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The Fixed vs Growth Mindset: How to Unlock your Potential

The Fixed vs Growth Mindset: How to Unlock your Potential

A few years ago, I took a psychology class that completely changed how I think about myself.

What could be so transformational about one single class, you ask?

Well, the professor made us do a short quiz that revealed to us the basic mindset with which we approach life. Few things could have been a bigger eye-opener, or more consequential. Research on mindsets reveals that it is this set of core beliefs that we have about ourselves that influence what we want and whether we succeed at achieving it.

So, to give you the same opportunity, I’ve put together a similar quiz:

Quiz: Discover Your Mindset

(For those who would like this quiz available in a PDF format, here you go.)

Fixed mindsets:

People with a fixed mindset believe that it is our inborn intelligence and inborn talents that will lead to success in life. According to this mindset, everyone is born with a certain amount of innate ability, and these cannot be improved upon in a meaningful way.

There is one major consequence of having a fixed mindset: it means that we go through life trying to validate ourselves. To quote Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, who pioneered research into mindsets:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. …..I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .” 

And so, instead of doing things that will challenge us and make us grow, we stick to doing safe things that display how innately smart or talented we already are. Here are some behaviours that reveal a fixed mindset:

Signs of a fixed mindset:

  1. You take your success as an affirmation of your intelligence and ability, rather than of your hard-work or use of the right strategy.
  2. You take your failure as a sign of your stupidity or inadequacy, rather than as an opportunity for growth. You’re probably terrified of failure because you see failure as something that defines you. 
  3. You stay away from trying new things or exploring new opportunities. You’re only comfortable with doing something new if you’re reasonably sure that you’ll come out of it looking good.
  4. You give up on things easily because you believe that if you were meant to do something well, you would be able to do so immediately, or without much effort. 
  5. Speaking of effort – There is at least a small part of you that believes effort and persistence are for people who lack natural ability. You see having to put in effort as a sign that you are inadequate the way you are. 
  6. Other people’s success just makes you feel bad about yourself and/or envious of them, instead of inspiring you with a sense of possibility by learning from their example. 
  7. Statements like “Success is just about being your best self, not about being better than others”, “Failure is just an opportunity for growth” and “Effort is the key to success” don’t resonate with you. This is because they contradict your most basic beliefs that success is about being superior to others, that failure does define you, and that only people who are not innately talented have to rely on effort. 
  8. You’ll run a mile away from hearing negative feedback of yourself, no matter how valuable it may be. You find it hard to separate criticisms of your performance or abilities from an attack on you as a person. 
  9. You’re quick to label yourself when situations don’t go exactly as you hope for – you think that you are “stupid”, “unlucky”, “unattractive” etc.
  10. Your relationships, especially romantic ones, need to be effortless and with minimal conflict. You interpret having to work at your relationship as a sign that it is weak or that you’re with the wrong person.
  11. You have limiting beliefs about your health and body. Examples include:
  • “I’ll never be able to lose weight. I just naturally have a low metabolism.”
  • “It’s in my genes to have diabetes/heart problems/high blood pressure; I can’t help it.”
  • “I’m just too lazy to exercise.”
Fixed Mindset Quote by Carol Dweck: Becoming is better than being. The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. You already have to be.

Growth mindset

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset believe that any kind of ability, or anything worth having at all, comes with effort. So, while people with a fixed mindset see their inherent ability as causing their success, people with a growth mindset see success as developing their abilities. 

The consequence of having a growth mindset means that we go through life trying to learn as much as we can. People with a growth mindset do not have any interest in validating themselves to anybody, since they believe that they can always improve upon who they are and what they can do.

A prime example of someone with a growth mindset is Michael Jordan. He may be considered the best basketball player of all time, but he didn’t even make his high school basketball team when he first tried out. He devoted himself to overcoming every single one of his weaknesses, becoming the most diligent, hardest working player the game had ever seen:

Growth Mindset Quote by Michael Jordan

Now, it’s important to be nuanced here. It’s not that people with a strong growth mindset completely ignore the role of natural ability. They also need not believe that with enough effort, anyone can be the next Michael Jordan, Einstein or Da Vinci. What they do believe is that:

  • Natural ability is far less important than effort, and even the most naturally talented person must work hard to develop their abilities. 
  • Those who start out the best don’t always end up the best. Our true potential at anything is unknowable- and thus, worth exploring and building to whatever it may one day become. 

