I always thought that success meant proving that you are the smartest person in the room. The smartest person in the room, however, is not always the most successful.
(My husband planting seeds. He is about to go back to grad school after being out of school for 10 years- talk about growth mindset inspiration!)
To some degree I always assumed that talents and intelligence were fixed entities. And because I thought they were fixed, I was always concerned about how strong they were. Would people think I’m competent? Was everyone else more talented than me?
I looked at my own assets from a scarcity perspective. I thought that my talents or skills were a reflection on me as a person, and so I was very unwilling to take risks and chances. If I failed I thought it meant something about my very character.
This is what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.
Growth mindsets do just what the name implies; grow. People with growth mindsets don't look at a challenge as a barrier, but rather, they look at it as a starting point.
Growth mindsets consistently seek opportunities to learn. They are not afraid of messing up, because they know messing up is a part of the learning process. Growth mindsets are not threatened by the talents of others, but seek to learn from the success of others.
Dr. Dweck points out the fragility of motivation when you have a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset prevents you from going for the things you want because you are terrified of failure. When difficulties or setbacks arise you are more prone to shut down and go back to what is comfortable.
People with a growth mindset recognize that talents and abilities are things to be developed, not things that are stagnant or exclusively inherent. Sure, some people may have a few more IQ points or natural abilities than others, but everyone can develop abilities and skills from what they already possess, and those who become really good at things are continuously developing those skills.
In his book Talent is Overrated, Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin shares the groundbreaking research that talent is not the thing that makes someone successful or exceptional, but rather
deliberate practice of an activity that constantly pushes you just beyond your current level of ability is the secret to growth.
As you get better or more competent your brain structurally changes. As your brain adapts and changes so too must your practice. The secret is in high volume repetition. It doesn't matter if you are Justin Timberlake performing at the Super Bowl, a world class surgeon, or my husband's grandmother who won the Senior Games in shuffleboard (that really is her trophy in the picture below), challenging practice makes all the difference.
It is incredibly difficult to become exceptional when we are unwilling to practice challenging ourselves or being outside of our comfort zone. When we experience the frustration that comes with learning, rather than giving up, we can acknowledge that this is a fundamental process in growth. If nothing else, knowing that you are in an active process of growth can be motivating in and of itself.
When we have a growth mindset we don’t expect that we are going to be great at everything immediately. We cut ourselves some slack and we aren't afraid to try something new because we know it’s going to take time to cultivate the skills. We ask questions, and we don’t pretend to be experts.
Struggling, setbacks, and reconfiguration are all a part of the learning process.
A growth mindset is characterized by resilience and persistence. Motivation to continue comes with the small victories that occur through the learning process. Taking time to recognize these small victories is key for sustaining motivation.
Our fixed mindset typically comes out when we are struggling, when we see somebody who’s better at something and we are, or when we have setbacks. In these moments it becomes easy to look at what someone else is doing, compare, and give up.
Mindsets change the meaning of failure.
When you have a fixed mindset effort becomes the enemy. You begin to think that effort is for somebody who isn’t his talented or bright as you. Shame quickly creeps in the second that our fixed mindsets become challenged and we don't want to admit that there is something we don't know.
I’ve been there and experienced this (many times) firsthand. There of been times where I felt like I should know how to do something, so I work harder behind the scenes to make it appear that I knew how to do it all along. In reality, had I just asked my superior for help I could’ve saved a lot of time and energy, and opened the door for a mentoring relationship.
What struck me most by Dr. Dweck's research was her findings on how children can become stuck in fixed mindsets. Her research found that children who frequently hear how "smart" they are become complacent. When you frequently hear that you are smart, you become afraid of taking a risk or putting effort into something that may make you appear less smart.
This was my case for several years. I made great grades and caught onto things fairly quickly, so I was frequently told by teachers and people I admired that I was smart. The reality was that I felt like an impostor and was afraid someone would realize I wasn't as smart as they thought.
Dr. Dweck suggests that instead of praising talent or the intelligence, acknowledge and praise the process that the child went through to reach their accomplishment.
Instead of saying, "you're so smart," try "I can tell you worked really hard on that," or "I'm really impressed by your perseverance." By acknowledging the process of hard work, improvement, and learning, instead of what comes naturally, we can help kids shift into a growth mindset.
Mindsets extend into our relationships as well.
When we have a fixed mindset in our relationships we tend to blame others and not recognize our own areas for growth. Nobody wants to admit that the way they communicate or the way that they process something could be improved. Our natural tendency is to get defensive, particularly when we are called on something by our partners.
Ironic, given my chosen profession, but patience (or lack there of) has always been one of my greatest weaknesses. It’s taken a long time for me to acknowledge this weakness, and probably even more patience on my partner's end to deal with my impatience.
Rather than getting defensive, which still happens more frequently than I'd like to admit, I try to take a deep breath and step back when I’m called out for being impatient. I've become a lot more aware of when impatience rears its boisterous head, but targeting it for growth as oppose to ignoring it has been tremendously helpful.
Adopting a Growth Mindset:
When adopting a growth mindset, you first must take an inventory of those areas where you are in a fixed mindset. This may include areas where you compare yourself with others, times or occasions when you don’t want to push yourself or take risks, times when you find yourself making excuses or justifying your actions or inaction.
Begin to make minimal goals that are in direct opposition with the things in your inventory.
Start to identify what your fixed mindset triggers are. When I start a new project or job, my fixed mindset tends to come out as I want to appear to be overly competent to hide any insecurities I have about not knowing something. I notice it, and try to lean into the discomfort.
During my first practicum I found myself not wanting to ask my supervisor questions because she was incredibly busy, and I felt like I should've known more about what I was doing. Around the second half of the year, I realized this pattern (which has always been a pattern), so I began to push myself to ask more questions. At the end of the practicum I had wished that I had started asking questions sooner. So this year, I ask my supervisors a million questions. Sometimes they are redundant, but I ask anyway. It turns out I learn a more when I ask questions, and it creates stronger relationships with my superiors.