I spent much of the past year reprogramming my brain, but until recently I didn’t have a term for the big change that has had a halo effect over all areas of my life. Recently, through the On Books podcast (also on iTunes), I discovered Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset, which gave me the phrase I was looking for: growth mindset.
Shifting to a growth mindset has changed my life most dramatically in the twelve months of 2017, but in rereading this post from 2014, I discovered that I’d actually been inching toward this specific type of progress for several years. So what exactly is a growth mindset? And what’s the absence of it?
Some definitions, shamelessly cribbed from Carol Dweck’s website because I listened to the audiobook version and didn’t take notes on this part:
- “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.”
- “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
This book taught me that there was actual research behind how my life has changed in the past year. (Dweck, a PhD in Psychology and Stanford professor, spent over a decade researching failure and people’s response to it.) Below, I’ve shared a few key benefits of adopting a growth mindset, all of which I’ve personally experienced:
1. You rethink your own potential.
In the book, Dweck talks about how her sixth-grade class was seated in order of IQ. In a 2015 interview, she explained, “So looking back, I think that glorification of IQ was a pivotal point of my development.”
The glorification of IQ was also a critical reason why I grew up with a fixed mindset that I managed to hold onto for decades. For a long time, I was miserable when I didn’t achieve the things I thought should come to me naturally. I didn’t know how or why to put forth effort.
When you believe that your qualities or talents are fixed, you limit yourself. You deny yourself experiences because they conflict with your ideas about what you like or what you are like. You’re also, as I was, in danger of failing to achieve anything that requires actual effort. In the fixed mindset, Dweck writes, “Effort is for those who don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, ‘If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.’ They say, ‘Things come easily to people who are true geniuses.'”
Adopting a growth mindset, on the other hand, will help you embrace learning and let go of old ideas about whether you should be able to do certain things without trying. As Dweck writes, “The fixed mindset makes people into non-learners.” No matter how smart you are, there will always be things that don’t come easily to you. The idea that you should necessarily abandon these things instead of working at them will rob you of both knowledge and opportunities. The growth mindset is the antidote to that way of thinking.
2. It’s easier to move past trauma.
When you’re in a fixed mindset, it’s easier to get attached to ideas about the way things should be, which makes it harder to accept when people and situations don’t behave how you want them to. For example, in the fixed mindset, it could take years to get over a breakup because you remain attached to the idea that your ex was your soulmate. A growth mindset responds better to challenges, viewing them as an opportunity for positive change. This doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain and difficulty of trauma, only that you’re better equipped to deal with it.
The growth mindset helps you stop time traveling and focus on the present. Instead of thinking about what should have happened in the past, or what could happen in the future, your attention is on where you are now. If challenges arise, you can take action on those you can actually do something about, accept those you can’t, or make a plan to take action in the future. (As Eckhart Tolle says, planning happens now.) In the growth mindset, obsessing over things you wish had happened simply ceases to makes sense.
3. You start to see judgments — your own and others’ — as immaterial.
For a long time, I believed certain stories about myself:
- “I am not a runner.”
- “I am a high-anxiety person.”
- “I am indoorsy.”
- “My worth is entirely based on what I achieve.”
In the fixed mindset, you’re inclined to believe that preferences, talents, habits, and desires are static. Once I developed a growth mindset, I learned the following things that conflict with my old stories:
- With proper training, I can run a half marathon.
- I can live free of anxiety as long as I continue to identify and use the tools at my disposal to dissipate it.
- I love hiking and kayaking. I want to try SUP boarding and snowboarding. I prefer to run in a park than on a treadmill.
- I have value regardless of external circumstances.
I no longer view my proclivities or abilities as fixed, and I no longer need everything to be about achievement. For example, I’m a slow runner. I’ll get faster as I train for the marathon this year, but I don’t expect or need to compete on speed. My own success metric for running is whether I finish a race — as well as whether I listen to my body enough to sit one out when needed.
4. Your ego shuts up and lets you focus on your work.
When you’re in a growth mindset, it’s easier to reframe what a fixed-mindset person would call “failure” as progress. Shifting to a growth mindset has made it easier for me to detach from outcomes and zero in on the task at hand, whether it’s writing, recording a podcast, or even just sending someone an earnest email.
A few weeks ago, I made this kind-of-meta painting as a reminder that bad art > no art. In the growth mindset, it’s easier to reach creative goals because you’re not laser-focused on the quality of the finished product. Instead, you can enjoy the process of creating a piece of art, whatever that word means to you. Your mind is quieter, and you stop overthinking things. Your ego takes a backseat to your actual work.
5. Ironically, once you’re less focused on outcomes, you actually achieve more.
Adopting a growth mindset has tangibly improved my life in multiple ways. This year, I launched a podcast (soon to be two), created a daily writing practice, got a much better job (in all senses), and structured a couple of longform writing projects that I plan to start over the holidays. On January 1, 2016, I started doing one new thing every day, and my success on that project has been simultaneously a catalyst for and a byproduct of abandoning the fixed mindset.
Shifting to a growth mindset has removed a lot of the doubts and fears I carried around when I had a fixed mindset. I now see nearly everything about myself and my life as dynamic, and I don’t see any possibility of going back. While my foundational beliefs and values have remained the same, the way I live them is different, and more intentional. I’m no longer attached to the form of where help, inspiration, or knowledge comes from, which means I’m always open to receiving it, regardless of source. This approach has transformed my energy and, consequently, opened numerous doors.
From Carol Dweck, here are four steps you can take to start shifting toward a fixed mindset.