Signs of a growth mindset:

  1. You see failure as inevitable and necessary to achieve anything. In fact, those with a strong growth mindset don’t even see themselves as failing; they just see themselves as learning what works and what doesn’t.
  2. While we’re on the topic of learning: you’re really into it. New ideas, new skills, and new techniques – these are what energize you.
  3. You like hearing other people’s success stories. They inspire you to be the best you can be.
  4. You seek out feedback and criticism. This is because you know that you’ll never be able to master anything without constructive criticism and someone pointing out your blind spots.  
  5. You understand the value of the word “yet”. As in: “I’m not where I need to be yet. But one day, with consistent effort, I will be.”
  6. You take on new challenges and opportunities, since you don’t have a fear of failure holding you back. The only thing that is shameful to you is not even trying at all.
  7. You take responsibility for your mistakes, because you know that’s the only way you can fix them. You don’t waste your time blaming anyone or anything else.  

The Reality of Neuroplasticity

There’s a certain kind of person who will read about the growth mindset and say “Great. More motivational fluff. Too bad reality doesn’t work that way.”

I used to be this person. Learning about neuroplasticity was another game-changer for me.

For most of history, the brain was thought to be “non-renewable”- as opposed to other organs such as the skin, which can heal itself after a cut. We did not believe that the brain could generate new neurons past early childhood.

We now know this to be false.

It is widely accepted that the brain does grow, regenerate and change itself throughout our lifetime. This ability of the brain to reorganize itself and form new neural connections is called neuroplasticity (or brain plasticity) i.e. similar to plastic, the brain can be moulded in the way we choose. 

For example, taxi-drivers in London go through a rigorous training period of 3-4 years, at the end of which their brain scans show an enlarged hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory and spatial reasoning. This makes their ability to mentally navigate London Streets far superior to the average person.

Another example would be the effects of meditation on the brain. Meditation is the #1 brain changer; Research shows that just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation and yoga are enough to alter the brain and can lead to:

  • A bigger hippocampus (responsible for learning, memory and spatial reasoning)
  • Increased volume in the tempo-parietal junction (responsible for empathy and compassion)
  • A smaller amygdala (responsible for recognizing threats and initiating the flight-or-fight response. If you’re an anxious or easily stressed person, your amygdala is currently overactive.

Think of neuroplasticity is the ‘muscle building’ part of the brain. It is the science behind the growth mindset.

How neuroplasticity works

So how exactly does doing something new create change in the brain?

Let’s say you’re learning how to draw. When you start sketching, the neurons in different parts of your brain start to make new connections. The more you practice drawing, the stronger those connections get: insulation called myelin starts to build along the axon, which is the tube that connects different neurons to each other. The more the myelin builds up, the faster the signals can travel from one neuron to another, and the faster and easier it becomes for you to draw.

Myelin and Neuroplasticity - Growth Mindset
Source: User Dhp1080, “Anatomy and Physiology” by the US National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program ., CC BY-SA 3.0

Thus, the more we consistently repeat anything – whether it’s an action, thought, or even feeling an emotion – the more efficient our brain gets at doing it. New neural pathways are established just for this one specific process, until finally, it becomes a habit or something automatic and second-nature to us. This is how driving goes from requiring all our concentration when we are first learning, to something that we do on auto-pilot when we’re more experienced.

In other words, having a growth mindset is not being falsely optimistic about our potential. It is being realistic.

Fixed Mindset: Causes, Consequences and Implications

Causes

So if the capacity to grow is encoded in our very nature and biology, then why do so many people develop limiting beliefs about their potential? There are 2 main ways for how people develop a fixed mindset: praising and labelling during childhood. Most school systems around the world are built around praising children for their abilities and labelling or judging them on their test scores (smart or stupid). 

The research is clear on how this affects students. In a study of hundreds of 5th-grade students, Dweck and her colleagues gave each participant ten quite challenging problems to solve from an IQ Test. They then praised each student for their performance (most had done well). But they offered two different types of praise:

  • Half the students were told: “Wow, you got (X many) questions right. That’s a really good score! You must be smart at this.”
  • The other half was told: “Wow, you got (X many) questions right. That’s a really good score! You must have worked really hard.”

To put it simply, some students were praised for ability, others for their effort.

All students were then asked by the researchers, “What do you want to work on right now? I have some easier things here you could work on, or I have some challenging problems. They’re hard, and you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn some important things.”

Consequences

The results of this were simple but striking:

  • The students who were praised for ability had been pushed right into the fixed mindset. Most of them chose the easy task because they wanted to keep on looking smart.
  • The students who were praised for effort were primed into a growth mindset. The vast majority wanted to do the challenging task.

