If you ask someone “Do you have a growth mindset?”, most people will say yes. In fact, when I ran a poll asking my followers if they had a growth mindset, only 10% said they didn’t. This is called the “false growth mindset” and it’s a natural consequence of being human. You probably heard somewhere that having a growth mindset was good, so you automatically say you do. If you want to challenge your “yes autopilot” and take a deep dive into what is a growth mindset and how you can foster it, buckle up!
The two mindsets shaping your life
A mindset is a set of assumptions held by a person or a group of people. It is closely related to people’s worldview or philosophy of life. A deeply anchored mindset can act as a strong incentive to continue to accept or even adopt certain behaviours.
In her seminal book Mindset, American psychologist Carol Dweck explains the two main mindsets we have when approaching new challenges—or even life in general. Her research has challenged commonly held perceptions about what it means to be smart. I don’t think I could explain it better than she did, so here are her two definitions of the mindsets that impact the way you think and act on a daily basis.
Fixed mindset — “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”
Growth mindset — “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
Let’s have a look at an example. Let’s say you you’re working on a big project. The launch goes terribly bad.
In a fixed mindset, you will feel like all your effort was wasted. Next time someone asks for your help in launching a project, you may tell them you’re not the right person. Instead, you’ll focus on stuff you know you’re good at.
In a growth mindset—while of course a failed launch still sucks—you are grateful for everything you got to learn. Because you focus on the process, the outcome doesn’t matter as much. You see this failure as a temporary setback and an opportunity for personal growth.
The idea is that what is commonly called intelligence can be “grown” incrementally by means of hard work, positivity, resilience, and training, and that people can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where their abilities come from. As Derek Sivers said, it’s a bit similar to the concept of nature versus nurture.
All about neuroplasticity
Contrary to what many people think, the adult brain is not “hard-wired” with fixed neuronal circuits. It’s actually very plastic. Neuroplasticity can be defined as the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout your life. For instance, synapses may strengthen or weaken over time, or brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location. It can be observed at all scales in the brain, from microscopic changes in individual neurons to large scale changes, which happen most commonly in response to injuries.
Let’s bust another neuromyth: neuroplasticity doesn’t stop after childhood. It is at work throughout your whole life. Depending on what is being actively used, connections within the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker. And with every repetition of a thought or an emotion, you tend to reinforce specific neural pathways. If frequently repeated, these small changes end up changing the way your brain works.
What does it mean? It means your brain keeps on changing, adapting, and forming new connections even as you grow older. More importantly, it means your cognitive abilities are not fixed. There’s nothing preventing you from learning something new, tackling a new challenge, or getting out of your comfort zone. And this is what having a growth mindset is all about.
Identify your fixed mindset triggers
Before we explore ways to foster a growth mindset, it’s crucial to be able to spot your own fixed mindset triggers. Though the outcome will always be similar—lack of motivation, resilience, and personal growth—there are several mindset triggers people tend to react to. It’s unlikely all of these will apply to you, but it would be surprising if none of them did. If you can’t pinpoint one of these triggers as affecting you, you may actually have a false growth mindset 😉
- Having to work hard. Most people like to say they’re hard workers. But in reality, there is something society seems to value more: being “gifted” or “naturally talented.” Did you ever feel proud when you did well on an exam without working too hard? If hard work is one of your mindset triggers, you may get overwhelmed by tasks that require a long, sustained effort—and you will be more likely to give up. Another sign that hard work may be a mindset trigger for you is if you tend to compare yourself to others, and you feel discouraged when it seems like it requires less effort from them to achieve the same goals. Note that if having to work hard is of your mindset triggers, it doesn’t mean that you’re lazy. It just means you have a self-limiting belief—that you think that no matter how much work you put in, some people are just more talented than you are.
- Facing setbacks. Life happens. We get sick, we can lose a job, not sign an important contract, there can be an oversight, a mistake, an accident. A challenge is intrinsic to what you’re trying to achieve. A setback is extrinsic. Let’s say you decide to go on a diet, but on the very first day, a colleague celebrates their birthday at work and you feel like you have to accept a piece of their birthday cake. With a growth mindset, this wouldn’t be a big deal—you’d just get back on track and forget about it. But if setbacks are a mindset trigger for you, you may stop the diet altogether because you feel like you have failed already. Let’s look at another example: you promised yourself to go for a run twice a week. But it’s been raining all week—what a bummer. Running won’t be as nice with this kind of weather. So you don’t go for a run. You basically let something like the weather derail your plans. In your mind, a setback is not a setback, it’s a roadblock.
- Getting negative feedback. We don’t all handle critique the same way. Okay, let’s look at professional athletes. They get a ton of feedback from their coach. And sometimes, that feedback can be pretty harsh. But they listen, they learn, they apply the feedback and suggestions. The problem is that some of us struggle to separate our performance from our identity. If we didn’t do well, we think we’re not good enough. Think about how you react to critique—is it one of your mindset triggers?
- Being challenged. Being out of your comfort zone is one of the best signs you are learning and growing. Think about it—unless you’re getting stretched, chances are you’re simply repeating stuff you already know. But some people are not comfortable being on the edge of their competence. If your mindset trigger is being challenged, it means that when you try to work on something and the solution you try doesn’t work, you believe the goal itself is too hard—and you may quit altogether.
