Do you have a fixed mindset in terms of your abilities? It may very well be hindering your growth as a person. Here’s a handy illustration we put together that walks you through a fixed and a growth mindset. If you prefer the written word, find it below!
Praise is something that all of us have received throughout our lives. Do you remember how validating life was when you were 10 years old? No matter how trivial your accomplishments, you most likely received praise from your parents or even teachers. But think back specifically to the type of praise you received.
Did your parents say things, “you’re very good at this.” “You’re so smart.” “You’re a natural.” Or did you hear them say things like, “I’m so proud of you for working so hard” and “your dedication really paid off.”
More often than not, you probably heard the first examples. You might ask: what’s the difference? And why would it matter? Well, it actually matters a great deal. The implication of those different types of praises is monumental to the way you now view skills, effort and progress.
When someone tells you, “hey, you got an A on your math test. You must be so smart.” It communicates something very different than saying, “hey, you got an A on your math test. You must have worked really hard.”
Telling someone that they did well because they are smart implies that the reason they performed well is because of a trait that is fixed.
Now, on the other hand, telling someone that they did well because they worked hard implies that the reason they performed well is because of their effort. This implies that hard work pays off and that you should not expect to be good at something that you haven’t practiced before. Growth takes practice.
And that brings us to Carol Dweck’s extremely influential book “Mindset.” She distinguishes between a fixed mindset, and a growth mindset.
Although most people fall somewhere in between the two mindsets on the spectrum, here’s what it looks like to be on each extreme end:
If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your skills may get a little bit better or worse, but that essentially your abilities reflect the way you’re wired. Your behavior, then, is a good representation of your natural ability.
If you are someone with a fixed mindset, you tend to avoid challenges, because if you fail, you fear that others will see your failure as an indication of your true ability and think less of you. You feel threatened by negative feedback, because it seems as if the critics are saying they’re better than you, positioning themselves at a level of natural ability higher than yours. You try not to be seen exerting too much effort because people who are really good don’t need to try that hard, right?
People with a fixed mindset also have a consuming goal of constantly proving themselves. Every situation is an evaluation of their intelligence or character: will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
In contrast, people who have a growth mindset believe that abilities are like muscles – they can be built up with practice. That is, with concerted effort, you can make yourself better at literally everything – from writing, to interacting with people, to listening to your spouse.
With a growth mindset, you tend to accept more challenges despite the risk of failure. You seek out difficult assignments at work. You’re also more inclined to accept criticism. That is because ultimately it will make you better. After all, when you try and fail to lift more weight at the gym, you don’t worry that everyone will mock you as a “born weakling.”
People with a growth mindset see skills and qualities as things you can cultivate with effort. Although people may differ in their initial talents and aptitudes, they can change and grow through practice and experience. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are by doing something that does not challenge you when you could be getting better at something that does? Effort and struggle are seen as necessary steps for improvement.
Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has spent her career studying these two mindsets, and her research results are clear: If you want to reach your full potential, you need a growth mindset.
Let’s take an example. Imagine you ask a co-worker to proofread a document you wrote. You expect them to give a quick read to catch any grammatical errors, but instead it comes back with major critiques.
How do you handle it? Do you get angry? Does it become a hit to your ego? Do you try and negate the comments and justify why your original was right in the first place?
Or do you see it as an opportunity for a better final product? Do you read through the comments and even try and find broader lessons that will make you more effective at what you do?
Having a growth mindset is key to improving any skill. In the growth mindset, you see yourself as a constant work in progress. You seize the opportunities to become a better version of yourself.
The good news is that despite the name, you can actually reform from a fixed mindset.
Next time you feel intimidated by a challenge, notice if the fear of feeling inadequate, or being judged for your abilities, is what prevents you from taking action. Then ask yourself if that irrational fear is more important than the opportunity to improve.
Using an example out of the workplace, if you’re afraid to take a salsa dancing class because you have no rhythm and your legs are made of wood, remind yourself that nobody has rhythm and nobody can skillfully move their hips until they learn how to. So stop worrying about natural ability and start practicing so that you can actually learn a skill.
So here’s my challenge to you. Next time you’re given negative feedback, or asked to do something out of your usual abilities, don’t freak out. Instead, use it as an opportunity to grow.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Vlad Irimia and Gabriel Gheorghian for producing the entirety of this illustration.