There is a psychological trait that all successful people appear to have in common. It’s been cosigned by Bill Gates and NASA uses it as a criteria for selecting potential Systems Engineers. This concept is called the growth mindset, a term originally coined by Carol Dweck. People with the growth mindset believe that intelligence or skill, in any field, can be developed through effort. Basically, they believe that anyone can nurture their abilities in anything. The inverse of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. People with this mindset believe that intelligence and skill are innate: it’s something that we’re born with. We’re either born gifted or not; there is no room for change. Basically, they believe intelligence is fixed from birth.
In this essay, we’ll explore why the growth mindset is the better one and how we can develop it. So, we talk a little about what the growth mindset is: the belief that intelligence and skill, in any field, can be developed. But, let’s also talk about what it’s not. It’s not magic. It won’t help you get everything that you want out of life and it won’t make you the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. However, it is a very powerful lens with which to see the world and it can improve the probability of your success. All of us are a mixture of both the growth and fixed mindsets. In some areas of our lives, we operate with the growth mindset. In others, we operate with the fixed mindset. Because of this, I want you to think of both mindsets like a pair of glasses. Some people wear the growth glasses more often and others wear the fixed glasses more. However, we all wear both in different situations in our lives.
Although, we should all strive to wear the growth ones much more than we wear the fixed ones. But, why? Well, a lot of research seems to suggest that people with the growth mindset are more successful than people with the fixed mindset. For example, a study found that “Students who held a growth mindset were three times more likely to score in the top 20% on the test, while students with a fixed mindset were four times more likely to score in the bottom 20%.” Another study found that when 7th graders participated in a growth mindset program, they were able to avoid a drop in grades which usually occurs in middle school. People with the growth mindset are much more resilient which allows them to overcome challenging and difficult situations. Because they prioritize learning over failure, they are unafraid to take risks. They prioritize growing over stagnation.
On the other hand, people with the fixed mindset don’t want to challenge themselves because they believe talent and intelligence are fixed. They look at failure as an assault on who they are as a person. To them, lack of knowledge is an indicator of stupidity and failure once means failure always. A person with the growth mindset believes that they are always in a state of flux and transformation; so, they don’t attach their identity to their results. Instead, they focus on the process of growing and learning. Few people will deny that the growth mindset seems to map nicely onto reality. We know that the brain can continue to learn until the day we die, thanks to the field of neuroscience. It also seems quite intuitive that people must work hard and persevere, despite obstacles, to end up being successful.
So, the growth mindset seems to be a much more accurate view of reality than the fixed mindset. People with the growth mindset are living in greater accordance with reality than people with the fixed mindset. They can make truer decisions where as a person with the fixed mindset lives in a greater state of delusion. What do I mean by this? Imagine two entrepreneurs: one has the growth mindset and one has the fixed mindset. They are both in the early stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Suddenly, they both encounter a roadblock and are forced to make a decision.
The one with the fixed mindset see’s the long and arduous journey ahead of her due to the roadblock. The journey is in the way of what matters to her: the result. She believes that entrepreneurship should come easy to those who are destined for it. She decides to quit. The one with the growth mindset see’s the long and arduous journey ahead of her and smiles. The journey is the way for her; the journey is what matters. Taking the role of a student, she accepts the long and arduous path as her teacher. She will allow it to mold her into the person she needs to become, to achieve the results she desires. She decides to persist. When we look at both of these examples, most of us would agree that the entrepreneur with the growth mindset has a greater understanding of reality. Her decision is truer. We know that things take time, effort, and strategy to achieve but it’s often difficult to put that kind of thinking in to practice. So, how can we develop the growth mindset?
The first key to developing a growth mindset is actually very simple: understanding that it exists and that it’s possible for the brain to change. Neuroscience has shown that our brains are not fixed, and, in fact, they are very malleable. We can always grow and learn new skills. For example, a study found that taxicab drivers developed more grey matter in their brains to help them navigate more effectively in large cities. They also found that the amount of grey matter in their brains was correlated with the number of years that they had been working as a taxi driver. This suggests that the act of driving a taxi led to changes in their brains which allowed them to be more effective at their job. The second key is to focus on process over results.
Dweck has said that we should praise others for their efforts and their process, rather than praising them for their results. For example, it’s better to say, “you studied very effectively for that test and your hard work really paid off,” rather than, “you’re so smart, you got an A!” In the former example, we’re focusing in on and praising the student’s process which is something that they can control. Hopefully, they’ll learn to associate themselves and their results with the process. However, in the latter example we praised the student for a result which is, ultimately, out of their control.
Unfortunately, this student will likely begin to associate themselves with the result. I think it’s really important to emphasize that it’s not easy to pass a growth mindset on to others. It’s not as simple as telling someone that they’re a hard-worker and that they just need to put in the effort. They need to internalize that they can change their results by changing their process. So, they need to know how to effectively create a process, alter it, and produce results from that process.
My solution to this is to keep a journal. Pick an activity that you want to get really good at. For example, let’s say that I want to get really good at math. In the journal, I would write down my process for studying mathematics. I would list out the steps and put a quantifiable measurement to as many things as I can.
For example, my process might look like this:
#1 Review my notes once a day
#2 Do 10 practice problems a day
#3 Read the textbook for 60 minutes a day and
#4 meet with my professor for 30 minutes a week.
So, my process has been solidified and everything has been quantified. Now, I need to designate a result that I’m looking for; I need a target to aim at. Let’s say that I’m looking for a grade of 80% or higher on my next exam. When I get my exam mark back, I compare it to my goal. If it’s higher, than I know my system works. But, I can still go back and alter parts of it to see if I can do even better. Or, I can try and optimize it. Maybe I can spend less time reading the textbook, and more time doing practice problems.
If my grade comes back lower, I definitely need to go back and refine my process. I believe this method of keeping a journal, creating a process, and refining it until the desired outcome is achieved will help promote a growth mindset. It keeps our mind focused on a changeable process. The results are measured and paid attention to only as an indicator of how well our process works. The process either works as intended or it doesn’t, but it says nothing of the person. The process is always malleable. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work yet.
I think another good idea is to seek advice from peers and teachers. Look for those in the same position as you or those who have already done what you’re trying to do. Ask them about their process and see how your’s measures up. You might find things that they do, or have done, that you would like to adopt into your process. Read books about people you admire. Try to find details about their process that you can incorporate into your own. Lastly, do challenging things. To even have a chance of fostering the growth mindset, you have to step outside of your comfort zone. People who don’t leave their comfort zone begin to believe that their success is due to innate talent, because everything comes so easy to them. For example, a student who is never challenged in school will begin to believe that they are innately smart.
“I get A’s, therefore I’m smart” they might say. The result comes so easy to them that they don’t even think about the process. Unfortunately, all they see is the result and they get attached to that. When they, inevitably, get a bad grade they will think that they’re dumb. They lose faith in themselves because they didn’t get the result that they’re used to receiving so easily. On the other hand, going outside of your comfort zone forces you to adopt the growth mindset to avoid shattering under the weight of adversity. You have to focus on and adjust the process, because you can’t possibly achieve the result you desire with your current process. By definition, that’s what it means to step out of your comfort zone.
So, now you know about the growth mindset, why it’s important, and some ideas on how to develop it. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of effort to develop and that it’ll always be a battle to avoid falling into the fixed mindset. People will say certain things, or things will happen, that trigger a fixed mindset in us. It’s important to notice when this is happening and try to avoid getting fixed in place. I’d like to close out with this quote from Carol Dweck, “The path to a growth mindset is a [lifelong] journey, not a proclamation.”