While I was learning to be a therapist under supervision and trying to drink in all the knowledge I could, I learned one concept that changed the way I felt about work and helped me continue to learn. As an intern, I felt like I was the little nobody in a clinic full of talented, more-experienced and more-educated therapists than I was. I loved learning from them, but this coupled with mistakes I invariably made as an intern was hard on me. One day my supervisor introduced me to Dr. Dweck’s research on growth versus fixed mindsets. Once I learned about her research I was able to catch myself using a fixed mindset and I was able to more fully focus on helpful ways to learn and grow–both at work as I continued to intern to be a therapist and in my home life. Her research is applicable to so many life situations.
There are Two Mindsets: Fixed and Growth Oriented
Dr. Dweck found that there is a continuum of two mindsets that people have. Some people are more apt to believe that abilities and strengths are innate and pure talent. Others believe that abilities are in large part due to personal development, growth and practice. Which one is right? In her book, Mindset, she explains how her research shows several benefits of a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. She details several studies that demonstrate that our abilities do in fact increase and we can learn more when we have a growth mindset. We can reach our full potential when we have a growth mindset. We like challenges because we learn from them. Conversely, when we have a fixed mindset then we are constantly trying to prove that our talent is indeed good enough. We cringe from failure or criticism because that would be attacking our ability rather than learning from it. In her studies, people do not perform as well on the research tests and she argues that they ultimately do not reach their full potential.
We Have Two Options
We have two different options when we are faced with life. We can tell ourselves that when we do not achieve great things or accomplish what we had hoped for then it means we don’t measure up. We can tell ourselves that we constantly have to perform at the top, reach expectations, or be the best in order to prove that we are likable and lovable and talented. When this doesn’t happen then we might feel depressed or down or anxious. Or, we can tell ourselves that we are special and better than others in such and such an area and hence develop arrogance. These examples of fixed mindsets demonstrate that fixed mindsets get us stuck. In a fixed mindset it is all about your image and achievements and strengths. On the opposite end, it is also all about not being good enough and feelings of shame and anxiety.
The second option is the better option. When we perceive failures, weaknesses, or set-backs we can acknowledge it and recognize that there is more that can be done. We can view it as an individual opportunity for growth instead of a doomed judgment of our value as a person. We can believe that we can improve and implement wise judgment to strengthen ourselves. This is an example of ending the negative self-judgments and instead focusing on growth. We can play the comparison game in the fixed mindset or we can simply focus on learning, regardless of where other people are at, with a growth mindset. In a growth mindset, it is all about personal development and improvement.
What Does This Mean For Us?
We can apply this concept in probably every area of our lives. I applied this as my work as a clinical social worker. I apply it in my roles as a wife and a mother. We all know that mommy-guilt is a huge thing for many moms, but growth mindsets help us understand that we are not instantly Mary-Poppins-and-Mother-Theresa-rolled-up-in-one moms. Rather, we growing and learning from our experiences. Dr. Dweck tells of countless stories of athletes, students, CEOs, and people’s relationships that thrived because they learned as they went and they had the mindset that learning from challenges is a good thing. She even talked about individuals who were more able to work on reducing feelings of depression because of a growth mindset.
Now, let’s say that you are someone who recognizes that you often display a fixed mindset. Is this just one more blog post to tell you that your mindset is dooming you to failure and unhappiness? Of course not! Just like everything else, your mindset can be grow and change. You can start practicing now by reminding yourself to use a growth mindset when you catch yourself believing that something is fixed. I don’t believe there is anyone who truly has 100% growth mindset; everyone can continue to grow in this way as well. And, I might add, it would be unfair to assume that growth is 100% possible. We know that genes and environmental opportunities also play a role. This being said, Dr. Dweck argues that we can reach for the stars more often than we think.
How to Start Using a Growth Mindset
There are several things that you can do in order to start implementing this concept. First, become aware of your own mindsets. Start noticing your thoughts and expectations. If we let our thoughts run wild without knowing what’s going on inside our head then it follows that we can’t do anything about it. If we notice our thoughts then, we can start reminding ourselves to have a growth mindset when we catch ourselves in a fixed mindset.
The more we think something, the more we strengthen pathways in our brain and lessen the negative connections. I like to think of our brains like a big field. If you walk across it once nothing happens. If you walk across is 10 times the grass will start to fall down. If you walk across it 200 times there is a big pathway and future walkers know exactly where to go. The same goes with our brain. If we catch ourselves using fixed mindsets and consciously change them to growth oriented mindsets over and over again, then our brain will remember and it’ll start going there easier in the first place.
Remember What Failure Means
When failures happen, remember that criticism is an opportunity to learn and become better, not an assault on your self-image. You could remind yourself that everyone has room to grow or become a better person. You could become more team-oriented and work together in cooperation since you no longer have to prove your own worth. You could stop competing against others and instead measure your own growth-in essence, learn and compete against yourself.
This applies to parenting as well. Instead of praising “fixed” abilities, such as being smart or a talented dancer, start praising practice, determination, and trying. Start noticing growth that has occurred or the hard work that has happened or their determination through challenges. For example, praise hard work on homework rather than being smart. Praise the practice and determination that went into the sports competition rather than coming in x place. Then, when the going gets tough, children will know that they are tough too and can grow instead of believing that they must not be that talented after all. One of our neighbors tries applying this principle, and they said it’s amazing to watch their toddler learn to keep trying through her mistakes.
Let them also experience the emotions that come from failure or not winning. As parents, we don’t want them to feel ashamed or allow them to dwell on upsets to the point that they feel depressed or have low self-esteem. But, we also don’t want to brush it off, sending the message that they are the most talented and it was just a fluke, or it’s not big deal. Rather, help them understand that everyone has falls sometimes, but it’s brave and positive to get back up and try again. Remember that negative emotions are okay. We can learn from them and respond in positive ways.
*Above are affiliate links to Mindset on Amazon or a link to listen to it through an Audible membership.