What actually is a growth mindset and how can you start using it today?
If you find yourself saying ‘I can’t’ more than ‘I can’, getting clammy hands at the thought of a different direction in the workplace, or marvelling at the abilities of others around you while berating your own skills, it might be time to consider adjusting your mindset…
I’m sure I’m not the only person who, when faced with a completely new and seemingly daunting direction at work or in my personal life, feels cold fear flood through my veins. In recent months, I’ve encountered this sensation many times, as I’ve started to produce videos for Happiful – something I have very little previous experience of. As a result, my imposter syndrome, fear of failure, and discomfort, has been at an all-time high as I’ve waded through editing tutorials, tried to understand YouTube algorithms, and repeatedly faced my own image on the screen (not an easy task with a pesky inner critic ever-present on my shoulder).
“What an amazing opportunity to learn another skill!” my friend Becky says, smiling, when I tell her what I’m up to over coffee. Her response is positive, immediate, and in no way trying to mollify me, as I haven’t yet uttered the words: “It’s just so out of my comfort zone.”
I’m pleasantly taken aback and curious about the difference in our viewpoints. While trying to work on my own misgivings, I come to understand that Becky’s response (and her demeanour in general) is indicative of someone with a ‘growth mindset’, and I believe that I’m predisposed to wandering over to the ‘fixed mindset’ side of the street a bit more regularly than I’d like. So what can I do to change that, and is it even possible to?
Transformative coach Ali McNab believes that the transition from fixed to growth is indeed possible, and it all begins with an understanding of what those phrases really mean, and how they play out for us.
“This terminology was derived from the works of American psychologist Carol Dweck, who has written many books on the subject, having studied human development and personality,” Ali explains. “The theory looks at the way we believe in, or perceive, our intelligence and abilities, and the impact this has on our behaviours, and how we respond to challenges and opportunities to learn.”
Ali says that having a fixed mindset, in particular, can hold us back from evolving and expanding our skills. “With a fixed mindset we believe that our intelligence and abilities are static; we have a set amount and that’s it. We think our successes are due to a natural ability, and it can’t be grown or changed. We believe that we can either do something, or we can’t do something, and nothing can change that.”
A fear of failure, and avoidance of challenges that are outside our comfort zone, can come hand in hand with a fixed mindset, due to the fact that we might be scared of making mistakes or looking stupid. People operating from a fixed mindset may also give up more easily, see effort as pointless, and shy away from feedback.
This mindset can negatively impact how we perceive other people, too. “If we believe that our intelligence can’t grow, then we’re more likely to be threatened by the success of others,” Ali notes. “We see them doing things that we could never do, or be capable of. Ultimately, all of these factors suggest that if we’re operating from a fixed mindset, then we’re less likely to achieve our full potential.”
Adopting a growth mindset however, can be a gamechanger. “Carol Dweck asserts that this mindset can enable us to live a less stressful and more successful life, as we learn to cope with challenges and actively look for opportunities for learning and growth,” Ali says. “Those with a growth mindset do not believe that their intelligence and abilities are fixed, and by putting in effort, training, and learning from mistakes, they can get better at most things. They embrace challenges, and persist to overcome them.”
With this frame of mind, the receipt of feedback becomes an opportunity to learn and grow, and it’s embraced. Other people’s success will be a source of inspiration, rather than a reason that we might not be able to achieve the same (or more). Those operating from a growth mindset are more likely, Ali notes, to fulfil their potential.
The benefits of a growth mindset are clear, but Ali is keen to point out that this mindset theory is not as definitive as it may first appear. “It sounds very black and white – either fixed or growth – but it’s not that cut and dried,” she says, reassuringly. ‘We’re likely to see both mindsets playing out in different areas of our lives in different ways.
“For example, we may have a really fixed mindset when it comes to our sporting abilities, and a growth mindset around our academic abilities. So we might be prepared to put in effort to pass our exams, but when faced with catching a ball on the sports field, we simply believe that we can’t achieve it.
“Often the fixed mindset will also come into play for us all in times of great stress or anxiety,” Ali adds. “So when we’re nervous, worried, or under pressure, that will be when we veer towards the ‘I can’t do this’ state.”
Bearing all these factors in mind, I’m still keen to know if a transition from predominantly fixed to growth is possible, and Ali has good news – with a caveat.
“It’s absolutely possible to cultivate a growth mindset,” she says. “It’s not easy though. Mindsets are informed by our internal belief system, and the views we hold about ourselves. Those can be very well embedded through our past experiences, and what we’re told and hear as we grow up.”
While there’s a lot of layers to our inner belief system, Ali says we can help ourselves by challenging negative self-talk.
“If we find ourselves using language like ‘I always do that’, or ‘I’ll never be able to do that!’, or if our default is to think that we did something wrong so we must be stupid or a failure, then we’re installing these patterns in our thinking that may not be true.”
Increasing awareness of your own behavioural patterns, can be hugely helpful in cultivating a growth mindset, and Ali has three great steps to start you off.
“Journaling is a great tool,” she says. “Firstly, notice and write about the triggers that put you in a growth or fixed mindset, what activities or scenarios make you happy, nervous, fearful, and curious. Then, once you’ve identified your triggers, pay attention to what your internal narrative is, and where you’re using language like ‘never’ and ‘can’t’. Replace that with a more positive narrative like ‘I can’t do that yet, but with time, practice, and training I can.’
“Finally, if you’re putting in effort and nothing is changing, then look at your strategies and resources. It might be that the effort you’re putting in is not aligning to how you learn. Just doing the same thing over again is a fixed mindset, so consider if you could be doing things in a different way.”
It all comes down to adopting a position of curiosity, and opening ourselves up to opportunities that we may previously have closed the door on. Pursuing a growth mindset is a chance to embrace change, and explore what’s beyond our comfort zone – who knows what amazing new experiences we may grow to love in the process?