When the students were given a bunch of more difficult problems to solve, the results were further magnified:

  • Students who had been told they were smart thought the fact they were struggling now meant they weren’t actually smart. Their confidence in their abilities plunged and they lost enjoyment in what they were doing. Their performance suffered accordingly.
  • Students who had been praised for their effort responded by… putting in even more effort. They stayed engaged with the task, tried different strategies and overall, showed high motivation. Many even said the hardest problems were their favourites to solve.

But the most disturbing result was still to come.

All students were asked to write anonymously about their experience and report the scores that they had earned.

About 40% of the kids who had been praised for their intelligence lied, reporting a higher score. Intelligence had become such a vital part of their identity and self-esteem that they felt they had to lie to preserve that image. 

So to sum up:

We can take good kids and turn them into self-conscious, anxious, unmotivated liars just by telling them they’re smart. And we can take equally good kids and turn them into confident and self-motivated high-achievers by telling them that they’re hard-working. 

Implications

The implications are clear. Thoughtless praise can be just as harmful as thoughtless criticism:

1. We need to unknow our tendency to praise or label people for their inborn qualities

Praising people, especially children, for things that they have no actual control over – such as being naturally smart, talented or gifted – does not create good long-term effects. Our intentions may be good, but what such praise does to the other person is to make them anxious about having to live up to that label.

2. We should only offer praise for things over which the person has control

Instead of natural gifts, what we should be praising are things like:

  • The amount of effort and hard work they put in
  • The effectiveness of the strategy/technique they used
  • The level of patience and persistence they showed at the task

We also need to focus our feedback on the process and not on the outcome, as t outcomes can depend on luck and other factors beyond anyone’s control.  

Bad: “You got an A! Excellent job.”

Good: “I can see that you’re putting in a lot of work, and I like that you’re sticking with it and trying out different techniques. Excellent job.”

3. We should not offer false praise for effort if the person is struggling

Statements like these are not helpful:

  • “Oh it doesn’t matter that you failed; I know that you worked hard and that’s all that matters.”
  • “It’s ok that you did badly on this math test even though you tried your best. You don’t have to be good at everything.”

Even kids can see through the emptiness of these words and understand that you mean them as a consolation prize. Even worse, they may feel discouraged that this result was all you expected from them.

A better idea would be to acknowledge their struggles and support them on their way to growth E.g. “Well, it looks like there’s something you’re currently doing that’s not working out. Let’s sit together to figure out what it is and how you can improve.”

4. We should understand that presence is more important than praise

Ultimately, when it comes to instilling a growth mindset in someone, what is more important than any type of praise is being authentically present around them. Simply spending quality time with a person, showing genuine interest in what they do, listening to what they have to say, and offering them advice on strategies and techniques for improvement are what truly count. It also makes people (especially kids) feel that they have relevance and worth for who they are as people, rather than for what they can achieve or accomplish.

Mindsets in different areas of life

It’s important to realize that nobody has a purely fixed mindset or growth mindset all the time. The usual case is that we have a mixture of both: fixed in some aspects of life, growth in others. It’s worth taking the time to think about all the parts of your life that you currently approach with a fixed mindset. Is it:

1.Your job-related skills:

Are you afraid to take on new challenges or responsibilities at work?

2.Your hobbies:

Is there something creative you’ve always wanted to do, but feel that you’re not talented enough to pursue it?

3.Your personality or character:

Do you get consistent feedback from people that you’re too angry/awkward/shy/impulsive etc. and feel that you can’t or shouldn’t have to change? Pro-tip: with a growth mindset, it is possible to believe in both authenticity and being yourself, while also believing in self-improvement. If you find it hard to reconcile the two, you probably have a fixed mindset.

4.Your relationships:

Do you believe that in a “perfect relationship” with your “soulmate” that you will never argue or disagree with each other? Research shows that this sort of fixed “destiny belief” leads people to quick disillusionment and unhappiness when they find out for themselves that love doesn’t actually conquer all.

On the other hand, people who approach relationships with a growth mindset do not find the idea of conflict to be threatening. They may even see conflict as a way to learn more about their partner and strengthen their relationship. (Obviously, there needs to be a balance to this – all conflict and effort with little happiness to show for it isn’t good either.)

