Do you have a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’? According to Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in social and developmental psychology, you’re probably better off with the latter – especially if it’s success that you’re after. “The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” she explains.
So how do they differentiate? In short, the growth mindset assumes that our skills and traits can be developed, whereas, under the fixed mindset they are seen as inherently defined. Dweck opens her book with the question, “what are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”
The science is out: our brains are dynamic and far more malleable than once previously thought. However, this insight is rendered useless without the right mindset – in this case, without the growth mindset – to put it to use. After all, it is our thoughts and beliefs that dictate our habits and behaviour.
Under the fixed-mindset we shoot ourselves in the foot by prematurely labeling our strengths and weaknesses, Dweck notes, often as a form of ego-protection. Conversely, with a growth mindset we become more likely to embrace challenges, persevere in the face of adversity and learn from our setbacks. The underlying assumption is that we can always improve.
For these (and many other) reasons, Dweck has dedicated several decades of research to thoroughly explore the topic in every area from sports and business to relationships and education. Overall, her findings suggest that the growth mindset is the optimal stance for tapping into our true potential. She has condensed her work on the subject into Mindset, the million-copy bestseller.
Dweck defines the growth mindset as “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” In essence, it’s the idea that you can improve at pretty much anything; the exact degree will depend on the amount of time you invest and the efficacy of your approach.
For those with this view, there’s typically a strong desire to learn with an acute focus on self-development, self-motivation and responsibility. “People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way,” Dweck writes.
However, with a fixed mindset, one is typically less likely to seek out these necessary inputs in an area they find challenging. This is because “people’s ideas about risk and effort grow out of their more basic mindset.” If you assume that you’re inherently bad at something, you may be less likely to do something about it. If you were to reframe that thought and consider, perhaps you simply lack experience, then it would make sense to get more experience before judging your ability.
In this sense, it’s important to consider what we build our self-esteem around. If, for example, it’s based on our talent and intelligence, anything difficult would threaten this self-created image. However, if it is based around development and learning, challenges do not take away from our confidence but, instead, add to it. For this reason, Dweck advocates praising the process rather than the outcome.
Though we may not have consciously arrived at a fixed mindset, we can choose a different path moving forward. Dweck notes that “just by knowing the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways” – neither one is an innate trait. Whilst this may not necessarily be an easy undertaking – fighting against years of entrenched beliefs and thought patterns – she argues that it’s a possible and worthwhile one.
It’s important to note that, in reality, our thinking is not so black and white. That is to say, in some areas we may question our ability to improve whereas, in others, we may relish at the opportunity. People can have different mindsets in different areas. However, Dweck and her colleagues repeatedly observe that “whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.” So we should probably give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
This is because our beliefs dictate our thoughts and actions. Think, for example, of Roger Bannister – the first (recorded) athlete to run a sub-4-minute mile. Prior to this milestone, running a mile in less than four minutes was widely considered an impossible human feat. Yet, once the record was broken, countless others followed shortly after. Once Bannister had accomplished this feat, it was then seen as possible.
Our brain often needs proof to believe in its potential and Bannister managed to provide that in the case of the sub-4-minute mile. However, through Dweck’s work, hopefully we can begin to relinquish this desire. Hopefully we can stop placing limitations on our ability prematurely. Instead, we should opt for a growth mindset and recognise that, with the appropriate conditions, we can improve at virtually anything.
“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail – or if you’re not the best – it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.”
The difference between the growth and fixed mindset can be highlighted by a key distinction: in the former, we consider ourselves a work in progress and in the other, a finished project. Thus with the growth mindset, we have a longer-term view of our character; a more fluid concept which can change and evolve through time and purposeful engagement. On the other hand, with a fixed mindset, we hold a more static view, thinking “who I am today is who I will be tomorrow”.
This has quite profound implications over the course of one’s life. Under the fixed mindset there is a strong desire for immediate perfection. Under this line of thinking, a failure can become permanently defining.
This issue was epitomised in a study that followed the mental health of college students. Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset suffered from higher levels of depression as they would ruminate on their personal problems rather than try to tackle them. In contrast, she writes, “the more depressed people with the growth mindset felt (short of severe depression), the more they took action to confront their problems, the more they made sure to keep up with their schoolwork, and the more they kept up with their lives.”
As a result, Dweck argues that someone who operates under a fixed mindset likely has more fragile confidence as they are less able to deal with setbacks; considering them a reflection of who they are as a person, rather than a single event or occurrence in time. They are more emotional and less objective. With the growth mindset, problems are “to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.”
Mindset is a book everyone ought to read at least once in their life – especially those who struggle with self-belief. The growth mindset is foundational to success and, as Dweck explains, definitely adoptable. It starts by simply recognising where you have fixed mindset tendencies and gradually reframing those thoughts into more helpful and empowering interpretations.