The Simple Secret to Boundless Improvement, How to Implement It Into Your Life – The Growth Mindset
Our trip around the world has afforded me the opportunity to learn a lot of new things.
I’ve learned about how people live, what inspires them and what troubles them. I’ve gained numerous new skills, from scuba diving to farming to architectural and website design. I’ve seen old things from new perspectives and reinvented many of my long-held beliefs. I’ve put myself in uncomfortable situations on purpose and have come out better on the other side.
But while all these things have significantly impacted my development as a person – there are two ideas that have had bigger impacts on how I approach the everyday than any other I’ve ever come across.
I mean that in earnest. Ever.
These two ideas have fundamentally changed how I perceive and approach the world and because of them, my life will never be the same.
The first of the two is mindfulness through meditation. Jenna did a wonderful post describing our 10-Day Vipassana Meditation retreat in Thailand where the seed of this idea took root and I will certainly be writing more on my development in this area, but this post is dedicated to the second of the life-changing ideas – the growth mindset.
But before we delve into how this concept can revolutionize your everyday, we should first create a foundation of some basic knowledge.
It’s defined as “the established set of attitudes held by someone”. It affects the way you perceive yourself, other people and the world as a whole and it directly impacts each and every decision you make.
It is the fundamental set of beliefs around which you base your daily functioning.
And according to Carol Dweck, author of the wonderful book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and reason I’m writing this post, there are two types of mindsets; the growth mindset and its antithesis, the fixed mindset.
And to best understand the growth mindset it’s best to start with its opposite, the fixed mindset.
So then, what is a fixed mindset?
A fixed mindset, according to Dr. Dweck, approaches the world with the belief that “your qualities are carved in stone”. It operates under the tenet that qualities such as intelligence, skill and personality are allotted to an individual in a certain way at birth and cannot be reshaped over time.
Otherwise stated, you think traits are fixed and you can’t do anything about it.
Within this mindset you would believe that one is born with a set amount of intelligence and cannot change it or born with a set amount of physical skill and cannot improve it.
You’re smart or you’re not.
You’re an athlete or you’re not.
Within this mindset I like to think of a person’s qualities as a sound mixing board where all the dials are set to a certain level and are unchangeable.
So what does this do to someone subscribed to this mindset? If you hold the belief that your traits like intelligence and physical aptitude are carved in stone, it creates an urgency to ‘prove that you have a healthy dose of them’; you’ll go out of your way to prove to the world that you were born with these traits.
Take an example from Dr. Dweck’s sixth-grade class:
“Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet, she believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating the mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal – look smart, don’t look dumb.”
So why is this a bad thing?
Shouldn’t we always be trying to show the world our potential? Shouldn’t we be working tirelessly to maximize our innate abilities?
These are legitimate questions which reveal the true damaging nature of the fixed mindset; it creates so much anxiety about proving yourself worthy of traits you think you have – being smart or being athletic as examples – that you completely miss the opportunity to actually improve those traits.
As Dr. Dweck relayed in her example, the worry in her class was not learning the material presented by the teacher but rather looking smart. The fixed mindset cultivated in her classroom no longer incentivized the children to absorb and understand the material but rather do whatever it took to prove that they are one of the smart kids.
“Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?”
Instead of growing and learning, effort was now being expended on acting a certain way with the added anxiety that if the kids didn’t act a certain way they’d be judged as dumb or incompetent.
The fixed mindset is about proving to yourself and others that you were born with certain qualities – not actually improving those qualities.
The Perversion of Effort – Lessons from The Tortoise and The Hare
The fixed mindset has also, for many, associated the idea of effort with lack of talent as Dweck unpacks with a story we all know well:
“The story of the tortoise and the hare, in trying to put forward the power of effort, gave effort a bad name. It reinforced the image that effort is for the plodders and suggested that in rare instances, when talented people dropped the ball, the plodder could sneak through.
…The problem was that these stories made it into an either–or. Either you have ability or you expend effort.
And this is part of the fixed mindset. Effort is for those who don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, ‘If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.’ They add, ‘Things come easily to people who are true geniuses.’ “
This idea that if something requires effort it means you lack that innate talent can be a huge barrier for improvement because logically, in putting in that effort you are admitting that you are inadequate causing many to throw in the towel without ever putting forth a worthwhile try.
Personal Fixed Mindset Experience: My Painfully Short Baseball Career
This is a particularly painful concept for me as, looking back, I’ve been plagued with it my entire life. One example is my (short) baseball career.
I played baseball since I could walk and without much practice, I was really good. By the time I reached high school I’d been on a number of travel teams and All-Star squads relying almost exclusively on my innate talent.