5.Your physical health/body:

Do you believe that you cannot get in shape or get healthy because of your genes? With issues like obesity and a host of other lifestyle diseases, it is important to realize that while genetics may load the gun, it is the lifestyle that pulls the trigger. Simply eating healthy and getting enough exercise can modify your disease-risk by changing which genes express themselves: disease-causing genes may be turned off, while ones that promote good health are turned on. 

6.Your mental health:

Do you have repetitive or intrusive thoughts that leave you feeling confused, anxious or depressed, with no hope of getting better? The way forward can be through a mixture of therapy, journaling, meditation, yoga, connecting with nature, and living a life following what you truly value.

How to Change a Fixed to a Growth Mindset

Dweck has found that just learning about mindsets and neuroplasticity has a big effect on people, and can start loosening up a fixed mindset. It certainly happened that way for me. That’s why reading her book and articles like these can open up your mind to what is possible.

I know from personal experience, however, that unknowing your basic mindset completely is a challenging task, that like anything else, requires time and effort. Here’s what I’ve figured out helps:

1. Acknowledge your fixed mindset voice- i.e. your inner critic

A fixed mindset makes itself heard by taking on the role of our inner critic. This is the voice in our heads that is constantly evaluating and judging our actions, thoughts, emotions and overall personality and character as being either good enough or not:

  • “That thing you said yesterday? It was stupid. Why do you say stupid things so often?”  
  • “What made you think you would ever be any good at this? You know you don’t have any natural talent. Quit it and stop embarrassing yourself.”

We can make our inner critic go from being a destructive force to being a friendly and supportive guide. There are 2 key steps to doing this:

  1. Visualize this inner critic as an actual person with a name. For example, I imagine my inner critic to look like an old English judge wearing a white wig and black robes. (I call him.… The Judge. Creative, I know.)
  2. Acknowledge and give thanks to the inner critic for its hard work. Yes, you read that right: the key to transforming your relationship with your inner critic is to show him/her gratitude for all that they have (misguidedly) tried to do for you. Understand that the main reason we have an inner critic is to keep us safe from the greater pain of public humiliation, exposure as a fraud or being seen as defective in any way. Once we understand that the inner critic was only just trying to help us, we can be grateful for its presence.

So take a few minutes: close your eyes and calm yourself by focusing on your breathing. Let your particular inner critic float to your mind. What does he/she look like? Spend a few minutes mentally observing your inner critic, and then say a heartfelt thank you.

2.Learn to hear your inner critic whenever they get going

Even after we’ve established a truce with our inner critic, they will still test us once in a while:

  • When we approach a new challenge, they might say to us “Are you sure you can do this?” or “What happens if you fail? You’ll look bad.”
  • When we hit a setback, you might hear from them then too. “I told you it was too risky. Just drop out now.” and “You’re not a natural at this. Don’t do this to yourself.”

The better we get to know our inner critic, the more we will be able to anticipate when they raise their voice to try and stop us. So always be on the lookout for them to pop up.

3.Talk back to your inner critic in a growth mindset

  • When you inner critic says “Are you sure you can do this?” You say I might not be able to do it yet, but I can learn how to do it well with time and effort.”
  • When your inner critic tells you to step down: “Quit it. It’s too hard.” You say “Nothing worth achieving ever comes easy.”
  • When your inner critic flares up when you face external criticism: “How dare these people criticize you? Only I get to criticize you!” You say: “I tried to do the best I could, but I know there’s always room for improvement. I will never be able to get better if I don’t listen to valuable feedback.”

Summary

Here’s a quick recap of the entire article:

  • People with a fixed mindset feel they must be able to do things effortlessly. They go through life trying to validate themselves and the fixed qualities they believe they possess.
  • People with a growth mindset feel that effort is necessary to achieve anything of value. They go through life trying to develop their abilities to be the best they can be.
  • Neuroplasticity is the science behind the growth mindset. Your brain can learn new things and change even the most basic of its structures at any age.
  • Praising and labelling kids for their abilities – being smart, gifted etc. – leads them to develop a fixed mindset. Praising them for effort leads to a growth mindset.
  • You can have a fixed mindset in some aspect of your life and a growth mindset in others.
  • To move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, acknowledge your inner critic. Show them gratitude for saving you from public ridicule.
  • Whenever your inner critic gets going, hear them out, and then talk back to them in a growth mindset.

Above all, show yourself kindness and self-compassion on your journey to growth. Just like you can’t pick up a new skill overnight, you might need time to fully develop into your new growth mindset. That’s alright. The good thing about switching mindsets is that you no longer feel the need for immediate validation. You’re just in it for the opportunity to learn. And that’s the best happy place there is.

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