The growth mindset is one of the most powerful concepts related to human achievement and potential, but what is it exactly? And can you develop and attain it?
The answer to the first question will require some more time, so please bear with me, but the second one has a short and simple one: yes, you can.
Of course it is possible; that’s the whole point of the growth mindset, that we can always grow, develop and learn. We will also look at how to do it further below.
But first, let’s look at what it is.
What is the growth mindset?
The American psychologist Carol S. Dweck coined the term growth mindset in his famous work Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2006.
Dweck studied pupils at a young age and argued that people could be placed in a continuum based on their views on where ability comes from. On one end of the spectrum were those with a fixed mindset, who believed ability and intelligence were innate and could not be developed. On the other end, you would find those with a growth mindset who thought ability could be learned and developed through practice and hard work.
This is a simple concept, but it has profound implications.
The fixed mindset
As shown in the diagram below, a fixed mindset makes people believe their intelligence is static. This makes them afraid to look stupid, so they will avoid challenges and suffer when they make mistakes or receive criticism. They will see errors as signs of their imperfect intelligence. They will equate an error to a failure.
Errors will be an attack on their very self and identity.
As a consequence, and this is the saddest of it all, people with a fixed mindset will plateau early and will not achieve their full potential.
The growth mindset
Individuals with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that intelligence and ability can be developed, so they will continuously seek opportunities to develop them further.
They will face challenges willingly, see errors as a necessary part of growth and learning, and accept feedback not as criticism or an attack to their self, but as a gift that helps them become a better version of themselves.
They grow and achieve ever-greater levels of achievement, thus getting closer to self-actualisation, happiness and fulfilment.
Exigence and Perfectionism vs Excellence
When coaching my clients, one of the most prevalent issues is exigence and its close cousin, perfectionism, which are often linked to a fixed mindset.
When someone is living in exigence and perfectionism, they mix what they do with who they are. They are what they do, so if what they do is not perfect, their being, and therefore their identity, are flawed.
Thus, not doing something perfectly becomes proof of them being flawed and imperfect. This is a race that can never be won, as we are all innately imperfect, and there will always be things we lack or could have done better.
People living in exigence tend to look at what they are missing and lacking, not so much at what they have achieved. This is a recipe for chronic dissatisfaction and frustration.
These people become very self-demanding and excessively exigent with themselves and others. This may help them achieve certain notoriety in their professions, climb the corporate ladder and achieve what they think is success, but more often than not, it comes at a high price.
Like everything we do in coaching (and in life), what matters at the end of the day is if a certain belief, assumption, or behaviour helps or limits us. Exigence and perfectionism may be helpful in some cases, but in most situations, they will be limiting and should therefore be overcome and dealt with.
To do just that, I explore the concept of excellence with my coaching clients. Excellence is about recognising that none of us is perfect but that we can always improve and get better at something. It is about improving daily and seeing mistakes and challenges as learning opportunities. People seeking excellence focus more on what they have achieved than what they lacked or missed.
Excellence is about becoming the best version of yourself, about achieving self-realisation.
Exigence and perfectionism have clear links with a fixed mindset, whereas seeking excellence indicates someone with a growth mindset.
A personal story: struggling between the fixed and growth mindsets
I read Dweck’s book a few years ago. As I often do in these cases, I identified myself with the positive concept and discarded the negative one as something alien to me. I thought I was a great exponent of the growth mindset.
But the more I read and thought about it, the more I realised that I often showed behaviours more linked to a fixed mindset.
I was supposed to be an intelligent kid since I went to school, and I thought that was innate. I realised that I often shied away from big challenges so I didn’t fail and prove that I wasn’t so smart after all.
What if I failed on a difficult task? People would see me for who I really was, someone winging it as he went along and not so intelligent after all. They would see that the emperor had no clothes and was parading fully naked.
I have had chronic impostor syndrome my entire life and a dread of being seen as what I really was: a flawed individual who didn’t know what he was doing.
Was I feeling this way all the time? No, of course not. I have faced some heavy challenges in my life, and I have grown and learned because of them.
Let’s not forget Dweck told us about a spectrum with two extremes. Some people will have a growth mindset most of the time, others will always have a fixed one, but most people will be somewhere in between and will have some growth and fixed mindset tendencies.
I am somewhere in the middle, but being aware of it is helping me to stop myself when I am being fixed and to inch slowly towards the growth side of the spectrum.
How to Develop a Growth Mindset in 4 steps
Dweck tells us about four steps we need to take to develop a growth mindset.
Step 1 – Embrace your fixed mindset
Like me, you probably also have a mix of both fixed and growth mindsets. Admit that you have a bit of a fixed mindset, and do not castigate yourself for it.
Still, there is no need to let it show up as often as it does.
In Dweck’s words, “even though we have to accept that some fixed mindset dwells within, we do not have to accept how often it shows up and how much havoc it can wreak when it does.”
Step 2 – Become aware of your fixed mindset triggers
What makes your fixed mindset flare and show up?
Is it when you are about to start a big project and self-doubt about your abilities starts to creep in?
Or is it when you are struggling and stuck with a particular task or project?
Or maybe when you have failed decisively on something? Lost a job, failed an exam, your partner left you…
Or perhaps when you find someone much better than you in an area you pride yourself on?
Many triggers push our fixed mindset to the surface. Discover yours and be especially mindful of them.
Step 3 – Give your fixed mindset persona a name
This might look silly, but it works.
It will allow you to identify and label your fixed mindset persona when it shows up. It will increase your awareness of when you are behaving with a fixed mindset and help you overcome it.
Step 4 – Educate your fixed mindset persona
You are now aware of the triggers that push forward your fixed mindset persona and have given it a name. You are now familiar with it. The next step is to educate it every time it shows up.
If you have failed at something or have made a mistake, John, Linda, Alain, or however you decided to call your fixed mindset, will show up. You can tell your fixed mindset persona that you understand what they are trying to achieve, but they should let you give it a go. You may have made a mistake or failed, but you still think you have the ability to learn and get better at whatever you are attempting to do.
The power of YET
You don’t have the ability or skill to do it YET, but you will have it eventually. We all have the capacity to learn and get better.
Yet is the key word here.
Someone in a fixed mindset will think they don’t have the ability to do something and will stop there. A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, will realise this is temporary and that they don’t have that skill YET, but that with practice, hard work and time, they can get there.
Whenever you feel stuck, and your fixed mindset takes over, think about the power of yet. You may be stuck on something because you don’t know how to do it yet, but it is not impossible for you to get to a sufficient level of mastery.
Everything can be learned and developed with enough time and dedication. Everyone can develop a specific skill or ability given enough time.
That’s the biggest learning we can take from the growth mindset. It’s an important one.
You may not know how to do it yet, but you’ll get there.