Having not trained at all for tryouts freshman year and thinking I was a sure-in for the squad, I was promptly cut from the JV team after a pathetic showing.
The next season I returned but again, thinking any show of effort would show weakness in my god-given baseball ability, I decided not to work out before the tryouts. This time I barely made the team (literally the last spot) and spent most of the year pitching against terrible teams.
Yet still I refused to work to improve my game because to me, effort equated to inadequacy and I was out to prove I was an naturally gifted baseball player – even it it meant underachieving on the field.
Things continued similarly through my junior year until I started to experience shoulder pain after starts. Eventually the pain got so bad that I was sent to a physical therapist who diagnosed me with tendonitis.
He put me on a 4-month rehabilitation program which involved mostly exercises at home. You can probably guess how well I adhered to that schedule.
The next spring I arrived at opening tryouts for my senior season with shoulder pain that never went away and eventually shut me down for the rest of the year and what would be my baseball career.
Until now, I’ve never fully owned up to the fact that my refusal to put in effort was a direct reason for my underachieving baseball career – but it was.
Now this is where the growth mindset comes into play.
What is the growth mindset?
As I mentioned previously, the growth mindset is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the fixed. Instead of operating under the belief that all traits are fixed, the growth mindset is “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”.
It fully acknowledges the fact that some people are born with more or less innate ability than others – but promotes the idea that any of these can be improved with effort and time.
It means that, like the fixed mindset, you’re born with a certain amount of intelligence but with effort this intelligence can be increased.
It means that you’re born with a certain amount of athletic ability but with hard work this ability can be improved.
Back to the soundboard metaphor, your dials start out at a certain number just as before but with effort over time you can turn them up.
Why is this so much better than the fixed mindset?
It’s because the central theme of the growth mindset is pure, unfiltered learning instead of constantly proving or disproving perceptions. It means actual growth over perceived growth.
In the fixed mindset failure can be a multitude of things, all of which will hurt the perception you have of yourself, leave you feeling inadequate and thoroughly demotivated.
Perhaps you didn’t get a certain grade on a test or got turned down for a job or got cut from the baseball team freshman year. The message received by a fixed mindset here is “You’re an idiot”, “You’re a loser”, “You’re not good enough”.
They are judgements against you as a person.
In the growth mindset on the other hand, the only way to fail is if you’re not learning.
Not getting a certain grade on a test doesn’t mean “You’re an idiot”. It means that you didn’t study hard enough this time and, if you want that certain grade, you need to make sure you put in the hours next time.
Got turned down on a job? It doesn’t mean “You’re a loser”. It means you didn’t differentiate yourself enough to get noticed by the employer and, if you want to get a job, you should improve your differentiation skills.
Got cut from the baseball team freshman year? It doesn’t mean “You’re not good enough”. It means that you didn’t put enough effort in training during the offseason to keep up with the new level of competition and, if you want to make the team next year and play frequently, you need to adjust your training regimen to achieve this.
Notice that none of these are judging the individual involved as the fixed mindset did (“You’re an idiot” etc) – they are objectively commenting on the activity and how it can be improved next time.
Here’s the key point in all this; in the growth mindset these results are not failures because they provide opportunities for learning. Despite the fact that goals weren’t achieved in these various situations, you are better at the end of the day because you learned something and learning is priority.
A person in the growth mindset is not concerned with proving the level of a particular quality because they know with effort they can improve it and they’d rather spend their time on that.
This is why it’s such a beautiful concept and why it’s the key to lifelong improvement – because the only thing the growth mindset is concerned with is being better than you were yesterday. It makes you hunger for people, places and situations which challenge you and push your abilities to the next level without worrying about their perception.
Carol Dweck puts in succinctly when she asks,
“Why waste time proving how great you are, when you could be getting better?”
**Extremely Important Disclaimer (For Another Post): The What and The Why**
It’s important to note that although growth mindset is the resounding answer to the how of personal growth – it’s an entirely different endeavor to develop the what and the why.
As famed self-help guru Stephen Covey says, “Before beginning to climb the ladder of success, make sure it’s leaning against the right building”.
Especially for adults trying to steer their life in a current direction, developing a vision of yourself, the associated goals to realize that vision and appropriate steps to achieve those goals is absolutely indispensable – and is something I dig into in future posts.
That sounds great but how do I implement the growth mindset into my life?
Half the battle is awareness.
Now that you’ve stepped out of ignorance and into knowledge, you’ll be able to begin to identify situations to utilize the growth mindset where previously you acted with a fixed.
Dweck provides a suggestion for initiating the change in your perspective:
“Think of a time you were enjoying something—doing a crossword puzzle, playing a sport, learning a new dance. Then it became hard and you wanted out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don’t fool yourself. It’s the fixed mindset. Put yourself in a growth mindset. Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.”
