In short, our mindset refers to the collection of thoughts and beliefs that shape our habits and behaviour. It’s the governor of our lives deciding on the activities we engage in; our response to adversity as well as the goals and standards we set.
Fortunately, our brains are dynamic. We have the capacity to change our thoughts; change our beliefs and therefore, change our lives for the better. The science of neuroplasticity has shown this to be true; the things we regularly do we become stronger at.
Perhaps then, the precursor to change is the belief that it’s actually possible – for why would you try, assuming the opposite.
The idea of a ‘growth mindset’ was first popularised by Stanford University psychologist Dr Carol Dweck. In her bestseller, Mindset, she compares two attitudes:
Under the ‘fixed mindset’ our qualities (e.g. intelligence, personality and athleticism) are carved in stone; we have an inherent set of capabilities and developing them is out of our control.
By contrast, the ‘growth mindset’ is based on the idea that we can expand and cultivate our traits through effort and persistence.
It’s important to note that most of us do not consciously operate under either one. What’s more, depending on the subject, we likely fluctuate between the two. There’s not a rite of passage where we pick the ‘mindset for us’. Instead, our thoughts and beliefs are largely coloured by past experiences and environments.
A fixed mindset may serve us well if, through past experiences, we have sufficient reason to believe in our ability. But what if that’s not the case?
Take, for example, a personal anecdote: When I was younger, I was never very good at swimming – or at least, that’s what I decided early on. I believed that other sports came naturally to me; I was good at them. But not swimming.
What I didn’t realise as a child was that my first time in the water was probably not the first time for many of my peers. Rather, I watched as they swam faster than me and for longer than me and I concluded: “I’m just not a good swimmer.”
From that point on, each subsequent swimming lesson was characterised by this thought. I dreaded the embarrassment of struggling next to my classmates – especially if I actually tried. What might’ve just been a shaky start, instead, became self-proclaimed ineptitude; a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As children, we are often quick to label our strengths and weaknesses. We know that we’re ‘good’ at science and we know that we’re ‘bad’ at history, for example. At a younger age it’s easier to assume that this is down to “who we are” rather than the countless other factors at play.
The issue is when, as an adult, we continue to perpetuate disempowering stories that we told ourselves growing up; we become reluctant to try things that aren’t ‘in our nature’; or we assume that the development of certain traits is outside of our control.
The ‘growth mindset’ assumes the opposite.
“There’s such a gap between where you are and the upper bounds of human limitation, that to even worry about limitation just doesn’t make sense. We put people on the moon.” – Tom Bilyeu
So what does the ‘growth mindset’ look like in practice? For a start, it’s in a willingness to embrace difficulty. Obstacles become an indicator as to where we can improve, rather than where we can’t. With this belief, we become far more likely to persevere in the face of adversity.
A perfect example of this is highlighted in the story of the late Kobe Bryant. An 18-time All Star with five NBA championships under his belt, Kobe was a legend – one of the best of all time. However, in his own words, when he started “[he] was terrible”.
In his interview on the School of Greatness podcast, Kobe recalls his time as a ten or eleven year old player at the Sonny Hill league in Philadelphia: “…and here I come playing and I don’t score one point the entire summer.”
Rather than shying away from the challenge, labelling himself as an inherently bad player or being intimidated by the success of others, Kobe kept practicing, training two to three hours every single day. He created a menu of skills to sequentially address and improve.
By the age of fourteen, he was the best player in his state.
However, without hearing this, it’d be easy to dismiss Kobe as being naturally gifted or innately talented. Instead, it sheds light on the power of the self-belief that a ‘growth mindset’ and continuous effort can fuel.
The placebo effect perfectly illustrates the power of our beliefs. In medicine, it’s been repeatedly shown that a crucial determinant in the effectiveness of a drug or procedure is in the patient’s belief that it will work. Though we do not fully understand it, this power of the mind should not be discounted or ignored.
As Dweck writes in her book; “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?” Surely the placebo effect offers some insight into this thought. If not, perhaps the myriad proponents of self-help do.
How would Kobe Bryant’s basketball career have fared if, at a young age, he decided he couldn’t improve? Conversely, how would I have progressed at swimming if, each time getting into the water, I wasn’t afraid of embarrassment and failure?
The growth mindset is fundamental to personal development. It’s the structure on which all our success will be built.
I’m writing this article to encourage you all to drop any disempowering stories or ideas you’ve created about yourself. Whether it’s singing, drawing, running or chess, the key to improvement is in your mindset.
As the Russian author, Anton Chekhov, famously said, “Man is what he believes.”