Today I’m going to talk about possibly the most important thing I’ve ever learned, the thing that has helped me more as a student, writer, artist, and employee than any other motivational speaker or self-help book has ever managed: mindset theory.
Mindset theory is very simple at it’s core. There are two main types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset operates on the premise that our abilities are fixed, while the growth mindset believes that we can grow and improve.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Obviously the fixed mindset is wrong and we’re all supposed to have a growth mindset, right? Of course people can change! I thought the same thing when I first encountered this theory. But the more I read the research and explored the deeper meanings, the more I realized just how fixed my mindset was.
The growth mindset thrives on challenge. Someone with this mindset doesn’t see failure as a sign that they themselves are a failure, but instead see it as a new chance to grow. They believe that even the most basic abilities and talents can be improved.
The fixed mindset balks at challenge. Someone with this mindset sees failure as a direct reflection of their abilities; if they failed, they weren’t good enough, and there isn’t any point to continuing because they never will be.
People with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t. I see this all the time. –Dr. Carol Dweck
When I phrase it that directly, it’s pretty clear that this is unhealthy. But the fixed mindset can sneak into our heads very subtly, in ways we don’t often recognize.
In school, fixed mindsetters can be seen slouching in the back row or trying to disappear whenever the teacher poses a question. They don’t want to be called on–what if they mess up? They might obsess over grades and lose sleep trying to pull perfect straight A’s and prove how smart they are, or they might take the alternative path of pretending they don’t care. They’ll avoid classes they think they’ll struggle in, and can come up with anything to justify their behavior.
“Science just isn’t my subject.”
“I’ve never been any good at trigonometry.”
“This teacher is setting me up to fail.”
In the workplace, fixed mindsetters can be found stressing out over performance reviews, afraid they might be falling behind expectations. They’ll be at least a little upset that they weren’t named employee of the month or when promotions pass them up. When something goes wrong, they’ll try to blame anything other than themselves.
“I totally deserved that promotion.”
“I wish I could work up the courage to talk to my coworker.”
“I’m so nervous for this meeting with the supervisor, what if I’m fired?
In all of life, fixed mindsetters can be found robbing themselves of opportunities. They use “I could have”s as badges of honor, reaffirming their skills without running the risk of trying and failing. They think of themselves as having a certain amount of “talent” in any given area, some quantity they inherited but has maxed out now that they left early childhood or graduated, some inborn trait that they have to continually prove rather than improve. They rely on test scores and awards that tell them how good they are. When they see the success of others, they feel a little threatened. When they mess up, they’re quick to be down on themselves. When people suggest that they could get better, they feel their very identity is being threatened.
“Am I not good enough the way I am?”
“I’m just not smart enough for college.”
“I could’ve gotten that award if I’d tried to.”
“I could’ve been a professional athlete if my parents had started me young.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
“My essay’s not nearly as good as his, I bet he cheats.”
“I’m not a talented enough writer to get published.”
“Don’t judge me, this is just they way I am.”
The problem with the fixed mindset is that, whether we have a fatal case or a small infection, it causes us to limit our own growth. We don’t believe that we can fundamentally improve, and when we don’t consciously believe that, we do all sorts of damaging things. We let opportunities pass us by. We judge ourselves harshly without taking our potential into account.
Today, I challenge you to look for ways you have fallen into a fixed mindset.
Keep your eyes open in the next few weeks for part two, The Growth Mindset.
Did you see yourself in any of the above statements?
How has a fixed mindset held you back?
If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence. –Dr. Carol Dweck
(The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” were coined by researcher Dr. Carol Dweck–click here to watch Dr. Dweck’s TED Talk summarizing her research and here for her website.)