Once you’re able to start identifying situations where you have the urge to shy away because…
A.) You think you’re no good and you’ll never be any good so it’s not even worth putting in the effort, or
B.) You’re afraid that giving your all and underperforming will risk destroying the image you have of yourself (like me during my baseball career), or
C.) Any of the feelings mentioned above (tired, dizzy, bored, hungry)
…you can slowly start changing your default to the growth mindset and turn yourself into a learning machine.
These situations could come in almost any context – school, work, athletics and even relationships.
On Being Dumped
Have you ever been dumped? Has someone rejected you? It’s happened to me and, regardless of your mindset, it sucks. But it’s the response to this rejection where you’ll find the differentiation.
In my fixed mindset, this rejection had labeled me as a reject. This person didn’t want me so why would anyone want me? I wallowed in my own misery for far too long and passed up a golden opportunity for learning and growth.
If I had taken on this situation with a growth mindset the rejection still would have stung, but it wouldn’t have been a commentary on me as a person. I would have realized that the rejection didn’t occur because I was a reject – it occurred because something went wrong in my relationship and if I wanted to avoid rejection in the future, I should probably change my approach.
It’s all about learning instead of letting yourself get bogged down with judgements and labels that are, in every sense, imaginary.
The Dangerous Side of Praise: Effectively Communicating the Growth Mindset
Mindsets are not just limited to affecting your own personal perspective and behavior. They can also have a huge impact on the growth (or non-growth) of those around you and unfortunately, regardless of the intention, it’s not always positive.
Think of this situation; your kid comes home from school and proudly shows you a math test marked with a big, red A+. What’s your reaction?
My normal reaction, and I think many people’s, would have been to shower my child with praise. “Wow you are so smart!” or maybe “Wow that’s absolutely amazing! You’re so good at math!”.
But while these comments are certainly intended to lift spirits and make them feel good, think of what that response is communicating in the long-term if they happen not to do well on the next test.
Logically, if they don’t do well on the next test, “Wow you are so smart!” turns into “You’re not smart” and “You’re so good at math” turns into “You’re not so good at math”.
These items of praise which were meant to bolster the confidence of your child have actually worked to undermine their opinion of themselves.
So the question remains, how should we react when a little one brings home a test with an A+?
Remembering that the growth mindset focuses on the learning process not someone’s personal characteristics, consider the following responses:
“Wow I’m really proud of how hard you worked to get that grade!”
“Whoa! You must have worked hard to find a way to really understand that math!”
Now, it must be admitted, these comments sound a little awkward – certainly not as flowing as “You’re so smart!” does. But think of the long-term implications; from your comments the child no longer associates the good grade with innate talent but rather hard work and learning.
And if next time if the test does not go as well it’s not a commentary of the child’s talent level, it’s a commentary on the fact that they didn’t work hard enough or learn effectively enough – things that do not undermine confidence and can be easily corrected by working harder next time.
This type of growth mindset communication, focusing on hard work over innate ability, is not limited to parent – child relationships but can be applied nearly anywhere.
If someone doesn’t get a job they applied for, don’t undermine them by saying “Oh that employer doesn’t know what they’re doing”. That provides absolutely no opportunity for growth and lots of opportunity for sulking.
How about, “I’m sorry you didn’t get the job but there must have been something to your approach they didn’t like and could be improved for next time. Any idea what it might be?”.
While this is certainly not the cozy type of feedback many people are looking for after a rejection…
…it’s the kind of feedback you need if you’re going to improve and ultimately move closer to your goal.
Think of other opportunities where you could communicate growth mindset feedback – at work? in relationships? with friends? The opportunities are endless for you to start improving other lives.
Not Everyone Wants to Change
It must be noted that not everyone will be receptive to this sort of feedback because not everyone wants to change and improve. But in communicating the growth mindset you’ve provided an opportunity for change – whether it’s taken advantage of is out of your control.
Is it possible to have both a growth and fixed mindsets?
Absolutely and many people do – I’m still one of them.
I can tell you from personal experience that this process is far from flipping a switch which will have you tackling every challenge with unabashed vigor – it’s a slow and deliberate process.
Writing this article for example, has been a switch from a fixed to a growth mindset that I’ve made. In the past I’ve attempted to write passionate pieces on personal growth but without fail find myself consumed by doubt, ultimately capitulating and ditching the whole idea – unable to bear the thought of publishing and being rejected by my peers. It put my image of being a good writer at risk.
But now my mindset is telling me to write a piece to the best of my ability, gathering feedback and improve upon it next time.
Just keep getting better.