- Seeing success in others. This is one people have a hard time admitting to. It has happened to me before. I would look at someone who was either more senior or had more experience, and I would compare myself to them. It’s not a pretty emotion—I was basically feeling jealous. What my brain didn’t seem to really get, though, is that these people had been working at it for longer than me, and that there was no reason I wouldn’t get to a similar lever if I put in the effort too. It can be intimidating to hang out with people who are more advanced than you in their journey—which is why it’s a mindset trigger for many of us.
You may be facing more subtle mindset triggers—for example, some people have specific mindset triggers when it comes to their siblings or their best friend. But it’s very unlikely you don’t have any mindset trigges. So take the time to explore your thoughts and your emotions so you can become aware of them.
How to foster a growth mindset
As Carol Dweck said, there are two ways to look at the world: “In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”
When you have a growth mindset, the hand you are dealt is just a starting point for personal growth. By changing your vision of effort and failure, you can design a whole new approach to your life. Convinced? Here are fifteen strategies you can use to develop a growth mindset.
- Remember the concept of neuroplasticity. There is lots of research showing your brain’s structure is not fixed. Your mind should not be fixed either.
- Appreciate the process over the results. It’s all about the learning process. Don’t worry too much about the actual result, make sure you learn as much as possible.
- Acknowledge your weaknesses. Ignoring your weaknesses means that you’ll never manage to improve. Acknowledging and embracing your imperfections also means you know which ones you want to work on.
- Cultivate your sense of purpose. According to Carol Dweck’s research, people with a growth mindset have a greater sense of purpose. Keep asking “why” and think about the meaning of your work.
- Don’t say failing, say learning. Shift your vision of failure. If you fall short of a goal or make a mistake, don’t see it as a failure—make it a learning opportunity.
- Value effort over talent. Stop chasing the reputation of someone who is “naturally smart.” First, genius requires work. Second, you won’t be perceived as smart if you’re not willing to put the work in.
- Consider challenges as opportunities. Challenges are an opportunity for self-improvement. Tackle them, and whether you succeed or fail, make sure to learn as much as possible.
- Place growth before speed. It takes time to learn. Learning fast doesn’t mean learning well, and learning well requires allowing time for mistakes. Think realistically about time and effort it will require to acquire a new skill. Don’t expect to master everything in one sitting.
- Do not chase other people’s approval. When you prioritise approval over learning, you sacrifice your own potential for growth.
- View criticism as a gift. Related—don’t wait for constructive criticism. Analyse all criticism. Do not let it destroy you, see it as a useful data point.
- Celebrate actions, not attributes. Give yourself a pat on the back when you did something smart—not just when you were being smart and relying on your previous knowledge.
- Grow with others. If you have a growth mindset, you may want to share and celebrate your progress with others. Learn from other people’s mistakes, take risks with them. Don’t try to look your best, show how hard you’re willing to work and how comfortable you are with experimenting.
- Take the time to reflect. Either once a day, once a week, or once a month, use journaling and metacognition techniques to reflect on your personal growth trajectory.
- Cultivate perseverance. Grit and determination will help you overcome challenges. Remind yourself of all the times you managed to deal with a particularly tough situation. You can do it again.
- Use the “not yet” technique. Carol Dweck says adding “not yet” to any fixed mindset statement is a great way to reframe your thought processes. When you’re struggling, just remind yourself that you haven’t mastered that skill… Yet.
There are probably more growth mindset techniques out there, but I think these will help you get the gist of it. Now, let’s have a look at the questions you can ask yourself to develop a growth mindset on a day-to-day basis.
Asking the right growth mindset questions
Having a growth mindset is related to having an open mind. Instead of seeing your abilities, skills, knowledge and values as fixed, you always push into the unfamiliar, to ensure you are always learning. With that in mind, here are a few growth mindset questions you may add to your journaling routine.
4 weekly planning questions. Here are the questions I recommend to answer on a weekly basis. I personally like to do it on Sunday evening, but you can do it whenever works for you. Some of my friends block the first hour on Monday morning to go through this exercise.
- What am I struggling with right now?
- What do I want to learn by the end of this week?
- What is one thing I will try that will get me out of my comfort zone?
- Who can I reach out to for help this week?
3 daily reflection questions. And here are the questions I think are best to answer on a daily basis. As you will see, these are not about planning. They’re about looking back on your day and figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
- What did I do today that made me think hard?
- What new strategies did I try?
- What mistake did I make that taught me something?
That’s it. If you’ve read this far, you know more about having a growth mindset than most of the population—except people who actually read Carol Dweck’s book. Growth mindset is the very first mind frame I describe in the mindframing method of mindful productivity. If you want to keep on exploring, you may enjoy the articles about metacognition and self-authorship—the two other mindframes I recommend mastering before applying the PARI framework.
Developing a growth mindset is a lifelong commitment. Many people fall prey to the false growth mindset and never manage to develop an actual growth mindset. Beware of your assumptions, and may you find your personal growth journey rewarding.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about mindful productivity, creativity, and brain stuff. No spam.