators promoted a growth mindset, she saw the students achieve amazing things. With the fixed mindset, however, people get uptight, anxious, and unwilling to venture into unfamiliar realms for fear of failure. This may not be evident when those with the fixed mindset are doing something they excel at. But given a more difficult or unfamiliar puzzle to solve, they quickly begin to wilt. I know. I’ve been there. How ‘bout you?
Chances are, most of us at one point or another in our lives have been held in the vice grip of the fixed mindset. We can identify with it so strongly, our mind becomes tight. And with a tight mind, it’s 1000 times more difficult to learn anything! The fixed mindset can affect more than our education, too. It can affect us socially. It makes us jealous. If our talents are set in stone, so are those of others. If they do something better, then they are smarter, right? This may make us defensive, cause us to doubt ourselves, or make us unwilling to get close to others, for fear that they may judge us.
The growth mindset, however, leaves us feeling freer to be whoever we are. We understand we are a work in progress. We understand, too, that there is always room to grow. We appreciate working on ourselves, learning and improving. Therefore, others aren’t a threat. In fact, they are allies in our effort to become a better version of ourselves.
A Growth Mindset Requires More Than Just Effort
Dr. Dweck has noticed many have misunderstood how to foster a growth mindset in others. Many believe that praising effort promotes a growth mindset. Dweck has cautioned that this is an oversimplification of her theory. While it is true that those with a fixed mindset are less likely to show effort the harder the challenge is, this isn’t the only factor in having a growth mindset. To make this point clear, think of it this way: putting more effort into something, but using the same strategies that failed previously, is likely to lead to more lack of success, and eventually frustration and disillusionment. In addition to effort, a growth mindset also needs a willingness to seek out other perspectives in the form of advice from others or a readiness to try other strategies. And lastly, a growth mindset should lead to new understandings and insights. Without this, there is no growth!
We are a Mix of Mindsets
Dr. Dweck mentioned that even she is prey to the fixed mindset, and that her own graduate students have provided immeasurable assistance in helping her recognize when it manifests. This may be due to a variety of factors. It may be situational with relationship to the task at hand. Or, it may be our particular mood that affects our mindset. Therefore, it is important to remain vigilant in regards to which mindset we apply to the challenges in our lives.
Mindset Exists on a Continuum
As Dweck and the diagram above suggest, our mindsets exist on a continuum. The characteristics described on the left and right-hand sides of this diagram are the two extremes. Our mind, at any given moment, may be on either side, or somewhere in the middle. We may demonstrate characteristics of both mindsets. However, the stronger our growth mindset is, the more our minds will mirror those from the right-hand side of the continuum.
It is my belief that the growth mindset is something that all institutions, and society as a whole, should foster. It has been thrilling to see what just an awareness of fixed and growth mindsets can do for us. I have felt the difference in myself. When exercising a growth mindset, I am more curious, more willing to try new things, and less fearful and anxious how others perceive me. I may fail, but I’m not a failure. In fact, my failures may just be the seeds for future success. I wish you well in practicing a growth mindset and in re-discovering the joy of learning and growing.