And I know I will.
But on the other hand there’s how I approach learning Spanish, something I’ve been attempting for several months. I took French back in high school and never received high marks – something I chalked up to just not being good at foreign languages.
This is a classic fixed mindset – something I completely acknowledge – but one that is still a complete roadblock for me achieving my goal of speaking Spanish. Instead of searching out of more effective way to learn verb conjugations, I’ll get sleepy or bored or frustrated and just give up.
It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m continuing to work on it everyday – but at the moment provides a great example of how someone can hold a growth mindset in one area and a fixed in another.
The hope is that – just as with any developing habit – as you successfully replace a fixed with a growth, the easier it becomes to do it again next time and the next time. All the way until the growth mindset is the default for everything you do.
How far can the growth mindset take you?
The short answer is; it depends. It depends on your goals, your learning environment and your willingness to work.
Here’s an example of someone who took his goals just about as far as they could go.
Boxing experts relied on physical measurements, called “tales of the tape”, to identify naturals. They included measurements of the fighter’s fist, reach, chest expansion, and weight.
Muhammed Ali failed these measurements.
He was not a natural. He had great speed but he didn’t have the physique of a great fighter, he didn’t have the strength, and he didn’t have the classical boxing moves. In fact, he boxed all wrong.
He didn’t block punches with his arms and elbows. He punched in rallies like an amateur. He kept his jaw exposed. He pulled back his torso to evade the impact of oncoming punches…
…Sonny Liston, Ali’s adversary, was a natural. He had it all – the size, the strength, and the experience. His power was legendary. It was unimaginable that Ali could beat Sonny Liston. The matchup was so ludicrous that the arena was only half full for the fight.
But aside from his quickness, Ali’s brilliance was his mind.
His brains, not his brawn. He sized up his opponent and went for his mental jugular. Not only did he study Liston’s fighting style, but he closely observed what kind of person Liston was out of the ring.
“I read everything I could where he had been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, and try to get a picture of how his mind work”.
And then he turned it against him.
Why did Ali appear to “go crazy” before each fight? Because…he knew that a knockout punch is the one they don’t see coming.
Ali said, “Liston had to believe that I was crazy. That I was capable of doing anything. He couldn’t see nothing to me at all but mouth and that’s all I wanted him to see!”
…Ali’s victory over Liston is boxing history. A famous boxing manager reflects on Ali:
“He was a paradox. His physical performances in the ring were absolutely wrong…Yet, his brain was always in perfect working condition. He showed us all,” he continued with a broad smile written across his face, “that all the victories come from here,” hitting his forehead with his index finger. Then he raised a pair of fists, saying, “Not from here”
While the story of Muhammed Ali may seem larger than life, consider some less-publicized instances of the growth mindset in action.
From the Streets to Shakespeare: The Story of Marva Collins
Take the case of Marva Collins, an educator in Chicago, whose students were judged by many to be the worst of the worst.
“One boy had been in and out of thirteen schools in four years. One stabbed children with pencils and had been thrown out of a mental health center. One either-year-old would remove the blade from the pencil sharpener and cut up his classmates’ coats…One hit another student with a hammer on his first day.”
Starting to get the idea?
But despite this Collins managed to create a loving and supportive learning environment which, above all, ingrained the idea that through hard work anything was possible.
But how far could love and support really take a class of delinquents? This is how far:
“When Collins expanded her school to include young children, she required that every four-year-old who had started in September be reading by Christmas. And they all were.
The three- and four-year-olds used a vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-olds were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council.
Her reading list for the late-grade-school children included The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov, Physics Through Experiments, and The Canterbury Tales.
Oh, and always Shakespeare. Even the boys who picked their teeth with switchblades, she says, loved Shakespeare and always begged for more.”
This is the power of the growth mindset.
These kids, none of whom had anything expected of them before, blossomed into scholars who would put many of the country’s top boarding schools to shame.
And it was all due to their acceptance that their intelligence was not a fixed quantity; that through hard work they could, as one student put it, “make your brain bigger”.
What’s the next step?
I cannot recommend reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success enough. It’s a wonderfully written book, illustrating this priceless concept with brilliant simplicity.
As I continue to develop this personal growth side of 19000days.com, I’d encourage you to check back on topics that were touched on in this article including vision/goal development, habit formation and the anatomy of great (including case studies of classic growth mind examples).
Love the post? Hate the post? Confused by the post? Post a comment below or send me a note – discussion makes us all better and I’d love to hear from you.
As I sign off, let me leave you with a singular message;
Learn from everything you do and every person you meet, take challenges head on where once you may have shirked away, look at every moment as an opportunity – because as long as you do, you’ll always be moving forwards.