The summer before my daughter Kristen’s freshman year in college, I spent an entire afternoon and evening teaching her how to slalom ski. After hours of dragging her across a small lake near our home as she endured multiple face plants, just as the sun was setting, she pulled herself up and out of the water on one ski, creating one of those indelible family memories that dads and daughters everywhere cherish.
Then, just a few weeks later, after entering Hope College, she excitedly called home to tell us she joined the water ski club. Although excited for her, I wondered how, having just learned to basically stand on one ski, she could possibly handle the demands of a competitive slalom course. “I hope she’s not too disappointed,” I thought to myself as we hung up.
Despite her inexperience, she did just fine, demonstrating what Stanford Psychologist and author Dr. Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Dweck’s fascinating research is summarized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Two Mindsets… Two Different Approaches to Life and Work
According to Dweck, everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset, people believe that talent and intelligence are fixed traits. They spend their time documenting and defending their brains and talent instead of developing them, creating an urgency to prove themselves over and over. Every situation causes a fixed mindset person to ask herself, “Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or foolish? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” As a result, fixed mindset people tend to avoid challenges and fear failure.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. As Dr. Dweck describes it, “The hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development… and although people may differ in every way–in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments–everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” (This helps explain my daughter’s lack of hesitation in joining her college water ski club!) Seeing themselves as a work in progress, growth mindset people tend to embrace feedback, accept failure as a learning opportunity, and don’t mind looking foolish. It is this approach to life that brings the most success, self-fulfillment, and lifelong learning.
Not surprisingly, after graduating from college in 2012, Kristen encountered some difficult setbacks her first year, then bounced back, and landed a job with an international company where she flourished.
Since clearly the goal is to adopt a growth mindset for every part of your life, how do you ensure you’re on track? Based on Dr. Dweck’s insightful research, here are six steps.
Six Steps to Developing a Growth Mindset
1) Understand that most people don’t have just one mindset. According to Dr. Dweck, it’s common for us to have different mindsets for different roles and life circumstances. A predominantly growth mindset person, for example, can succumb to situations, or triggers, such as a competitive challenge or being forced out of one’s comfort zone, that produces a fixed mindset. The key, according to Dweck, is identifying the triggers and responding rather than reacting.
2) View challenges as opportunities. Having a growth mindset means relishing challenges and risks as opportunities for self-improvement. Under a fixed mindset, the fear of looking foolish keeps people from trying new things. Think of situations or endeavors that especially challenge you–things you may be tempted to avoid out of fear or reluctance. Then, put aside your fear, do it anyway, and relish the private victory.
3) Replace the word “failing” with the word “learning.” Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas,” Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV anchor in Baltimore for being “too emotionally invested in her stories,” Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was considered completely uncoordinated as a child, and Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC’s Cinematic Arts School multiple times. What if these American icons had a fixed mindset? Despite their immense talent, these world class people would have given in to the rejection and given up hope… and the world wouldn’t be the same.
4) Value the process over the end result. Growth mindset people enjoy the journey; they’re okay, if, for example, instead of competing to place in their age group in a 5K charity race, they choose instead to run with their kids at the back of the pack. A fixed mindset, by contrast, avoids situations in which they might appear weak or vulnerable.
5) Reward actions, not traits. If you lead others–especially if you have children–don’t praise them for their talent, which nurtures a fixed mindset, but instead recognize their hard work. Similarly, as George Walther, author of the book, Power Talking, advises, when someone compliments you for your performance, instead of minimizing or deflecting the praise which are signs of false humility, respond by saying, “Thank you, I worked hard and planned well!” Don’t be hesitant to project self confidence while giving yourself credit for the process, not the outcome.
6) Test your mindset. Finally, if you’re unclear about which mindset you tend towards, you can take a simple mindset test.
How much could a fixed mindset be costing you? Travis Bradberry, one of the thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, sums it up like this: “If you aren’t getting a little bit better each day, then you’re most likely getting a little worse—and what kind of life is that?”
In what areas of your life do you tend towards a fixed mindset? When are you in growth-mindset mode? How can you apply one or more of these six keys to growing yourself?
Interested in reading more about this topic? Check out 25 Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset by Saga Briggs.
This post was adapted from a 2016 post.